JWL Sermon 1st Sunday of Advent 2012
Why start the New Year at the end? Today is the Church’s New Year’s Day—the first day of Advent, and so the first day of the new church calendar. It’s the first day of the third year of our cycle of readings (year C, that is), a year that features the Gospel according to Luke, who was a fabulous teller of the life of Jesus.
So you’d think we’d start this season with the beginning of Luke’s gospel, no?
But instead, we find Jesus teaching and prophesying just two chapters short of his death at the end of Luke. Why? Why start out with all these dire warnings and foreboding and signs and mystery?
The prophet Jeremiah, whom Jesus was fond of quoting when he preached (especially in Luke), gives us some answers to this puzzle. The little bit we heard from Jeremiah this morning comes from a section in the 32nd and 33rd chapters, in which the prophet, imprisoned in the courts of the king, casts a clear vote for the future of his people.
The king of Babylon has sent his troops to overrun Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel. And Jeremiah’s own king has locked him away (for safety? to keep him out of trouble?) and is clearly troubled by Jeremiah’s incessant prophecies.
In the beginning of chapter 32, the king asks, “Why do you say…?” (and continues to detail a prophecy that bodes poorly for the king.)
But then there is a beautiful story of Jeremiah purchasing a plot of land from his cousin,
which, since the land was occupied by hostile forces, was worth almost nothing.
Any decent Realtor would have told him it was a ridiculous investment. The prophet, though is interested in the future. He buys the land as a pledge that it will again belong to its own people, that crops will grow, animals will graze and the people will live there in joy and good health.
And so, even as we hear Jesus telling us things we already know about how the seasons help us keep track of the year, and as he warns about difficulties to come, he is reminding us that God’s pledge is always to come yet again, to make all things new, and he bids us “Stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near.” Looking at it this way, maybe it makes a little more sense to start the year with a few words from closer to the end of the story: getting ready is something we do both at the start and end of life.
As Christians, we say that both life and death are part of the gift of life itself, and we know from our faith and from the life of the natural world around us that death itself brings life: for people, it is the doorway to life eternal, while in the natural world every seed-bearing plant must offer up its fruit in order to continue the cycle.
From the mother of Moses, placing her baby son in his basket in the water, to Hannah, the mother of Samuel, offering her son in service at the Temple, to Mary preparing to offer her son for the healing of the world, and for mothers and fathers everywhere,
it is the cycle of the vocation of parenting that we prepare our children to offer themselves and their gifts to the world. Isn’t this the dream of every parent? That their child might shine with the particular light and life they carry?
We raise our children with an eye to the future. We know about futures, because we can look back, in the cycles of stories of scripture and of our own lineages, that ultimately, God is faithful. That those pieces of barren land are meant for redemption and re-planting a flourishing.
We long to prepare the ground of our children’s lives so that they, too will walk in a fertile valley and be able to bring all that lies in them into its full potential.
And that is the season of Advent and the start of the Church year: it’s not just a waiting period for Christmas. It’s certainly not a shopping countdown.
It’s a season of mystery, of roots spreading out under the winter ground, below our range of vision. It’s a time of invitation—can we trust, in the dark of the year, that out of some baby born in a shed to a teenage mother will come…will come Jesus—our teacher, our prophet, our savior? It’s a season with more questions than answers and sometimes the answers that do come seem pretty unlikely.
It must have seemed pretty unlikely to the people of Judah that their captivity would ever end. That Jeremiah would ever get out of imprisonment to even set foot on the land he purchased. That Mary and Joseph, who could hardly find a roof over their heads, would raise the Christ child.
On a weekend like this, after so much water pouring out of the skies, we may feel like even seeing a warm sunny day seems unlikely. But the call of the New Year is to lean into the unlikely invitation of God’s hope for us. To lean into the richness of our past and the stories of our tradition and to gird ourselves up in the midst of challenges.
We can turn to Jeremiah, or to Paul or to Jesus or to the evening newsand we can hear plenty of things about endings in the world around us.
Even if we’re not in Babylon of Jeremiah’s time or in any of the far too many war-torn countries of our own time, we’ve all had some kind of taste of uninvited occupations in our lives. I have yet to meet a person who hasn’t faced some kind of trials, or who has not struggled with a heart weighed down by the troubles of this life.
But it’s easy for us to latch on to those things in the readings and in the news because
something in us inclines toward the need for sympathy, the need to say, “yes! I’ve had it hard!” Or “I have lost a few.” Or “I wonder if this …will ever end.”
But here is the message of the New Year, and may we take it to heart: Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
Stand up, and raise your heads, my friends. Because your redemption, our redemption, the redemption and healing of the world, by God’s grace and through the joining together in hope and in service of God’s people, is drawing near. People, get ready.
Let us pray: God of justice and peace, from the heavens you rain down mercy and kindness, that all on earth may stand in awe and wonder before your marvelous deeds.
Raise our heads in expectation, that we may yearn for the coming day of the Lord and stand without blame before your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
 This collect for the First Sunday of Advent comes from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, proposed by the Consultation on Common Texts (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), p. 28.