Each year the first gospel reading for Advent is a vision of destruction and desolation. This year it is from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus, in his final days on earth, predicts a coming time of fear and distress. To the people who first heard this discourse, sitting around Jesus in the Temple, surrounded by Roman guards and occupied by a Roman army, it was perhaps not too difficult to imagine the kind of fear and distress that he was talking about. For Luke’s original audience, such horrifying, earth-shattering calamity was all too easy to imagine. They had seen it, many with their own eyes, when the Temple was torn down and Jerusalem destroyed by Roman troops. Their own contemporaries had committed mass suicide at Masada rather than surrender to the Roman troops that besieged the city. Thousands upon thousands of their people had died between the years 66 and 73 during the First Jewish-Roman War. They knew what it meant to see people faint from fear and foreboding. Even outside of the wars and occupation, life was no guarantee for these people. A bad harvest, an accident with a horse, even a bad cold could lay them low. Their life expectancy was short, infant mortality was high, and death was the most certain thing in life. They understood the impermanence of things, so when Jesus told them that “heaven and earth will pass away,” they nodded, they understood.
We, on the other hand, have just enjoyed a nice long weekend, played cards with the family, stuffed ourselves stupid with pie and maybe done a little Christmas shopping from the comfort of our pajamas. We’re feeling festive and content, and here comes Jesus with people fainting and nations confused and powers shaken. It’s a bit jarring. But it seems that the committee that assigned the reading for our lectionary cycle is out of step with the mood of the holiday season. Or they want to give us a little splash, or maybe a bucket, of cold water in the face to wake us up, to pull us out of our turkey coma and remind us that nothing, not even our sated sense of holiday happy, can last. Everything, as Jesus reminds us, will pass away. Nothing can be taken for granted.
As if we really need such a reminder. Just turn on the news to be reminded of all that the world is doing to pull down peace and push us into the fear and distress that Jesus describes. There is distress among confused nations, and people are fainting or nearly so from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. People are walking thousands of miles to escape the fear and foreboding only to be met by more fear and foreboding. Fear and foreboding could easily describe the feelings of parents dropping their children off at school in this time of mass shooting. Fear and foreboding is certainly how I hear the mothers of black sons describe worrying about what might happen should they happen to “fit the description” of someone the police are looking for. Fear and foreboding is a way of life for many of our neighbors.
So I hardly need the lectionary committee to give me a nudge, or to remind me of the impermanence of things. Many of us are fearful because we see the world changing. Our parents’ and grandparents’ way of life, our own way of life, is disappearing in a world that is changing much too quickly, moving beyond the modern and Digital age into something unrecognizable. The nation is changing, the values we thought were rock-solid are shifting, even identity is becoming murky and vague, and we do not recognize the world around us as our own, as something we belong to. Societies and cultures and values and ways of life will pass away.
Some of us are fearful because the world is not changing quickly enough. We had taken some steps forward, moving into our vision for the future of our town, our nation, our world. And now we fear as the pendulum swings and we find our work undone, our progress unravelling, worrying that the next swing of the pendulum will not be soon enough or far enough for those on the margins, those most vulnerable to the whims of the powerful and the consequences of delayed action. Even progress and change are impermanent, even these things will pass away.
But these things are big, the things of powers and principalities, the work of nations, out of our hands in many ways. Maybe we had a quick conversation about these things at Thanksgiving dinner, but then quickly switched the subject because it was not cheerful or it was too divisive. These things are important, but there are impermanences closer to home that truly hold us captive. That truly make us faint with fear, and cause the distress that wakes us at 3 a.m. to fret and worry. The impermanence of us, of the people we love, of the plans we make, of the impact our lives, our stories, have on the people we meet, the communities where we live, the families and friends we leave when we pass on. These are the conversations that we dwell on at Thanksgiving gatherings, the topics that really make up our lives, our stories, our hearts.
The stories of relationships that always seemed so firm but have faltered: the mother and daughter who were once inseparable and yet have not spoken for 2 years and one doesn’t know why and the other won’t say; Or the marriage that looked perfect to everyone, seemingly made for each other, but is falling apart and no one can say quite what changed, only that it is over. These too will pass away.
