Advent 1: Luke 21:25-36
In the children’s time you heard me talk about how important water is to life. We all know it. And our theme through Advent is about the flood of God’s mercy poured out on us. But the truth is, that we are reminded most in our first Advent texts not of mercy – generous, unbidden, unconditional love – but of discomfort, disaster and distress! This is not a text of fresh and welcome rain but of crashing waves and roaring seas. This is a stormy text:
“There will be signs in the sun and the moon and the stars and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”
Cambodia, where Michael and Lisa are, where they are still recovering from last year’s floods, is not the only place that has recently experienced flooding. Of course we are still hearing stories coming from New York and New Jersey of the flood that accompanied hurricane Sandy. Katrina and other hurricanes are still pretty fresh in our memories, the tsunami in Japan, and so many other recent natural disasters related to water. Marks’ prophecies of confusion and fear at the roaring of the sea and the waves feel all too real and current and not at all 2000 years old.
That globe that I showed the children is mostly water. The ancient writers may not have had an understanding of the globe and the oceans covering it the way we do, but our creation stories talk about the world beginning in the chaos of the water. “The earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep…” There was nothing more chaotic and symbolic of emptiness and absence than the sea. The sea is where terror and disaster lies. So when Mark speaks of the roaring ocean, it is as if the earth may be turned back to that time before there was anything, before there was order, to a time that is un-created. And now…it sometimes feels as if the earth is returning to the water as our ocean levels slowly rise.
I think that most of us in this congregation would agree that many of the out-sized natural disasters of late – hurricanes and floods and tsunamis – are not actually ‘natural’ or even ‘acts of God’ but they have their roots in humanity’s poor care for the earth, that our ‘sin’ has caused the suffering of many people and the ‘groaning of all creation.’ And many of us take measures to lessen our ‘footprint’ on the earth. But at the same time, these disasters become so much more static on the radio. Here we are on the edge of the continent …when will it be our turn to feel the reality of this word? Perhaps we should be feeling a little more fearful and wary and attentive.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “This generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” My Good New Bible says even more starkly, ‘Remember, all these things will happen before the people that are now living have died.” Well clearly all of these things did not come to pass before the end of Jesus’ generation, nor even of the first generation of Christians. Although we believe in the Spirit of Christ present, we are still here and waiting to see (as the text says) “The Human One coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” In fact we become very skeptical that this is something that will actually even happen. Surely we have seen floods and raging waters and fearfulness and foreboding and yet generation after generation has continued on the earth – same old same old…
I wonder what the writer means by generation, though. Was it really Jesus’ generation – really only everyone living at that time that it was written? Or was it perhaps every generation. Because from the time of creation there have been floods and fainting with fear: the chaos before creation, the flood of Noah, the It’s a matter of remembering that was we see before us, these roaring waters are indeed signs of the presence of the kingdom in our midst – of God in our midst. Already.
I say this because in the midst of Jesus’ talks generations and the signs of the one like a human coming (and he’s quoting from Daniel there!) he talks about the fig tree. He says, “Look at the fig tree – at all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Earlier in the book, Jesus was even more pointed. When a Pharisee asked him when the reign of God was coming. “He answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look here it is!” or “There it is!” For in fact the kingdom of God is among you.”
If the sign of chaos and disaster is the sea and roaring waters, the sign of hope and life is what grows and is green. The fig tree in particular is a symbol of hope and prosperity and peace. When Noah sent out the dove, and all there was on the earth was water, the dove came back empty handed – empty beaked. But when there was life, the dove held and olive branch. And When there is hope, there is something green.
Floods and storms are not the only thing that we see coming around again and again, generation after generation. We come around to this time of year and we start everything over again. Every season the same texts, same warnings and signs. We get through them to get to Christmas. But this is our time for the reminder to be alert. When we see the green leaves of the fig, we know that summer is coming, and when we light the first candle in the wreath, we know that we need to wake up and pay attention, the way those little drops of water came as a bit of a shock and wake-up call.
In some ways this time of year is both the easiest and the hardest to be Christian. On the one hand it’s the time when people are most willing to hear songs about Jesus. The time when even people who don’t go to church any other time of year make plans to go to the Christmas Eve service. On the other hand, the Jesus we come to sing about is the cuddly baby Jesus in a manger. And that’s what we want, too. Don’t we all just want to get to Cookie Sunday? To the warm and fuzzy candle light of the Silent Night on Christmas Ever? To the presents on Christmas morning… kids, really, isn’t Christmas all about the presents? We were all kids once – we know it. And as adults, now it’s all about getting the kids presents.
The signs are not only in the seas and the waves and the sun and the stars. They are in the windows of Macy’s and Barnes and Nobles and on Amazon.com that we see the signs. Those signs lead us to think it is all about gifts. It’s in the pressure to be and do and have more. Remember the first few moments of the Harry Potter movie, were Harry’s cousin totally freaks out because he only has 37 gifts for his birthday? That’s what’s happening to us.
I was recently turned on the Christmas album by Over the Rhine and I love their song ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’. Everything in the first verse is normal – sweet and serene town, stars and dreams. The second verse acknowledges that Bethlehem is no longer serene or dreamy –
The lamplit streets of Bethlehem We walk now through the night There is no peace in Bethlehem There is no peace in sight. The wounds of generations, almost too deep to heal scar the time-worn miracle and make it seem surreal.
The signs are coming to pass in this generation. The place hallowed in our Christmas carols is as stormy as pretty much anywhere on earth.
The song also calls us to remember that the was more to that the story doesn’t stop at the end of ‘O Little Town.’ The baby doesn’t stay a baby.
The baby in the manger Grew to a man one day And still we try to listen now
To what he had to say: Put up your swords forever Forgive your enemies Love your neighbor as yourself Let your little children come to me
This first Sunday of advent the our roaring seas reminder is to pay attention to what is drowning us and to look for what is green. That baby – the one we wait on, the one we sing of – is the green shoot. In every generation there are wars and rumors of wars. In every generation there are floods and signs in the moon and the stars. Yet all through scripture and up to today there are also signs of life and justice growing out of what is cut off, what is flooded. It may not seem like it but God is in it – in all of it – the green branch of Noah, the hope of the righteous outgrowth from the dead stump of Jeremiah’s tree, in the fig tree symbol of hope and prosperity and peace for all the ‘trees’ – the nations. Jesus is our hope – in that baby grown to a man who taught us to love our enemy and neighbor. We need to pay attention, because we are living under his reign and he’s on his way.
So if we are drowned out by the real floods and seas of hurricanes and disaster – perhaps much of our own creation) and by the pressure to buy and consume, what are the green shoots that we can tend and nurture as we wait? Where are those green growing signs of God’s reign among us?
The stories of people helping each other that I told the children, for starters. Our willingness to build hope in small ways by putting together kits filled with soap and towels and toothpaste. The way we support people like Lisa and Michael and other workers in Cambodia, and Haiti and Peru and Bangladesh and so many other places in the world, or in our own community. We are growing something green when we nurture those relationships and water those seeds.
When these things take place, Jesus said (the signs in the stars and the moon and the roaring of the seas and the waves) stand up, hold up your head, because your redemption is drawing hear. Wade into the fray. Be drawn into the storm for the sake of the kingdom. A flood of mercy is on it’s way – cleansing the earth and watering what is growing.