“Step One”

Sermon November 29, 2015

Luke 21:25-36

“Step One”

 

When I lived in Atlanta, Pizza Hut put up a billboard which featured a picture of spaghetti with the hope that this yummy plate of spaghetti would attract large crowds to the restaurant. Something happened that probably still brought crowds to Pizza Hut, but for another reason altogether. Someone claimed that they saw Jesus in that plate of spaghetti on the billboard. Of course, this made the newspaper headlines the following day and we were off to the races. Some were just curious and some wanted to point out the absurdity of it all, but no matter what the motivations were, thousands of people drove by that billboard. In addition to the heavy traffic it caused on Stone Mountain Boulevard, several others claimed to see Jesus too.

 

A few years later, a woman in Conyers, a small town about 45 minutes south of Atlanta claimed that Mary had spoken to her. I can’t remember what Mary said, but this too made the paper, along with the information that Mary promised to return the 13th of each month to speak to anyone who would listen. On the 13th of each month, tens of thousands of people would flock to this woman’s home in Conyers so they might hear what Mary had to say. Many claimed they heard her too.

 

Reaction from Christians ranged from enthusiasm to skepticism to embarrassment. I don’t know whether Jesus was in that spaghetti or if Mary spoke to the thousands who showed up to hear her, but I do hear in these stories a hunger for a real encounter with God.

 

The first Sunday of Advent readings are always apocalyptic. We never know what to do with words like these. It is embarrassing to many of us – kind of like a teenager whose mother is too affectionate when dropping him or her off at school. We shrug and change the subject as soon as possible. We aren’t spending our free time trying to calculate when and how Christ might come again. As the carols are playing everywhere we go and the decorations go up, the scripture this morning feels like a contradiction of all that we long for and experience this time of year. But Advent is God’s doing and it is so significant that the entire cosmos reverberates with signs of it. We can’t just skip over this text. We only have to watch the news to realize that our world is far from redeemed. If everything was as it should be, we wouldn’t need Christmas.

 

We don’t have to look far to be inundated with news of death and destruction. The advent message tells us that we can never take human destruction more seriously than God’s promises. When we least expect it, God comes into the world in a way we can’t predict or foresee.

 

Advent doesn’t celebrate an event that has already occurred in all its fullness. It is a time of expectation and anticipating the future that still awaits the coming of God. Advent is a season for us to acknowledge our need for God. And we need God.

I took a break from my sermon to go to the dentist this week. I am always interested in the “conversations” that take place while my teeth are being cleaned. I am in no position to respond verbally and I don’t want to nod my head while someone has sharp tools in my mouth. The hygienist told me about a horrific story of a young pastor’s wife in Indiana who was murdered earlier this month. I felt sick as I heard this story and wondered about the words from Luke. I thought about a black protestor at a political rally who was kicked and beaten by several white men. Then a shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood facility claimed the lives of three and injured nine. The news is full of stories of brutality and violence. At the same time, refugees are fleeing for their lives and being called potential terrorists. These days do not make any sense and they call us to depend on God. We feel the fear and distrust that is fed by the media.

 

What we need is an honest acknowledgement that we cannot do this alone. Nadia Bolz-Weber inspires me because she is unapologetically truthful. In fact, this nationally known clergywoman says she is “unqualified to be an example of anything but needing Jesus.” (Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, p. 29) It is refreshing to hear public figures humbly admit that they struggle like the rest of us.

 

The thing is, we may be doing ok. We may be getting by and thinking that “we’ve got this” and then something happens and knocks us upside down reminding us that we need God. That could be something personal like losing a job or someone we love. It could be a betrayal or an illness. It could be watching someone we love suffer and feeling helpless. It could be seeing the news and knowing that there are problems that are well beyond our capacity to understand, much less solve. Monica Helwig says, “If it won’t play in a cancer ward or a shoddy nursing home for the elderly, then whatever it is, it is not the gospel.”

 

We need the gospel whether we know it or not. Some of us have come to understand that we are in over our heads. That is the heart of the twelve-step program. It begins by acknowledging that we are powerless over addiction and then recognizing that we need a higher power to get us through.

 

The gospel lesson today comes at a time when we are sobered by the awareness of how deep these issues are and reminds us that hope is a choice. It is a decision to believe that it is not all up to us. It is trusting that God has our back. It is actually embracing our humanness and our failings and our limitations as a relief because it means that God will pick up the slack. It means God can step in and heal what we thought was beyond healing.

 

Apocalypse means God is coming. I think we need to hear these tough texts this time of year. It is too easy to romanticize baby Jesus and get caught up in the decorations this season. The apocalyptic texts remind us that there are big issues in our lives and in our world. They remind us that we can’t do this by ourselves and we need God more than ever.

Advent is the season of hope. Hope comes when we realize that this big story we are living is about what God can and will do in the world. Hope shows up when we think we are at the end only to discover that there is a faint light in the distance. Hope is seeing the light and allowing ourselves to move toward it. Hope is making room in our hearts for what may be next and trusting that while we cannot see it, God is there. We need hope in the midst of the headlines and fear. We need to know that if we can take the first step and trust in God, and God will take it from there.

 

My friend Jan Richardson writes blessings for the church year. She wrote a “Blessing When the World is Ending” for Advent:

 

Look, the world

is always ending

somewhere.

 

Somewhere

the sun has come

crashing down.

 

Somewhere

it has gone

completely dark.

 

Somewhere

it has ended

with the gun

the knife

the fist.

 

Somewhere

it has ended

with the slammed door

the shattered hope.

 

Somewhere

it has ended

with the utter quiet

that follows the news

from the phone

the television

the hospital room.

 

Somewhere

it has ended

with a tenderness

that will break

your heart.

 

But, listen,

this blessing means

to be anything

but morose.

It has not come

to cause despair.

 

It is simply here

because there is nothing

a blessing

is better suited for

than an ending,

nothing that cries out more

for a blessing

than when a world

is falling apart.

 

This blessing

will not fix you

will not mend you

will not give you

false comfort;

it will not talk to you

about one door opening

when another one closes.

 

It will simply

sit itself beside you

among the shards

and gently turn your face

toward the direction

from which the light

will come,

gathering itself

about you

as the world begins

again.

 

(Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons, p. 34)

 

This Advent season is a time of preparation for the world to begin again. It is a time of practicing hope when we cannot see the way. It is a time for continuing to act in ways that make no sense like choosing hope rather than fear. Today we begin a new season and together we take that first step – choosing to hope in God who will come among us and show us the way.