Monday, December 3, 2012

Show Us What We’re Not Seeing

(The following sermon was preached at Messiah Lutheran Church, Knoxville, TN on the First Sunday in Advent, December 2, 2012. The sermon arises from the Year C pericope for the day, specifically the gospel reading, Luke 21:25-36.) 

Most all of us have some sort of peculiar habit. Come on admit it. You know you do. We all, most everyone, have some little thing that we do - and yet don't realize we’re actually doing it - that after a while can really begin to annoy the people around us.  

Take my mom for example. [Shhh, don’t tell her I talked about her.] She has this peculiar habit, as she’s riding down the road, of reading signs...out loud!    
“Knoxville 120 miles”
“Cracker Barrel next exit”
“See Rock City”
And this doesn’t happen just on the interstates. US and State Highways work just fine too...
“Oh, look there, Turkey Creek Mall...”
“Hey there’s Messiah Lutheran Church...Did I ever tell you that time I went to that Lutheran Church in Alaska?”
On and on she goes, reading the signs.

In fairness to her though, and if I’m really honest with myself, I read signs too. Granted not out loud! But I do read them. Probably most of us do. Signs on the road can give us information, some of which, we actually need. That next gas station, when the tank is on empty. The next rest stop when the other tank is full. So I guess, in some ways, we are all people who look for signs. And, not just signs on the roadway. We watch for signs that give us information about our daily lives, about what we can expect to happen with the weather,...with the stock market, our health, our relationships or family life. There are all kinds of signs that give us information; give us assurance; give us hope.  

Apparently this is nothing new. People have always looked to and sought to interpret signs. The people of God, for example, were always looking for a word or sign from the Lord. They looked for evidence of God’s favor and approval. They looked for signs that would assure them that God was there, that God's love was upon them, and that God would lead them and keep them in relationship with him. There are countless stories of God using signs, and people seeking signs.  For example, scripture tells us that after the flood, God placed his bow in the sky as a sign of his everlasting covenant with Noah and every living creature.  Elsewhere in scripture, Moses, keeping the flock of his father, Jethro, there in the wilderness at Horeb, sees a most peculiar sign, a bush that is ablaze, but is not being burned up. The burning bush was God's attention-getting sign that called Moses to turn aside and listen. Later in life, Moses would lead his people out of captivity to the promised land. And on that journey, God provided a sign of his presence and guidance in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night.   

But, here’s the problem I have with these kinds of signs. These signs from the Old Testament seem outrageous, don’t they? Even some of the signs from the New Testament seem that way. People healed. Thousands fed. Water turned to wine. The dead raised. These signs seem larger than life. They seem like irrefutable evidence of God’s existence, and of God's abiding presence; hard to ignore evidence of God’s favor and approval. But now-a-days, these kinds of outrageous signs seem....rare. The signs now-a-days seem to be less obvious. They seem not so overwhelming, small, hidden even. You really have to look for them.  Maybe God has changed his m.o.? No more overwhelming or outrageous signs. Maybe now he wants us to stop and take the time to look. Or, maybe that’s the way it was all along, and the stories just got a little conflated over time. Maybe it’s always been that people had to become sensitive to the divine presence in their lives. I don’t know. 

However it is though, I do wonder if back in the day of Jesus, certainly in our our day now,...I wonder if we’ve all become just a bit blind to the signs of God’s presence in our lives. I could be wrong about that, but it makes me wonder if that’s the reason Jesus in today’s Gospel reading from Luke uses the language of apocalyptic? I wonder if he uses the outrageous to shock his listeners then, and us listeners now, into opening our blind eyes.

Listen again to Jesus outrageous language, this time from Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation:
It will seem like all hell has broken loose—
sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar 
and everyone all over the world in a panic, 
the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, 
the powers-that-be quaking.
And then—then!—they’ll see the Son of Man welcomed in grand style—
a glorious welcome! When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. 
Stand tall with your heads high. 
Help is on the way!”   (Luke 21:25-28, The Message)

Of course, the irony is, for Jesus’ listeners, and for Luke’s readers, and for many people today, these words are nothing new. All hell has already broken out. Rome already has Jesus’ listeners panicked. So too the readers of Luke, now that Jerusalem has been sacked. And ask the people of the Northeast United States, victims of Hurricane Sandy; or the people of Guatemala, with its earthquakes and volcanoes; or the people of Syria, Gaza, Israel or Afghanistan...For them, all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and [they are] in a panic.... (Luke 21:25, The Message)

So what is Jesus up to with this apocalyptic language? Surely he can’t mean that these apocalyptic sounding things are actually signs of his coming?

