Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sermon: "People Get Ready"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
November 29, 2015 – First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36

“People Get Ready”

When I was a child it was during Advent that I first became acquainted with the word ‘anticipation.’
Every morning, my siblings and I would run to the kitchen where my mother had hung the Advent calendar, and we’d pull open the tiny paper doors, eager to see the next picture from the nativity story hidden underneath.
In church every Sunday, we’d watch the lighting of the Advent wreath, excitedly counting how many candles were left and how many days remained until the center Christ candle would be lit.

And like most children of the 1970’s, it was during Advent that I spent an inordinate amount of time pouring over the pages of the Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog.
Imagining how complete my life would be if I found a Barbie Dream House or a GI Joe Headquarters under the tree.

Yes, when I was child it was during Advent that I became well acquainted with the word ‘anticipation.’

I have a vivid memory of lying awake one Christmas Eve night.
Listening to the cold wind rattling the windowpanes while the old radiator in the corner of my bedroom clanked and clanged filling the room with a dry hissing heat.
I kept perfectly still under the covers.
Not daring to move.
With my eyes clenched shut and my ears wide open.
Straining to hear beyond the rattling and the clanking,
listening for every sound that did not belong.
Every creak, every knock, every thump on the roof above had me convinced that Santa and his reindeer had arrived, and Christmas had finally come.

(And then I broke out in an anxious sweat when I realized that we didn’t have a fireplace. Our chimney went straight into the furnace.  I spent hours lying awake trying to figure out how Santa would get around that one.)

If only we as adults could await the arrival of Christ in our world with the same anticipation and excitement of a child waiting for Christmas morning.

Advent for many of us is a time of preparation but unfortunately it is also a time of hurried busy-ness as we fill the days leading up to Dec. 25th  with shopping, and decorating, and cooking, and traveling.
We pack our schedules with Christmas fairs and concerts, parties and pageants, and while we enjoy the ride we often can’t wait for December 26th to arrive, when we can finally stop, put our feet up,
and exhale for the first time since Thanksgiving Day.

For many of us, the anticipation associated with Advent is there humming in the background as we run to and fro making our holiday preparations,
but perhaps we should ask ourselves, “What is it that we’re preparing for?”

Time spent with family?
The joy of giving and receiving?
The food, the fun, the lift in our mood that makes us more likely to hold doors open for strangers and less likely to grow impatient with our fellow travelers in this world?

How many of us have said that we wish we could capture the feelings of hope, peace, love, and joy that seemingly ooze out of the pores of this season and spread it out over the rest of the year?
How many of us wish the Christmas spirit could be felt just as much in April as it is in December?

And yet how many of us struggle to feel it even in now?
Because we can’t see past the pain, the grief, the hope-lessness that fills our view.
Because we look out at a world that is decidedly lacking in love,
bereft of joy, and incapable of peace.

One day, when Jesus was walking with his disciples through the great Temple of Jerusalem, one of his followers pointed at the magnificent polished stones that had been stacked one upon the other creating the grand Temple walls, and the man said,
“Look at this great gift that we have dedicated to God.”
And Jesus responded by saying,
“The day will come when this great gift will lie in ruins.”

The disciples were both dumfounded and understandably skeptical.
They said to Jesus, “When? When will this happen? What sign should we look for that will warn us that this will soon come to be?”

And Jesus replied, “You will know the sign when you see it.”
“Just as you know summer is coming when the leaves sprout from the trees, you will know when God’s world – God’s Kingdom – will burst forth into this world and obliterate all that you see.”

This is a lovely story for the first Sunday in Advent, don’t you think?
While we’re decking the halls and singing “Jingle Bells” who doesn’t think of the Apocalypse and the destruction of the world as we know it?”

Yet every year, on the first Sunday of Advent, we read this story about falling Temple walls, the sun and moon shaking in the sky, and people fainting from fear and foreboding.

“Prepare yourself,” Jesus said,
“Your world is about to be turned upside down.”

