The written version of the sermon I preached the last time Luke 21:25-36 came around in the Lectionary. As always the written word is but an approximation of the Word preached.
We have learned to ask questions. Why did the followers of Jesus tell the stories they told about him? Why did the followers of Jesus they tell the stories about Jesus in the way they told them? These questions have revealed new insights into the scriptures and we helped us to understand how Jesus followers understood the life death and resurrection of Jesus.
As we begin a new church year, there is another question that we need to learn to ask. Why did the designers of the church lectionary decided that on this the first day all over the world church goers should read from this particular text from the Gospel according to Luke? It is the first Sunday in Advent, why not read something from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke? What are we doing in the 21st chapter of the Gospel According to Luke and why do we have to listen to Jesus going on about the end? Why did the designers of the lectionary decide that we needed to hear what has been described as Jesus’ mini account of the apocalypse? Why take us into this particular darkness?
“Signs will appear in the sun, the moon and the stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish, distraught at the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the earth. The powers in the heavens will be shaken. After that, people will see the Chosen One coming on a cloud with great power and glory. When these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your ransom is near at hand.” And Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, or any other tree. You see when they’re budding and know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things happening, know that the reign of God is near. The truth is, this generation will not pass away until all this takes place. The heavens and the earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
We know that the writer of the Gospel according to Luke wrote very near the end of the first century, some 50 to 70 years after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Some 20 to 30 years after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and for all intents and purposes put an end to the world as Jews and the followers of Jesus had known it. Scholars tell us that in all likelihood the writer of the Gospel according to Luke created this story to reassure the followers of Jesus that even in their present darkness, even though it looked as if the heavens and the earth were passing away, Jesus words will not pass away. But why did the designers of the Revised Common Lectionary decided to begin the church year with this story of Jesus’ apocalyptic vision?
Well the Luke part is easy. This new year is the third in the lectionary’s 3 year cycle and so the mainline churches, that is the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, United, and many other denominations who get their weekly readings from the Revised Common Lectionary read primarily from the Gospel According to Matthew in year A, Mark in Year B and Luke in year C. (John does not have it’s own year and is only read during Christmas and Easter of years A,B, and C.) But why begin with chapter 21 of Luke? Why not Chapter One? Why not begin with that wonderful story of Elizabeth and Zechariah and the birth of John the Baptist? Surely a birth story is more fitting for the first Sunday in Advent when preachers are supposed to preach about hope?
I must confess that I am tempted to ignore the lectionary and skip the darkness of the apocalypse. But the more I read about darkness and the foreboding, the more I realize that at a time of the year when all the world wants to sentimentalize, trivialize and retailize the Christmas story, perhaps we who follow Christ ought to begin our preparations with a sojourn into the darkness.
We do well to remember that even now, for a great many of our sisters and brothers and perhaps even for us the world is coming to an end. And in even in the darkness we need not fear, for God is with us. In the darkness the realization that Christ is coming provides the hope we need to venture forth.
This year, I find myself venturing into Advent not dreading the end, but with the longing for the world to come to an end. I’d very much like the world as we know it to end. I’d like the wars in Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine to come to an end. I long for an end to the regime in Iran that insists on escalating the tensions between our two cultures with their ever-expanding nuclear program. I’d like our own government to live up to its own mandate to put an end to poverty and homelessness here in Canada. I’d like to see the end of an economic system that enslaves 80% of the world’s population in poverty. I’d like to see an end to violence, hunger, plagues and war. But I’ve long since given up the hope that we will be rescued from systemic evil that causes so much grief in the world by a divine rescuer swooping in from somewhere above the clouds.
My hope for the future does not in an apocalyptic vision of Jesus returning to sort out the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, rewarding the former and barbecuing the latter. This super-saviour that has long been the hope of Christian communities weighed down and oppressed by savage governments and their policies. While destruction, pain, and oppression are a part of our global reality, a spaceman-saviour is not. We know that, despite our wishes and projections, hope does not come from outer-space. Hope has to be found in our here and now. It has to be worked for, discovered, accepted and developed. This doesn’t mean that as so many pundits and pseudo-intellectuals would have us believe, that God does not exist and we should abandon all hope and run screaming from the church. This does mean that rather than looking to the heavens for salvation, we should look around us, and see that our God is located within our experience, our struggles, our communities and our hearts. Christians believe that God is love.
