A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent
November 29, 2015
By Emily Rowell Brown
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
Jesus said, “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 sea 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. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Let’s learn some fun (or maybe not-so-fun) facts about Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The use of the phrase “Black Friday” dates back to 1961, when used to describe the chaos resulting from the two big shopping days following Thanksgiving in downtown Philadelphia, and in following years, came to be used across the United States. Every year we hear stories about riots arising in stores as people compete for the insane sales and to get their hands on one of the “it” items of the year (remember Cabbage Patch Kids and the iPad?)–there is even a website devoted to totaling the injuries and deaths resulting from Black Friday. Staggering statistics tell us how Americans spend about $50 billion on holiday gifts, many putting themselves into debt (and it would cost about $20 billion to end homelessness).
This sort of behavior gives new meaning to the warnings of Luke’s Jesus against becoming too caught up in the pleasures of this world. Today we begin Advent, and every time we approach this season, our lectionary texts take on an apocalyptic tone. They warn us that the end days are coming, that there will be judgement, that the world as we know it will pass away and God’s kingdom will rule for evermore. But until that day comes, we wait. And watch. As Luke puts it, we should be on guard, alert at all times.
The mood being set here does not jive so well with the Thanksgiving weekend shopping sprees and the Hallmark Channel Christmas movie marathons (which, I’ll admit, fill my DVR for the month of December). There is a somberness, a restraint, to the church’s approach to the days leading up to Christmas. We light the Advent wreath slowly, one candle, one week at a time. We move from darkness to dimness to light. We hold out on singing Christmas songs–mostly!–until Christmas Eve. We wait to put out our best flowers and greens until the end of the season. We are, symbolically, as a community, modeling and heeding Jesus’ advice.
To me, our faith always feels most out of step with majority culture around the holidays, believe it or not. It’s not the ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday, or forgoing the coffee or chocolate during Lent, that feels so odd or different; it’s the stab of frustration I experience when days become so jam-packed with parties and gatherings and obligations and guilt-induced command performances that there is no margin left. It’s the conflicted emotions that surface when poppy Christmas music blares from the speakers at Target and I find myself humming along yet also telling myself that it is not yet time. See, the Christmas we in the United States know, is one of instant gratification, immediately ready for the taking. It is shallow. It lacks depth.
This is not to say that December should not be enjoyed, gingerbread houses should not be crafted and consumed, parties and plays and pageants should not be merrily had. But. We lose too much of Christmas’ meaning if we jump straight ahead to the celebration. Before there is light, there is darkness. Before we celebrate Christ’s coming, we must apprehend and accept why we need him in the first place. Ambiguity abounds: we find hope in the promise that God will make all well, but before that day, we must endure suffering and evil. We feel trepidation and excitement at the idea of judgement because we want the world to be different than it is now, but it is frightening to imagine exactly what is in store. Jeremiah and Jesus promise it will be good.
More than other years, this year the need for judgement and God’s rule registers especially profoundly. In the wake of the attacks in Paris and Colorado shootings, and with anxiety and discord so high among our fellow citizens–local and global–the cosmic signs of which Jesus speaks do not seem too remote a possibility. Jesus tells us that we will see the change in outward, recognizable signs, so that anyone–educated or not, intuitive or not, religious or not–who pays attention will see and participate in the final establishment of God’s kingdom. He uses the parable of the fig tree, a symbol known in the Old Testament to signal prosperity for the nation Israel, and language of justice and transformation resonant with the prophets’ promises. Jesus and Luke and the earliest Christians expected these signs to come soon and for God’s reign to come to fruition in their own lifetimes. Distress did come, with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem following Christ’s death, but God’s kingdom did not. Now, two thousand years later, we have a different perspective on how much longer the present state-of-affairs will continue. We have tempered our expectations for Christ’s second coming so that it seems far, far away.
The military has a custom known as the coin check. Members give one another a special coin as a sign of their gratitude–a literal token of appreciation. They can be given unexpectedly for a tiny action of goodwill or something tremendous; it depends. These coins are often used to play a drinking game, wherein one service member will throw down his or her coin and shout “coin check!”, demanding that everyone else present pull out their own coins. Whoever is without buys the group drinks, but if everyone else has their coin, then the person who initiated the coin check is on the hook for the tab. Coin checks can happen anywhere, anytime. Whether sleeping, showering, or walking the dog, many service members never part with their coins. They are ready no matter what.
Notwithstanding the drinking part, the ritual built around the coin check sheds some light on Jesus’ exhortations for expectancy. Jesus warned the disciples about immersing themselves too much in the pleasures of their day–drinking, goofing off, caring too much about status symbols and idle pastimes–and redirected them towards prayer. Prayer would be the antidote to carelessness and the temptations of their peers; constant conversation and connection with God would ensure that they did not miss the impending judgement.
That habit of touching the coin in one’s pocket reminds the service member of the important whys: why they serve, why they are an integral part of the institution, why they give of themselves as they do for their colleagues. The coin is a touchstone, a tangible reminder, that calls the owner back to center.
Prayer–broadly conceived–does the same for us. Lighting the candles of the Advent wreath; saying, to quote writer Anne Lamott, “help, thanks, and wow” to God in the midst of our daily lives; seeking deeper understanding of the refugee crisis in light of our Christian responsibility; finding glimmers of God’s desire to nurture in our mother’s obsessive attention to detail and God’s justice in the hands and feet of those restoring the hope, trust, and physical strength of our world’s innocent victims…these are our prayers.
When the day of judgement comes, will we stand before our God with fear and trembling, wondering whether we lived up to our Lord’s commands? Luke sure makes it sound that way, and certainly the Left Behind books would lead us to understand judgement as harsh and unyielding.
That is one way of looking at it. But what if we shift our perspective, come reckoning time to think about the gift of this life? What have we done with this gift God has bestowed upon us? How have we enhanced the light of God shining in the world–or how have we smothered it? When opportunities to spread warmth and goodness presented themselves, did we seize them–or did we even see them?
Jesus speaks cryptically about the coming of the Son of Man, a vague term around which there never has been consensus, even in Jesus’ own time. Whether the Son of Man is Jesus himself or some other figure or a more universal term for humanity itself is not clear, but what is interesting is Jesus’ desire to connect the final judgement to human beings. Commentators over the years have pointed out that the Son of MAN (as opposed to Son of GOD) emphasizes Jesus’ humanity over against his divinity. One who walked upon this earth, drank from its wells and ate from its fig trees, who also endured its turmoil and searched for security, will ask us how we did. It is one who knows us, who dwelt among us, who holds us to such high standards, with faith that we can do it. In the words of our psalm, we follow the ways and paths God has already established, so that we will be ready when the time comes for our kingdom check.
 Everett Tucker, “Culture of Consumerism: A Brief History of Black Friday,” Mystic Politics, accessed November 27, 2015, http://mysticpolitics.com/culture-of-consumerism-a-brief-history-of-black-friday.
 See infographic pulling from 2012 data collected by the Department of Housing and Development. Accessed November 27, 2015. http://www.trinet.com/blog/2015/11/25/how-to-stay-in-the-black-to-avoid-debt-this-black-friday/