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First Advent Cycle C (1)
In one of his books, motivational speaker Zig Ziglar tells the story of NFL quarterback Jeff Hostetler, formerly with the New York Giants. At the beginning of his career, Jeff was a back-up quarterback. By the end of his seventh season, he had thrown less than two hundred passes, and none of them had any bearing on the outcome of a game. Then Phil Simms, the starting quarterback of the Giants, went down with an injury, and coach Bill Parcels looked to his back-up quarterback on the bench and said, “Okay, Jeff, it’s your turn.” Jeff Hostetler ran out onto the field and led his team to victory not only in that game but in the remaining games of the season including the Super Bowl.
However, as Zig Ziglar points out, there was more to the story than that. During those seven years Jeff was in waiting, he “threw thousands of passes through a swinging tire. He worked with his wide receivers and running backs in countless practice sessions, sharpening and honing his skills. He lifted tons of weights, did hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups, jogged many, many miles, and did numerous wind sprints. He literally spent hundreds of hours poring over the playbook, studying not only his own offense and defense but the defenses of the opposing teams.” (1) When Coach Parcells turned to Jeff Hostetler and said, “Okay, Jeff, it’s your turn,” Jeff was ready.
We are beginning that season of the year known in the church as Advent. Advent is a time of preparation. It is a time of getting ready. The Latin derivative of the word Advent means literally “to come.” During these weeks we focus our attention on the coming of Christ into our world. We consider the words of the prophets and their expectations for the coming Messiah. We ponder the meaning also of those texts in the New Testament that speak of Christ’s return to rule, to judge, and to save at the end of time. Our theme for the Sundays of Advent is “Signs of Christ’s Coming.”
We live in a time when we are surrounded by signs. The song from the sixties said, “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign/ Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”
Some of you grew up in an era before Interstate highways. Most travel back then was done on two lane roads. Along those roads would often be posted a series of five small red signs with white letters on them containing a humorous poem on four of those signs, with a 5th sign reserved for their sponsor. Does anybody know what I’m talking about? That’s right–Burma-Shave signs. For those too young to remember, here are some examples of those signs:
Drove Too Long/ Driver Snoozing/ What Happened Next/ Is Not Amusing. Burma-Shave.
Around The Curve/ Lickety-Split/ Beautiful Car/ Wasn’t It? Burma-Shave.
And My Favorite: The Midnight Ride/ Of Paul for Beer/ Led to a Warmer/ Hemisphere. Burma-Shave. I’ll let you think about that one for a moment. As the song says, “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign . . .” Let’s talk for a few minutes about signs.
Last Christmas, a woman named Patricia had planned to attend a family reunion in Florida. It had been years since the members of her family had all seen each other. Many of them were living in different parts of the world and had started families of their own. Some had never met each other. This formerly close knit family decided on a reunion to help the younger ones get to know their relatives better through a weekend of fellowship. Patricia had been looking forward to this event. She had even helped to plan the reunion. Long distance telephone conversations had brought all the plans to a satisfactory place. It was now time for the event to take place.
Instead of flying down to Florida, Patricia decided to drive. It would save her on the airfare but also give her a time to explore and discover new things and places along the way. But there was a problem. Patricia liked talking on her cell phone while she drove and listening to music on her iPod. Fortunately, Patricia reached Florida safely, but the distractions of her high tech toys caused her to miss a sign for an important turn. Before long, she was lost–unaware of what to do next. She began to worry. This was an event she did not want to miss. She had been looking forward to this reunion for quite some time. But because she missed that sign, she missed her turn and therefore she missed most of the reunion, getting there after some of her relatives had already left. While she was happy that she got to see the remaining relatives, she was heartbroken that she missed others and the joy of the reunion itself. But she missed a sign.
Signs are important. Imagine trying to navigate your way in an area unknown to you without signs or a GPS. Signs keep us aware of our surroundings; they help with directions; and they even help us to keep safe by offering warnings to us. To ignore signs is risky. It can sometimes be quite costly. So has it ever been.
Go back with me to the year 1941. Two American soldiers observe something unusual on their radar. They report it to their supervisor, a rather young, inexperienced Lieutenant. It was a peaceful Sunday morning, nobody else around and this young Lieutenant, thinking what they had seen on radar was planes on maneuvers from California said, “Don’t worry about it.” But they should have worried about it. What these two soldiers had seen were the first signs of 353 planes on their way to Pearl Harbor. They reached there approximately two hours later on Dec. 7th, 1941.
“Don’t worry about it!” said their superior officer. A very critical sign was missed. And a tragic, devastating air attack took place. (2) Signs are important.
Our lesson for today begins like this: “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
In this passage, Jesus notes that there are signs that will precede the coming of the “Son of Man.” Two weeks ago we looked at a similar passage in which we emphasized that Christ said that no one, not even he himself, knew when that day would be. And yet, he said, there will be signs. These signs will cause people to be terrified. The signs include the sun, moon, and stars being shaken and the sea roaring and being tossed. The world will experience an unprecedented state of chaos. Things will be out of control. It is a disturbing passage. Yet notice what he says about these events.
First of all, he says, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Did you hear what he is saying? “When these frightening things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Does that sound like he’s trying to frighten us? He doesn’t say, “Duck! Run for cover! Go crazy with fear!” He says, “Stand up and lift up your heads . . . your redemption is drawing near.”
