Pulling Back the Veil: A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Gospel Lesson: Luke 21:25-36

Undoubtedly, some of you got ready for worship this morning in homes already decorated for Christmas. You could hardly wait for Thanksgiving to be over so you could bound down to the basement or climb into the attic to pull the decorations from their precarious place on the shelf. For some of you, the tree has already been cut down, shaken, and stood up. The light strands have been untangled and sorted into piles that work and piles that should have been replaced years ago. The garland has been unfurled and wrapped around bannisters or laid upon the mantle. Some of you have already started listening to your favorite Christmas music and you’re just beginning to feel that stirring of nostalgia and warmth that comes with the holiday season.

But just as you’ve settled into the annual ascent to the cultural feelings of good tidings and great joy…just when you think Christmas is here…just when you think that peace on earth and goodwill toward all has arrived, the lectionary assigns to us this strange Gospel passage we just heard read from Luke 21.

Our Scripture for this morning is not, as you might have anticipated, a nativity scene. In it, we find no angels singing, no shepherds kneeling, no wise men worshiping, and no Christ-child sleeping. Instead, we find a very adult Jesus speaking about global distress and people fainting from fear. We find Jesus talking about dissipation, drunkenness, and the worries of life. This doesn’t sound very Christmas-like of Jesus.

Today, the lectionary wants me to speak about the signs in the sun, moon, and stars. But, if I can be honest with you, I’d rather have a steaming glass of hot chocolate instead. Today, the lectionary wants me to talk about vengeance and distress upon the earth. But, honestly, I’d rather put on a warm sweater and Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and not think about these things. For someone who is supposedly “the reason for the season” Jesus is a huge downer today!

But in the midst of all this frightening language and apocalyptic imagery, perhaps there is some good news for us this morning. Before we dive in, let us pray:

Living God,

Speak to me, speak through me, if necessary speak in spite of me, but always beyond me. As you speak, give to us open ears, soft hearts, and courageous minds, that we might be shaped by your word and our lives might be justly ordered according to your wisdom which orders all things for good. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ: who was, who is, and who is to come.

Amen.

These days between Thanksgiving and Christmas form a season of the year when most of us are acutely aware of and supremely concerned with time. Perhaps it’s because there are so many things to do between now and Christmas that we’re afraid we won’t have enough time. Perhaps its because of all the parties and end of the year work projects that we feel as if everyone wants a piece of our time. Or, perhaps, its because as they days literally grow shorter, it feels like time us running out more quickly each and every day.

But Christians have always been concerned with time. So the Church, in her creativity and wisdom, decided long ago to create its own Christian calendar as a way of marking time with the story of Jesus — from birth, to ministry, to death and resurrection. So this morning’s Scripture doesn’t sound like Christmas because, according to the Christian calendar, we are not quite to the Christmas season just yet. Today is the first day of the new Christian year. It is the first Sunday of Advent and Advent is a season of preparation. So over the next four weeks, we will not be hearing about shepherds and wise-men. Instead, we will hear Scripture passages that offer us some instruction on how to live our lives in this Advent season if we are to be ready for Christmas. And as time itself ripens towards the due date of Christmas, our hearts, God-willing, will also ripen until they burst open ready to receive the good news of God’s arrival among us.

In this morning’s Scripture passage, Jesus tells us to “Lift up our heads.” Later he says, “Be on guard.” Once more, he warns us, “Be alert at all times.”  In The Message Translation it says, “Don’t fall asleep at the switch.” Lift up your heads! Be on guard! Be alert at all times! Keep awake!

As an over-caffeinated graduate student, rarely do I need reminding to keep awake and stay alert. But perhaps Jesus is not trying to increase the ranks of the insomniacs among us. Perhaps the problem is not that we are literally asleep but that we are distracted by or pre-occupied with the wrong things. Jesus isn’t interested in our ordering an extra shot of espresso with our morning coffee. This Advent, Jesus wants us to watch. Jesus wants us to pay attention to the world around us. It is the urgent work of attentiveness that is at the heart of this morning’s Scripture.

