What Do You Expect?

A Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Advent

Year A –2 December 2012

John Edward Miller, Rector

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.”

          – Luke 21:25-36


The Collect

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


 What did you expect?

 I’ve been on the receiving end of that question more than a few times. And I think it’s safe to say that, when anyone hears a question like that, it’s clearly a statement by an observer who isn’t in the mood to show compassion. Usually, it comes right after someone does something stupid. For example, let’s say that I go skateboarding without helmet and pads. If I fall and get a concussion, and then look for sympathy from a safety-conscious onlooker, I shouldn’t be surprised to hear that kind of response. Or if you are short on time and park in a handicap spot without authorization, and your car gets towed, then sooner or later someone will be happy to teach you an object lesson by saying, “What did you expect?”

That’s the way this question is ordinarily used. In everyday speech it’s often introduced by the word, “well?” The question is not designed to solicit information. It’s a rhetorical device; its purpose is to persuade, and perhaps even to drive home a punitive point. Moreover, its tone is more than a little condescending to the victim. Most of the time, it hurts to hear it, because it strikes us as rubbing it in.

But I also think that this a great Advent question. In the Christian calendar Advent is the season of expectancy. For four weeks the Church, the Body of Christ, is pregnant with hope. We mark the season with special color (Sarum blue here at St. Mary’s, while others follow the color purple), and with increased evergreen in the sanctuary, and in wreathes festooning our doorways, and especially with the Advent wreath, with its four candles set in a circle and the central candle waiting to be lighted on Christmas Eve. The anticipation of the season is palpable, even if it becomes an anxiety producer in procrastinating shoppers.

That’s because most of us regard Advent as the Christmas countdown, like those colorful calendars with the little doors to open every day until December 25. And, of course, that is one focus of Advent. We anticipate and we expect the birth of Jesus, God’s Messiah. Joy flavors this season. Hope shows on the faces of children and adults. It is a time for family, for hospitality, for good cheer, and for giving. Advent helps us keep our eye on the ball, looking for the rebirth of wonder.

But it also challenges us to awaken, and stay alert, instead of resting on the holly and ivy that will soon be decking the halls of festive holiday homes. It invites us to remain vigilant, and expectant of something more than Christmas. This jars us a bit when the lessons and hymns for Advent Sunday speak about the Second Coming of Christ rather than the first. Most of us want to hear carols about shepherds and angels and wise men instead of the bombast and power of “Lo, he comes with clouds, descending.” That frightful image raises our eyebrows and causes us to shiver, when all we want to do is to enjoy some Christmas cheer and get our shopping done. Nevertheless, this is just as much a part of the Advent season as the manger and the Bethlehem babe. The Second Coming of Christ is the co-equal and second focus of Advent. It too asks us to be expectant – not for the birth of the Messiah, but for his return. Today we consider this other seasonal emphasis, and regard it as the completion of what the Nativity of Jesus started. The one who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” is pointing into the future – our future – and saying, “Follow me.” The infant Jesus is pointing ahead toward a goal, an end to which his ministry leads.

However, what shall we say about Christ’s Second Coming? What does it possibly mean?

Biblical literalists not only take this concept seriously, they take every feature of it word-for-word. They get all fired up about the end of history, about Armageddon, and the final victory of God over the powers of sin and death. They look forward to that day when Jesus, the Son of Man, will come zooming down out of the clouds like the air cavalry attack in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” – with ranks of helicopters flying in out of the sun, firing rockets and Gatling guns while blaring the sound of Wagner’s “Ride of the Walkyries.” On that day, say they, the bad guys will be flushed out and destroyed, while the good will is transported to a heavenly reward of eternal bliss. The apocalyptic imagery is graphic and hair-raising, and these folk treat it as realistic to the nth degree. There is no room for flexibility, interpretation, or poetic depth. For them, these details are not metaphors; they are to be taken exactly as they are written. 

Within the New Testament there is evidence that both Jesus and Paul expected the Second Coming within the lifetime of the first generation of Christians. But if this was a literal expectation, then it proved to be a misplaced hope. Nothing of that sort happened then, or has happened during the last 2000 years. So, were Jesus and Paul wrong?

No, they weren’t. The Christian faith would not have survived if the hope for the Second Coming were not well founded. That aspiration is based on Jesus himself – his life, death, and resurrection. He is the revelation of the end, the goal of all life. What he presents to the world is a clear, tangible, understandable disclosure what God is like and what God intends for his beloved creatures. His revelation points beyond himself, and beyond time and space. And he says that he will come again to complete the drama.

I take his promise seriously; I believe that what he says is true. The question, “What do you expect?” is the pivotal issue. Our experience of cloud-riding messiahs and final battles between angels and demons is limited. These images may have been relevant to first-century minds, but they simply don’t compute in this era.

The rational, 21st-century perspective needs translation of ancient apocalyptic symbols. Otherwise, their purpose gets obscured in our time. We are awash in a constant stream of wars and rumors of wars. Our culture is so wired that we can barely escape hearing about terrorist bombings, religious unrest, fiscal cliffs, and debt crises, to name but a few of the current challenges. Against this background the biblical picture-language describing the end time loses steam. But the need for resolution remains.   

Psychiatrist Scott Peck opened his best seller, The Road Less Traveled, by stating, “life is difficult.” In saying so, he was paraphrasing the first of the four noble truths of Buddhism. The statement is a wise recognition of the suffering that permeates life, and that rears its head in ways that surprise and deplete us. Life’s difficulties sometimes lead us to a dark place where we may wonder or ask, “Is there a point to all of this?”

