Today is the first Sunday of Advent. For us Christians, it’s the start of our New Year, the start of the liturgical calendar. We Christians are taught that during Advent we anticipate the birth of Jesus. And we anticipate Jesus’ return. Advent is all about joy. Quietly anticipating the joy of Jesus. The joy that Jesus’s birth and return will bring.
Even culturally this time of Advent is about joy. Holiday joy, with presents we give with good cheer and gratitude. We’re considering how to rebuild our lives with the reality of COVID 19 woven into the fabric of our common life. Younger people are now able to be vaccinated, and we can travel and gather over the holidays to see our family and friends again. We haven’t done that in a long time. Joy is right around the corner.
There’s only one thing – today’s Gospel might not seem too joyful.
In today’s story, Jesus was teaching in the temple. He’d been teaching there, every day, day after day. Right before this story, we learn that his disciples were there. A few others who were rich and poor were there too. He was speaking to the early church – when hardwood pews and beautiful stained-glass windows were only an idea and not yet a reality, not yet a fact.
Jesus had just predicted the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem. He was preparing his listeners for what was to come.
He was telling them that he was about to leave his community, their community. He was preparing them that they may be arrested and persecuted and imprisoned and brought before the authorities in his name.
It sounds like he was preparing them for distress.
In some corners of Christendom and of our culture, there seems to be an undercurrent of darkness. Even the Gospel seems to reflect this.
Today’s story uses the word “distress”, it says: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”
Advent is supposed to be about quiet joy. But today’s story is anything but quiet. And that word…distress. Maybe we DO have signs today.
I read that just a few days ago, the moon passed through Earth’s shadow in what was the longest partial lunar eclipse in 580 years. We don’t have to take that lunar sign literally. But whether we do or don’t, today’s story was preparing Jesus’s people in the temple back then, as much as it prepares us Christians here at Epiphany right now.
And we do see distress.
We think we’re about to come out of the pandemic, but some cities are seeing upticks in infection rates, some countries are locking down again and there’s a new variant. Recent court trials show that fear and aggression – violent aggression – are a fact, a reality, still rearing its ugly head in this country and around the world, undermining Jesus’ teaching of loving one another and treating each other with dignity and respect.
It seems that the crashing distress that today’s Gospel talks about and that we experience in our culture…aims to walk right alongside the quiet joy that Advent is supposed to bring. But do we really believe that can happen? That distress and joy walk right alongside one another?
Is that just an idea…or is that a fact, is that our reality. Our Rector here at Epiphany, Reverend Doyt, is currently preaching about that kind of ambiguity in his sermon series about Kingdom of God intelligence.
That’s the kind of Christianity we study and practice at Epiphany during Advent and throughout the liturgical calendar. We do that because Epiphany is a learning church. Here we practice being flexible in our thinking and we are curious and responsive to Scripture, no matter where we are in our walk with Biblical literacy.
In doing that with today’s story, I was forcing myself to feel joyous with what could be seen as an unpleasant, harrowing text. Why was I forcing the joy. Shouldn’t the quiet joy of Advent come to me naturally.
Then it struck me what this Scripture may be teaching us: Jesus was preparing them to face their lives.
I think this Scripture – this dramatic, magnificent story – may be preparing us this Advent to do that same thing: to face our lives. To not be distressed by the darkness. But to have a peaceful equanimity in the darkness. We may be tempted to escape these dark, distressing times, and there are so many ways that we TRY to escape. But Jesus faced every. Single. Thing. in his life. This story we have today, this loving Scripture we have today, could be calling us to do the same thing.
Face your life. Because THAT is what will prepare us to face God.
The Gospel tells us “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the son of Man.”
But there is no need to escape. Face your life. We must face our lives that God has so lovingly given us. There is no need to escape. But oh how I have tried to. Maybe you have to.
We try to flee from our problems by spending our time immersed in screens and schedules and other people’s issues.
We try to escape that we’re struggling. Maybe out of pride or ego or fear or shame. We simply don’t want to admit we are struggling.
We run from boredom or numbness or loneliness or feeling adrift in our lives…by indulging in addiction or unhealthy practices.
We deny our grief, our stress, our trauma, things from our past by burying them.
We may try to escape our comfort and privilege, by denying that we even have them, especially when we’re in the room with someone who doesn’t have the same material things that we may have.
We may try to avoid that we hurt someone by never apologizing for it, or escape that unwise decision we made by blaming someone else for it.
We try to escape the truth about the kind of love and companionship that we REALLY want to come home to.
And we may even TRY to escape God, to escape God gazing at us, to escape calling to us.
There are TOO many ways, we try to escape our lives.