The words from Luke’s Gospel, assigned to us on the first Sunday of Advent, don’t sound like the beginning of a new year. They sound like this beginning of the end; which is why this passage is often referred to as the “little apocalypse.” When we hear the word apocalypse, it typically calls to mind images of chaos and catastrophic destruction. But the word apocalypse comes from the greek word which means, “to reveal,” or “uncover.” Think of it as a pulling back of the veil to see what is really there. Advent is a season of preparation but in our preparation, Jesus wants us to watch, to pay attention, to see what is really there.

Given the current state of world affairs (attacks in Beirut, Bagdad and Paris, children kidnapped and sold into slavery, economic injustice ignored, unwelcome refugees, and racism running rampant) pulling back the veil to see what is really there can strike fear in our hearts. But maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. To pull back the veil and see things as they really are means that Advent gives us permission to tell the truth –the truth that everything is not okay in our world, in our cities, in our lives. It gives us permission to tell the truth that on this first Sunday of Advent, while we light the candle of hope, some of us feel hopeless. Advent is a time in which we wait for God to appear and some of us have, at one time or another, made our own quiet, desperate pleas for God to appear — wondering if God ever will.

It happened to the writer Ann Weems after she lost her son Todd on his 21st birthday. Overwhelmed by the pain and unresolved grief of her loss, she began thumbing through her Bible and found what we know as the Psalms of lament. Her discovery was a revelation — a pulling back of the veil. Here, in these Psalms, were people who were willing to tell the truth. So Ann Weems started writing her own laments to God:

The sky has fallen and no one seems to notice. Mountains have fallen into the seas and people are oblivious. Oh God, my life is destroyed. People go to the bank and the store. They eat and drink while I crumple under the weight of my own heart. Have mercy on me for I am all alone. No one sees that the sky has fallen. No one, O God, but You! All knowing God, you are the only one who can put the stars back into place. Take pity of me and hold up the sky. I will walk by the river of hope and you will find me there and you will reach out your hand and push the heavens back into place. I will kneel and give thanks for you will be with me. You will put the stars back in the sky.

As Ann Weems’ lament demonstrates, when we watch for God to tear open the heavens, we also look within. When the stars fall from our skies and the ground beneath our feet begins to shake, we often go deeper into a life we could not have otherwise known. When our own personal apocalypse happens, when the veil is pulled back and reality is uncovered, we often see more clearly. We gain a new perspective. We remember those things which are most important to us and we let the distractions and preoccupations go. We place our hope in a future we cannot know or see, and we wait.

As Ann Weems offered up these laments, she waited on God. This Advent, we, too, are called to wait. For waiting is precisely what the early Christians reading Luke’s Gospel were doing. They were watching and waiting for the coming of Christ but this time it was the second coming. Decades after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, things hadn’t gotten much better for Jesus’ followers. Jesus told them to watch for the signs. The heavens will be shaken and you will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds. Meeting in secret, fearful of persecution, they were watching and waiting for God to come and save them. And here, 2000 years later, on the first Sunday of Advent, you and I are still waiting.

But there is something about waiting that so focuses your attention that you cannot hear or see anything else. Like a mother, awake at night, unable to sleep, waiting for her young teenager to come home – listening for the sound of the car in the driveway, and the back door opening. It’s an experience so galvanizing that she literally shuts out every other sound. I know this is true, because I’ve been that young teenager, trying to sneak in at an hour far past my curfew, only to find my mother awake…waiting.

But all of us know the experience of waiting. We wait on delayed flights and in unanticipated traffic jams. We wait for a job opening or for the market to improve. We wait on aging relatives who have slowed down. We wait for the doctor to call with the test results. We wait to meet the right person and we wait for our broken hearts to heal. In the arch of biblical history it seems like God’s people are always waiting. Abraham waited on a homeland. Sarah waited for a child. The Israelites waited for a promised land and the Jews for a Messiah. Waiting is an experience common to all humans but as Christians we are to be a people who wait in hope – looking for the signs that God is here among us.

