This sermon is from the First Sunday of Advent (Year C), November 28, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. You can listen to the sermon here.
Christian worship is meant to be multi-generational. I love that I can look out at you on any given Sunday and see church members who are 5 years old and church members who are well into their 90’s…and everyone in between. We have members of each extant generation present in our worship: Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation. Members of each generation rubbing shoulders with and rubbing off on the next.
I think each and every generation asks itself two essential questions. First: “What kind of world have we inherited?” And second: will we be the last generation?
When reflecting upon his 1989 number one hit, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel recalled an encounter he had with a young Sean Lennon. Lennon and his friend were bemoaning the state of the world they were inheriting from the generation before them: foreign debts, homeless vets, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz. Joel found himself reflecting on his own generational woes and worries with great ease and so he put pen to paper. In fact, it was the first time Joel had written full lyrics before the melody.
Despite the fact that it is tied specifically to the late 1980’s, Joel provided a timeless classic by poignantly tracing the concerns of multiple generations. His verses capture the fears and insecurities of every decade from the 1940’s through the 1980’s. Here is a verse that will touch on things all of you remember:
Birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again
Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock
Begin, Reagan, Palestine, terror on the airline
Ayatollah’s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan
And the fun didn’t actually stop in 1989. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was even the inspiration for many pandemic memes last March. “Today was like if ‘we didn’t start the fire’ was a day,” the TV writer Matt Warburton tweeted on March 12, 2020, and shortly after a therapist named Brittany Barkholtz went viral when she took him up on this challenge: “Schools close, Tom Hanks, trouble in the big banks, no vaccine, quarantine, no more toilet paper seen.”
It’s all very funny, and yet as Lindsay Zoladz commented in the NYT back in August, there is something strangely comforting about the lyrics. She writes:
It can be easy to feel that we are currently living through the nadir of human history — and hey, maybe we are! But Joel also wrote this song to capture a certain kind of generational déjà vu that has existed since the dawn of civilization. As he [Joel] reflected to his biographer: “Oh man, we all thought that too, when we were young: My God, what kind of world have we inherited?”
Zoladz captures the deep truth underlying the two questions each generation asks itself. At the end of the day, each generation is caught between a sense of “generational deja vu” and a fear that they are on the precipice of the “nadir of human history.”
Part of the occupational hazard of being a human on this earth is the ability to ask the question, “Is this the end of the world as we know it?”…and are we feeling fine? We notice the fire blazing on around us and we don’t want the blame for its origins, but we also have a sense that we can’t extinguish it. So what do we do?
We enter Advent once again.
Bet you didn’t see that one coming!
Just a week after celebrating Christ the King Sunday, we find ourselves thrust into the middle of a lengthy section in Luke’s gospel about end times and last things. You may have been expecting a lesson from one of the Gospels with Jesus’ genealogy or even John the Baptizer’s birth narrative as we prepare to tell the story of Jesus’ birth, but instead we are thrown once more into that nebulous in between of Christ’s first Advent and his second, of the already but not yet…and we are invited to swim in a sea of hope. We are encouraged to see the fire of present day history burning around us and to remain steadfast in our faith, to employ constant vigilance, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves…we first need to set the scene in Luke’s Gospel as we start to wade through these cryptic, apocalyptic, and eschatological words from Jesus.
This passage about sun, moon, and stars from Luke 21 is actually the tail end of a much larger section spanning from the beginning of chapter 20 and running until the end of 21. Luke constructs his story in such a way that these two lengthy chapters cover just one day in Jerusalem, near the temple after the Triumphal Entry and before the Last Supper. If you read these two chapters with that in mind, you will see that Jesus makes a great number of comments which will get him into serious trouble with the powers-that-be.
The interaction between Jesus, the crowd, and the Scribes moves from taxes and widows to foretelling about the destruction of the Temple. I cannot overstate how significant this would have been for Jews living in Palestine in the 1st century. Like I said last week, the Temple was the meeting place between heaven and earth; it was the center of Israel’s religious life, national identity, and political future. David wanted to build the Temple, Solomon did build the Temple, Zerubabbel came to repair the Temple after exile, and Herod the Great built the second over the span of 46 years. All would-be or want-to-be messiahs would have to cleanse the Temple…which Jesus does…but talk of the Temple being destroyed would have been anathema.
The popular consensus was that the Temple needed to be cleansed of Roman influence and Gentile impurity, but it could certainly never be destroyed. Such language was not in the lexicon of 1st century Jews. Jesus, however, cleanses the Temple from religious practices instituted by the Jews and then he talks about how there will be a day when all of these stones are thrown down and not one is left standing on another.
Quick side note: we know that the 2nd Temple was destroyed in two different ways. It was destroyed in a very physical sense when Jerusalem was sacked in 70AD. It was destroyed in a spiritual sense with the crucifixion of Jesus when the curtain hiding the Holy of Holies was torn from top to bottom. In this passage, Jesus is referring to the physical destruction of the Temple and not the metaphoric destruction after his death.
Jesus describes the signs that will predate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the verses immediately preceding ours. There will be a siege, war, hunger, earthquakes and persecution. The language here sounds very scary and very it’s the end of the world as we know it–apocalypse now–sort of stuff. It would be all too natural to assume that Jesus is describing the end of the world. Only, when Jesus shifts to talking about the coming of the Son of Man in our passage, he is making it very clear that the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple are not signs that the Last Day or the Day of Judgment has arrived.
Jesus is verbally creating the tension between the already and the not yet,
Between the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the world,
Between the resurrection of the Son of Man and the return of the Son of Man.
Living on this side of the resurrection, we can now say that we are caught living betwixt and between the first Advent of Jesus and the second Advent of Jesus.
