First Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015, Year C
Jeremiah 33.13-16; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who is redeeming all things, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
As a child, and still to this day, I get excited when I see the first candle lit on the Advent wreath. It has come to mean different things to me over the years. Like when I was young, the lightening of the first candle meant that the celebration of Christmas would soon be here. Each week I would feel the anticipation well up in my chest, as one more candle would be lit.
When I spent 10 years away from home after graduating high school, living in a number of different places across the United States, the lighting of the Advent wreath signaled that I would get to go home soon and see my family. (Perhaps that the case for some of you’re here who know you will get to go home before Christmas).
At times the lighting of the candle has made me panic a bit because it feels like there is hardly any more time left to buy gifts for people, clean house, go to the doctor because the deductible is met, take care of year-end giving, and get the tree up.
Regardless of my situation or age in life, the lighting of the first Advent candle has always signified something holy, mysterious, and beautiful. Even from a young age I could sense that there was and is a promise dancing in the flame of the firelight; that something (or someone!) important was coming.
It is only as of recent that I have learned that the first candle lit on the Advent wreath is called the hope candle. I find this quite interesting in light of the Gospel readings we have on this first Sunday of Advent.
Every year on this Sunday we have apocalyptic readings like this one from Luke where there are signs in the whole cosmos that life as we know it will come to an end. This is a far cry away from the sweet manger scene of Jesus’ birth that we celebrate at Christmas.
In fact, a lot of other scenes of life in this world are more like distress among the nations and the roaring of the sea and waves then a baby in a manger.
Last week I finally brought myself to watch a video on facebook of the Syrian refugee crisis. I had kept the crisis at a distance, mostly because I didn’t want to acknowledge the suffering the war was causing and I didn’t want to see any photos of a two-year-old boy washed up on shore.
But last week I saw the scene of boat after crowded boat being pushed across the sea by the waves. All kinds of people stepped out of the boat, from elderly men and women, to teens to moms with children.
Through the video I looked into the eyes of the people who had fled their home and the life they knew with little to nothing. With wobbly sea-legs and shivering bodies they were helped out of the boat by people with open arms ready to care for them. They were wrapped in blankets and given food and water. Parents handed their toddlers they had been clutching throughout the perilous journey to people they had never met, trusting they would be cared for as they were also tended to.
There was a boy that looked to be about one crying as people wrapped him in blankets. I thought, my God, I cannot imagine what it would be like to get into a crowded boat with Gabriel and wonder if we will make it to the other side or how long it would take to get there. I can hardly imagine the relief I would feel to be embraced upon arriving rather than pushed back out to sea as others had been. I can hardly imagine the hope that would well up in me that we had made it and there was a promise of a new day.
Even though this video focused on the work that was being done to help refugees once they arrived, it did not shy away from reporting the reality that other boats don’t make it on a daily basis. There was a scene of one boat fully over turned being battered by the waves, all its passengers lost to the roaring of the sea.
I confess to you that I watched the video and I wept. I wept for all the people who are experiencing distress among the nations, who faint from fear and foreboding each and every day. I felt in my whole being, Come Lord Jesus, Come and save us all!
This is really what the season of Advent is about, praying, “Come O Come Emmanuel.” This is a season of longing, anticipation, and hope-kindled waiting for the promise of redemption to be real amid all that we see and experience as suffering.
Pastor Heidi Neumark, author of the book, Breathing Space, said that when it is Lent she doesn’t always feel penitent, when it’s Easter she doesn’t always feel like rejoicing, and when it’s Pentecost, she doesn’t always feel Spirit-filled. But when it is Advent it “unfailingly embraces and comprehends” her reality.
“And what is that [reality]?” she writes: “I think of the Spanish word anhelo, or longing. Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unfulfilled desire and the cry of anhelo bursts forth: Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!” (Neumark p. 211).
The days are surely coming, says Jeremiah. What kind of days do we all long for?
I long for a day when no one goes to sleep hungry;
when weapons are made into pruning hooks for harvest;
when all have a safe place to call home;
when there are no refugees because there is no war;
when people are free of addiction;
when people truly forgive one another;
when there are no more racial or ethnic divisions.
I ultimately long for the day when I will see Jesus face to face because then I will know that the redemption of all things is finally at hand, that all the promises of God are being fulfilled.
Pay attention to the anhelo in and around you. What makes you want to cry out, “enough! It is time, Jesus.”
Advent is about imagining God’s promised future for each of us and holding on tight to that hope, even if it is only a dim flicker of a single candle.
Jennifer Ryan Ayres says: “Humans meet despair when they cannot imagine God’s promised alternative future (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 4).”
So many people can read our passage in Luke and be afraid for what is to come. The truth is at any point in time our life and world may come to an end as we know it. It happens all the time for people. It is happening right now for the Syrian refugees and so many others throughout the world.
Perhaps that is the terror that is evoked in us when reading our Gospel reading. That in an instant, life as we know it can change. This is scary, yes, but in the case of Jesus coming again, everything is going to change for the better.
We just can’t quite get there without inevitable labor and growing pains, which includes suffering and transition from what we know, to what remains to us now as mystery.
Sometimes we don’t want things to remain as they are, and yet we are afraid of anything different. Sometimes we live as if we will never have to stand before Jesus for judgment.
He reminds us, “Be on your guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation (what this really means is squandering, wasting money and resources on things that don’t really matter or give life). Don’t get weighed down with drunkenness and the worrying.”
With and in God, ends are always beginnings.
As people of faith we are to know and understand that we are always living in the last days, awaiting Jesus’ return. One thing is for certain, like Jesus explains in the parable about the fig tree, we will know without a doubt when the day is and not before, when heaven and earth are made new. We will know because we will see Jesus.
He says to us this day: “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” We are to be confident in the promise of redemption from our loving God, who has already come to earth in and through Jesus. We have faith that he will indeed come again and set all things right.
This year with the lighting of the first candle the hope of this promise burns brightly on our Advent wreath and in our hearts. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann, said, “Hope is a divine power that makes us alive in this world (Theology of Hope, p. 24).”
Wait for the Lord, dear brothers and sisters, whose day is near, wait for the Lord, be strong take heart.