December 3, 2000
the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
In his award winning book, The Education of Little Tree, writer Forest Carter writes of life with his Cherokee grandparents. He tells of sitting with his grandfather watching the morning sun rise over a mountain one winter morning.
Little Tree learned from his Grandpa how to read the signs of nature. Reading signs, not the printed ones we see on our streets and highways, but the signs of nature and life and living is an art that takes time, practice and patience. The reward is what Little Tree called, "...an understanding that most folks don't know."
In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus talks about "signs of the times" and particularly the signs of his coming. In effect, he says to us, "Pay attention to signs of the times and be prepared for my coming."
We are right at the threshold of another Advent Season. It is the "advent" (in the Latin "ad-venio - to come to,") or arrival of Christ we are preparing for. Historically, Advent has been a period of prayer and fasting when Christians prepare themselves for the coming of Christ as the love of God incarnate.
There are all kinds of signs in the world around us that Christmas is coming. You would have to be a hermit to miss them. Your Sunday newspaper is stuffed like the turkey you had at Thanksgiving and merchants are once again gearing up for the time of year that brings in the majority of their annual profits. And if all the "signs" are right - this will be another banner year.
Of course, the signs in the world around us are not so much signs of the coming of Christ as they are of the coming of incredible sums of money into the economy. And this Christmas season will once again see a time of great prosperity.
And yet, we need to be clear that the season of preparation we call Advent ( in the historical sense) does not much resemble the celebration of the holiday season we are entering.
An NBC Dateline program was reporting on problems families who have benefited from the booming economy are encountering. It seems they have too much money and have come down with a syndrome or sickness some psychologists have called "affluenza." This disorder is brought about because these people have gained too much wealth in the new booming economy and their children are bored with things. One young father in the Silicon valley lamented, "We got our son a new Porsche for his birthday and he doesn't have a clue what he wants for Christmas." (Kind of gets you right here, doesn't it?)
There is a plus side to the fact that we are increasingly a diverse culture. The season that is upon us is more often than not called the "Holiday Season" rather than the "Christmas Season." Public schools have increasingly come to call the traditional "Christmas Break" a "Winter Break." In our pluralistic culture, holidays of other faith groups are celebrated and it is no longer Christmas and Easter that dominate the calendar of public institutions.
Perhaps all of this will help us to be more clear about the difference between the coming of Christ as we celebrate it in our Advent preparations and the coming of the Holiday Season as it is celebrated in our culture. The one thing I find it hard to wrap my mind around - and I suspect many others face this too - is the fact that when people go to K-Mart to buy one of those fake evergreen trees, it is still almost always a "Christmas Tree."
In the midst of all this seasonal hubbub the season of Advent calls us to read the "signs of the times" and pay attention to our spiritual life. In the most simple way I know how to express it, the primary question to each one of us on this Sunday is a question that comes from Christ himself:
"Are you ready for me to come to you?"
In our gospel reading Jesus tells his followers that they must always be ready for his coming. It is a peculiarity of our lectionary readings that the readings for the first Sunday of Advent always come from the end of the gospels where Jesus is talking about readiness for a second coming when he will come in glory as Lord of all. In our Advent preparation and Christmas services, the theme and the scriptures will turn to the birth of Jesus. Yet, the theme of "readiness" for the coming of Christ is the main point of our Advent preparations.
And so it is appropriate and important to ask:
"Are you ready for Christ to come to you?"
There are three ways that reading the "signs of the times," can speak to us as we enter the preparation time of Advent once again.  It is time to look at our relationship with God,  It is time to step away from the worries of daily living,  It is time to center ourselves spiritually.
 It is time to look at our relationship with God
When Jesus spoke of the trouble and turmoil which would afflict the world before his final coming, he said something that can be applied to all Christian people in every age. "Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." [Lk.21:28]
In other words, when you see the commotion in the world around you, lift your vision upwards, because your redemption is drawing near. We see that redemption in the coming of the Christ child in a manger. The birth of this child calls us to look beyond the present circumstances and reflect on our relationship with God.
Most of us would freely admit that this time of year tends to pull us into all those outward things that cause us to neglect the inwards things - namely our spiritual lives. Our attendance at worship and our reflection on where we and our families are in a spiritual sense is at the heart of Advent's meaning.
 It is time to step away from the worries of daily living
"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly..." [Lk.21:34]
You would almost think that Jesus was seeing through to contemporary times and some of the notorious holiday office parties that you and I have heard about. Actually -- the warning that is so appropriate is that the worries and anxieties of our daily living, especially now, can turn the direction of our inner lives from Christ is outward circumstances. It is as though our inner life comes to these continuous forks in the road. We can choose worry and anxiety where we are caught up in what to do and how to do it - as though we were in control -- OR -- We can choose trust in God and commit our circumstances to the only One who has genuine control.