We may wonder if the disciples understood Jesus to be speaking both figuratively and literally here.
Yes, he was describing the time when God’s will would supersede our human will – and re-create our world as we know it.
But he was also talking about the literal destruction of the center of his people’s world. He was talking about that hot August night 40 years in the future during the siege of Jerusalem - when the Roman Army would unleash a surprise attack on the remaining rebellious Jews holed up inside the Temple courtyard.

The Emperor wanted the grand Temple kept intact as a prize for the sacking of Jerusalem, but under the darkness of night a Roman soldier threw a burning stick into the Temple wall.
The fire spread much quicker than anyone anticipated… burning the whole structure to the ground.

“There will come a day when even these great stones will come tumbling down….and the heavens will shake, and people will faint from fear.”

Jesus’ apocalyptic predictions may be a part of the sacred scripture that we’d prefer to set aside, or leave for the “end of the world” doomsday folks to explore.

Or we may write these verses off as a latter day insertion by a gospel author who saw the Temple fall with his own eyes and he needed Jesus to know about it – to warn them about it –
to fit it into God’s Grand Plan and in the process make it less horrible and less devastating for those who lived to see it.

We may not know what to do with this story….
And we may not get how it fits in with Advent as we string lights in trees, set up nativity scenes, and light candles of hope.

But the Jesus story is a story that is all about hope, from one end to the other.

Even in his prediction about falling Temple walls Jesus weaves in the sturdy thread of hope.
He said to the disciples, “When you see these horrible things happening…hold your heads up high…for the time of liberation is near.”

Just as Jeremiah spoke to his people after the destruction of the first Temple and assured them that God was still with them,
Jesus speaks to his people about the destruction of the second Temple and assures them that God will still be with them.

We are a people who understand how a falling building can cause us to lean towards apocalyptic thinking – where we start to believe and act as if the world as we know it is crashing down around us.

Most if not all of us have those horrific last images of the World Trade Center towers seared into our memories….as they burned and collapsed into a twisted pile of dust and rubble and great human loss.

Those of you who have fought or lived in war zones - on foreign soil or in countries you once called home - have seen first hand the destruction that we human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another.

When you’re climbing over the rubble of what used to be a school, a church, your home, it’s hard not to think that the world is coming to an end.

But again and again, into this rubble steps Jesus.
Bringing with him love, and light, and hope.
Hope that the day will come when the fear will subside, and the wounds will heal, and the buildings will rise once again. 

In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, a Frenchman named Antoine Leiris - whose wife, Helene, was killed in the attack -  issued a public response to the terrorists who caused his world to come crashing down. 

 Leiris wrote:

On Friday you stole the love of my life, the mother of my (17 month old) son, but you won't have my hatred. I won’t give you that gift.
You are asking for it but responding to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance that made you what you are.
You want me to be afraid, to view my fellow countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my freedom for security.   You have lost.
We are two, my son and I, but we are stronger than all the armies of the world. For his whole life this little boy will threaten you by being happy and free. Because no, you will not have his hatred either.

Leiris’ response - to the people who destroyed his world - is one rooted in the promises of Advent.
In the face of anger and fear he chose to express love and hope.
In a world that calls out for revenge and equates justice with a reciprocal infliction of pain, he chose to embrace peace and joy.

We may marvel at such a response because most of us are not capable of doing the same.   
We’re too human.
We let our pain fuel our fear and our anger.
Or we hold fast to the worldview that only righteous violence can combat evil violence, because evil will only respond to what it knows.

Christ calls us to be better than that.
But we’re not there yet.
We haven’t yet evolved to the point where we understand that it is love that conquers fear, that it is joy that pushes away sadness,
and it is light that eradicates darkness.
We’re not there yet.
But we have hope that one day we will be, with God’s help.

The word Advent means “coming.”
We are coming into the season of peace, and love, and joy, and hope.
We are preparing ourselves to meet Christ where Christ calls us to be.

But like a child anticipating Christmas morning,
we have to live with the tension of not being there yet.
But one day we will be…
with God’s help.


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