There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. Then he told them 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. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Luke 21:25-33)
It is the first Sunday in Advent – the first Sunday of both the church year and of the season in which we anticipate the birth of Christ. The word “advent” itself is from Latin, meaning “coming,” and applies to both Christ’s birth at Christmas and his “rebirth” at his second coming. In this season, we hear Biblical texts that speak of the coming Messiah and of the end times.
In this season, we also get to explore a different section of the hymnal, singing songs that prepare our minds and hearts for the coming of the Christ child. One such hymn is our Hymn of the Day, “Rejoice, Rejoice Believers.” This is a perfect hymn to open our minds and hearts to the season, because it is full of Advent imagery: dark and light, watching and waiting, faith and hope, our present and God’s future.
Rejoice, rejoice, believers, and let your lights appear.“The evening is advancing and darker night is near:” these are words that would have remained close to Jeremiah’s heart during his prophetic career. Like most Biblical prophets, Jeremiah was called to the difficult and even life-threatening task of proclaiming a word of judgment on God’s people. Jeremiah was called by God to attribute the siege and fall of Jerusalem to the unfaithfulness of Israel. Often called “The Weeping Prophet,” Jeremiah suffered a lifetime of grief in order to faithfully preach God’s message. He had to tell the people that the evening was advancing – not only evening, but the Babylonian armies! – and that darker night was near.
The evening is advancing, and darker night is near.
The Bridegroom is arising, and soon is drawing nigh.
Up, pray, and watch, and wrestle: At midnight comes the cry.
Jeremiah was also called to preach God’s future as an alternative to the destruction and chaos of Israel’s present. God’s judgment was not the end of the story for the Israelites. God’s restoration was also part of the plan.
“The days are surely coming,” Jeremiah proclaims, “when the Lord will fulfill the promise he made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
“The days are surely coming:” this phrase tells the Israelites that the end is near. The end of the present order of grief and suffering is on its way, and the beginning of God’s new vision for a redeemed and restored future is close at hand. Though there has surely been destruction, there will also surely be restoration. Though there has surely been darkness, there will also surely be light: In today’s reading, Jeremiah is preaching the end of the world as the Israelites know it, and sharing God’s promise that he will raise up a new and righteous king from the line of David. As Christians, we, of course, understand this promised king to be Jesus Christ, for whom we watch and wait in this season of Advent.
For us here, Advent falls during the lengthening nights of winter. Like the Israelites, we reflect upon our own darkness in this season. We prepare for the birth of Christ by coming to terms with our need for a savior, and we long for God’s words of hope when the darkness of our souls and of our world seems too much to bear.
It only takes a quick glance around to understand that we live in a dark and broken world. A quick glance at a newspaper or at our medical bills. A quick glance at unemployment lines and at the names of soldiers who have died in the Middle East. A quick glance at our prayer chain requests or at images of hunger and homelessness. A quick – but honest – glance at our own sinful and straying souls shows us that the evening is indeed advancing, and that darker night is near.
And so, we need Advent. Just as Jeremiah helped the people see their despair in order that they could then learn true hope, we need Advent to show us the darkness so that we can see more brightly the light of Christ. We desperately need to hear God say to us “the days are surely coming,” because these are the words that change the whole game. They tell us that God’s future is different than our present, for it is a future is abounding with love and healing; a peaceable kingdom and holy. It is a future without need or want, without darkness but only light. It is the end of brokenness and the beginning of eternal rejoicing. We trust that God’s days are surely coming, and that we will witness the end of darkness when the light of Christ enters our world.
So whether we like it or not, as people of faith, we are “end times” people. Not necessarily “end times” people in the same vein as the 2012 Mayan calendar end-of-the-world fears, and not necessarily “end times” people in the same vein as the Left Behind book series. But we are “end times” people because we know the ending. Let me repeat that. We are "end times" people because we know the ending. We know that death and sin and brokenness do not get the last word. We know that the Word became flesh so that all might be redeemed. We know that, at the end of all the ages, God will again come into our midst. We wait for the day when God will again come to us and abide with us, our Lord and Immanuel.
We know the end. And so we do not hide in the dark corners of Advent, but rather we wait with confidence and faith for that which as been promised to us. This is what Jesus was telling his disciples in Luke’s gospel. “Be on guard,” he says, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with the worries of this life.” Instead, he urges them to “stand up and raise [their] heads, because redemption is drawing near." His message to the disciples and to us is that God’s future asks us to live faithfully in the present.
As the hymn says, “The bridegroom is arising, and soon is drawing nigh. Up, pray, and watch, and wrestle!” Life, faith, discipleship, proclaiming the good news: none of these things cease simply because we see the sprouting leaves of the fig tree. When we know God’s end-days promise of restoration, we live ever more urgently into our faith. We show the world – through word and deed – that the powers of sin and death have no hold on us.
"The Advent way of life," Dianne Bergant writes, "does not necessarily require unusual behavior on our part, but it calls us to live the usual unusually well. It affects the everyday events of life; it directs the way we interact with people; it informs the attitudes that color our judgments and motivations. It is as ordinary as the birth of a child; it is as extraordinary as the revelation of God."
We are reminded of God’s extraordinary future through ordinary acts of nature: bare trees sprouting leaves once again, stars shining in dark skies, the cycle of sunshine and rain that warms and nourishes the earth. These signs of God’s promises are things that give us peace. Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” says:
When despair for the world grows in meThis is Advent: that we wait for the light, trusting that the light waits for us. When the despair of the world grows in us, we rest in the light of the day-blind stars that keep us focused on God’s promises. When the cold darkness of winter creeps into our hearts, we warm ourselves under the glow of the star of Bethlehem.
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
For we are people of Advent. We are end-times people. We are the believers who rejoice in the dark as we watch for the light. We are God’s chosen and redeemed people who live every day in anticipation as we pray:
Our hope and expectation, O Jesus, now appear;Christ is coming. Christ is coming soon. Rejoice, rejoice, believers, and let your lights appear – for the days are surely coming when all of our darkness will be transformed into everlasting light.
Arise, O sun so longed for, o’er this benighted sphere.
With hearts and hands uplifted, we plead, O Lord, to see
The day of earth’s redemption that sets your people free!