Jesus didn’t escape his life. He faced it. He faced his grief when his friends died. He faced his human suffering and desperation when he was about to be crucified. He faced the authorities when they admonished him and he faced them when they did what Jesus knew was unfair and unjust. He was face to face with people who are sick and poor and imprisoned and neglected and oppressed. He faced all the love in his life – love from his mother, love from his disciples, love from his followers, love from the father who raised him, and the love from his Father who sent him. Jesus faced it all.
Face your life. When we face our lives, we discover what we long for. Face your life. And face it with Jesus. Because when we face Jesus, we are transfigured.
That transfiguration, that God is doing something entirely new, is what Advent is all about. Advent recalls and anticipates the whole church year…the Incarnation, the Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, even Holy Week when I had an experience that made me think of today’s story of standing before the Son of Man.
It was toward the end of a sermon here at Epiphany during Holy Week. I was sitting there in the pews, with all of you, and all of a sudden I felt what was like pressure surrounding me, on all sides. It was like the pressure was towering and it was holding me in place. There was an ambiguity too – I remember the towering pressure SEEMED like it couldn’t be moved, but somehow I knew it could. Like it had a porousness, a plasticity to it. I remember looking around to see if this was happening to anyone else.
And then I realized what it felt like. It felt like a wall. A wall of love. A wall of God’s love for me.
Now in the past, I had FELT God’s love for me. I had EXPERIENCED God’s love for me. But it wasn’t until then, during that Holy Week, at the end of that sermon, when I was sitting in that pew, toward the back of this beautiful church…that I KNEW God’s love for me. God’s love for me felt like a wall. It wasn’t an actual wall but it felt like one. Because God’s love for me, for each of us, IS as real as any wall. It’s not just a feeling or an emotion or an experience or an idea…it is a FACT. A fact of love. I was ensconced in that fact of God’s love. I felt surrounded in that fact of God’s love. That’s the kind of Christianity we learn here at Epiphany. A Christianity that is built on what we know is not just an idea, and is fact: that God made each of us with love, God made each of us equal. All humanity is made equal. That is FACT in the kingdom of God. As real as any hardwood pew, as real as any stained-glass window depicting the birth and the return of Jesus Christ.
We are the walls of love that hold up the kingdom of God. That we are here is a fact of God’s love. We are the facts of love that hold up the kingdom of God. Which means we are always building church.
There’s a reason we come here Sunday after Sunday. To glorify God. To learn how to be better people. To discover how to serve and help improve our communities. This is how we participate in this kingdom of God that we live in. Just like Paul and the Thessalonians in today’s reading when Paul expressed his effusive, joyful love and dependence on those he was in relationship with, as they were building the early church. Back then, the church was an idea…now it is a reality. Now it is a FACT. Let’s face facts: We come here to church to be changed. We come here to be transfigured.
Fact of love: You can be resolute in finding Jesus in the person in front of you, the person you think you have nothing in common with, the person you hurt or who hurt you, the person with whom you have grown distant. Yes, you can find Jesus in them.
Fact of love: You came face to face with your awakening to the power and privilege that the context of your lives have afforded you.
Fact of love: Realizing the extent of the suffering and harm that the sins of racism and injustice have put on all people for generations. It affects all of us.
Fact of love: We can be about God’s business, and participate in the healing that has already started…and that is still so passionately needed. We participate with our time and our talents and our service, within whatever skin that we are in.
Fact of love: You may have the comforts that privilege affords. You may not have the comforts that privilege affords. Both of these are valid IF you are facing God.
You may have comforts…but not know what to do with them. Fact of love is saying “Because I have so many gifts God gave me, I can do more.” That’s holding up God’s kingdom. Because only when God is in the equation does it become a level playing field.
Fact of love: that unwise decision you made long ago brought you closer to God.
Fact of love: when you faced that painful thing that broke your heart, and then you shared it, it ended up being valuable to the person you were ministering to. You shared God’s wisdom.
These are the facts of God’s love. God’s love transfigures us. Transfigures us so that we become more of how God created each of us to be.
This Advent, let us face facts. Distress walks alongside joy. Upticks and new variants exist side by side vaccines and boosters. Injustice runs into healing. We face those facts so that we can transfigure them. We face all of that with God’s peace that surpasses understanding.
I’d like to leave you with this ~ This Advent, we can face the FACT of God’s love, not just the idea of God’s love. This Advent, we can not only anticipate Jesus…..This Advent we can long for God. This Advent, face your life. Face your grief and your gifts. Face your struggle and your strengths. Then Face God. Face your life with God. Move through your life with the fact of God’s wall of love surrounding you. Then pour that love out to others. We don’t have to lionize one another, but we are here to love one another
We are the walls of love, we are the facts of love, that hold up the Kingdom of God. That is a fact that we can all face.