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It seems that each year we complain that people are putting Christmas stuff out too early. I ’m pretty sure that I saw a Christmas tree on the Shopping Channel around the middle of October. If you shop at Costco you know that you can see displays of Christmas goods from around August on. Costco, though, is its own special case I would say, what with its giant bottles of shampoo and 124 packs of batteries so on. The situation might make us look with some envy to our neighbours to the south, where US Thanksgiving pretty much marks the point where attention is turned to Christmas – at least for buyers and sellers.
No doubt we have different feelings about the Christmas hype, but one or two months of celebration before the 25th of December might make the celebration of that day rather anticlimactic. It might lead to feelings of “When will this be over?” Our rushing around and attempts to get everything done, attend every party, buy every gift, cook every meal might leave us with little time to celebrate. On the other hand, Christmas might be a time of not very much joy. It might invoke feelings of nostalgia in the etymological sense – nostalgia being a combination of two Greek words that mean “homecoming” and “pain.”
It may be that you find that at least half the joy of celebration is in the anticipation. Speaking of anticipation, the season of Advent has been defined like this – “The season proclaims the comings of Christ – whose birth we prepare to celebrate once again, who comes continually in Word and Spirit, and whose return in final victory we anticipate.” We’re going to spend the next 4 weeks at Blythwood marking the season of Advent and Christ who has arrived, arrives, and will arrive. What might it mean for us to mark it well? How memorable might Christmas of 2018 be if we were to do that? Let’s ask for God’s help this morning as we look at God’s word.
“Stand up and raise your heads….” This is Jesus’ invitation to his followers in our Gospel reading today. Stand up. The better to see what is coming. The better to welcome what is coming. The better to be able to see around us. We’re not called to be Pollyannas about our faith and our world. We’re not called to be Chicken Littles either, I don’t believe. To look around our world today is to echo the line from “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” – “There is no peace on earth, I said/For hate is strong and mocks the song/ Of peace on earth good will to men.” That hymn was written during the US Civil War and very little has changed it seems. Wars and rumours of war. Uncertainty. It’s not just geopolitical of course. Uncertainty in our own lives, whether it be our health, our jobs, the deadlines we have to meet, expectations placed upon us etc. etc. In the midst of all of this, we hear these words from “Stand up and raise your heads.”
What did this mean for the prophet Jeremiah? Jeremiah and his people faced a lot of uncertainty, to say the least. Tragedy really. Living in the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom had been lost long ago to the Assyrian Empire. Judah was caught between the warring empires of Egypt and Babylon. In 587 BC Jerusalem was finally destroyed by the Babylonians. The Jerusalem temple was left in ruins. The location of God’s presence for the ancient Israelites. The king was carried into captivity and a puppet installed. The end of David’s line. The end of the kings who were to ensure that justice and righteousness were established in Israel. In the middle of this situation, we have 4 chapters – 30 to 33 - which are known as the “Book of Consolation.” Four chapters that have the prophet Jeremiah standing up and looking ahead. Looking ahead to a time of restoration. The amazing thing is he’s doing this while Jerusalem is under siege and the prophet is a prisoner. He’s doing this in the middle of a siege. “At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah had confined him.” Later on, we read “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and all his army and all the kingdoms of the earth and all the peoples under his dominion were fighting against Jerusalem and all of its cities.” I don’t want to psychologize a war of imperialist aggression but perhaps we sometimes get the same sort of hyperbolic feeling about being under siege. If you don’t I like to say that there are those around you who do.
Listen to the imagery and the juxtaposition of devastation with celebration 33:10-11. It’s for the animals too – 33:12-13. All leading up to the promise of 33:14-16. The people for whom this was written down were living in exile you see. Longing for a different future. Longing to come home.
Which is similar to the people to whom Luke was writing. Which is similar to us. We’re looking forward to welcoming Christ as we remember his birth. Before we get too much into that celebration though, we’re reminded that we’re looking forward to something beyond that. Something that has been compared to a great banquet. Like kids looking forward to something and asking “Are we there yet” or “How many sleeps ‘til Christmas?”, Jesus’ followers want to know how long will it be. Jesus is talking about the end of the age. We call it eschatology. He’s talking about his return, his coming again.
We too are a people who are living in a kind of exile. We’re living away from home. We’re looking forward to a return. This is the end of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke. He’s reminding his followers that there is something to which we look forward. It’s something that will affect all of creation – hence the signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars and the sea and the waves. It’s not something to be afraid of. It’s Christ coming to bring justice and righteousness. It’s something of cosmic proportions. We mustn’t ever just internalize salvation or speak about it only in a personal way. To follow Christ is to know him in a personal way, yes it is and to have the Holy Spirit in us. It’s also to be caught up in God ’s saving plan which is a plan for all of creation. There is a reason that elements of the natural
world testified at Christ’s birth and at his death. They’re involved in this too. Someone has written that the story of redemption is too grand to be written solely on the scale of human hearts. “In Christ, all things hold together” is how Paul put it to the church at Colossae.
Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. “When are you coming back?” is the question. The answer is “Yes but not just yet” as one writer puts it. Yes but not just yet. In the meantime stand up and raise your heads. Your redemption is drawing near. This is as specific as Jesus will get and he turns to a parable. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” This generation will not pass away, Jesus says. Generation can mean a period of about 30 years or it can mean a period not characterized by the number of years but rather by a quality - like waiting.
I want to offer another thought on this tree business though. Jesus is talking about signs of the kingdom. He told followers of John the Baptist that signs of the kingdom were this – “… the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” Have you known these things? How do we wait well? His followers are called to participate in his kingdom as we wait. To be leafy trees. Going back to Jeremiah on this the prophet had this to say – “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”
Stand up and raise your heads. How do we wait well? Remain rooted and grounded in the one in whom we trust. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, God says, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Green leaves. Signs of the kingdom of God. The reign of God. To proclaim this kingdom which has come and for which we wait in our actions. In our words. A new way of seeing. A new way of hearing. A new walk of walking.
Jesus doesn’t leave it all in the realm of the cosmic. We always need to bring this kind of big talk down here. As someone has said, “The life of disciples, after all is said and done, is no one of speculation or of observations but of behaviour and relationships.” Jesus says “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down by dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life…” The world is hard. Life is hard. Do not get lost in distractions. Do not get lost in the worries of this world. “Be alert at all times praying…” We’re in a season of church here that is an intentional time of waiting. How is your waiting going? Use this time to begin a spiritual discipline. Add something to what you’re already doing. Start with the CBOQ Advent Reader. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might…” as someone once said. Know that there are people all around us longing for good news and to see and hear it in our acts and words.
Let us wait together friends. Let us gather around the family table – a place where Jesus has been known to make himself known. Advent starts today. Advent ends on the 24th. How wonderful that we’ll have a chance to gather around this table on both days. It’s like Advent bookends. Let us walk through this season together friends, standing with our heads lifted high, and pray that we might be people who look forward with expectation, and people who wait well like leafy trees, rooted and grounded in the one who has arrived, arrives and will arrive. May these things be true for us all.