The stories of plans so carefully made that have crumbled: my colleague in Seattle who went from high school to college to seminary to 40 years of faithful ministry to retirement at 65, and on his celebratory holiday became a quadriplegic in the blink of an eye, a freak accident, and now in a wheelchair for the rest of his life; the man who worked so hard all his life, 60 hour weeks and all-nighters, earning his retirement so he can travel and enjoy the earned rest, only to be diagnosed a year or two into retirement with ALS or cancer. These plans too will pass away.
The young man with a young family who suddenly faces a year of surgeries and chemo, fighting for his life. The young woman full of promise, bright with life and light, now dulled and drained by addiction and mental illness. The disappointments and daily struggles of jobs lost, of vacations cancelled, of dreams slipping away. These are the stories we dwell on over dinner, the stories that break our hearts and hold us captive to fear, wondering how we would handle it, if we could cope, what we will do when the other shoe drops, when impermanence pays us a visit, when these things that seemed like all our world, these things, too, pass away.
These are our Advent stories. Our Advent lives.
We are Advent people. Living Advent lives. Longing, waiting, yearning for something certain, something that will give us a foundation to stand on when everything else is shaking.
But the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise. The days are surely coming. The days of promise. The days of restoration. Your redemption is drawing near.
Because, Jesus tells us, while all of these things will pass away, there is one thing that stands firm, one thing that will never pass away.
The Word of God.
The Word of God will never pass away. This is the same Word of God that brought light from darkness in the beginning, the same Word of God that brought creation out of the formless void. The same Word of God that saw everything that God had made and named it as good.
These things will pass away, but the Word of God will not pass away.
This is the same Word of God that Jeremiah brought to the people of Exile, people dragged across a desert, away from their home and their land. These people in Exile saw the line of David extinguished, their hope destroyed. But the Word of God came to them in Exile, and brought a righteous branch for David from the stump of Jesse. The Word of God breathed new life into the bones of Israel, and brought them out of exile.
All things will pass away, but the Word of God will not pass away.
This is the same Word of God that has been born, is born, will be born in Bethlehem. The light that appears in our darkness. The God who comes to us, in history, and in mystery, and in majesty.
I don’t know who first said that phrase, that God comes to us in history and mystery and majesty. But it is so well suited to the season of Advent.
We live in history, and we long for God to meet us here, in real, concrete ways, in ways that we can comprehend. In ways that meet our fear and foreboding. We are Advent people, longing for the God who comes into history, in a manger, born to a woman, to live among us.
At the same time, God remains mystery, other, unknowable, and that is what we need as well. We need the God who we know best by knowing others, by encountering the ways that others cannot be known. We long for the God who is our connection to the mystery within our own hearts, and to the mystery of our loved ones, and the mysteries of the universe, as we stand in the midwinter darkness and gaze out into the cosmos, and feel how small we truly are.
And we need the majesty of God, the knowledge that, in all the ways that we are small, God is big. In all the ways that we are not in control, God is taking charge. In all the ways that we are impermanent, God is forever.
All these things will pass away, but the Word of God will not pass away.
History, Mystery, Majesty.
We are Advent people. All year round. We live in the tension between the important and the impermanent – navigating daily the ways in which what looms so large on our personal horizons, the things that are in our lives the sun and the moon, the heavens and the earth, these things will pass away.
And we gather here each week to encounter the One whose Word will never pass away. The One to whom we belong, who has named and claimed us, and who comes to us each week, In History, Mystery, and Majesty.
Here each week, we encounter God in History, in the tangible elements of water, wine, and wheat.
Here each week, we encounter God in Mystery, through the sacraments, the water, wine, and word that deliver God’s promises, and in the shared Word of Scripture and liturgy, and through the community that is, somehow, in a way that we cannot understand or explain, the Body of Christ.
Here each week, we encounter God in Majesty, through the Lord’s Prayer, in which we surrender our own will to God’s control – Thy will be done;
and through the Confession and Forgiveness, in which we acknowledge that we are unable to live up to God’s ideal, and receive God’s promise of forgiveness; and through the sacraments, the water, wine, and word that mysteriously bring the Kingdom of God to us, and send us out as ambassadors of Christ for this world.
The impertinent impermanence of this world leaves us breathless, fearful, shaken, confused, Advent people, longing and anxious. But God has come, is coming, will come, in History, and Mystery, and Majesty, bringing God’s Word, new life, restoration, redemption, drawing us out of the Advent darkness into the light and hope of Incarnation and even Resurrection. Into God’s story, the story, into the story that is now your story, the story of the Word of God, which will never pass away.