A sermon on Luke 21:25-36 given by the Rev. Teri Daily on the First Sunday in Advent, November 28, 2021…
Happy New Year! The Church’s new year, that is. The Church begins its new year with waiting and watching, in expectation of what will be. We see this in our gospel reading from Luke.
The gospel of Luke is thought to have been written a generation or so after Jesus’ death. To those hearing these words, it must have seemed like an eternity since the day of Jesus’ ascension, the day when the disciples saw Jesus taken up into the sky and a cloud ultimately hid him from sight. As Luke tells us in his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, two men in white robes appeared beside the followers that day and said to them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go.”
I suspect that account rattled around in the memories of Luke’s community. A promise left unfulfilled up to now. Sure, in the interim, they had gone on about their lives – preaching, baptizing, commissioning, suffering for sake of the gospel, and experiencing their share of joy too. But somewhere in the back of their minds, the promise of Jesus’ return must have seemed as barren as the branches of a tree in winter.
Today’s gospel reading comes as a call to be patient, alert, and discerning. Don’t stop expecting Jesus to arrive. There will be signs – some will be found in the sun, moon, and stars; another sign will be the unrest among nations (which would mean a state of high alert ever since these words were written). People will faint because of fear and foreboding. When the followers of Christ see these things, Jesus tells the disciples, they will know that the kingdom of God is near.
People have always read signs of the present to predict the future. These signs became the fodder of folklore with its pithy sayings. Chimney smoke descends, our nice weather ends. Rising smoke indicates high pressure – associated with nice, fair weather and clear skies. Smoke traveling near the ground means low pressure is present, which is associated with storms. A ring around the sun or moon, means rain or snow coming soon. A halo around the sun or moon means that ice crystals are present high up in cirrus clouds. Since cirrus clouds are a sign of coming rain, a ring around the sun or moon means rain or a storm is coming. Rainbows in the morning give you fair warning. Actually, the truth of this saying depends on where the rainbow is located. If the rainbow is in the western sky, clouds and rain will be moving towards us, and the rainbow warns of coming bad weather. If, though, the rainbow is in the eastern sky, the moisture is moving away from us.
To be honest, prophecy in general has always been more about reading the present than the future. It has always been about paying attention to what’s happening around us – keeping watch, learning the patterns.
Perhaps this year more than most in our experience resonates with the apocalyptic sign-reading to which the gospel of Luke calls us. We have lived with Covid-19 for the past twenty-one months, and we have seen the peaks and valleys in case numbers, the lockdowns based on valid causes for concern, the rise in deaths a few weeks after an upward trend in active cases. We have learned to read the signs.
If we understand what is happening in the world around us, we know that the effects of global warming are already taking place. In 2016, Australia’s colorful Great Barrier Reef underwent the worst coral bleaching ever seen. Half the reef is dead or dying. Ocean temperatures have risen two degrees Fahrenheit and the algae that give the reef its color are now gone. On top pf that. one-third of the world’s major water systems – its lakes and rivers – are drying up, leaving the groundwater wells of three billion people affected. We can read the signs of global warning.
The years 2020 and 2021 have seen locust swarms the size of Manhattan and larger descend across the Horn of Africa, devastating crops and vegetation. Food crises have developed and will most likely only worsen with time.
It’s all enough to make us feel we are living in an apocalyptic era. And, yet, what we hear in the words of Jesus is that this, of all times, is when we should stand up and raise our heads, knowing that our redemption is drawing near. The kingdom of God is closer than we think.
This is the gospel message of hope: the kingdom of God is near – not off in some undefined future that we’ll never see, not disguised in ways that we could never discern, and not for someone else to experience instead of us. The kingdom of God has come near to us – just as it was near that day as Jesus spoke to his followers, and just as it was near to those who first found home and encouragement in Luke’s words. This is the message that floods our readings, songs, and meditations during Advent: Prepare the way of the Lord!! The kingdom has come near! Come, Lord Jesus, Come!
To observe the season of Advent rightly is to hear these words as proclamations that speak to our own lives, our own congregation, and our own world in the here and now. Get ready – the kingdom of God is near!
There are signs all around us – a newborn baby cries with her first breath; forgiveness takes place at the bedside of someone who is ill, bringing grace and life to the very place of suffering and death; sobriety interrupts the hold of addiction. Generosity, grace, and newness abound if we open ourselves to experience them. Each moment holds the holy within it; each moment is a new chance to experience Christ at work in the world. So stay alert, read the world around you, and, as Jesus tells us, don’t be so drunk with the worries of this life that you miss it altogether.
Now I don’t want to paint a picture that says: “God is here already so don’t worry, just be happy!” Because sometimes we can get so busy celebrating Christ’s presence (especially in the season of Christmas) that we end up complacent and mired in an easily-gained contentment. We can even end up overlooking the pain, suffering, and oppression of so many.
But when we practice Advent rightly, we look forward to the coming of Jesus with incredible hope and passion precisely because we are well-aware that the world, including us, needs for him to come. There’s no complacency. Instead, the closer we get to the kingdom, the more we lean forward, the more we long for the transformation we know is coming. We experience what it means to live between the “already” (Christ has come) and the “not yet” (things are not yet as they are meant to be).
What is it that we do in this uncomfortable and creative tension?
Advent is a time of self-reflection: Where is an uneasiness present in our own lives? Where is there injustice and suffering in the world around us? In what ways are we complicit?
Advent is a time of watchfulness: Where will we see Jesus in the pain of the world? Where is the Holy Spirit at work bringing healing and grace? Sometimes it will be in the most unexpected places.
Advent is a time of hope: For the kingdom of God is oh so close. It is near, right here with us.
Advent is a time of prayer. Jesus tells us to pray for strength. Pray that the darkness won’t overcome us. Pray that we may have the courage to open ourselves to God at work in the world, allowing the nearness of God to transform our fear into love for the world around us.
And Advent is a time of joy, because even in the midst of what seem like apocalyptic and cosmic signs too great for us to shoulder, even here, we still trust in the faithfulness and steadfast love of God to meet us.
 Steve Nubie, “Reading the Sky – How Clouds, Smoke, the Sun, and the Air Can Predict the Weather,” Homestead Survival Site, https://homesteadsurvivalsite.com/reading-sky-clouds-smoke-sun-air-predict-weather/.
 “7 Ways climate change is affection daily life,” Environmental Defense Fund, https://www.edf.org/card/7-ways-climate-change-affecting-daily-life?utm_campaign=edf_climate-change_upd_dmt&utm_id=1518122668&utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=google&gclid=CjwKCAiAqIKNBhAIEiwAu_ZLDg91TRSoKysqeugfXTwOH-Aid6uqHtUHUVwGcAEkJmn-DWhSD2f8dxoC0ZsQAvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds&card=1.
 “Locust Swarms Threaten Parts of East Africa,” NPR, January 19, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/01/19/958543535/locust-swarms-threaten-parts-of-east-africa.