Because God’s history is so full of amazing acts, we are always waiting — anticipating God’s next big move in the world. Will it be handing down justice, bringing peace, or finally answering that prayer we pray so often: “Thy Kingdom Come?” In my own waiting, I’ve often wondered if we’re really ready for that to happen. I often silently wonder to myself if the reason we obsess so much over the 2nd coming is because deep down, we are very disappointed in the first one. Let’s be honest. We weren’t expecting a helpless little baby, or a Messiah that would go and get himself killed. So as we wait, what exactly are we waiting for? Are we waiting for God to come crashing to earth like a cartoonish super-hero who will put our enemies in their place and right every wrong? What are we waiting for? I don’t know about your wish list, but mine would include eradicating disease, stopping terrorism, fighting injustice and racism, and protecting the most vulnerable among us.

But then I wonder, what if God is waiting? What if God is waiting on us? This Advent, as we watch and wait, I see two options: We can wait passively, wringing our hands as we look anxiously at the sky for God to do something about our world; or we can pull back the veil, tell the truth about what we see and go to work preparing this world for the coming of Jesus.

Now, if that thought overwhelms you as much as it does me, let’s start small. Let’s think simple. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells us to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, and welcome the stranger.” I think that is a great place to start. “Just as you do unto the least of these, you do unto me,” Jesus says. Maybe he’s right. Maybe, if we’re doing the work we’ve been called to do, instead of staring at the sky, we might just discover, in our waiting, that God is already here at work among us.

While in college, I would occasionally volunteer at a homeless shelter. On Friday nights during the winter months some friends and I would go down to one of the old historic Episcopal churches in downtown Spartanburg. At some point, it occurred to them that they were heating this large basement that no one was sleeping in while men, cold and hungry would sit on their steps. So they opened their basement, the men would come in, and we would give them a tiny mattress, a thin blanket, and a pillow. About 40 men would sleep there for the night. Those of us who volunteered would sit at a table and play board games, card games, or read books to stay awake as we ketch watch to make sure everyone was okay. It was one of the only shelters that would allow you in if you happened to be inebriated or on something. The only rule was you could not cause trouble with the other guests.

Sometimes I would look at these men who often came in with angry scowls on their faces, but while sleeping looked so peaceful. I’d be reminded that 30 or 40 years ago, that was someone’s precious sleeping baby boy. These men had stories that they loved to tell. One had been a jazz musician in New York City. Another would show us pictures of his grandchildren. Another was the artists among the group who, if we promised to bring pen and paper, would make the most amazing sketches.

We enjoyed volunteering on these Friday nights, but Saturday mornings were a struggle. We had to get the men up and out of the church by 7am. Out into the cold with no breakfast or hot shower. As I got into my car, I would drive past them on my way back to school. There, I’d open the door to a warm apartment, a soft bed, and a kitchen full of food.

That’s when it would hit me: the revelation, the pulling back of the veil to reveal the great difference between their world and my own. Each time it would strike me in the chest and cause pain in my heart. And do you know what I did? I crawled in my bed. I pulled the covers over my head. And I went to sleep. A few hours later I would wake up and everything would be back to normal — like there had been no revelation at all. When I pulled the covers over my head to sleep, it was if I had pulled the veil back over the truth. But Jesus says, “Don’t fall asleep at the switch! Lift up your head! Be on guard! Be alert at all times!” The truth is right before you.

The season of Advent is a season full of paradox. Yes, it’s a time to celebrate the coming of Christ with family and friends, with parties full of good food and drink, and the giving of gifts. But its also a time to watch — to look beyond the superficial and face the reality of the brokenness that exists. It’s a time of waiting patiently for God to be revealed, but its also a time of urgency in which we should be about the work we are called to do. It’s a time to celebrate the light that has come into a world grown dim, but it’s also a time to allow the darkness of our world to do it’s work of nurturing — like a seed beneath the ground or a child in it’s mother’s womb.

So as we move into this Advent time and, with it, a new Christian year, let us not forget the ultimate goal: Thy kingdom come! I admit. At times, it sounds fantastical. At times it seems absurd. But if we take Jesus’ advice — if we stay alert, if we don’t fall asleep at the switch, if we lift up our heads as we watch, wait, and work together — we may just start to see some of the signs. We may just see our redemption drawing near. We may just see heaven descend a little bit more in this generation — arriving like a small vulnerable infant whose redeeming cry ends the wails of his mother’s birth pangs.

Thanks be to God.

(Patrick Craig is a graduate student at Duke University Divinity School)

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