Preaching teachers have long told their students that a good homily is prepared with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper (or its current digital manifestation) in the other. And that’s often good advice, except when the contents of both tend toward grim: In the news almost constant word of violence and unrest, and in the gospel dire predictions about the upheaval that comes before the end of the world.
Today’s gospel is not unlike the one we heard just two weeks ago from the gospel of Mark, with its “prediction” of the certain destruction of Jerusalem, which had already come to pass. This Sunday it is Luke reflecting on the same event, maybe 15 or 20 years after Mark, and still no Jesus riding to the rescue. As a regular preacher, I’m starting feel like a broken record, or, for those of you unfamiliar with records, a corrupted MP3 file.
Reading from both sources, gospel and news of the world, it might be easy to get a little discouraged—maybe a lot discouraged, or even overwhelmed by all the bad news. Maybe we are tempted to lose hope. Perhaps our feelings start to reflect our seasonal color, and we might all get a case of the Advent blues.
But if we look a little more closely at today’s passages, we might find a treatment for our Advent seasonal affective disorder, some words of hope to keep us going. The first comes from the prophet Jeremiah, who promises that “the days are surely coming” when God will fulfill the promise to Israel: a righteous king from the house of David, who will bring Jerusalem peace and safety. Now Jeremiah is no Pollyanna prophet: His promise comes just as Jerusalem is about to fall to Babylon and things are about to get a lot worse for the people. Nevertheless, God’s faithfulness is unshakeable, Jeremiah says, and this defeat will not be the last word.
Luke, too, though promising signs in the heavens and catastrophe on earth, counsels not despair or fear, but courage and watchfulness: “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” God’s reign of justice and peace is coming, Jesus says, as surely as the leaves on the fig tree sprout as summer nears. God has already won the victory. Our task is to keep watch for the certain Advent of Christ, not in great signs or catastrophes, but in the slow unfolding of God’s own natural time.
Now with so much bad news in the world keeping us distracted, it may take some effort to see those leaves unfurling. But I wonder if at the edges of the world’s troubles, we may catch a glimpse of the Advent we long for. I can think of two icons that I have been praying with this past year that have given me hope.
The first was a photograph some time around the Ferguson protests: a young African American boy, maybe 10, tears in his eyes, his arms flung around a white police officer in riot gear, and the officer returning the embrace. I have no idea what the story of that photo is, but in my imagination they were resisting the story of anger and fear that everyone else was telling, creating a little picture of God’s reign, however brief.
The second came a few weeks ago here in Wilmette at Village Hall, after two and a half hours of very angry “testimony” about a possible affordable housing development. The meeting was tense with fear and an undercurrent of racism. I was so angry myself that I couldn’t even speak, much less contribute anything helpful. And at the very end of all that, a person I can only describe as a gentleman, in every sense of that word, stood up and spoke kindly and honestly, and tried to acknowledge everyone’s fears, and suggest to us that maybe it wasn’t as bad as all that. And though, as one of only two African Americans in the room, he had every reason to be as angry as so many other people were, he was considerate and thoughtful, and for me painted a picture of a different direction we all might take.
I don’t know about you, but I could use some more of those icons, more pictures of hope to carry with me this Advent. I’d even like to take part in painting a picture like that. So this Advent, I have a proposal, a treatment for the Advent blues: I’d like to suggest we ask God for more icons like these. Here’s how I am going to do it, and maybe you can join me if it seems good to you, or maybe you can think of another way that works for you.
Every morning I am going to ask God to show me just where Christ is coming into the world, to help me see the images that are surely all around me of how God’s reign of peace and love and justice is coming just as surely as the leaves of spring. And all day long I am going to try to be watchful and alert, with my head raised in the certainty of God’s presence, whether listening to the radio, or talking with my coworkers or friends, or online or on Facebook, or walking down the street. And in the evening I am going to try to reflect on my day and mark those places where I saw Christ’s advent, and then thank God, and ask for an opportunity to be helpful, so that I can help God paint an alternative picture of the world as it might be.
And if we all do this together, I’d also like to propose that we share what we see with each other, at home or at church, so that like those ancient Israelites, and those first hearers of Luke’s gospel, and Paul’s Christians in Thessalonica, we might find our hearts strengthened as we await the sure and certain springtime of our God.