Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Today is the first day of the Christian year, the first of four Sundays leading to the morning when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, a baby who grew to be our Messiah. There is no mistaking the date nor the beginning strains of preparation. So it is especially strange to hear this gospel lesson from Luke on this day of the beginning of a new year, words from Jesus to his disciples, speaking with ominous words of the second coming of our Messiah. We would prefer, I imagine, to think of Advent as a kind of one month pregnancy, at the end of which we hear the tender cries of a newborn baby. We would prefer to remember the cast of character in the nativity play, repeating their lines that we know by heart.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” “The lion shall lie down with the lamb… and a little child shall lead them.” “My soul magnifies the Lord.” “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus.” “And when the time came for her to be delivered, she gave birth to her first born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes.” “And in that region there were shepherds.” “For unto you is born, this day, in the City of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”
Strange, isn’t it, that the word from Luke’s gospel for this first Sunday of Advent is not about preparing for the first arrival of Jesus Christ but rather, the second. Luke set this story near the end of Jesus’ life, when he warned his disciples to watch for the signs that would signal the day of the arrival of the “Son of Man”, the holiest of all humanity’s children, the new Messiah. Did he mean that he, Jesus, was not the Messiah? Did he mean that he, like John the Baptist, was called to warn the Jews of the arrival of one who would bring judgment from God? Or did he mean that his own work was not finished, that he would die before completing the task for which he had been sent? Did he mean that he himself would come again, after his death, and that he would bring with him the power and rage of God whose anger would pour down on those who had not believed, who did not follow Jesus’ words the first time, had not yet turned from their faithlessness toward God? The signs of that day will be frightening and ominous, Jesus told the disciples. Nations will be confused by the raging of the natural world. But those who are righteous should not be afraid. Just, be ready. Be alert. Be on guard. Do not let the day of God’s judgment catch you unexpectedly.
What a difficult way to live - to be vigilant and alert all the time, waiting for the signs of distress to turn into the day of judgment. What a harsh message to the world. But it’s a story that fits the anxiety of our times and the warnings to be vigilant against terrorism, against predatory lenders, against toxic waste and air, against Muslims, against concealed weapons, against the far right, against the far left, against financial ruin, against the dangers of the dark.
We are taught to fear you know. And to trust. Parents give us the first lessons in who to trust and who is dangerous, but those lessons take on rich detail as we are barraged with advertising images, films, illustrations in books, internet chatter. Our sensibilities are assaulted with garish images, harsh humor, threatening language. No matter your commitment to free speech, it is obvious our children see more, hear more and are forced to process more sexual and violent images than a generation ago. Do they also learn more about the value of human diversity? Yes they do, but the backlash against those lessons is swift and strong. The death threats against Barack Obama have risen 400% over the presidency of George Bush – at least 30 a day. Is that because of his health care advocacy? His war strategy? And although statistics about violence against women are notoriously difficult to quantify, there is no question that woman are murdered at a rate of 3 to 1 in this country. Is that because we dress more provocatively than we used to? Or because we are, in general, better educated that we were in the 1930’s and 40’s? “There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
It’s difficult to know, when hearing Jesus’ words, whether, in Advent, we should prepare ourselves for a Messiah who will bring peace or a sword; whether we will be visited with God’s forgiveness or God’s judgment. Either way, what is clear is that we are supposed to be ready when the time comes. We are supposed to read the signs. As if seeing leaves on a fig tree and knowing that summer has come, so are we to see the ways the powers of heaven are being shaken and know that the day of judgment is very near.
I hardly ever about the day of God’s judgment coming, either soon or even at the hour of death. What would I do to prepare that I do not try to do all the time? Would I quick clean my house? Call all my enemies and make amends? Would I say what’s really on my mind? Would I spend my last hours before the judgment day in prayer or wouldn’t it be more likely that I would tightly hold my little family together, tell Warren that in every way, he has made my life worth living, reassure my children that we are with them and that they are beautiful and loved and safe. Wouldn’t I try to find a way to reassure you, my congregation, that God’s love will be the last word?
We cannot live everyday as if tomorrow is the last day. That level of anxiety is not good for our hearts, among other things. At the same time, suppose we lived our lives ready for the last day, think how that might help get important things done. One way involves anxious waiting, the other deliberate preparing. One way implies a clear distinction between who will be saved and who will not. The other way never closes the book on looking for goodness in others. One way believes there will come a day when everything will come to an end. The other way believes the way we live now influences the timing of that day.
How shall we prepare for the advent of the Messiah this year? He is already born. His mother was Mary. Those who encountered him, even in his young life, knew he was unique, especially blessed, holy in some mysterious way. Shouldn’t we prepare ourselves by deciding that this year, this Advent Season, we will actually get to know who he was? Wouldn’t that be the best way to prepare ourselves to be his disciples? Amen