We believe that permeating our lives, our land, our communities, and all that is beyond us there is a powerful love that can touch our lives. That love is on our side, is for us, and can hold us. That love reaches out to us in a neighbour’s smile, in the strident concerns of a protester, the embrace of a lover and even in a government handout. Love comes in a myriad of ways. Just like hope. That love we call God. That love called God is with us. We are sacred, blest, and loved. The Holy Spirit of love is within us, like a seed waiting to grow and flourish.
Advent is the season pregnant with possibility, when we nurture that love within and prepare to give it birth. The seeds of love are waiting to grow and flourish. Even in the angriest person, in the most arrogant businessman, in the most ridiculous politician, in the toughest tyrant, or the worst murderer, there is a holy seed of love waiting. Those seeds need tending, they need nurturing and they will grow. Hope is not a mental exercise. You don’t just stand up and decide that you are going to be hope-filled. Hope is the result of a combination of encounters with others, our personal receptivity, and our awareness of the spiritual power of love that infuses all of life. Seeds will grow out of the darkness. Advent is a time to build hope. Advent is a time to prepare for Christmas by tending the hope-filled seeds within each other.
Advent is pregnant with possibility, a time to anticipate the coming of Christ by opening our eyes to the Christ growing within us. Advent is a time to acknowledge that at the heart of our world there is a power of love that reaches out to us, believes in us and sustains us, and that power of love is God.
We need not fear the darkness. For it is in the darkness that we will find the seeds. Hope lies in the darkness of our experience. The light of the Holy One is within us. And so this advent, as in all others. we will tell the stories of our experience. And in those stories we will discover the stirrings of Christ who waits to be born in us.
Many of those stories will begin in song. I don’t know what it is about we humans but we tend to sing our best stories. Music opens us in ways that mere words cannot. So let me begin our Advent journey with a story about songs sung in the darkness.
It was a dark and dreary time filled with fear and anticipation. Many years have past, but I can still remember her excitement at being chosen to play the part of the Angel Gabriel in the Sunday School Christmas pageant. Anna was just nine years old and never before had she been well enough at Christmas to take on a role in the annual church extravaganza. When she was just eighteen months old, Anna was diagnosed with leukemia and had spent most of her little life battling the disease.
But this year was different, this year Anna was ready she knew her lines and she must have tried on her angel costume about a million times. My memory is a little fuzzy but I believe that, that year, Christmas fell in the middle of the week.
The pageant was scheduled to take place the Sunday before Christmas Eve. On the Saturday before the pageant was to take place, Anna’s mother called me with the bad news. Anna was in hospital. Her white blood count was dangerously low and it didn’t look like Anna was going to make it home in time for Christmas let alone for the performance of the pageant. Anna’s mother asked me if I would help out with the hospital visiting.
Over the years, a group of us had become all too familiar with this particular routine. Anna had two siblings that kept her parents very busy. Anna didn’t like to be alone when she was in hospital and so friends of the family used to help out when needed. Because I lived only a few blocks from the children’s hospital and because Anna liked my bedtime stories I often found myself taking the night shift with Anna.
Bedtime at the hospital was quite the routine. Anna loved to be told the same bedtime stories over and over again. It sometimes took a couple of hours to get her to the point where she would even consider closing her eyes. And when she got to this point Anna always insisted that I sing to her.
Now you are all too well aware of the fact that my abilities as a chanteuse are severely limited. I’m simply not a great singer. God clearly didn’t see fit to grant me the ability to carry a tune. But this didn’t seem bother Anna. For some unknown reason – perhaps she was tone deaf— or maybe she just had a warped sense of humor—but Anna loved to hear me sing. And so on the Saturday evening before the pageant was to take place, I found myself at Anna’s bedside.
