This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached yesterday, the First Sunday of Advent. The gospel reading was Luke 21:25-36. I must confess: this sermon drew a lot from a sermon by Frederick Buechner entitled “Waiting,” found in his book Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons. I hope I haven’t breached any copyright issues in posting it here.
Two weeks ago, we heard words much like these from Mark’s gospel. We were approaching the end of the church year, and it made some sense to hear words like these, about the end of the world. But today is the very beginning of a new church year, a year when we will read mostly from Luke. We begin every year with the season of Advent, the season of waiting for Christ to arrive. And yet, we also begin Advent with these words, words that still sound like the end of the world. Why not start Advent with Mary, or the angel Gabriel, or maybe John the Baptist? You’re not alone if you feel confused.
But here we are. Jesus speaks about the end of the world, the coming of God’s Kingdom in a particularly awe-striking way. There will be signs in the sun, the moon, the stars. The roaring of the seas in response will frighten nations around the world. But what does Jesus mean? Is he speaking literally, or poetically? Is Jesus telling us that there will be real eclipses and comets, falling stars and tsunamis? Or is he speaking symbolically not about the world without but of the world within – a complete upheaval of our hearts and minds and spirits? And if that’s it, then when does that happen?
And then, at the end of it all, the Son of Man will appear, coming in a cloud, with power and great splendor. What does Jesus mean by the “Son of Man,” which can also be translated, “The Human One”? Scholars generally believe that Jesus is referring here to himself, that he uses this odd turn of phrase from the book of Daniel to refer to himself. But even if that’s true, why does he use language like this? Why not just come out and say, “One day, I shall come back.”
And on that day, he tells us, people will faint from fear and foreboding, yet he calls us to “stand up straight and raise our heads, because our redemption is near.” Does he mean that some will be terrified, and others redeemed? Some are in and some are out? Or does he mean that redemption itself has an element of terror in it? It may be that – after all, our redemption, our saving, is the experience through which we will be made perfect. All our flaws, all our sins, all our impurities will be washed away. But it’s not as simple as washing away some dirt from the outside. Our flaws go much deeper. All the parts of us that make us heartsick and soul-sick and sick of ourselves. We will be washed from the inside out. So when we are suddenly made well, purged into becoming our true selves – perhaps there is an element of terror there.
So many questions about what Jesus means here, at a time of year when we expect Jesus to be so easy to understand. We expect mild Mary and kind Joseph. Shepherds and wise men. All the friendly beasts. The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. But no. Words like these remind us that Jesus is not, is never that simple. Year after year, Advent through Christmas through Easter and beyond, we try to believe in him, try to follow him, yet he always remains a mystery beyond our comprehension. That’s not a failure on our part. And yet, at the very heart of this passage, perhaps there is something that we can comprehend, because it is close to the heart of our own experience.
Waiting. We all know what it is to wait. To wait for a child to be born. To wait for a teenager to come home. To wait for a call from a potential employer. To wait for the call with your test results. Pastor and author Frederick Buechner, whose writing informed this sermon in many ways, wrote that waiting is in fact the primary thing that we do as the church. Here in this space, in the silence, the prayers, the organ, the voices. Among the candles, the altar, the baptismal font. In worship we try to speak to God and speak about God; try to listen for God; search for something of God’s peace. And in the midst of all that, we are all of us waiting, waiting for God to respond.
We are waiting in the darkness for the coming of the light. We live so much of the time in the darkness, and we wait for the advent, which is to say the coming, of the light that saves us and terrifies us at the same time. It saves us because it puts an end to the darkness, and that is also why it is terrifying, because for so long, the darkness has been our home, and leaving home is always cause for terror.
Here, in worship, we wait in darkness for the light. Sometimes we glimpse the light through the candles, the music, the prayers, the silence, the preaching, in those moments when we feel that God has heard us, that God has spoken to us, that God has fed us with more that just the sip of wine, the bit of bread.
Yet it’s not all that glimpse. Worship is darkness on those days when those moments just don’t come, those times when it all seems like just a show, a performance. The darkness is when we forget that those moments exist, when we slip into believing that the church is an end in itself. When we sit here and think that this is all there is. When we believe we ourselves already are already God’s kingdom in all its fullness. That’s darkness, because we’re clearly not enough.
But Christ promises that the kingdom is coming. It’s coming, and we will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with power and splendor. He tells us to stay alert, to keep awake for it. And I don’t think he means keep awake, or else you’ll be caught and punished! I think he means, keep awake, or else you’ll get distracted and miss it, get distracted and miss God’s work in the world for what it is. Keep awake, and wait. But waiting for Christ to come in his fullness is not a passive thing, it’s not a case of twiddling our thumbs or playing games on our phones. Paul tells us that we are Christ’s body, and so the hands and feet Christ has in the world are our hands and feet. We wait for Christ by being those hands and feet. To wait for Christ to come in his fullness is to act in his stead as best we know how. To wait for Christ is to try to be Christ to those who need it, to bring them the most we have of Christ’s healing and hope.
Christ is coming. Whatever else is unclear, whatever darkness we live in, that much is clear. That is why Advent begins this way each year. He is coming. And in the meantime, let us wait by keeping awake even in the darkness, and looking always for the light.