Jeremiah 33:14-16 Psalm 25: 1-9 I Thessalonians 3:9-13 Luke 21: 25-36
The usher was standing at the back of the church after passing the collection plate. A little old lady, sitting on the back row, gestured for the usher to come over to her. She whispered, “I have to make change.” The usher thinking that she was putting in a large bill and getting change, presented the plate to her. The woman promptly put in a ten dollar bill and took out two fives. Change is hard for a lot of us. The Christian calendar begins its new year not on January 1, but on this the first Sunday of Advent – which is always four Sundays before Christmas and the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s Day (November 30). We are encouraged in this Advent time to stay awake, to awaken us out of our complacency of the long green season. The twenty-nine Sundays after Pentecost are over and we begin anew the anticipation of the birth of the Christ child. We are to prepare our hearts, our lives, our whole beings to receive the redeeming love of the baby Jesus. Storekeepers have a different calendar from the rest of us. They mark “seasons” by changing the merchandise displayed on their shelves: summer is replaced with back-to-school, which is replaced with Halloween, and Halloween is replaced with the Christmas holidays. The Hallmark channel has already begun its countdown to Christmas with wonderful sappy movies with happy endings. Thanksgiving gets lost in the rush toward Christmas. Each year they seem to start the Christmas season a little earlier, hoping to squeeze in a few more shopping days. On this the first Sunday of Advent, we find Christmas decorations and carols everywhere. We are looking forward to the Christmas Parade next week. Parents and grandparents have been buying for months to find those prefect gifts. And now, we come to church to experience Advent worship. If we expect more of what our culture provides, we are in for a rude awakening. In worship, we won’t find Santa, or a smiling young Mary, or a cooing baby, or seeking shepherds, or singing angels. Not yet. We may be disappointed and surprised by the Gospel text. Jesus’ speech in the Temple in Jerusalem is full of frightening images, confusing metaphors and shocking admonitions. We don’t encounter the sweet baby Jesus people wait for Advent. This first Sunday, we see an adult stern Jesus picturing the whole world being shaken and turned upside down. We all may think, why can’t the church just get on with Christmas like everybody else. The season of Advent demands a very different kind of preparation. On this first Sunday of Advent, the Gospel text sets a very different tone. The picture of the coming persecutions and natural disasters is gloomy, but ultimately worry and fear will be replaced with great joy. When believers see these things happening, they will know that the Messiah’s return is coming. Then we can look forward to his reign of justice and peace. So standing on our faith, our trust in God’s plan, we can find hope in the place of fear. Luke’s Gospel message brings very different reactions. Frightening, bold, and beautiful glimpses of God – this is what Jesus offers on this first Sunday of Advent. As troubling as the text may be for us, in it are treasures that help focus us on the true meaning and purpose of Advent. In it, Jesus challenges us, as he did the early hearers of the Word, to look up, pay attention, and be ready. Advent means “coming” or “arrival,” and this text from Luke reminds us that Advent involves preparing for three comings: God coming to earth in the infant Jesus whom we await at Christmas, Christ returning to earth at a time we don’t know and Jesus coming into our hearts anew, each Advent. Jesus wants us to be ready. And we prepare by keeping alert, constantly preparing ourselves, our hearts, and continuing to hope in our loving God, who comes to us in Jesus Christ. So, what is it that we must do to prepare? We tend to lead very busy lives, and sometimes we lose our focus. I believe we need to lay down some things, some stuff, some unforgiveness, some distractions to make more room for God. That is what these stones represent for us. It may be different for each of us and different each time we deal with the stones. For some, it may be “what-ifs” of a recent experience – what if I had done more, been there more, said more, loved more….what-if. For some it may be unforgiveness toward someone or toward ourselves. Unforgiveness blocks our hearts and doesn’t allow room for the Christ child. Some of us may be angry or disappointed with someone or with God. God is surely big enough to take it, and sometimes we are small enough to hang on to it. God wants only what is best for us. God knows more about our needs that we do. So think about what this stone represents for you this very moment, as you begin to prepare your heart for the Christ Child. Ponder on it during the silence following the sermon. When you come up to the altar for communion, bring it with you and lay your burdens down. We will spread the stones on the table with the nativity. The nativity has lots of open space to add characters and animals as the weeks progress. It also reminds us to make room for Jesus. To get rid of some of those things that are burdening our hearts and minds, so there is more room for Jesus. Jesus comes into our hearts anew with each Christmas we experience. Laying down the stone lets us rise with a free heart, with open arms for Jesus to enter. To rise with hope for all that God can and will do in our lives. Folks will be available in the chapel to pray with you after communion. This First Sunday in Advent is not only the beginning of a new season, it is really the climax and conclusion of the Church Year. Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ, both his coming in history to Bethlehem at Christmas, and his actively coming into our hearts and our lives, and his coming in glory at the end of time. Expectation is the major theme. On this First Sunday of Advent, the church is called to longing for God’s redeeming presence, to the sorrow that is not sentiment but repentance, and to expectation. Advent is not a period of Christmas preliminaries, but a season in itself, with is own integrity and its own announcements. The purpose is not to inform us of the number of shopping days before Christmas, but to proclaim the coming of the Lord. The temptation is there to allow Advent to melt too easily into the birth stories. However, this first Sunday of the season calls upon biblical texts that are not at all associated with the nativity. We are to keep watch and to prepare a place for the Christ child in our hearts and in our lives. What does your stone represent? What is it that you must give up, put down, become aware of? As Advent begins, my prayer is that this becomes a time to walk with God and for God to walk with us. As Advent begins, here we are in this holy place, all of our paths converging and we are learning how to breathe in time with the breath of God. Oh, the possibilities…..wait, watch, stay awake; the Lord is coming. Amen.