[This sermon was delivered at Parkminster Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018. The texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36.]
Picture slowing down from 12,300 miles per hour (MPH) to five MPH. Last Monday (11/26/18), we landed the InSight space probe on the surface of Mars. After a six-month journey covering 300 million miles, the InSight had to slow down, from 12,300 MPH to five MPH in under seven minutes. The NASA engineers called it the seven minutes of terror. If InSight hadn’t slowed down it would be crashed on the surface of Mars and been obliterated in a moment. InSight succeeded; talk about power brakes! It slowed down and made safe landing and is now exploring the depths of the red planet.
Advent calls us to slow down. A professor at Fuller Seminary, Arch Hart, had a ministry of helping burned out pastors reclaim healthy practices and recover healthy lives. One tool he suggested was that when we are checking out at a market, we should look for the longest line, go to the end of that line and learn to wait, looking at the people around us and praying for them. I did not warm up to that idea readily. I tend to play the game of finding the shortest line. Though I can justify it as good time management, I am not proud of it; it can make me seem rude. Life isn’t a game to be won, but an adventure to be lived. Part of the adventure is being mindful of the people around us and the wonders of life and nature around us. Such living requires good brakes. The CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes” did a report several months ago about one of our country’s most renowned nature photographers. What is the secret to his amazing ability to photograph wildlife in the purest natural settings? Getting up early, finding his place of quiet watch, and silently waiting for hours with camera ready. Nothing may happen for hours. So get up the next day and do it again. That is not a bad description of what Advent can be: finding places of quiet and silently waiting for the Lord.
Our word advent has two meanings: the first is to arrive (or an arrival, a coming); the second has to do with something about to happen. The first carries the sense of an event. The second carries the sense of journeying toward something or someone, often with some hazard or danger.
Our Advent begins with promises. “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.’” Keeping Advent does not come readily to us. We have this countdown: Thanksgiving Thursday, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, giving Tuesday. Why not throw in Christmas Eve on Wednesday and Christmas on Thursday—get it all over in one week! Radio stations have already been playing every imaginable Christmas piece of music (it seems that some stations started the day after Labor Day). One set on the radio might start with “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” followed by “O Holy Night,” and conclude with “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” That just doesn’t put me in the holiday frame of mind. Santa is appearing daily at malls, breakfasts, Christmas tree farms, restaurants, and parking lots. How can we help from joining in? How dare we not join in?
Advent calls us to hear the words of the prophets, not be consumed with bottom line profits. Just over a month ago, Eugene Peterson died, one of pastor heroes and mentors. Eugene called me to be an unbusy pastor. I make an admission: pastors sometimes try to look busy because they think it will cause the congregation to think they are really important with all these demands on their time. Eugene helped me to be an unbusy pastor. I always took a full sabbath day once a week. I always used all my vacation and study leave time. I kept reasonable hours. I sought to be a fully engaged and healthy pastor rather than a busy pastor. I needed and need the call of Advent in all seasons, and particularly in this season of unfettered busyness.
Our Advent begins with promise. “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.’” (See Jeremiah 33:14-16.) What a relief to pastors and the congregations they serve to know that God will keep God’s promises. We don’t need to try to be God. Look at some of the key players in the first advent of Jesus. Mary always seems to be pondering in her heart what is nearly beyond belief. Joseph is the original silent male, never quoted as saying one word. Zechariah, a priest whose voice is needed in his calling, loses his voice for nine months. His wife, Elizabeth, goes into seclusion when she finds out she is pregnant. They don’t make this happen by dint of will. God is keeping God’s ancient promises. We wait and watch for God at work and our parts in that work.
Jeremiah is often called the weeping prophet. God raised him up during one of Israel’s worst times. God’s chosen people were turning their backs on God. The Babylonians were emerging as the new superpower. And, get this, God would actually use the Babylonians against Israel. Jeremiah faithfully speaks God’s word, more often in judgment, but at times in hope. Jeremiah had reason to weep as he saw corrupt leadership in Israel’s highest governing offices. Jeremiah had reason to weep as he saw corrupt leadership in Israel’s highest religious offices. His tears were treasured by God and that God had promised a messiah: “In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land.” It would be 600-700 years before that branch appears. But God keeps faith and God honors promises. That branch came and today we enter our four weeks of preparation to celebrate the sprouting of that branch.
In Luke 21 we see the world being turned upside down. The chapter begins with a poor old widow bringing her two cents as her Temple offering. The religious leaders look down or away from her. Jesus is seeing things we would never see. Look at the postures Jesus gives for living through tumultuous times:
- “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
- “When you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
- “Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
Our times have parallels to Jeremiah’s and Luke’s times. The world is uneasy. Political tensions are everywhere. There is a crisis in public civility in our time in our nation, particularly in the current political world. There is a loneliness crisis in our time, evidenced in these statistics:
- 70,000 deaths due to opioid abuse occurred last year.
- 47,000 deaths by suicide occurred last year.
Advent calls us to slow down and be attentive to God all around us. Here are some biblical hints for Advent-uring:
- Look for people. While we don’t want to stare at people, let’s look at people. Let’s slow down and appreciate people. Let’s not look away from people, image bearers of God.
- Listen to people. Jesus is the master listener. Let’s work at talking less and listening more. (Yes, I, a preacher, am saying that.)
- Leave room for God’s presence among us, not me but us. My favorite name of Jesus is Immanuel, God with us (not God with me, but God with us).
An acid test for these simple disciplines is when shopping this season. The cashier is tired of angry and impatient shoppers. The retail worker has been blistered with criticism from customers and unreasonable demands from supervisors. Let’s show these workers kindness and civility. When they ask, “Did you find what you were looking for?”, let’s not grunt but respond warmly. Let’s thank them and smile at them.
Advent living is attentive living. Advent living is advent-uring. Or advent-touring. It is journeying with wonder and attentiveness, with and reverence.
A short while ago Vietnam War veteran Stanley Stotlz died alone in Nebraska. The funeral director to whom his body was taken could not identify any relatives. Sensitively, he published a short obituary in The Omaha World-Herald, noting that this 73-year-old Army vet died alone. The obituary said the public was invited to the burial in the nearby national cemetery. Over 400 fellow veterans and civilians decided to attend his funeral and show their support. That is living watchfully and attentively.
I was reared in a faith tradition that was always trying to nail down exactly when Jesus would return. The thrust was not to be attentive to people, but to get out of this world asap. They wouldn’t have believed that some of us would be here in 2018. And here we are. Jesus has come; Jesus is coming every day in a million ways; Jesus will come again one day in glory. In the meantime, let’s slow down and be watchful and attentive. For Jesus is Immanuel; God with us now—here and now.