That wonderful preacher Tony Campolo says that when he was growing up preachers used to scare kids by warning them that Jesus could appear at any time, and woe betide them if Jesus turned up and found them at a movie theater! Tony says he grew up with a constant fear, every time he went to the movies, that Jesus would return during the feature and he’d miss the end of the movie. (3)
There are still those kind of preachers around who use fear as a motivator, but, fortunately not as many as there used to be. I will say that it is interesting to me that Tony’s pastor was trying to scare kids away from movie theaters back when movies were a lot more wholesome than they are today. Maybe I ought to preach sermons to our boys and girls on not letting Jesus catch them at an “R” rated movie. Or maybe not. I’ve never been very good at mixing faith with fear. Especially during Advent. If you love Jesus, the thought of him coming any time, whether at Christmas or at the end of time ought to be an occasion for rejoicing, not being afraid. “Joy to the world,” wrote Isaac Watts, “the Lord is come.” That’s my kind of religion.
It’s like a story one pastor tells about his seminary days. It seems there was no gymnasium on the seminary campus, so the seminarians played basketball in a nearby public school. The janitor, an old man with white hair, would wait patiently until the seminarians had finished playing. Invariably he sat there reading his Bible. One day one of the seminarians went up to him and asked, “What are you reading?”
The old janitor replied, “The Book of Revelation.” With a bit of surprise the seminarian asked, “The Book of Revelation? Do you understand it?” “Oh yes,” the old man answered. “I understand it.” “You understand the Book of Revelation!” the seminarian replied, quite surprised. “What does it mean?” Very quietly that old janitor answered, “It means that Jesus is going to win.”
That’s all that matters to those who love Jesus. Jesus is going to win. And that has to be good news. No one loves us like Jesus loves us. “When these things begin to take place,” Jesus says to us, “stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them this parable: “look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the Kingdom of God is near.” Wow! I can’t wait. When we see the world going crazy, we’ll know that the kingdom of God is near. Do you know what the kingdom of God is? As theologian Marcus Borg puts it, “The kingdom of God is what life would be like on earth if God were king and the kings and emperors of this world were not . . . It is a world of economic justice and peace, where the nations beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, every family has its own vine and fig tree (that is, its own land), and no one is made to live in fear.”
To me, that sounds like a great place to live. A place where “no one is made to live in fear.” Does that mean no more cancer? No more foreclosures on homes? Nobody unemployed? No more war? No more sickness? No more pain? Sign me up!
We are such a fearful people. Last year one man died in this country from Ebola, and you would have thought the whole world was collapsing. We live in a time when there is more hope for people who are sick than there has ever been before, but we are more fearful of disease than any generation before us.
And we worry about the economy. Certainly, the recession caused us to tighten our belts a bit, but the truth is that we live in homes twice the size of those our parents lived in, yet somehow we’ve got the idea that the whole economy is going to collapse.
And we’re worried about events in the Middle East. Compare the threat from Isis, as terrible as Isis is, with that from Hitler and you will see that we have no idea how well we have it. And yet, to watch the cable news networks, you would think the whole world is about to collapse. Well, good if it is! To paraphrase Jesus: “When we see the world going crazy, we’ll know that the kingdom of God is near.”
The call for this first Sunday in Advent is not a call for fear, but a call to faith. Of course, there will always be bad things happening in this world, but do not despair. It’s under God’s control. And God will never forsake us. A few verses later Christ says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Does that mean we can trust every promise that Christ ever made to us? Of course it does–including the promise that, no matter what happens, he will give us a peace that passes understanding . . . if we will trust in him. We can trust his every promise . . . including the promise that he will never forget us or forsake us . . . including the promise that he has prepared a mansion for us, that where he is so shall we also be.
Then he does add a word of caution. “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life . . .” Surely he’s not talking about us. I can’t imagine that any of you will be drinking or carousing or worrying during this holiday season. Of course not. I say that in good humor. What Christ is saying to us is that we live in a world of freedom. Some of us will bring heartache on ourselves or those we love by unhealthy behavior. Some of us will clog up our veins with unhealthy foods, or put stress on our hearts by unhealthy anxiety during this holiday season. But that’s not his will for us. It’s simply a realistic appraisal of human nature.
“Be always on the watch . . .” is his final word to us. Like a child waiting for Santa Claus, be on watch. Like a couple awaiting the birth of their first child, be on watch. Like a family waiting for the return of their soldier after receiving word that he is safe and headed home, be on watch.
Robby Robins was an Air Force pilot during the first Iraq war. After his 300th mission, he was surprised to be given permission to immediately pull his crew together and fly his plane home. These young military men flew across the ocean to Massachusetts and then had a long drive to western Pennsylvania. They drove all night. When his buddies dropped Robbins off at his driveway just after sun-up, there was a big banner across the garage–”Welcome Home Dad!”
How did they know? No one had called, and the crew themselves hadn’t expected to leave so quickly. Robins relates that when he walked into the house, the kids, half dressed for school, screamed, “Daddy!” His wife Susan came running down the hall–she looked terrific–hair fixed, make-up on, and a crisp yellow dress. “How did you know?” he asked.
“I didn’t,” she answered through tears of joy. “We knew you’d try to surprise us, so we were ready every day.” (4)
That is to be our attitude toward Advent. This is a season for waiting on tiptoe. Our redemption is drawing near. The kingdom is drawing near. Christ’s words will never pass away. You can trust his promises forever. Therefore, “Be always on watch.”
1. Over the Top (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994).
2. Contributed. Source unknown.
4. Rev. Gregory Seltz, http://www.lutheranhour.org/sermon.asp?articleid=18971&mode=print.