Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25, Luke 21:25-36
"Nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time, they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
This text from Luke is the one the church advises we use to start the new church year and to prepare for the joy of Christmas. Hmmm. We ended the church year on a similar apocalyptic note: two weeks ago it was the destruction of God's Temple in Jerusalem and deadly wars and earthquakes; last week it was Jesus condemned to death in front of Pilate, the Roman governor.
This morning's text from Luke today follows immediately from a passage about the destruction of the Temple, which we read two weeks ago from Mark. It is one of those places where the gospel of Luke copies the original version in Mark almost word for word. So we are beginning the new church year basically where the old one left off!
Not everyone in our church thinks this sequence is such a great idea. One person who doesn't like it is Ralph Milton, the well-known United Church leader from Kelowna BC. This fall, I have been using a wonderful worship resource published by Ralph: his online blog for preachers called "Rumors," (and I thank Charlene and David Gilchrist for telling me about Rumors.)
I saw Ralph Milton at the Banff Men's Conference in October, and he looks like my image of an Old Testament Prophet: old, tall and crooked, with bushy white hair and a deep voice. Ralph is a legend in the United Church, having written many well-known and well-loved books that help people doing work in our church.
His blog, which gives tips to ministers and others preparing worship each week, usually follows the assigned readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. But here is what Ralph wrote on his blog this week about the readings for Advent this year:
"I plan to abandon the Lectionary for this season. Yes, I know that’s both presumptuous and heretical. Also a little arrogant. But here’s why.
It’s more important for people to hear the Christmas story than it is to be faithful to the lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary is a useful tool and we will return to it. But in the Advent season it fails us.
In the churches I know anything about, attendance peaks during the four Sundays of Advent. That’s when the 'almost committed' are there. This is our evangelistic opportunity. This is our one chance to talk to them about the one Christian story they know best. For many, it is the only Christian story they know.
Yes, the faithful core of worshipers will be there after Christmas, but even they don’t really understand why they shouldn’t sing carols and hear the Christmas story during what they think of as 'the Christmas season.'"
He continues: "If people don’t hear the Christmas story in church, they will hear it only as told by Walmart and on TV. Reminds me of the couple who noticed a manger scene on the lawn of a church. 'Look at that,'said one to the other. 'Now even the churches are trying to horn-in on Christmas!' . . . "
And so, Ralph suggests we read other, more Christmas-y passages during the four Sundays in Advent; and I am sure that this is a fine idea. Except I decided against it. I am stubbornly sticking to the assigned readings no matter how odd they might seem to some of us. (And not to worry -- the texts do get more Christmas-y as the weeks go by!)
In favour of the assigned readings is an observation also made two weeks ago -- that we do seem to be living in apocalyptic times. Why not, therefore, start and end the church year on an apocalyptic note? This note is certainly sounded in our Scriptures and in our tradition, and it is also often heard in our newscasts and in moments of pain or fear in our personal lives. So this morning as we pray for Advent Hope and anticipate Christmas, we also confront anguish, perplexity and terror.
We are searching for hope amidst destruction; hope against hope.
As part of this search, I will focus now on the difficult and scary topic of Climate Change. Yesterday, the British Commonwealth leaders finished their 2009 summit in Trinidad. The main call from their meeting was for binding international agreements to lower carbon emissions. And starting a week tomorrow, all the world's leaders will gather in Copenhagen for a United Nations summit to try and find a Climate Change agreement to replace 1997's Kyoto Accord, which is about to expire.
The media focus on Copenhagen will be intense. The leader of the United Church of Canada, Moderator Mardi Tindal, will be in Copenhagen with a World Council of Churches delegation. She released a news release this week about Copenhagen. And here are some excerpts:
"These talks will almost certainly determine the fate of coming generations. The future of our children is at stake. Finding a way forward will require that we attend to the best science available, so we are firmly grounded in reality. But it also demands that we recognize the spiritual values that have guided humans for centuries so we can work toward a vision of wholeness.
Faith groups, perhaps uniquely among human institutions, are predisposed to take a longer view. In responding to climate change processes, which play out over decades, if not centuries, these perspectives are an essential counterpoint to the pressure of thinking that can be dominated by the next quarter, or the next election." End of quote.
