Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Isaiah 40: 3-5, Luke 21: 25-36)
Suffice to say that our scriptures today are not what we might expect on the first Sunday of Advent.
Instead of flocking to our wonderful sanctuary, we are told to flee to the mountains. Instead of counting the days to Christmas, we are instructed that these days are days of vengeance. Instead of finding peace on earth, we find distress on earth. Instead of a bright star shining in the night sky, we are told there are ominous signs in the sun and moon and stars. Instead of getting caught up in the “reason for the season,” we are caught up in the roaring of the sea and the waves.
And instead of preparing the way of the Lord, we are told something else entirely. We are told to:
SEE THE SIGNS!
On this inaugural Sunday of Jesus’ “advent, “his coming into the world as a tiny baby in a manger, our passages today instead have us considering his second coming; and it doesn’t look a thing like the first. And through it all, we are told not just to prepare the way of the Lord. We are told, in more or less words, to beware the way of the Lord.
Beware the way of the Lord. That would make for an interesting Christmas card, wouldn’t it? A curious choral cantata piece? Beware the way of the Lord. Pretty big shift from the theme we’ve engaged all fall; away from the “getting real” conversations Rebecca and I had with you a few months ago. This whole fall has been about preparing the way for the Lord, for our church, for our very lives. And now we’re being told to beware of it?
Luke 21 drops us in the Jerusalem temple with Jesus teaching and preaching – but more than that, mere days before the Last Supper and Garden of Gethsemane and crucifixion. The air is heavy with tension and conflict, like the feel in the air before a storm arrives. The chief priests and scribes seek Jesus out – but not to listen and learn, but to plot and plan. Pharisees and Sadducees try to trip Jesus up over theological minutiae. It is Passover in Jerusalem, when Jews from all over the Holy Land flock to the city, which means the Roman army is out in full force, a constant presence flexing their military muscle. Injustices both religious and political are happening all around. It seems like any moment, the slightest spark might ignite a raging inferno.
And of all the things Jesus could’ve preached and taught on, we find him expounding on the future destruction of Jerusalem. If there were any topic Jesus would want to avoid in this moment, the demise of the beloved holy city would certainly be at the top of the list. Such talk couldn’t help but be viewed by the faithful as a huge affront, as well as a flashing red warning sign to the powers-that-be. Such talk could only serve to inflame an already tenuous situation.
Jesus tells them there will be signs “in the sun and moon and stars” that will let them know when all of this is upon them. These are cosmic signs he is speaking of; the kind you cannot miss. Jesus tells the parable of a fig tree sprouting leaves. When you see these leaves, he says, you know that summer is coming. In other words, you don’t need a calendar reminder to tell you what season you’re in. You can tell by something as obvious as leaves growing on a tree. There will be no mistaking it. It’ll be clear to everyone.
And Jesus finishes his little meditation with a simple imperative:
SEE THE SIGNS!
Again, we have to wonder what Jesus is doing here. What we are doing, on this first Sunday of Advent…..
And I wonder if a clue might come from a deeper dive into not just the content of Luke’s writing, but the nature of the writing itself. Years after this gospel was penned, scholars would come to understand this little section in the 21st chapter of Luke as a form of biblical literature known as “apocalyptic writing.” Sounds ominous, I know. The word, “apocalypse,” comes from a Greek word that means “to uncover” or “to reveal.” To show that which had previously been unseen, kept out of sight. That’s what apocalyptic writing does.
Apocalyptic writing was written during times of persecution – and this is important – written from the vantage point of, and for the benefit of, the persecuted. It grapples with the harsh realities of evil and the struggle of good against that evil. Apocalyptic writing does anticipate the coming of the kingdom of God when all will be set right and the persecuted will be persecuted no more, but it makes no bones about the struggle in getting there.
Undoubtedly the most well-known apocalyptic writing in the Bible is Revelation – all those weird signs and symbols, all those bizarre visions, the cosmic and final struggle of good and evil. But we also find apocalyptic writing in the Old Testament books of Daniel and Isaiah and Zechariah. And we find it right here – in Luke 21, what I remember my seminary professor somewhat affectionately referring to as “Luke’s little apocalypse.”
And it makes sense, that we’d find this here. The church back then was still trying to discern its place in the world. The powers-that-be still ruled with an iron fist. For Jesus in his time, for Luke in his, and I would submit for us today, following Christ is kind of a “living in between.” We are here with Jesus, yet we are also waiting for Jesus. And waiting while living in the midst of a chaotic, unpredictable and tumultuous world.
