Dr. Steve Lindsley
This week, Rebecca and I begin a three-week Advent sermon series titled, “A Weary World Rejoices.” A theme that seems most appropriate given where we find ourselves in this particular holy season. We are tired and exhausted, it is true. And yet – a weary world does in fact rejoice because of what, of who, is coming. We know who is coming because we’ve heard the story countless times. And stories do what stories do – they live in us and in others once we share them.
So during this Advent sermon series we will hear stories beyond the story of our scripture reading. And that is why things will look a little different from the norm. Rebecca and I will begin the sermon from this pulpit, and then it will continue down front as a dialogue, a conversation with a church member who has graciously agreed to share their story. Giving us yet another reason in this weary world of ours to rejoice.
So friend, with that, let us now hear God’s word:
Sometimes in order to get to the beginning, you have to start at the ending.
It seems counterintuitive, I know. And yet this is more or less what our scripture on this first Sunday of Advent is asking us to do. For it is not a baby Jesus we find, not even the idea of a not-yet-born-into-the-world Jesus. No, it is a fully-grown Jesus, a three-years-into-his-ministry Jesus, a Jesus who is, in fact, mere days away from his trial, crucifixion, and death.
And what do we hear from this Jesus? Well, we don’t hear predictions of the coming Messiah; harbingers of a baby soon to be born. We only find the words of a man who knew his end was near and wanted to give a heads-up for what was coming. It is dark and ominous language Jesus evokes- cosmic upheaval with the sun and moon and stars involved. It’s also confusing, too – some mention of a fig tree, of all things. Why a fig tree, we wonder? And then words of caution and warning; stark exhortations to be on guard and watch out, because what’s coming is coming and there’s nothing you can do about it.
So, happy Advent, everyone! Happy Advent.
It goes without saying that we’d rather not begin our Advent season this way. We much prefer to have everything all figured out and understood and expected. Surprises are nice, except when they’re not. And when it comes to the upheaval – I mean, if upheaval is unavoidable, we’d prefer not a tsunami but mere ripples; the kind that are the very last to creep up on the beach before dissipating into the sand.
But Luke is not going to let us do this – sidestep what is coming. Because life does not let us do this. Would you agree? And so on our first Sunday of Advent, Jesus refuses to let us enter the unknown unaware, unprepared, because he loves us too much for that. They had no way of seeing what he saw, of course. How things would turn on a dime, how one of their own would be the one to turn him in, how the powers-that-be would go from being a mere nuisance to a real and terrible threat, and how their worst fears would ultimately be realized.
Jesus knew all of this. No one else around him did. How do you think they received that?
I wonder, friends, can you think back to March 8th, 2020? Seems further back than it actually is, doesn’t it? Can you imagine what it would’ve been like if Jesus himself walked into our children-led worship service that Sunday and gave us a warning; walked right up front during the announcements or maybe stood up in the middle of Rebekah Hutto’s sermon and said: “Friends, I need to tell you that this will be the last time that you gather in this sanctuary for worship for over a year, and even when you come back, things won’t necessarily be as they were before.” I’m curious: would we have been able to hear him, to understand? I sometimes wonder if those who heard Jesus in his more ominous moments like our scripture today simply shrugged their shoulders and went on with their life. What did they miss out on, I wonder, in not heeding the warning? What do we?
See, the truth is, beyond all the strange cosmic talk and ominous tone and bombastic language, all Jesus is really trying to tell us here is: trust me. Just trust me. I know what’s coming, he’s saying to us. I know what’s coming. You will soon enough. So trust me. Because I’ll be with you through it all. And not only that, but I’ll be with you through the struggles to what lies on the other side of the struggles. That’s why I bring up this whole fig tree thing – did you know, by chance, that fig trees are a symbol for a new season, a sign of hope for the future, for new growth and new life that is coming – Advent! So trust me. Let me, Jesus, be that sign and symbol for you.
Jesus’ words in our passage today seem to strike a particularly resonant tone in this 2021 Advent season. For we have spent a good part of the past twenty-one months waiting, on guard, heeding warnings – have we not? And while it is true that we have grown in our resilience and our grit and there have been some silver linings here and there, there is no doubt that the waiting and guardedness and warning-heeding have all taken a toll. We are tired. We are exhausted. We are, as the old hymn says, a weary world.
But there is hope in the exhaustion and weariness – or, more accurately, there is hope in who is in it with us. Beloved, we are not alone. That’s what Jesus wants to be clear about here. That he is right in the thick of it with us. Giving us a heads-up, whether we choose to listen or not. Giving us fair warning, even if we don’t always see it as such. He does this because he loves us. Because he wants to assure us that we can trust him. Because Jesus longs to be real in this season of waiting so that our waiting has a point and purpose to it. There is little good in waiting for something that will never come. Jesus wants to assure us that our waiting is justified and has meaning. And it is in that waiting where we find our greatest hope.
I am sure if I asked you if there’s ever been a time in your life when you’ve had to wait, you’d tell me yes. I imagine if I asked you to describe where your hope comes from and how you’ve moved through the weariness to hope, you’d have a story to tell. And so on this first Sunday of Advent I’m grateful that Laura-Nelle Hurst has agreed to share some of her story with us, about waiting and where she finds her hope.
How have you moved through the weariness to hope?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I was avoiding the COVID weariness at all costs. I kept myself busy to a fault–cleaned out every drawer, organized every closet, did creative activities with Eleanor every day, we planted an herb garden…I thought I could power through a quick quarantine. But obviously things changed–or rather, didn’t; the pandemic didn’t slow down; Eleanor wasn’t going to go back to school anytime soon; almost half of my team at work were laid off, I was terrified that family members might get COVID. It felt like we were going through all of these big scary things were happening all at the same time. I kept waiting for us all to catch a break and it didn’t feel like it was happening.
We had 3 special family celebrations planned for 2020. All of them got cancelled. The last one with a trip to the beach with all the Parnells to celebrate my parents 50th anniversary. We thought we had done everything right–we had all been tested right before going, we were all faithful mask wearers, we quarantined for a few days before, but even with all our precautions, 24 hours after we arrived for the week, someone got a positive covid test and we ended up having to head home. That was the toughest trip to cancel because we were so excited to go and celebrate our parents.
But there was a silver lining: first, no one else got covid (thank God), and secondly, we got really creative in how to safely celebrate our parents. My sister doordashed a nice dinner for them, I did a porch drop off of wine, and flowers, and dessert, and my brother set up a Zoom call for our whole family and close friends. And all of us shared how we were thankful for their 50 years together.
That was a turning point for me, I think. Instead of being disappointed by all of the things that I couldn’t do, it helped me see all that we can do during this time. Now I try to find hope and silver linings in the here and now rather than waiting for it to happen or waiting until the pandemic is over. We still have to live [and find joy and love] in this time of waiting.
What’s been your north star?
The pandemic has forced us to walk in other’s shoes, become more empathetic with each other. My hope is that we come out of this season wiser and kinder than we were before.
I think the three biggest lessons I’ve learned in the past year and a half are: practice radical empathy, that we are stronger than we think, and to look for the joy. And I think all of those lessons live in Advent too. And while we are waiting for the birth of Christ and waiting for the pandemic to be over, there is much kindness to give, strength to share, living to be done, and silver linings to look for.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.