A Sermon for When It Feels Like the World Is Ending
St. Philip Lutheran Church
28 November 2021 + Advent 1c
Rev. Josh Evans
The nativity scene is out, the Christmas tree is up, the first candle on the Advent wreath is lit… it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…
Thursday night, after having Thanksgiving dinner with a friend and her family, I drove home with Christmas music cued up on the radio, taking in the magical glow of Christmas lights, and feeling “the holiday spirit” … so you can imagine the jolt when out of nowhere I saw the orange glow of lights and the shadowy outlines of two scarecrows in a neighbor’s front lawn. Needless to say, it felt as out of place as seeing Christmas decorations in Walgreens in the weeks before Halloween…
Where we might expect a gospel text with the baby Jesus “wrapped him in bands of cloth” and lying in a manger, or even the angelic annunciation to Mary, or the camel-hair-clad John the Baptist “on Jordan’s bank” … instead we get: “distress among nations” … people “faint[ing] from fear” … a day coming “like a trap” …
It feels a bit out of place, jarring even. As one biblical scholar writes: “The Gospel text for this first Sunday of Advent shakes us up. It is not about joyous anticipation or eager expectation… Rather it is about end times, horrific natural disasters, and cosmic upheaval… It is unsettling, gruesome, and frightening.” (Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year C)
At the pace our world is going, it feels a bit close to reality … which perhaps only heightens the unsettling and frightening anxiety these words conjure up for us. From jury verdicts in two high-profile cases, to last week’s parade tragedy in Waukesha, to the threat of new Covid-19 variants and travel restrictions … it can feel like the world is ending as we speak.
It’s not really a new feeling though. For as long as humans have been around, it seems like there has always been something that shakes us, that makes it feel like our world is ending … two world wars within the last century, the terror attacks of 9/11, wildfires in California, hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, unrest in the Middle East, the persistent and increasing threat of global climate change …
A couple weeks ago, a colleague shared this prayer, from a collection aptly titled Liturgies from Below: Praying with People at the End of the World:
God I am angry, vexed because of the insensitivity, indifference, injustice, insults, and insurrections against your people and against you.
How long, great God? How long will you allow evil to override your good? You hold the whole world in your hands and yet it feels as if you have abandoned me.
I remember when you were once there, now I wonder if you are even near. You once heard my cry, now I wonder if my cries have fallen on deaf ears.
You can hear the anger and the despair in these words: The world is ending, and does God even care?
Despite whatever very real experiences and feelings move us to pray these words, words not unlike the psalmist’s cry - “How long, great God?” - the answer to their pointed question - “Do you even care?” - is, as it always has been, a defiant and definitive yes.
The faith of the people of God bears witness to the presence of God. We all showed up this morning, as we’ve shown up week after week. For me, that’s the answer to the question. We show up because we know God cares.
God cares so much that God was willing to enter in our human reality, in all of its messiness, to show us just how much God so loves the world.
This text, at the beginning of our Advent season, a season of “getting ready,” is meant to be jarring. It is meant to shake us and wake us up. As one writer puts it: “God is about to break into history. And because of that action, the whole created order will never be the same.” (Leonora Tubbs Tisdale)
God has acted, and God continues to act. Even when the world is ending, especially when the world is ending … in the wake of violence and injustice, in the midst of increasing climate threats and ongoing pandemic challenges, in times of conflict and unrest … Even when everything we know starts to pass away, God’s words will never pass away. Words of hope for a world transformed.
This hope is not a wished-for dream that might happen, but a reality that has come and that continues to take shape: in the gathered assembly, in hands outstretched for bread and wine, in our acts of generosity and service toward our neighbor, in every act of love that pierces through the gloom of hatred and indifference.
The prayer my colleague shared doesn’t end with despair, but continues with an expression of profound trust in the God whose words will never pass away:
Forgive me, Great God, I am hurting
but I believe in your time,
you will answer,
you will come to my help,
cause wars to cease,
Replace my anger with your peace.
The distress, the fear, the injustice, the violence, the uncertainty… all of it is real. There is no denying that.
Advent is a season that confronts this reality … and invites God into the midst of it.
We can let ourselves be “weighed down...with the worries of this life” … or we can let ourselves be shaken up, awakened to the God whose inbreaking is imminent and whose redemption is near, and who invites us into the work of reshaping the world.
Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.