Read the Signs

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott

First Sunday of Advent

November 28, 2021

Luke 21:25-36

Each year before the First Sunday of Advent, I take a block of time to read through the entire gospel that we’ll be reading for the next church year. You all know this; in the Episcopal Church we read primarily from one gospel over the course of a year, and starting today, this year is the Gospel of Luke. So on Monday morning, with a pot of coffee and my favorite translation of the New Testament, I read straight through it as if I was reading a novel. You all could do this, too. It only takes a couple of hours. Rather than breaking up the Bible into little bits and pieces like we do on Sunday morning, a reading like this gives you more of the broad sense of what is going on. This is along the lines of what I’m encouraging everyone to do this Advent with the letters of Paul. During each of these four weeks I’m asking you to read Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. One book each week. So that you can get the real gist of it. But back to Luke.

One of the things I noticed this year was how the story starts so passively. Luke begins gently. Mary and Elizabeth greet each other with joy as they carry sons in their wombs, John the Baptist and Jesus. As we hear on Christmas Eve, Jesus is wrapped in bands of swaddling clothes and laid in a manager while a host of angels appear to the shepherds. It’s all so meek and mild. But over the course of time the story becomes more intense. As a little boy Jesus stays in the Temple as his parents frantically search for him. Jesus is driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil after he’s baptized. Then he comes up against demons and opponents and people consumed with all sorts of diseases. You can feel the tension rising; we’re building up to something. We’re close to the end. Jesus warns his followers of distress; the powers will be shaken. Jesus tells them to be alert, to keep awake, to stay on guard against the great and terrible things coming their way. If you just drop in on this passage on a Sunday morning, you don’t get the sense that everything has been building to this point. But I could feel it when I was reading through the whole thing Monday morning. This is an inflection point, there was no going back from here. Jesus is committed to whatever was coming next and he was saying all he could to get his disciples ready. The crucifixion is just a few days away.

And it’s that sense of urgency that I want to reiterate today. The message of Jesus carries this sense of impending crisis. Through the Bible we are warned to stay awake, to keep alert, to be on guard. Jesus knows that we will be worn down with the cares and occupations of this world. He knows that we will give in to dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life. Jesus is warning us that the spiritual life is full of danger.

Indeed, this is a dangerous time for the church. We are facing many threats. And we could start counting those up. Political divisiveness. Money and budgets. Or maybe Sunday morning Little League practice and pandemic protocols. But those all pale in comparison to the true threat facing the church nowadays. One of my favorite theologians, Stanley Hauerwas put it best – he said the greatest threat to Christianity today is sentimentality. Sentimentality is the single greatest threat facing the Church. Sentimentality and nostalgia pose a grave spiritual threat because they lull us to sleep. In our spiritual sleep we fall off our watch, we do not do our duty, and evil lurks. 

This is especially true during these seasons of Advent and Christmas. The nostalgia and the sentimentality come at us thick and fast. Turn on the Bing Crosby, put the tree in the same place you’ve always put it, eat the same exact meal with grandmother’s china and silver, and have the same conversation with the same family members year after year after. Christmas sentimentality is like a drug we use to escape the realities of this world. We keep up our traditions – at church and at home – sometimes with the only reason being that we’ve always done it that way. We keep them up because we are transported in our minds to some other time, to some other place; thereby losing track of what we are called to do for Jesus right here and right now. And no one ever seems to ask the more important questions about these traditions. Are they actually good? Do they actually honor the Lord Jesus? See, sentimentality and nostalgia are so dangerous for us spiritually because they keep us stuck in one place, and that place may not necessarily be a good one. So we get stuck. We fall asleep. And Jesus is desperate to wake us up.

That is the tension we feel in the reading this morning in the parable of the fig tree. “Read the signs,” Jesus says. There is no going back to the way it was. At this point in the Gospel of Luke, there is no going back to sweet little baby Jesus in the manger. There is no going back to his hometown of Nazareth. There is no going back to Jesus teaching and fishing on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The past was good, sure, but that’s not the point. The point is that things have changed and it’s time to face the hard reality. It’s time to face the fact that the crucifixion right around the corner.

The same for us. Take a look at the fig trees around us. An uncertain economy. A slow burning pandemic. Social unrest at home. Diplomatic tensions abroad. Read the signs. With a fair amount accuracy, you can predict someone’s life expectancy by which zip code they were born in. Many of us are trapped by addictions to the bottle and the pill. Even more are trapped by the warped belief that our value as a human is represented by our bank statement. And what do we do? We’ve read the signs but what do we do in response all these pressing issues? We talk about the good old days. We long for some past that wasn’t actually as good as we remember it. That’s why you were numbing the pain with too much egg nog and pie back then. So why do we want to go back? It’s time to wake up. Because the arrival of Jesus, his advent, is just around the corner.

So this Advent and Christmas, set your alarm clock to the good news of Jesus Christ. You can be liberated from your nostalgia, you can be set free from the sentimentality that is chaining you to the past. In Christ, you are free to live anew. In this season of memory, I challenge you to give up just one tradition you or your family has for Christmas. Just one. Let it go. Maybe you don’t have to suffer through that obnoxious Christmas music that you pretend to like. Maybe you don’t have to go through the drudgery of mailing out Christmas cards to absolutely everybody on your mailing list. Maybe you don’t have to get all those toys for your kids. Just stop it. And take that energy and put it into transforming the world in the name of Jesus Christ. Instead of listening to that music you don’t like, read through these books of the Bible. Instead of taking the time to mail everyone, take the same amount of time to actually write a letter to someone you care about. Instead of getting all the toys, give your kids what they really want – your attention and love. Transform your sentimentality into something that gives life to the world. In other words, wake up to Jesus. Wake up to the work Jesus is calling you to do.

Finally, as I was reminded this week, there is an ebb and flow to the Gospel of Luke. It begins with comfort, rises to the horror of the cross, and then concludes with Jesus sharing a meal with his disciples. So it’s not that being comfortable or at peace in your spiritual life is bad. Don’t hear what I’m not saying. What I am saying is that you have to live in to that tension, you have to experience those hard parts of your spiritual life in order to receive the blessing of peace. You don’t know how high the mountain is until you’ve been through the valley. You don’t know how great Easter is until you’ve been through the cross. You don’t how wonderful Christmas can be if you’ve slept through Advent.

This Advent, as you prepare for Christmas, be on guard, keep alert. Jesus has an urgent message for you. Jesus is calling you to let go of your past so that you can go out and transform the world in his name. Let go of your sentimentality. And most of all, wake up.

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