Closer to home, Calgary minister and former United Church Moderator Bill Phipps will begin a week-long fast next Sunday as a prayer for action in Copenhagen. Here is an excerpt from his recent open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"I believe the Copenhagen gathering of world leaders beginning December 7, 2009 is the most important international meeting since World War II. As an expression of my ongoing concern for the future of our Earthly home, it is my intention to begin a week-long fast on Sunday, December 6, 2009. I feel that humanity's future is in grave peril; I believe that a sustainable tomorrow is a spiritual question.
I hope that you will receive this action as an offering of support, encouragement and solidarity in your deliberations as political leaders whose responsibility it is to ensure the health and safety of the planet for future generations.
Giving up food is my offering and prayer, an embodiment of the struggle to save our fragile world. As I invite you now, I will be inviting members of churches, other faiths and the general public to offer their own prayers for the planet during the days of the meetings in Copenhagen.
I will begin the fast during the Christian commemoration of Advent, beginning on Peace Sabbath at Hillhurst United Church . . . Be assured that my fasting is a prayer for clarity and wisdom. Each and all of us are responsible for the legacy we leave for future generations."
This morning we wish our current and former Moderators and other faith leaders well in their prayers and lobbying efforts just as we pray for wisdom on the part of our political leaders. But personally, I don't put much hope in Copenhagen. In this harsh world society -- divided as it is into competing companies, economic sectors, nations, and empires -- the pressure to expand the consumption of natural resources such as oil, gas, coal, and uranium seems unstoppable. I assume that economic growth will continue without limit despite the degradation and collapse of natural systems. Nor do I see anything much that we as individuals can do that would make a difference to this longstanding trend.
So where can hope be found? As a church, we look to the story of the birth of a helpless baby in Bethlehem and find hope. But what does the beautiful and mysterious story of Christmas have to do with Jesus' prophecy in Luke of his Second Advent as The Son of Man coming in the clouds in power and glory? To be frank, I don't readily see the connection. In that sense, perhaps I am more in line with Ralph Milton than the creators of our Lectionary reading list.
The Christmas story says that God is in solidarity with us -- first as a baby in Bethlehem, then as a teacher and healer in Galilee, later as a prophet and martyr in Jerusalem, and finally as the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of peace and love into which we are baptized. In the quiet of the first Advent -- the obscure birth of the son of Mary who is revealed as the Christ on the road to Jerusalem -- we have a model of God who is with us in the big and small crises of life.
At the Darwin discussion here on Tuesday night the question arose: does God intervene in current events? And if not, then why would we pray? I was really pleased at the turnout and discussion on Tuesday night; and these two questions get to the heart of what I wrestle with. We will continue to explore these questions over the next three Sundays using the Advent themes of Peace, Joy, and Love.
But as for Hope, it is not that I am opposed to being surprised by Copenhagen. If the world's leaders come up with a way to coordinate the reduction of carbon emissions that is binding on all countries and that doesn't wreck the economy, I'd be thrilled. Nor am I opposed to a Second Advent where God swoops down a huge stallion and solves all of our many personal and social problems as a Great Warrior. But neither of these scenarios is where my hope lies. My hope lies closer to home, in churches like this one, and in stories where God is a child.
Whether or not our leaders succeed in stopping environmental destruction, God is with us. Whether or not Jesus soon returns as the Son of Man descending on clouds of glory and power, his Spirit is with us. During time when our prayers are answered, we come together in praise and thanksgiving. And when personal or social disasters overwhelm us, we come together to worship, to mourn, to comfort, and to witness to the love that we hold up as sacred in good times and in bad.
At Christmas we remember that God came to us as a baby and that God is still with us. In our own imperfect ways, congregations like this one live out this message -- through worship, social outreach, work for environmental justice, and prayer. I am glad that our church has prophets like Mardi Tindal and Bill Phipps. And I am glad that it also has pastors and preachers like Ralph Milton. We need both, and -- thanks be to God -- we have both.
Here in church, we live our faith face to face. Each of us is a broken sinner; and each of us is a bearer of the image of God and the Spirit of Christ. When we need hope, we search inward in prayer and outward in community and worship. The story of Christmas gives us the hope that we are not alone. At the same time, the promise of the second Advent -- of the coming of the Son of Man in times of war, death and destruction -- reminds us that this is God's world no matter what may come. Through it all, with God's help, we follow our deepest calling of love. In this Christ-shaped life, we are given peace and joy. And in this Christ-shaped life, we find our sure hope, come what may.
As we continue our journey towards Bethlehem and Christmas, may we do so knowing that no matter what happens in our lives or in our world, we have Emmanuel: God with us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.