Let me be the first to wish you a happy new year today.
That’s right. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year in the church calendar.
And as always, we begin with a paradox. Instead of countdowns, celebrations, and champagne, the new church year starts with, as a hymn we will sing later says, “signs of ending all around us.”
Listen again to the first words we hear from Jesus in this new year: “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.
“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
Why is Jesus speaking in such ominous terms?
These words come near the end of the Book of Luke, as Jesus and his disciples reach Jerusalem. They are the last words we hear from Jesus before the Passover, the meal he celebrated with his disciples on the last night of his life.
For Jesus, the end of his own time on earth is very near. He is telling his disciples that his death will be of cosmic importance. And he is also giving them hope for the dark days after his death.
“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads,” he tells them, “because your redemption is drawing near.”
Those earliest followers of Jesus did believe that the end of time was near, that they would live to see Jesus’ physical return to earth. The apostle Paul’s letters are filled with references to the Second Coming and the Last Days of Earth, events he fully expected to occur in his lifetime.
We know, of course, that Paul and other early followers of Jesus were wrong about that, as have been so many others since then.
In recent years, any religious talk about eschatology, that fancy word meaning “the last things,” or the end of the world, and about Jesus’ Second Coming have primarily been the domain of more conservative Christians, whose leaders often seem to love playing on the fears of others.
Most people I know, including most clergy, are a bit uncomfortable, if not embarrassed, by such talk.
Thomas Long, who teaches the art of preaching at Emory, not too long ago wrote an article about “the loss of eschatology in American preaching.”
He notes that if a poll were taken of mainstream preachers asking “What do you think about eschatology? What are your views on the specific shape and character of Christian hope for the future?
“What do you make of the New Testament’s promise that ‘the Son of Man will come in the clouds with power and glory’?, most preachers would probably respond, ‘I don’t know.’”
I admit that I am turned off by pictures I’ve seen of Jesus coming through the clouds on a horse, armed to the teeth, surrounded by avenging angels ready to do physical, violent battle with the powers of evil.
I think that if life as we know it on this earth comes to an end, it is most likely to be through human acts of violence, greed, or arrogance.
We do say in the liturgy each week that we believe that Christ will come again.
But exactly what that means is a bit of a mystery.
But on this first Sunday of Advent, as we begin to prepare for the birth of the Christ child, we are also called to ponder and prepare for the Christ who will come again.
One commentator I read this week put it this way:
“This Christ for whom we watch is not just the little babe lying in a manger. On this first Sunday of the new liturgical year, we do not lean over into the stable with expectation.
“Instead our year opens with eschatology. Although we live in the already of Christ’s birth, ministry, death and resurrection, we begin the year with the not-yet of Christ’s return. That is the paradox of beginning our new year at the End, of beginning to prepare for Christ’s coming in the Nativity by expressing hope in Christ’s return.”
We don’t have to take these apocalyptic images literally for them to be true. Many of us have experienced distressing endings in our lives.
We see them on a national or global scale with earthquakes and hurricanes and famines and wars, with recessions and economic crises, with the human-caused destruction of so much of our planet and its creatures.
But we also seem them on a more personal level – devastating illnesses, struggles with addiction, the death of someone we love, or the death of love itself, the loss of work and identity, the fear of how we will pay our bills or ever be able to retire.
These are moments and times that theologian Paul Tillich called “the shaking of our foundations,” times when it does, indeed, seem like we may faint from fear and foreboding.
Those are the times for which scripture’s apocalyptic readings are meant.
The word apocalypse comes from the Greek word for “uncovering” or “revealing,” which, as writer Kathleen Norris points out, makes it also a word about possibilities or hope.
“While uncovering something we’d just as soon keep hidden is a frightening prospect,” she says, “the point of the apocalypse is not to frighten us into submission.”
It is not until we uncover, or reveal, the reality of our present situation – no matter how dire or bleak it is – that we can honestly begin to see the possibilities and hope for the future.
“Amid pain and prolonged suffering, when there can be seen on the horizon no relief from disaster, faith turns its face toward heaven, not only for a revelation of God’s will, but also for a vision of the end of the present misery and the beginning of the age to come.”
With God there is never an end without a new beginning. We hear that in today’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah. Right before this passage, the prophet has issued dire warnings about the coming end times, and the day of judgment.
But then he offers this vision of hope.
‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise made. I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, and he will execute justice and righteousness in the land.
We begin Advent with a call to examine the reality of our lives, but also with hope and expectancy that God’s promises will be fulfilled.
We believe, as our prayer for the first Sunday of Advent says, that with God’s help we can cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
And although I don’t spend much time thinking about Jesus bursting out of a cloud to physically return to earth, I do believe that Jesus continually comes into the world, most often in ways that we may only recognize in hindsight; that when our foundations are shaking is when we are most likely to encounter him coming to bring hope, and possibilities for new life that we cannot imagine.
That is why on this first Sunday of Advent we sing these words:
Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create? Life from death, and from our rendings, realms of wholeness generate? Come, O Christ and dwell among us! Hear our cries, come set us free. Give us hope and faith and gladness. Show us what there yet can be. Amen.