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Luke 21:25-36, from the Common English Bible
There are signs, and there are surprises.
The first gray hair is a sign. And so the beauty of a full head of white hair and the simple joys of aging can come as a surprise.
A lump in the breast could be a sign. A full and long life on the other side of cancer is a gift.
Butterflies in the stomach is a sign. True love that lasts is something of a miracle.
Another setback, another bad diagnosis, another rejection, the pain that never goes away, the depression that never lifts—we’re sure it’s all a sign that the end is near. But then we never expected to still be here, could have never seen that recovery coming, were totally surprised by joy. And so we’re not so sure.
There are signs, and there are surprises, and then there are things we could never imagine in a million years.
And that is what Advent is about: That thing, that feeling, that love, that wholeness, that belonging, that peace we want more than anything. All those things and more that God wants for us.
And that is exactly what’s coming: The way things were meant to be.
That is just what we’re getting ready for—even though we have no idea what it will look like or how it will come or when it will get here.
That is why Advent bids us to live on tiptoe—ever expectant, eyes wide, heart aflutter, arms outstretched. That is why Advent invites us to heed the signs, yes; to pay attention, sure; but also to let our imaginations run wild, to ask God for the impossible, and then to get ready to receive it.
An engagement is a sign. A missed period before the wedding is a sign. But an angel showing up and saying this baby is God’s child? That’s just plain crazy!
Giving birth in a barn because there’s no room in the inn is a sign. Being forced to flee to another country with your child because the government is killing people is a sign. Finding refuge is a relief, but having foreign kings show up? With gifts? You couldn’t make this stuff up!
A precocious child is a sign. A man who leaves family, home, and livelihood to hang out with the poor and the sick, the sinner and the desperate is, perhaps, an embarrassment. A self-appointed teacher with a Messiah complex who’s riling up the religious authorities and attracting exactly the wrong kind of attention from the occupying power is a serious concern.
Rejection is a clue. Crowds indicate something—but what is hard to say. Persecution is hard to ignore. And execution—well that is a sure sign of failure! Until, that is, the tomb is found to be empty, until love is proven to be stronger than death.
There will be signs, Jesus says. Signs in the sun and the moon and the stars. Signs in the conflict and confusion among nations. Signs in the waves on the sea. Signs in the leaves on the trees.
We think we know those signs: Fires and floods and changing climate. Mass shootings in schools and churches and synagogues and concerts and bars. Unarmed African-Americans being killed by police officers. A dramatic increase in violence against Jews. The separation of children from parents and parents from children. The tear-gassing of children, and the deportation of fathers. Life expectancy that is dropping because the suicide rate is rising. A nation divided against itself and against the world.
Stay alert for the signs, Jesus says. Look for them. Watch for them. Wait for them. Act on them. Because God’s realm is near. Your deliverance is at hand.
But we have seen this movie before. We are sure we know how this will end.
Until we don’t.
Until millions of people who have never before been politically active start marching and lobbying for justice, writing letters and making phone calls, running for office and voting. Until grandparents get solar panels, and young people take a climate-change lawsuit to the Supreme Court. Until we began loving our enemies as well as our neighbors. Until lots of faithful, law-abiding Christians see Christ in the stranger and open their doors to become sanctuaries. Until we begin sharing more of what we have.
Yes, the powers and principalities are real. As much as we hate to admit it, evil is real and, some days, impossible to ignore. Some days we are determined to do whatever it takes to spread love and hope, to work for justice and peace. Other days we vacillate between anger and despair. We cannot see a way out.
Until Advent comes ’round again. Until we remember that God’s love and justice are always coming ’round again, showing up in places we didn’t expect in people we hadn’t noticed before.
The darkness can feel impenetrable—until we stop doing a thousand different things and make time to be still. Until we stop spreading ourselves so thin and, instead, make the decision to go deep. Until we ground ourselves in love and goodness. Hope can be nothing more than a dream, a distant, long-lost friend—until we ask for help. Until we open ourselves to receive. Until we start making room for God to do a new thing. Until we stop counting down to a bitter end, and start counting forward to a fresh start. Until, little by little, we let the Spirit of Love transform us. Until we know the joy of living for the well-being of all.
Then we will be able to say, even in the depths of our despair: Surely the days are coming when God’s promises will be fulfilled. Surely a Light is among us that no shadow can overcome. Surely God is with us. Surely God is not finished with us yet.
So let us not worry about getting ready for Christmas. Let us delight in preparing our hearts for Jesus.
Let us be less preoccupied with our want of things and more in touch with our deepest desires.
Let our anger at injustice be righteous, and let God’s extravagant love for all make a home in our hearts.
Let us take note of the signs but also attend to our prayers—in every form they take.
Let us greet Advent with all the faith-filled imagination child a parent has for the future of their newborn child, with all the wonder of a child on Christmas Eve.
Because surely Emmanuel, God-With-Us, is coming.
And the world is about to turn.