Looking for Hope

+ A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (Year C) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on November 28, 2021 +

Text: Luke 21:25-36


Ok, I have a question for you all.
And if I promise not to judge you, will you promise to answer honestly?
Ok. Who’s already decorated for Christmas?
Ok. How about this: Who started decorating…before Thanksgiving?
Ok, I admit, I too have started decorating.
Because as much as we try in the church to delineate the Christmas season from Advent…or even before Advent, we know that now we’re passed Thanksgiving, the “official” holiday season is upon us.
And I’ve noticed especially this year and last year that a lot of people are starting even earlier than they had before.
Putting up Christmas trees, watching those cheesy Christmas movies, playing Christmas music.
I’ve heard from a few of my friends that, during the past two years especially, they’ve felt the need to start Christmas early to help boost their spirits, a source of hope and joy, even to be a sort of escape from everything that is happening in the world.

            Well, if you came to worship this morning hoping for an early start to Christmas cheer and an escape from the world around us, I’m sorry to say that Jesus has another idea in today’s gospel. “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,” Jesus says. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Not exactly a Hallmark movie, is it? More like an end of the world blockbuster. Which is how many people read this text—as a prediction of what the end of the world will look like.

And while Jesus’ words may seem out of place as we enter this season of hopeful anticipation of Christmas joy, it’s important to remember what is happening in the context of this teaching.
Jesus is in Jerusalem during what we call Holy Week, and he knows that his death is imminent.
In the next chapter, he will be betrayed, arrested, abandoned, and put on trial.
Jesus knows what is about to happen, but rather ignoring the reality that surrounds him, rather than leaving his followers in despair, he speaks honestly to the situation and uses some of his final teachings to provide hope that will endure through whatever happens next.

And while this hope may have been meant for that particular situation, it’s a hope that echoes through the eons.
Hope for those first disciples who would witness the death of their teacher and friend.
Hope for the original audience of Luke’s gospel, still reeling from Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
Hope for ancient Christians facing persecution as they await Christ’s coming again.
Hope for the faithful throughout the centuries in times of uncertainty, war, plague, and genocide.
Hope that endures even to our own generation, speaking to the difficult situations in our lives, both big and small.
From the annual return to our autumnal gloom of shorter, gray days when the trees stand barren, to the waning hope that we can still avoid a climate catastrophe beyond our nightmares.
From our lingering fears of the state of our country and its democracy, to the news of yet another new coronavirus variant threatening the world.
From the unwelcome diagnosis at a doctor’s office to the heartbreaking death of a loved one.
Or even to the all too real reality of the health of our congregation as we see our numbers dwindle and our finances grow ever more strained.

Yes, we speak of hope this day, but with all that surrounds us, when we look honestly at the situation, it can be so easy to give into despair.
Or maybe we do the opposite and try to block out the realities of this world.
To retreat into a safe, comfortable space and hope that everything just fixes itself…or wait for Jesus to just fix it.
Both of these approaches have their times when they be beneficial either by making us feel engaged or protecting us from too much burden.
But leaning too much into one or the other brings its own problem either by making us feel like we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders or by letting us completely disengage and live in fantasy.

Either way, when the cares of this world and the worries of this life become too much for us to bear, we may wait for these words to finally be fulfilled.
We may long for Jesus to stir up his power and come down with the clouds to fix it all.
We may look to the signs around us and convince ourselves that this is finally the end.
But even in these times—even in our despair, even when we feel disconnected—we have these enduring words from Jesus, an evergreen promise that no matter the tumult that is happening around us, no matter the fear that is coming upon this world, no matter what, he is with us.
And he will always be with us.
Even if heaven and earth pass away, his words, his promise, will endure forever.
And it’s in his presence and in his promise that we can take heart because our God stands with and among us.
It’s really a paradoxical hope that Jesus invites us into, because it’s when we could be so easily gripped by fear or overtaken by foreboding, it’s when we are in places of despair and longing that we can be assured that our redemption, our Lord is near.
It’s the times that could so easily make us feel isolated and abandoned from our God that we are assured of God’s presence with us.
And rather than bury our heads in the sand or focusing all our attention on the pain and tumult that surrounds us, Jesus invites us to courageously lift our heads with confidence and assurance, to pay attention and look for the signs of hope breaking into our world, of God’s new and perfect reality descending, or sprouting, among us.

We may wish Jesus worked a little differently, a little faster maybe.
We may wait for a grand return from our Lord to finally right the world and shape it in his design.
And while Jesus promises it will happen someday, it certainly hasn’t happened yet.
No more than a new political leader has been able to come and magically fix everything.
No more, I fear, than we will see a magic and sudden end to this lingering pandemic.
No more than whatever decision we make at our semi-annual meeting next week will instantly solve all the pains and challenges facing this congregation.
No more than the first buds of spring mean that summer is already here—but when we see those first buds, we know that summer is in fact near.
That it is coming quickly.
Just as Jesus says we can see the signs around us to tell us that, while the Kingdom of God is not here yet, it is near and soon it will be here.

Because even though it’s not the timeline we may choose, we can look to see the areas where things are improving.
To see where something is happening.
To see where the shoots are budding from the trees to remind us that Jesus is coming and God’s reign is assured.
These signs surround us just as much as the signs telling us of doom and gloom.
Whether it’s a family member finally eligible or willing to get a vaccine.
Or it’s finding a well-paying job after weeks of searching.
Or it’s finding the right meds that keep you stable and allow you to see hope in the world.
Or it’s whatever will result from years of work in this place to provide homes for our neighbors and a future for Holy Cross.
Jesus is calling us to pay attention, to be alert and watchful for the signs that surround us.
Not to be laid low with hopelessness and despair, by the cares of this world and the worries of this life, but to be watchful for those signs that show us how God’s reign is breaking into this world here and now, that remind us that Christ is coming and all will be made right, and to show us how we can be a part of his coming in glory, how we can use our life, use our labors, use our resources to tend those little buds and help them sprout into glorious brilliance to show the love and faithfulness, the hope that we have in our God.

What are the signs you have been seeing, Church?
Where do you see Christ breaking into our world bringing hope and healing and life?
Because in this place, we gather as a community not only to share the burdens we all bear and comfort each other when it all becomes too much, we also gather to stay alert together, to look for hope, to recognize the signs of Christ’s inbreaking that we would have missed on our own.

As we enter again this season of waiting and anticipation, beloved, we don’t just await the retelling of what has happened already, the birth of Christ among us.
We don’t just watch for what will happen, Christ’s coming in glory to restore all creation to wholeness and justice.
We also recommit ourselves to look for what is happening right now, right here, all around us.
We look to see where Christ is breaking into this world heralding healing and hope and love.
Because even in this season of waiting, we can recognize that Christ is fully present here among, us in our lives, in our world.
Even in this season of anticipation, we take notice of what is happening now and see that it is here that God did and will and continues to find a home among us—here among the confusion of the nations, among the roaring of the seas, among the fear and the foreboding that is shaking the world—this is where our God has come among us to be with us, to give us hope, and to remind us that we are never alone.
To remind us that even when evil seems to be prevailing, God is still at work.
To remind us that this is where God has taken root in our world and where the tender leaves of God’s new reign are shooting forth.

So, lift up your heads, dear Church, and see the hope and promise we have in our God, because our redemption is here.

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