Watch and Hope
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 28, 2021
First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36
Although this is the first Sunday of Advent that will lead us to Christmas morning, Christmas trees and decorations have filled the stores for weeks. Christmas carols have been playing since Halloween. And this year there is the added sense of urgency for shoppers since shipping delays are expected because of the pandemic. But if you have come to worship this morning, expecting more of what our culture has to offer, you are in for a surprise. There is no Santa here. Neither Mary, nor Joseph have arrived. There are no shepherds watching, nor angels singing. And if it is the sweet baby Jesus that you are expecting, well, he is nowhere to be found. Instead, the key player today is an adult Jesus, who paints a picture of the entire universe turned upside down.
Advent means “coming” or “arrival,” and our Scripture readings offer an opportunity to prepare for two arrivals. First, there is the arrival of God upon the earth in human form—the infant Jesus—whom we await each Christmas. Second, there is the return of Christ in all his glory—his second arrival, his second coming. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus says, “but my words will not pass away.” In this season of peace, Jesus’ words seem anything but peaceful. At first glance, they are troubling, worrisome words. In essence Jesus says, “The end is not yet, but the end, in fact, is coming. There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars—people will be overcome with fear and the heavens will be shaken—then, then the Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and glory.” Jesus commands disciples of every time and place to be on guard, to stay watchful, to be alert.
Advent is a season of preparation, a season of watching and waiting, which serves as a reminder of the people of Israel who await the birth of the Messiah. It also reminds us that part of our task, as the church, is still one of waiting and preparing for Christ’s return. These days, for what are you watching and waiting? For many of us the latest crisis—whatever that may be—keeps us riveted to the news. We watch as people lose their homes, their families, their lives. We watch as something as innocent as a Christmas parade turns into a deadly tragedy. We watch as our country grows more divisive by the day. We can’t help but wonder: “Will things get worse before they get better?” We watch and we worry—because we sense what might be at stake: our future as well as the future of generations to come.
No doubt, we are alert. We are keeping watch! But today’s gospel reading calls us to a different kind of watching. As Christians we are called to watch for signs of hope in the midst of chaos for, even when all evidence is to the contrary, day by day the kingdom of God is breaking in. Consider the destruction of the temple. For the Jewish community, it is the central location for hope. When it is destroyed, there is utter chaos. But for Christians, the temple’s destruction becomes a sign of God’s kingdom breaking in for a new time. We do not find hope in a temple. We do not find hope in a church—or any structure for that matter—no matter how grand! Our hope is in Christ—who will one day return to make all things new. So, we wait. We watch. We hope.
Without a doubt, there are those who have given up hope—weary from Christ’s delay—so much history between Jesus and us. But for all the evils history has brought, it has also brought a host of witnesses, an array of meaningful worship, a multitude of wonders of God’s mercy. If history had stopped at the fall of Jerusalem and the temple, then there would have been no St. Augustine, no St. Francis, no Julian of Norwich, no Martin Luther, no John Calvin, no Karl Barth, and no Mother Teresa. Come to think of it there would be no First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta and no us. Maybe instead of being bothered by the delay of Christ’s return, we should be grateful that God has given the church such a long history—even as we continue to watch and work and wait and hope.
But, as the church of Jesus Christ in this day and age, it’s easy to fall asleep at our watching posts. We can get awfully drowsy as we listen to the ways of the world—as the jingling bells of Christmas draw us into more of a secular celebration—until Christ, the true reason for the season, gets lost in the shuffle. Ah, the world is at play with godly things!
Sometimes I fear that we have become like people who have lived by the train tracks so long that we can no longer hear the train. Have we gotten so used to the sounds of the season that it no longer fills us with joy? As children, we could hardly wait for Advent and Christmas, and the God to which they pointed. But now, the hustle and bustle of our lives threatens to deafen us to delight and wonder. We may sleep as the whistling engine rushes by. If we aren’t careful, we may sleep right through the coming of Christ altogether—the same Christ who warned, “Be alert at all times!”
The seasons of our life pass so quickly. From out of the holiday festivities, the gospel reminds us to be awake to God. After enduring nearly 2 years of the effects of a global pandemic, we may have lost faith in the world around us. But then, as Christians, that was never where we were supposed to put our faith. As Christians, we hope for a new day and a new way of life. As Christians, we pray for our church, our country, and the world but, ultimately, we put our hope in the One who willingly left the halls of glory to come save us. We put our hope in our God who loved us so much that he left his Son in the hands of mere humans who have a way of making such a mess of things.
“Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus says, “but my words will not pass away.” Jesus offers words of hope to those who expect too much, to those who expect too little, and to those who may have forgotten to expect anything at all.
Hear now a prayer for Advent:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, O Promised One
Once again, we come to this time of Advent and await your presence.
Give us patience to seek the meaning of these busy days.
Give us courage to wait in times of pain and trouble.
Give us compassion to wait for one another.
Give us faith to wait for the Messiah when we are threatened by the Herods of this world.
Give us hope to wait for the Savior even when we cannot hear the angels singing.
Give us love that does not wait when it meets Christ in our neighbor.
Through the light of the first Advent candle, we are drawn into the past as well as the future: Christ has come, and Christ will come again! As we enter the season of waiting, let us remember God’s gift of salvation through Jesus, his Son. Let us stay open to the nudging of the Spirit for ways to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Let us keep watch and remain hopeful as we look forward to that day when we shall see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great power and glory! In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
[i] Prayer by Maren Tirabassi