Right. Maybe he doesn’t actually mean it? At least, maybe he doesn’t mean it in the way we usually interpret apocalyptic language? 

The Nashville author, David Dark, in his book Everyday Apocalypse writes this:
We apparently have the word ‘apocalypse’ all wrong. In its root meaning, it’s not about destruction or fortune-telling; it’s about revealing...” 
[In other words] “Apocalyptic shows us what we’re not seeing.”
[and] “...apocalyptic has a way of curing deafness and educating the mind.” 1
David Dark goes on to write,
“Given our tendency to see and hear what we want to see and hear
while disregarding the rest, we need whatever we can get 
in the way of an awakening.”  2

So, with all apologies to the Mayans, and to the proponents of a Zombie Apocalypse, and to all those other doomsday-ers out there, I think Jesus is using apocalyptic, not to foretell how the world will end, but in order to awaken us, to get us to open our eyes to the revealing of God’s kingdom now,....everyday,...all around us. I think Jesus is using apocalyptic as it was originally intended to be used. Not to scare, but to acknowledge the hell that has already broken loose, and then to say, but even still, even in the midst of that hell, stand up, raise your heads, be alert, open your eyes, the Kingdom of God is near. 

By “near”, I don’t think he means, the Kingdom of God is about to arrive, swoop in and whisk you away from here. No, I think he means, the Kingdom of God is right here, now, making its way in the everyday of your life now...If only you had eyes to see and ears to hear. This is why Martin Luther could be so bold as to say, “Even if I knew that the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.” 3 Luther knew God’s kingdom was near, and was about the work of saving this world, not destroying it. Luther hoped in this apocalypse, this revealing of God’s kingdom in the everyday, in the now. 
And what was true for Luther, is true for us. The apocalypse is happening now. God is now revealing God’s kingdom breaking into the world all around us.  God is now, today, entering our lives to renew us and this world that he created. God is now drawing near to remind us that we and his whole creation are in relationship with him, that he continues to be with us, and that our future is hope-full. 

Like the road signs that we read without realizing it, the signs of God are all around us. We just have to lift our heads, pause for a moment, and notice them.  And what better time to be awakened to the signs of God's kingdom breaking into our lives than during the season of Advent.  Advent is a season when we will remember with Mary and Joseph that Christ has come, that in a baby born, God has given his world a sign that he has done a new thing.  We will see that the God who was with the people of Israel time and time again, is the same God who fulfills his promises in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We will see the sign of the cross, and remember that same sign marked on our foreheads at baptism, reminding us that we are God's adopted daughters and sons. We also are recipients of God's love and faithfulness. In this season, as the three Magi look to the heavens for a sign from God and go then to the baby Jesus, we too kneel with them and pay homage to Christ. 

This Advent season is the time for us to open our eyes and notice the small, almost hidden signs of God’s kingdom happening all around us in our every day lives. In simple water paired with God’s word. In wine and bread given for you. In scripture read and proclaimed. In forgiveness announced. In the stranger welcomed. In the neighbor served. In a peculiar community gathered together doing peculiar things, like singing songs, praying for enemies, serving the poor, and caring for the creation. In a peculiar community gathered around a cross, suffering for faith, walking in solidarity with the marginalized, enduring hardship and persecution...These are signs that God is right now, this day, breaking into this world, doing a peculiarly new thing.

You know, come to think of it, maybe I shouldn’t criticize my mom’s peculiar habit after all.  Maybe she’s just gotten pretty good at opening her eyes to signs, the apocalypse, the Advent of the

This Advent and always may we take on the peculiar habit of seeing the signs. May we see what we are not seeing. May we see the Advent of God’s kingdom now.

In Jesus’ name. Amen. 

1 David Dark, Everyday Apocalypse, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press,  2002), 10.
Ibid., 13
Attribution to Luther has been disputed. Source uncertain. 

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful words and food for thought.
    Mary Niemeyer
    St. Mark's Lutheran
    Huntsville, AL