A world where every day brings with it a sense of uncertainty as to what will happen next…. A world where the drumbeat of injustice seems to be beating louder and louder…. A world where we are losing confidence and trust in those institutions we used to rely on without question…. A world where the divides seem to only be growing wider….
That was the world that Jesus was living for, the world he was preparing to die for; that was the world that Luke and his followers were trying to make their way in; and in more and more ways we are finding it is the world we are living in today. A world where Advent calls us to do three things:
SEE THE SIGNS!
I once heard about a Christmas pageant put on by the children of a church. The tiny stage is crammed full of little ones in barnyard animal costumes and angel outfits and shepherd garb. Over two dozen of them – the name of the game obviously being less about biblical accuracy and more about every kid getting a chance to play a part in telling the wonderful story. At one point near the end, after the plastic baby Jesus is revealed in the makeshift manger, an eight-year old Mary stands to carry her newborn son and the savior of the world out into the world. And ask she does this, we hear the narrator, a young boy, giving voice to the prophet Isaiah:
Prepare the way of the Lord!
Except he doesn’t say it quite like that. He adds a little more flair to it; likely coached to do so by an over-eager pageant director: PREPARE! THE WAY! OF THE LORD! Which turns out to be quite appropriate, given what transpires as he says it. For as Mary starts walking around the stage through the mass of pageant participants, she suddenly comes to realize that, just as there was no room for her previously in the inn, now there does not appear to be enough room for her on the stage, either.
The narrator’s voice bellows: PREPARE!, right as Mary’s foot slips on a cow’s tail.
He continues: THE WAY!, as Mary wobbles, steps back and crunches the hand of a little lamb with her foot. OUCH!, it shrieks, not in the script. Sorry! Mary instinctively responds; also not in the script.
Our narrator, not missing a beat, breathes in deep and blares out the finish: OF THE LORD!, right as Mary, twisting around to avoid another misstep, loses her balance and falls full-on into a pack of four-year old angels, plastic baby Jesus and all. A holy mosh pit if there ever was one, bending pipe-cleaner halos and twisting fabric wings, leading to more than a few angelic tears. And Joseph, standing in the back beside the manger, surveying the scene and looking like any father of a first-born, wondering: what do I do??
Prepare the way of the Lord, the prophet tells us. He’s talking about a road, you know. A road through the wilderness – that’s what he means when he says “the way.” It is a massive building project, utilizing every resource, every piece of equipment, a hoard of workers. Prepare the way of the Lord. Think of the effort, the sheer power required to “lift up valleys” and “make low mountains.” I remember the work done right out here years ago to “lift up” the low area where our parking “U” now is, along with “making low” the vast dirt pile that stretched from Providence all the way to the back corner of our property.
The prophet’s metaphor is spot-on, given the holy work he’s talking about – the work that inevitably comes with making wrongs right, with building the kingdom of God on earth, with bringing to fruition all the hopes and expectations and promises of this Advent journey.
And yet, this work is not without some element of danger to it. It is downright risky. Risky like that sweet little mother Mary in the pageant trying to make a way through her surroundings, and the chaos that ensued. Not “Prepare the way of the Lord” – “Beware the way of the Lord!”
Beware the way of the Lord, because it requires of each of us a changed heart and a deep faith. Beware the way of the Lord, because the signs of the need for it are all around us. Beware the way of the Lord, because hope – real hope – doesn’t always come naturally and takes some effort
And so, on this first Sunday of Advent, we have to ask: are we ready for what is coming? Really ready? Beyond the red and green, beyond the sweet joy of our Advent season and Christmas Eve and arrival of Christmas morning? All of these are wonderful and they do involve some preparation – but they are not what we are preparing for. They are just signs, like leaves sprouting on a fig tree, like the roaring of the sea and waves, like the sun and moon and stars.
Are we ready for what comes after that? Are we ready to live a life of faithfulness beyond the signs?
So even though it sounds a bit ominous, maybe it’s not bad advice after all. Beware the way of the Lord, because what comes next cannot help but change us and change the world. Beware the way of the Lord, through nothing more and nothing less than our steadfast and unwavering hope in Jesus Christ, who is coming to be with us once again.
And for that, 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.