Happy New Year, Church!
Wait… what? I see a couple of folks out there scratching their heads, but you heard me right. I always say, “Happy New Year!” on the First Sunday of Advent because it marks the beginning brand-new liturgical year, in this case, Year C… the year of Luke’s Gospel. Yippee! But, whether it’s year A (Matthew), B (Mark) or C, Advent is the season when we look forward to commemorating the nativity of our Lord and Savior in the person of the baby Jesus… the “first coming,” if you will. And we’ll be forgiven if visions of sugarplums are already beginning to dance in our heads… if our thoughts have begun to turn to holiday gatherings, gift giving and a rekindled spirit of love and charity between neighbors… the “Christmas Spirit,” it’s sometimes called. But we must remind ourselves that there is more to Advent than that. Advent is also the time when we look ahead to the second coming of Christ Jesus—the Messiah and Redeemer of the world—in his power and glory—the Parousia (par-OO-sia), if you will.That day will be a new beginning with a capital “B.” That day will change everything.
In today’s Gospel passage from Luke, Jesus gave his disciples a hint about what to expect: “there will be signs… and distress… and confusion. People will faint from fear and foreboding…” they’ll begin to question everything they thought they knew about the world they live in… and perhaps even the God who created it (vv. 21:25-26). And then, when everything seems to be falling apart around them, “then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” What a magnificent, terrible day that will be. If you were reading these words out of the Bible, you’d notice that that passage is in quotes. Jesus is repeating words spoken by someone else. Who? And when? And what was the original context? Glad you asked. Rabbi Jesus is quoting the prophet Daniel who lived five-hundred years or so before the time of Luke’s Gospel. Daniel prophesied from around 605 until around 536 BC… right in the middle of the worst period of history the Jews had ever known… when they were overrun by the Babylonians, their Temple destroyed, and all the people sent into exile. In that case, God’s rebellious people were reaping what they had sown through their willfulness and self-indulgence. Yet even in the midst of all of the violence and turmoil, as the last remnants of the glorious kingdom built by David and Solomon were being trampled into the dust, Daniel prophesied words of awesomeness and hope to a faithful remnant of God’s people in their time of need. He said the Son of Man, the Messiah, would return to save his people and be given “dominion and glory and kingship… that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion would be an everlasting dominion that would never pass away. His kingship would never be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13b-14).
And five hundred years later Jesus, like Daniel, is prophesying about apocalypse… and hope. Immediately preceding today’s passage from Luke, Jesus had foretold the second destruction of the temple and the City, this time by the Romans… the new Babylon. He spoke of wars and insurrections… famines and plagues… persecutions and death… but in the midst of all of the noise and confusion, when all hope would seem to be lost, Jesus offered his friends words of encouragement. He told them he would return to them: “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (v. 21:28).
“But we’re only human! How are we to stand? How are we to raise our heads in the face of the destruction and travail that have been foretold?” you might ask. Only by trusting that God loves us and will see us through, no matter what. God knows that we can’t make it on our own, and that’s why Jesus came to remind us of our calling and lead us back to the path of righteousness. Nothing is impossible for God if we’ll only be faithful. If we are to “stand up and raise our heads” on the day of Son of Man’s coming in power and great glory, we must repent of the willfulness and self-indulgence that dogs our days as it did those of the Jewish people in Old Testament times. We must recommit ourselves to loving God and our neighbor… to not judging… to becoming bringers of the Kingdom that will surely come, the Kingdom we pray for every time we pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done….” Do we mean it?
Advent is indeed a time to prepare ourselves for the birth of the Christ Child, a time to consider what kind of God would send his only Son to live among us and to show us the way to salvation. God’s arms are always open to us, but we must return the embrace through self-examination and repentance. What are we doing in our lives that separates us from God? In what ways do our willfulness and self-indulgence cause us to fall short of becoming the creatures that God has created us to become? Pondering these questions, and then taking action to correct the discrepancies will add more joy to our Christmas than we could ever ask or imagine.
So, wait for it. The sugarplums aren’t going anywhere… the time for celebration will come. But not yet. Now is the time for each of us to examine our lives carefully and honestly and ask ourselves how ready we are for the new Beginning foretold by Jesus in our Gospel lesson this morning—that magnificent and terrible day when God’s kingdom will break upon this world and change everything, the day “the Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory.” If the thought doesn’t give you chill bumps, it should. How are you preparing for that day of days? Will you be ready?