I had already told her several of her favorite bedtime stories when Anna asked if I would read her a story. She pointed to a brand new picture book that lay on the cabinet beside here bed. The book had no words, just pictures. The pictures told the story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and the shepherds who were watching their flocks out in the fields.
As I turned the pages Anna and I took turns telling the various parts of the story to one another. When we got to the part where the Angel Gabriel appeared before the shepherds, Anna took over and she knew her part well. “Do not be afraid, for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
Anna delivered her lines perfectly and then went on with the story. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying”Anna signalled to me to join her in the angels’ lines: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours!”
As I spoke the all too familiar lines, a huge lump rose up in my throat. I wanted nothing more than to curse God. What kind of God allows a beautiful little angel to be stricken with a cruel disease? What kind of God allows the dreams of a beautiful little girl to be destroyed by lousy timing? What kind of God, promises peace on earth and then disappears for 2000 years leaving us to our own devices?
I managed to keep my questions to myself as we continued to turn the pages. When we got to the last scene of the book, Anna declared how wonderful it was that the baby Jesus and the shepherds and the wise guys and Mary and Joseph all got to hear the angels sing. I said that according to the story only the shepherds heard the angels’ song. But Anna told me not to be silly because surely the angels would have started singing again when they saw that everyone had finally arrived at the stable. I asked Anna what she thought the angels might have sung. Anna got a wicked little grin on her face and insisted that they probably sang her favorite bedtime song. I just laughed at the mere thought of angels singing that particular song to the baby Jesus.
You see, over the years of tucking Anna in, I was forced to try to sing quite a few lullabies to her. And with my limited abilities, I can assure you that it wasn’t easy. Not for me and not, I’m sure for the nurses who may have overheard my feeble attempts. But of all my crappy renditions, Anna’s absolute favourite was “You are my sunshine.” And so staring down at the picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, the shepherds, wise guys and assorted angels, I began to sing Anna’s favourite lullaby for the baby Jesus.
In order to spare the other people in the ward, I sang ever so softly. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray. You’ll never know dear how much I love you please don’t take my Sunshine away.”
When I’d finished singing, Anna sang a lullaby for the baby Jesus. And I’ve never heard Away in a Manger sung so sweetly. By the time Anna got to the last verse, a few others had joined in.
That’s how it began. A couple of nurses and some of the other children and their parents joined us in an impromptu caroling session. We sang all the Christmas carols we could think of. And when we couldn’t think of another carol Anna asked me to sing her other favorite.
I couldn’t remember what her other favorite was. Anna just smiled and said you know the one where I get to pretend to play the drum. I thought she meant the little drummer boy and I said that I was sorry but, I don’t think I ever knew that that was one of her favorites.
But from the expression on Anna’s face it was clear that I’d guessed wrong. Anna began to beat out a rhythm on the table by her bed.
And I remembered. Kum by Ah My Lord …someone’s crying lord;… someone’s fighting lord; ….someone’s hurting lord;….someone’s praying Lord;….Come by here
Little Anna didn’t win her battle with leukemia. She died that following spring. But like Christ, Anna lives. She lives in me and she lives in the lives of every life her little life touched.
In a world gone mad, in a world where we have yet to learn just how to love one another, Christ comes to us. When we are hurting or in pain, when our world is darkest, Christ comes to us. When we are sick and tired. Christ comes to us. When we have given up and can no longer bear to hope. Christ comes to us. Because our God is the one who takes on flesh and dwells among us.
Christ is Emmanuel, which means God is with us. Christ, laughs with us, cries with us, rejoices with us, suffers with us, heals with us, walks with us, shouts with us, struggles with us and loves with us. Christ dies with us and we are raised with Christ and born again. And because Christ is with us, death has lost its sting. Because our God is always with us, we will live forever more. And so, today God stands with us and speaks to us a word of hope a word that is the hope of the world.
Come by here my lord, come by here. Come by here and help us to bring the good news of great joy for all the people. Come by here and help us to sing Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace good will to all. Come by here my Lord. Come by here. Amen