This sermon was preached on Sunday, December 2, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(Revised Common Lectionary, Advent 1, Year C: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; and Luke 21:25-36. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
“Be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus….”
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars….”
“Heaven and earth will pass away….”
The End Is Near!
We don’t actually pay much heed or give much credence to crazy talk like that now, do we? We’ve heard plenty of preachers on street corners, on the radio, on the television predicting the end of the world. Remember Harold Camping last year? And, of course, the so-called Mayan prediction that we all have only nineteen days left now. We’ve heard these sorts of things often enough over the years that we just don’t pay any attention to them.
On top of that, we’ve become thoroughly scientific and modern. Everything has an explanation. We know how the world works. And we’ve turned all of it into a product; everything is for sale in one way or another. There seems to be no more mystery in anything. Our materialistic progress has almost overshadowed any sense of the spiritual. We have analyzed, demystified, commodified, and commercialized everything. In 1802 William Wordsworth wrote a sonnet bemoaning exactly that:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. – Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
“Great God! I’d rather be a Pagan!” wrote Wordsworth more than 200 years ago. We modern Christians, he said, “have given our hearts away. We are out of tune” with the rhythms of the world. We no longer see the signs in the natural world. But here they are in scripture, the signs of the end of the world, reportedly predicted by Jesus himself. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees,” he says, “as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place [these signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars], you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
We human beings, whether Pagan or Christian, have proven incredibly bad at understanding the signs of the times insofar as they apply on a global, or universal, or apocalyptic scale. We keep getting it wrong. You’ve probably heard someone say something like this: “The Earth is degenerating today. Bribery and corruption abound. Children no longer obey their parents, and it is evident that the end of the world is fast approaching.” Those particular words were found inscribed on a clay tablet from ancient Assyria, a tablet dating from about 2800 BC, and there are similar words on a grafitto on a wall in ancient Pompeii – so I’m not sure Wordsworth was all that right about the pagans. They weren’t any better at it than we are.
But here’s the thing. Jesus didn’t tell us to look at the forest. He told us to look at the trees, at individual trees, at the fig tree in particular. The end of the world doesn’t come, or at least it hasn’t come, in a big global, universal apocalypse. It comes to each of us individually. Today is the end of the world, right now, for somebody. All over the world, today is the day of judgment. For thousands, possibly millions, of individual people today is the end of the world; they will die today. For millions of others, there will be some important turning point their lives. For each of those people, the end – in some way or another – is close at hand.
Why do you suppose church tradition has us thinking about such things at the beginning of the Christian year, the First Sunday of Advent, with only twenty-two days until Christmas Eve, getting ready for one of the most joyous events of our year? Well, it’s because Advent isn’t just about getting ready for Christmas; it’s not even primarily about getting ready for Christmas. It’s about getting ready for Christ’s Return; it’s about getting ready for the Second Coming. Advent, in fact, means “coming” and the season is about getting ready for the coming of Judgment Day, the end of this life.
And how do we do that? By paying attention and by praying. As Jesus says, “Be alert at all times, praying . . . . ”
During this season while we get ready for Christmas, try not to get all caught up in the commodification and commercialization of everything. A friend of mine, Fr. Marshall Scott, who’s a hospital chaplain in Kansas City, commented recently, “It seems to me that the problem is not too little Christ in Christmas. The problem is too many ads in Advent.” Don’t get caught up in all of that! Take a breath; pay attention to the rest of life. I’m tempted to say, “Pay attention the real things in life.” Take time to pray, today; take time to give thanks, today. Because, although it sounds like a cliché, it’s the truth of Advent, today may be the end. And if it is, be assured that at the end stands Jesus.
So live expectantly; fill each day with meaningful activity. “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
The 20th Century poet Denise Levertov penned an answer to Wordsworth. Where he wrote, ” The world is too much with us,” in her poem O Taste and See she wrote, “The world is not with us enough.” This is her poem:
is not with us enough.
O taste and see
the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,
grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform
into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince
living in the orchard and being
hungry, and plucking
That is Advent’s message: taste and see, bite and savor, cross the street, pluck the fruit, stand up, raise your head, pay attention, be alert. Amen.