Signs of God's Promise

First Sunday of Advent

Take Heart! God is coming to make things right.

  • Luke 21: 25-36…Sings of the times
  • Jeremiah 33:14-16….Text of hope
  • Psalms 25:1-10
  • 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 Benediction

The Signs of the times

Jesus always located himself in the context of the real world and real times. The gospels, locate Jesus in relationship to the real world and times. Luke’s gospel especially locates Jesus in political context.

With that in mind, do you recognize these headlines?
“Tough times began before recession” (Seattle Times, 11/22/09, A16)
“Global climate change accelerates in dozen years since Kyoto” (ST, 11/23/09, A1)
“Flood fears dampen business, home sales” (ST, 11/24/09, A1)
“FBI says hate crimes in 2008 are up sharply” (ST, 11/24/09, A4)
“More Americans skeptical of global warming, poll says” (ST, 11/25/09, A4)
“A new view of nuclear site (ST, 11/26/09, D9)
“Exploring options in Nevada: The state is taking a new measure of the resource loss and environmental cost that resulted when a weapons test site became one of the nation’s most radioactively contaminated places.” 
“Mysterious mutilations worry farmers” (ST, 11/27/09, A2)
“[British] Envoy: U. S. ‘hellbent’ on invading Iraq” (ST, 11/28/09, A7)
“Trying to crack an ocean mystery” (ST, 11/29/09, A1)
“Algae bloom killed 10,000 birds”
“Was it a rogue occurrence…or a sign of some fundamental marine-world shift?”

If I were a little more of a techy I would have put these headlines on powerpoint with photos to give visual expression against the cosmic night sky of our banner backdrop.
These headlines come from the Seattle Times over this Thanksgiving week as we enter this Advent season. Advent as always begins with a stark word of warning from Jesus about the signs of the times – first century time and 21st century time.  But Advent also offers hope and grounds us in the reality that God is always doing a new thing. So we begin again with high expectation and anticipation as if for the first time.

Those great lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” echo in the background:

We shall not cease from our exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time

What are the signs of the time? How do we read the signs of the times? Do we despair and tune them out? Do we become jaded and not care? Do we tune in to apocalyptic fanatics who predict end times? Do we join the Black Friday throngs going shopping under the illusion that buying more things will make us happier and hide the signs of the times?

There are countless ways to mis-read or ignore the signs of the times. The God of the Advent of Jesus wants us to read the signs of the times in none of those false ways but to read them through words and life of Jesus Christ. Not an easy task in these times that look so much like Jesus’ time.

Jesus speaks of the signs of the times

Preceding the gospel we heard today Jesus speaks in graphic images reminding hearers of the reality of their time. Earlier in chapter 21 of Luke’s gospel, some people were admiring the beauty of the temple. Jesus warns them that “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 6 of Luke 21).

Startled they ask Jesus, “When this will be and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” (v. 7) Everybody wants to know so you can be ready. Jesus reminds them to always be ready.

Here Jesus cautions them to beware of those who lead them astray and for many make claims in Jesus’ name who are not Jesus. There will be wars and insurrection. Nation will rise up against nation. There will be earthquakes, famines, plagues, and all kinds of natural disasters. There will be persecution and arrests. You will be betrayed and hated. These are the signs of the times. We hear it in the headlines. 

In Jesus’ time, God’s people lived under the weight of the Roman rule. Luke writes the gospel after imperial Rome crushed a Jewish revolt and destroyed the temple in the 70s of the first century (Luke was probably written in mid-80s).

In our time, however, our view is more from an imperial than an oppressed angle of vision. There may be no greater illusion than that we Americans merit absolute security and comfort and that anything that threatens our comfort or security can and will be destroyed or defeated anywhere in the world. The widespread American “christian” response to 9/11 gives tragic testimony to that illusion of absolute security and comfort.
It is hard to imagine a more false reading of the signs of the times.

Yet Jesus’ words we hear on this first Sunday of Advent seem to be beyond warfare and natural disasters as signs of the times. Jesus points to the heavens and looks for cosmic signs of the times. Most cosmic signs have so badly mis-read in Christian history that I am not sure I want to offer a reading of cosmic signs of the times.

Whatever else these cosmic signs of the times in the heavens may mean we can draw a couple of things from them. First, it is clear that we pale in the scope of these cosmic signs that loom large over the earth and our life. Second, however frightening these cosmic signs may be we can be sure that God is greater than these signs and that Jesus is coming again.

Yet in the face of these signs Jesus tells us, “people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” (v. 26). [Think tsunami]
Fainting from fear may mean a kind of paralysis in the face of so much violence and oppression, harm and destruction. Fainting from fear may also mean a fainting of the mind, a mental fainting as in the shallow and shoddy thinking that blinds us to what really is at stake and taking place. The headlines about a rise in skepticism over global warming or hate crimes on the rise point to fainting minds. So does the recent round of “God is dead” and religion is irrational proclamations point to fainting minds. Jesus is speaking to both conservative and liberal failures to rightly read the signs of the times.

Into this world filled with signs of the times Jesus speaks and into this world Jesus comes. There are signs of hope in the air. That is what Advent is for: to train our eyes to see and ears hear the signs of the times and point us toward the way, the truth and the life that can only come in Jesus Christ.

Jesus climaxes this stark teaching to read the signs of the times with a promise: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (v. 33). That offers us more security and comfort than all the money and power in the world can provide.

Such signs of the times will come to pass and will pass but God is always present in Jesus Christ. God has already come, is now coming and will come again in Jesus Christ. That’s God’s great promise. Even now it is taking place. Even now we are being prepared.

But it will mean nothing to us if we don’t pay attention. It will be lost on us if we lash out in fear or are faint of mind. Keep awake! Be prepared! Jesus tells us to “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 Human One [Jesus Christ]” (v. 36).

Jesus is telling us to rightly read the signs of the times, to read the signs of the times with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other hand.  As we read the signs of the time we sing of the hope that we have in Christ who is the ultimate sign of God’s eternal promise.

Signs that Sing — of God’s Promise

As I was preparing for this first Sunday of Advent over and over again when I typed the word signs(s-i-g-n-s) as in “signs of the time” I switched the “n” and the “g” so that it read sings (s-i-n-g-s). Suddenly I realized that sings is a good way to read signs rightly. 

For all the strong words and stark images about signs that we hear from Jesus as we begin Advent, we best express our fervent hope by singing together. In a moment we sing of these signs in “Sleepers, wake” (HWB 188). We end that song by singing:

No eye has known the sight, no ear heard such delight. Allelluia!
Therefore we sing to greet our King. Forever let our praises ring

At the close of worship this Sunday and each Sunday of Advent we will sing a Christmas song knowing that we not only point to a coming baby Jesus but proclaim Christ who has already come. Keep alert, be awake, and watch for the signs of the time – the signs as in headlines and the signs as in the Coming Christ of Christmas. As we close worship today, hold on to the hope that we sing, “To us a Child of hope is born” (HWB 189).  

In our singing we are a sign of God’s promise that Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again. There is no greater sign nor is there any greater singing than the hope we have in Jesus Christ.

*Advent prepares us to:
  Be Awake!
       Be Alert!
            Be Aware!
                 Be Attentive!
                      Be Alive!

For the Advent of Jesus Christ has begun again – as if for the first time.

* Adapted from Richard Rohr meditation, First Sunday of Advent, 11/29/09