And this is why we read this Gospel passage on the first Sunday of Advent. The church has too easily and too regularly separated the birth of the King from the return of the King. We need to hold these two Advents together: as we re-tell the birth story of Jesus, we remember that he has come and we proclaim that he will come again.
Jesus’ comments about the sun, moon, stars, sea, and waves are very much a description of an end-time apocalypse. The focus here, however, ought not to be on the signs of cosmic or global distress. Jesus’ words are not intended to cause fear and trepidation in his followers but to incite a sense of hope. The focus needs to be on the coming Son of Man. The Son of Man is coming with “power and great glory.” For those who know Jesus to be the Son of Man, this is a moment of excitement and fulfillment, the return of the King means the world will finally be put to rights. It is as though Jesus is saying, “Even when the fire is burning while the world is turning, even when it appears that all hope is lost, I am still with you.”
How many of you need to hear that message today? How many of you have grown weary of the news cycle? How many of you are suffering from another bout of Covid fatigue? I want you to think about what’s going on in the world right now: a riot in Portland, the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, the Ahmaud Arbery verdict, the news that Covid is beginning to surge again up north, the threat of the Omicron variant, gas prices are soaring and inflation is on the rise, there is still incredible unrest in the Middle East, a car crashed into a holiday crowd at a Christmas parade, people were killed during a concert, do I need to go on?
That doesn’t even begin to cover 2021; those are just the headlines of one week in November 2021!
In the midst of all of that, we have our Lord saying, “I will never leave you nor will I forsake you.” We have Jesus’ comforting words that he is putting the world to rights and one day he will make all things new. The news cycle, the tragedies of the world, and the Covid pandemic do not, cannot, and will not have the last word: the last word belongs to the Suffering Servant who has redeemed his people.
Jesus then makes a comment about “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” This is one of the sentences which biblical commentators and theologians love to squabble over: is Jesus referring to the generation who is alive at that present moment? Is he promising that all of this take place before his disciples die? If so, Jesus was pretty atrocious at making prophecies since we are sitting here 2000 years later and his return has not yet happened. Wink wink.
No! Luke uses the phrase “this generation” 11 times throughout his Gospel. Each time it is in a pejorative sense. Jesus is making comment about this “faithless and perverse” generation as a way to encapsulate all of the naysayers and skeptics, those who are actively revolting against God, those who are leading people away from God, and those who are committing the very sins against which Jesus is teaching and preaching. There were highly intelligent people who witnessed the miracles of Jesus’ ministry, the cataclysm of his crucifixion, the power of his passion, and even heard rumors of his resurrection, and who rejected him out of hand.
That generation will not pass away until all of this has come to pass.
He concludes the paragraph with a message of steadfast hope: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
What words has God spoken that will not pass away?
Now we can turn backward to the prophet Jeremiah. Known as the Weeping Prophet because he exhibited tenderhearted compassion toward the plight of his people, Jeremiah was born into a priestly family during the last days of the Southern Kingdom before it fell to the Babylonians.
Jeremiah’s prophetic words are full of tears, pain, sorrow, and pleading, but “one also finds startling promises of hope, hope found not merely in the possibility of human repentance, but grounded squarely in the amazing grace of God.” Our passage opens up with such a statement of profound hope: The days are surely coming.
As with all prophetic voices, Jeremiah looks to the horizon of the future for his hope. Martin Luther King had a dream in which Langston Hughes’ “dream deferred” became the “dream fulfilled.” 6 times did he say, “I have a dream that one day…” The protagonists in Les Miserables fluctuate between “one day more” and “one more day,” as they await their own day of judgment.
The days are surely coming, says Jeremiah, when God will fulfill the promise he made to the house of Israel. This is the basis for all of Advent: the proclamation that God will remember his promises to his chosen people.
Jeremiah has spent the majority of his opening 31 chapters announcing and pronouncing a doom and gloom reality for the Kingdom of Judah, the promise that their sins will be judged. Judgment and doom and gloom, do not have the last word, however. You have to imagine the phrase, “The days are surely coming” as the climax of the crescendo in a symphony. Jeremiah has been building up to this point and now his message explodes with hope: God will remember us! God will raise up a branch of David and his righteousness will save us!
The promise was iterated and reiterated throughout the Old Testament: first to Adam and Eve and then to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. God’s promised people would be given a promised land, and a promised future, to the end that the rest of the world might see, know, and believe…and God made a covenant with his people which he would never break. Jeremiah is foretelling of the fulfillment of this covenant. Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant and that is what he is talking about in our passage.
In Christ, all of God’s covenantal promises are coming true. Exile and captivity will not change that. The sacking of Jerusalem will not change that. The destruction of the Temple will not change that. Covid, political and racial unrest in America, turmoil in the Middle East, and elements of global distress will not change that.
Jesus is very clear with his followers: Be on guard. Be alert. Pray.
These are instructions, I believe, he is giving to us this morning as we start Advent, again. “Vigilant, expectant faith rules out a business-as-usual orientation toward life.” Because we remember his death, proclaim his resurrection, and await his coming in glory, we are unable to live life according to the cultural milieu of the day or the societal status quo.
We still stand between the two Advents: Christ has come and Christ will come again. We may even be situated between “generational deja vu” and the “nadir of human history.” Our charge, however, is to stand firm in our faith and not to wilt away because the proverbial fire is burning around us.
Advent is an opportunity for us to embrace and grab hold of the fulfilled promises of God: the holy, promised, and anointed one has come to restore all things, to put all things to rights, and to reconcile God’s people to himself. A vigilant, expectant faith has eyes peeled at all times for the movement of God’s spirit. A vigilant, expectant faith is not satisfied with how things have always been. A vigilant, expectant faith does not shrink or melt when adversity comes. A vigilant, expectant faith says, “Surely the days are coming…” and it lives as though those days are nigh and that they are real.