This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Howell, Michigan and was focused upon the story that is told in Luke 21:25-36. An audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
Dear friends, as we have already said this morning, it is indeed Advent. We share this season together each year, a time when we are reminded once more to wait, to watch, to wonder… Today, we are reminded anew of our shared calling to make ourselves ready with anticipation and expectation.
We see the decorations throughout our sanctuary, hints of Christmas, and that is a reminder among us too that we are waiting, watching, and wondering for Emmanuel, which means God with us. God really with us — found in Jesus, who will soon be born in the stories of our sacred scriptures, who will soon be born in our practices of shared celebration together. Soon in these stories, Jesus will be born, instantly vulnerable with no adequate place to spend the night. Soon in these stories, Jesus will be born, quickly on the run from the dangers of Herod. Jesus will soon be born, yes, in sacred story, but not only 2,000 years ago. Also here, among us now, as we are invited to find Christ’s presence with us — you and me, God with us, God with all the vulnerable ones of this world, God with all the fleeing ones of this world, God with all the “least of these” ones in this world.
In the midst of this anticipation, we wait, we watch, and we wonder. We lean our lives into these things.
There are hints of Christmas here even in this room. But it isn’t Christmas yet. It is Advent. Advent is the beginning of our liturgical calendar in the church (today is the first day of the year) but Advent is concerned with endings. Advent is about final things, inviting us to wait, to watch, to wonder — trusting that Emmanuel, God with us, is with humanity now and all of creation until the end.
We wait, and we watch, and we wonder for this. We anticipate and expect. And we lean our lives in this direction.
During his ministry, Jesus sometimes said very challenging things. He had a way of naming the pains of the world as they really were, and yet even from there, he had a way of naming God’s presence with us. He himself was God’s presence embodied, present to people in that pain.
And so, in our Gospel text this morning, we hear challenging words. This section from the Gospel according to Luke is apocalyptic literature, literature concerned with final things, with the end. And we might think of that end chronologically — God entering time and redeeming that time among us. But we also might think about the word end as the goal — God bringing creation to its final goal. God bringing creation to love, justice, wholeness, liberation, connection with God, connection with neighbors, and fullness with God’s presence in our midst. That’s part of what apocalyptic literature does theologically, naming the pains of the world now, and naming the healing that they shall experience.
Gathered around disciples who were also vulnerable, often poor, often disenfranchised, 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 heaven will be shaken.” This is challenging.
Yet Jesus also says that “they will see the ‘Son of Man coming in a cloud’” — the Son of Man coming again. Jesus said, “When these things begin to take place” — the pains of this world — “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
The God we serve is a God who enters pain with us and with the world. It’s not that these things are good — no, they cause fear and foreboding — but even there, God is near, working to redeem all things.
Jesus said, “You look at the fig tree and all of these trees. As soon as they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.” And so, even in our places of deep pain, even in creation’s deep pain, we are invited to place our faith and trust in the recognition that God is near, and even the Kingdom of God is near, full with possibility.
Jesus says, “Be alert. Be awake.” Not ultimately living in fear, but living in hope and expectation — that God is in our midst always. Because whatever time of year we celebrate together seasonally, always behind it all is a recognition that Christ has come, that Christ is coming, that Christ will come again.
And so we gather together, around these sacred texts, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit and the presence of one another, we are invited to lean more and more in that direction, to trust that this true, and to lean our lives in such a direction that we begin to participate in these things. God is with us in such a way that we, the Church, are being empowered to be in the world and also be about these final things — to work toward love, justice, wholeness, liberation, connection with God, connection with neighbors, and fullness with God’s presence in our midst. We are invited into these things. With God’s empowerment, we are invited to participate in these things.
So now, Advent is not just a nice little time in which we show up and anticipate the holidays. No, we anticipate so much more, and our lives are being called in these directions.
Greg Boyle is one of the people I most admire. He’s a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California, an organization that provides job training and healing to people who want to leave gangs and people who have been incarcerated, giving them a new chance and building kinship community together. At Homeboy Industries, people who used to belong to rival gangs work side by side, heal their lives, and open possibilities for a new future.
These individuals have known great pain and have often caused great pain. In his book, Tattoos on the Heart, Greg Boyle writes that every single person he has ever met who joined a gang, did so not because this was ultimately what they wanted to do with their lives but because they were running from something — often great, personal trauma.
And together, at Homeboy Industries, they do that healing work, the work of transforming the past, making amends, and healing toward another future. Father Boyle teaches them about a God who loves them, who enters their pain, and who invites them to transform the pain they have caused, ultimately participating in God’s final things — love, justice, peace, wholeness, and connection with God and neighbor.
In our own time of waiting and watching, I invite us to think about a story that Greg Boyle tells. It’s a sweet story about a man and his father, and Greg Boyle opens that story up to speak a conviction about God and human worth.
As his health was failing, an old man moved in with his adult son, someone that Greg Boyle knows personally. In the evening before bedtime, the son would read aloud to his father. In a beautiful role reversal, the adult son put his father to bed every night.
The son would often invite his father to close his eyes while he read aloud, but over and over again, he would catch his father looking at him. He would say, “Look, here’s the idea. I read to you, you fall asleep.” The father would apologize, but at some point, one eye would eventually pop open.
This went on every single night. When it was time to sleep, the father could not take his eyes off of his own son.
Greg Boyle says that God is like this: “God would seem to be too occupied in being unable to take Her eyes off of us to spend any time raising an eyebrow in disapproval. What’s true of Jesus is true for us, and so this voice breaks through the clouds and comes straight at us. ‘You are my Beloved, in whom I am wonderfully pleased.’”
As we watch during this season, God is watching us, looking straight at us, even into our pain, even into the pain of the world and saying, “You are my Beloved. I see you through love. And I see you into new ways of loving.”
Even though the world may fear and feel foreboding, God is near. God invites our watching with this kind of watching. God sees us and our neighbors with infinite love, inviting us to see God at work. The same God empowers us to work, so that we too participate in these final things, waiting for their ultimate end as God brings them about.
May we watch, wait, and wonder.