Advent is a great time to come to terms with the direction of our spirits and make the choice to trust the one who cared enough to come to us in a vulnerable child so long ago.
 It is time to center ourselves spiritually
"Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." [Lk.21:36]
Alertness and prayerfulness. These are the twin spiritual qualities that strengthen us to keep our spiritual orientation in a troubled world.
Alertness has to do with keeping our perspective and not losing our identity by absorption into the world and its values. Alertness is especially of the essence during this season.
Prayerfulness is the quality that gives us strength to "stand before the Son of Man" -- that is -- to put our perspective into practice. We may realize that the celebration of the holiday season in our culture and the essential meaning of the birth of Christ are two entirely different things, but resisting the pull of the culture is another thing altogether.
As we stand at the threshold of another Advent and Christmas season, the word of the Lord calls us to read the "signs of the times." May our gracious God give us the perspective to see the meaning of the season and strength to keep a holy Advent.
¹ Forest Carter, The Education of Little Tree. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1993 (ISBN 0-8263-0879-1)[We highly recommend this book]
Connections in the Texts
The First Sunday of Advent brings opportunity to once again grouse about the use of the New Testament eschatalogical texts regarding the coming of the Son of Man as introduction to the incarnation. The idea of the "coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" is only peripherally related to the coming of Mary's child in Bethlehem. There is a sense in which the purpose of lectionary preaching is subverted by using the texts in a topical way -- i.e. "The texts are all about Messiah or Christ 'coming.' "
But then - our full text sermon for today takes the eschatalogical sayings of Jesus and applies the meaning in a topical way. (Our parishioners will not be looking for a Lenten sermon.)
In the midst of the devastation of the Babylonian exile, the prophet speaks words of hope to Israel. The promises made to both parts of a broken nation (Israel and Judah) will be fulfilled. This takes the hope beyond the immediate circumstances. Israel's national identity had been shattered for more than 130 years. The restoration of all of Israel would be achieved only by intervention of messiah who is here called "a righteous Branch" who will bring about justice and righteousness.
The time when all of God's people confess that, "The Lord is our righteousness," awaits a completion which can only be brought about by direct intervention of the Lord. If Jeremiah's hopeful promise is one mountain top and Jesus' words that redemption is drawing nigh is on another mountain top -- the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are in a valley below the line of sight.
No matter what "take" we have on the eschatalogical texts of the gospels, the injunction to be watchful and prayerful is perpetually relevant. When crisis and turmoil are rocking the world - when war and injustice is destroying persons - the faithful have their sight firmly fixed on the One who is to come with justice and peace.
The roaring sea and the warring nations point to natural and political powers that govern our lives - the teaching of Christ is that no power is greater than the power of God. When the Son of Man comes with "power and great glory" - all other powers will be vacated. The powers which bring about our day by day "worries of this life," are in fact no powers at all compared to the power of God. Thus, we rest our case as we trust in that Greater power who enables us to finally "stand before the Son of Man" which the former "great" powers will be unable to do.
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Paul's words to the church at Thessalonica speaks directly to those who are watching and praying as they anticipate the coming of the Lord. Here the injunction of "increasing and abounding in love" is added to the watchfulness and prayer.
Here then are the qualities that scripture urges upon us as we prepare for Advent 2000. We are watchful and alert as to our relationship with the world, prayerful in our relationship with God and increasing in love in our relationships with each other. This creates a community of faith that is prepared for the coming of Christ.
A Call To Worship (Based on Jeremiah 33: 14-16)
L: Hear all you people of
A Prayer of Confession
Almighty and Eternal God, your face is hidden from us because of our sin. We are in need of the redemption that only you can provide. O cleanse us from all offenses and deliver us from our wandering ways. With lowliness and humility, we come before you today trusting in your mercy and finding our refuge and strength in your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
Come all you who trust in the Lord and believe the good news that in Jesus Christ we have the forgiveness of sin and grace to live a new life through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A Prayer of Thanksgiving
Glory be to You, O God everlasting, who sent Your only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. Glory be the You, O Lord Jesus Christ, who has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel. Glory be the You, O Holy Spirit, who quickens us together with Christ, and sheds abroad His love in our hearts. Blessed be You, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God; and blessed be Your glorious name for ever. Amen.
A Prayer of DedicationAlmighty God, whose loving hand has given us all that we possess, grant us grace that we may honor You with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your bounty; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.