a sermon on Luke 21:25-36 for the First Sunday of Advent
preached on December 2, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
“There will be signs,” Jesus said. There are lots of signs around us these days. What signs of Christmas have you seen lately?
(Just as the congregation spoke of the signs they’ve seen, I hope you’ll add some in the comments.)
As wonderful as the signs of Christmas can be, these are not the only signs we hear about in these days. Our reading this morning from Luke’s gospel tells us about some other signs to watch for in these days—not the signs of Jesus’ first coming but rather his second. You see, even as we spend these Advent days preparing to celebrate Jesus’ birth, we also remember that he will come again. So today as Advent begins, we turn to these signs that he offered his disciples that point to his return, reminders of the new creation first glimpsed in the resurrected Christ, new marks of God’s kingdom taking hold in the world and everything being made new and real and whole and complete.
However, these signs don’t feel very Christmasy. These “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” seem to be filled with foreboding and doom. “Distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” sounds a lot more like the destructive power of Superstorm Sandy than the happy coming of Christmas. Fainting and fear at the “powers of the heavens [being shaken]” seems like something that we ought to be afraid of, too!
Even though it might seem to quash the happy mood a bit, we start the Advent season with these kinds of words every year. We begin this season of preparation not with a sweet baby being born or of shepherds seeking a baby in a manger or of wise men journeying from a far land to pay homage to a newborn king but with these words of foreboding, with signs of “‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” The signs of this season point to an uncertain and maybe even unpleasant time of strife and change, to something uncertain and new and challenging and even destructive, to a great and wonderful thing that means that everything is changing and will be forever different because of God’s power and presence becoming all the more real around us.
“There will be signs,” Jesus said—and then what? Every sign points to something, warns us of something, and calls us to prepare, and so too these strange signs tell us that we need to get ready. “Now when these things begin to take place,” Jesus said, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” It’s as our last hymn suggested:
Lift up your heads, eternal gates,
see how the King of glory waits,
The Lord of Hosts is drawing near,
the Savior of the world is here.
But what will this Savior look like? What will our redemption look like as it draws near? Jesus doesn’t tell us that—he only tells us of its signs! But the next verse of our hymn reminds us that Jesus’ own coming didn’t look anything like anyone expected it to. He was no traditional sort of king. Instead, we see that “God comes, a child amidst distress,” with “no mighty armies [to] shield the way” but “only coarse linen, wool, and hay.” (“Lift Up Your Heads,” adapted John Bell)
Our salvation, then, will quite likely look very different from what we expect or what we have seen before. Perhaps we must stand up because we won’t be able to see it from our usual seat, and maybe we must raise our heads because it won’t be in our obvious line of sight. Our redemption—our salvation—will come in glory and in wonder, in strange and powerful visions and in quiet and unadorned splendor. The things ahead are to be incredible and amazing, showing the fullness of God’s power in the most unexpected ways, transforming us and our world into something new as only God can do.
“There will be signs,” Jesus said—but they point to something that is coming, and so we are called to pay attention to them and take action. When we see the signs of Christmas going on all around us, we are reminded that there is so much to be done to get ready for the holiday. In the same way, these signs that Jesus speaks of should remind us that there is work to be done now to get ready for our redemption, for the all things that God is doing to make all things new. Jesus first suggests that we be on guard against anything that distracts us from the hope of what God is doing in us and through us and around us. He then instructs us to wait and watch and prepare for something new and powerful and wonderful coming into being. And finally, he calls us to stay awake and alert at all times so that we will have the strength to know that the mighty and powerful signs matter less than the new creation that they point to.
So like all good signs, these signs demand action on our part. Maybe these signs call us to step back and take a deep breath during these Advent days. Maybe these signs encourage us to turn our efforts of preparation for Christmas away from the gift-buying and commercial frenzy and toward a celebration of God’s amazing entrance into our world in the baby Jesus. And maybe these signs invite us to reassess our broader way of life to see how we can be more faithful as we wait for the fullness of God’s new creation to become real.
And so “there will be signs,” just as Jesus said—signs of a new and different and wonderful way of life breaking through into our world, signs of celebration as we remember the joyous birth of a child whose life among us changes everything, signs of a changing and challenging world that nonetheless gives us hope that God will make all things new. Amidst all these signs, it is our privilege and responsibility to take the time to get ready, to prepare our hearts and our lives for the one who comes at Christmas and who is coming again in power and glory to make all things new, to stand up and raise our heads, for our redemption is drawing near, in power and in quiet, in meekness and majesty, in a little babe and a mighty king, in Christ our Lord who has come and is coming to make all things new.
May we know this matchless and majestic strength, this power shown in weakness, this savior of the world who comes as a lowly baby in a manger and reigns as the mightiest king the world will ever know, as we prepare to welcome him now at Christmas and in the time still to come when all things are made new. Lord, come quickly! Amen.