Shakespeare’s Macbeth reaches that shadowy place as the tragedy unfolds. After he learns of his wife’s death, Macbeth pauses to consider what he has done and what has befallen him in return. In a chilling soliloquy he expresses his indifference to life and to death saying,  

 Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
to the last syllable of recorded time;
and all our yesterdays have lighted fools
the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
and then is heard no more. It is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.

                                    – Act 5, Scene 5, vv. 19-28

 That’s a pretty powerful expression of hopelessness. Macbeth doesn’t expect that there is anything good to come. He is one of  T.S. Eliot’s “hollow men,” the “stuffed men” whose “dried voices, when [they] whisper together are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass . . .”  Macbeth’s apathy about living and dying is an extreme view. It lies at the far end of the spectrum whose other end is joy. He cannot see, nor does he look for, a point to life. In short, he has no Advent eyes.

When you consider your life – your prospects amid the political and economic challenges presented by today’s world, or by fears that our political system is locked in an immovable impasse, or by your personal struggles with seemingly intractable issues – what do you expect?

Do you see life as absurd (random, chaotic) or as meaningful? Do you see it as a matter of perpetual perishing or as a context of the eternal? Is life merely existence, an endless duration whose only gauge is the marking of time, or does life have an aim, an end?

Albert Camus, the French existentialist, looked at life and called it meaningless. His hero was Sisyphus, the hapless man condemned by the gods for hubris. His inescapable punishment was to roll a huge stone to the top of a steep hill, only to see it roll back down the slope every time. Camus saw Sisyphus’ existence as absurd. His only glimmer of hope was invested in his defiance of absurdity; his determination led him to keeping on rolling his stone, despite the inevitable consequence.

  Alfred North Whitehead, the English process philosopher, recognized that all sorts and conditions of living things perpetually perish. Whitehead was the son of an Anglican clergyman, so he may have had in mind the words of one of Isaac Watt’s hymns, namely, “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.” That point of view sounds rather grim, but Watts did not leave us without hope. The hymn’s point, its aim, is to affirm eternal meaning in context of human mortality. This he states in the opening stanza, singing, “Our God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.” Whitehead may have remembered that affirmation, because his philosophy of life was not without hope. God, he said, is “the great companion, the fellow-sufferer who understands.” 

I have a friend who knows that, and wants to believe it. But he has been so thoroughly beaten down by life’s difficulties that he once remarked, “I feel as though I’m only marking time now.” These words came from a man who braved jungle warfare in Vietnam, loves to camp and to fish, and who has enjoyed the companionship of many friends. But after a series of hardships and mistakes, he slipped into a trough of despair. He could see no future in that dark place. Fortunately, his remembrance of saintly souls who have stood by him, and cared for him, and graced him with acceptance has helped him to keep looking for love to prevail.

These points of view are as understandable as they are real. Life is beautiful and rich, but it can be very difficult. Those walks through the valley of the shadow of death are lonely; it takes more power than we can muster to realize that we are not in fact alone, and that we are being led through the darkness by a gracious guide who knows the way home. That power is present, and it beckons; our challenge is to expect that God is with us and for us, even when the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming.

Consider for a moment the ancient Jews. Has there ever been a people more beaten down by life? Crushed by evil empires, enslaved, ghettoed, dispersed, exiled, vilified, persecuted, and systematically annihilated, the Jewish people have had every reason to view life as Macbeth did – “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And yet, they maintained hope through it all – hope for an exodus from oppression, hope for the Promised Land and a godly heritage, hope that the kingdom of David would last forever, and the hope that the long-expected Messiah would surely come.

When Jesus stepped onto the Judean stage, though, the people were disappointed. He was not what they expected of a messianic savior. He appeared weak, powerless, and foolish. At the conclusion of his public ministry, the people roundly rejected him, and handed him over to their Roman oppressors to be crucified.

Jesus died, but he didn’t go away. His work continued beyond his execution. Death could not eradicate him. People who paid attention and embraced his spirit found their life transformed.

John’s Gospel summarizes the impact of Jesus on those who trust him. In a one-verse nugget, John 3:16, the gospel writer said practically all that needs to be said: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Martin Luther called this verse the “Gospel in miniature;” the Book of Common Prayer calls it a “comfortable word.” That means it gives us strength, because that is the origin of the word “comfort.” In that sense, what is comforting about that little verse is manifold. It tells us that God loves us so completely that he gave us what is most precious to him. The birth of Jesus, his Son, happened. He came among us, lived with us, taught us, healed us, forgave us, and was willing to die for us so that we may live. The prayer book’s translation says, “to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” That word, “end,” is encouraging; it is enough to engender hope in me when I’m feeling alone and afraid. It says that love is the point of it all. Giving, sharing, showing mercy, offering hospitality for Christ’s sake is the end. Every time someone is redeemed, every time someone is persuaded to step out of the darkness and into the light, every time someone is pulled out of the cycle of meaninglessness, and given an opportunity to serve and to empower others, Christ is present. He comes again.   

I hope that you’ll join me in staying focused this Advent, and remain alert. Something’s coming, something good. It may be some one, or some thing, but that which is coming will be exceedingly good, because it is God’s gift. And you can trust what he gives because he is faithful and true, always.

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.