Today I'm drawing from many years in the past, to a sermon I preached for the first Sunday of Advent in 2000, while serving as pastor of First Christian Church of Santa Barbara, CA. The gospel for that day is the same gospel as for this coming Sunday. Since we're doing the Hanging of the Greens on Sunday, and I won't be preaching, I can at least share this message from a previous year. May it serve as a blessing as you prepare for the coming of the Redeemer.
The time is near. The scent is in the air. Christmas is on the horizon. Yes, Christmas items appeared on store shelves when the Halloween goods came off and with Thanksgiving the Christmas shopping began in earnest. Many of us have just about wrapped up our Christmas shopping and we have begun to listen to our Christmas CDs. The Christmas events have already begun: Brett and I went to the Christmas Parade Friday evening and we all went to a Christmas concert last night. Yes, the excitement is building as we make our way toward Christmas. However, even as we wait in anxious anticipation for Christmas to come, we must recognize that for Christians is not yet here, Christmas remains on the horizon.
While we put up and decorated the Christmas Tree this weekend, our focus is not on it but on the Advent wreath, whose candles are only beginning to be lit. With this service we begin the time of preparation for the coming of our redeemer, the Messiah, Jesus. In Advent we travel into the future by way of stories of the past, stories about the announcement to Mary and Mary's song of response, the Magnificat. We hear about the conception and birth of John the Baptist and we remember his role in preparing the World to receive its redeemer. Still, our focus is not entirely on the past, for Advent speaks to our future. At Christmas we affirm that our Redeemer has come in the historical past, but with Advent we are reminded that we as Christ's church await his return to bring the kingdom in its fullness.
The classic Advent hymn "O come, O come Emmanuel," which we sang this morning, reminds us that our hope is that Emmanuel will draw near to us. With the Jews of old, we hold out hope that a redeemer, a Messiah, will come for us. Advent is above all else about hope for the future. It is not a pie-in-the-sky dream, but a hope rooted in God's gracious acts of mercy in the past. Israel rooted its hope in the promised messiah in its observation of God's faithfulness. Like Israel we find our own hope rooted in our encounters with the living God. Hope is not an opiate that deadens us to the pain of the present. Rather, hope gives us strength to conquer the mountains that stand before us.
When Douglas MacArthur told the people of the Philippines: "I shall return," it may have sounded like arrogant bravado. Many who heard those words probably discounted them, believing that their destiny lay elsewhere. But others held out hope that something positive would happen to them in the future. Eventually MacArthur did return and he liberated the Philippines from Japanese rule. In a more cosmic setting, Jesus also promised to return. Yes, he would suffer and die, but he would also return in glory. In symbolic language Jesus gave his followers words of hope, words to hang on to during the most difficult of times.
I. SIGNS OF THE TIMES
Our text this morning doesn't have the feel of Christmas to it. Instead, it has the look of a George Lucas screenplay, with special effects galore. As we hear these words we might want to think of a Death Star or something even more magnificent and deadly. The strangeness of this text may be a bit off putting, with the words seeming more like science fiction than religious narrative. Although the apocalyptic language may be foreign to us, the point should not be missed. The future is in God's hands!
Though the first advent and the first Christmas took place in a humble stable in a humble town in a backwater nation, the second advent will be much different. While we must beware of the fanciful interpretations that we find in best-selling novels, movies, and prophecy guidebooks, we must not lose sight of Jesus' promise that God has things under control. We may experience times of distress, but God is present and active and God will bring things to an equitable resolution. God has heard the cries of the people and the Redeemer will come and bring the fullness of the kingdom.
II. OUR REDEMPTION DRAWS NEAR
Our text, however, does not focus on the signs, but on the events to which the signs point. And, to what do these signs point? Jesus makes it clear: when you see these things happening, you'll know, your redemption is drawing near. That is, "I shall return!" Yes, the one who brings us salvation and redeems humanity will usher in the kingdom of God, for redemption is about God's reign and its establishment in our midst. Throughout the prophetic books of the Old Testament you find descriptions of a promised time when peace will reign, when lamb and lion will lie down together in peace. Our own existence is anything but peaceful. Wars and rumors of wars are part of our human experience. They seem to have always been part of our experience. Two generations of children have grown up under the threat of nuclear annihilation. That threat, though diminished, remains with us. Peace is not ours yet. But, we hold out hope. We have heard the promise; it will come.
In the parable of the fig tree, the listener catches something of that promise. The fig tree was symbolic of peace and prosperity. The prophet Micah spoke of a time when the Lord would rule, when the people would beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Then, the people would sit under their "own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid" (Mic. 4:3-4). Jesus said to his disciples: look at the fig tree, when you see the leaves sprouting, you will know that summer is near and that peace is also near. Now, this peace that Jesus promises is not some kind of humanly brokered peace. We have heard throughout history promises of peace in our time and they have always fallen short. True peace therefore must come because of God's rule breaking in on us.
III. BE ALERT
It is possible that the second coming of Christ will be accompanied by magnificent and powerful signs in the heavens and on earth. Yet, as I noted earlier, too much speculation on the nature of these signs might cause us to miss the point of the passage. I don't think that Jesus told his disciples this message so that they would keep charts of the heavens so that they wouldn't miss the signs. Instead, I believe he wants us to hear the closing words of advice, words that benefit those living in every era, not simply in the final moments of human history.
What is his advice? It is simple: "be alert!" "Be on your guard!" This is a parable about watchfulness, about preparation. These are good words for us as we enter the Christmas season. Don't get so caught up in the trappings of life that you miss the signs of God's presence. I'm not ready to toss out the tree and take back the presents, but I think Jesus would have us temper our enthusiasm for the present Christmas celebration with an awareness of the future in-breaking of God's kingdom. So, don't get so involved in the world that you live in that you miss the coming of the redeemer.
These can be strong words of comfort and hope. Even in our distress we can find strength to go on. Even when tornadoes or earthquakes strike, even when life is in jeopardy, we can take heart, our redeemer is near. God calls us to place our hope in our redeemer. There is no need to worry; instead be in prayer and expect God to act.
May the Advent-Christmas season, in all its joyous celebration, remind us that the redeemer is drawing near. Having been reminded of the promised coming of our redeemer, may we make the most of our time in the present to prepare for the blessings of the future. Therefore, be alert, watch and see what God does in your midst, for there is hope for the future!