Sermon Text: Luke 21: 25-36
If you were a fly on the wall of the Wood household at about 8:00 every night, you were have the opportunity to observe some really bizarre parenting. Our almost-three-year-old has started complaining mightily every night when it?s time to get ready for bed. This falls into the category of a developmental phase that I just KNEW was coming at some point but REALLY hoped would magically never happen to my child.
So the conversation most nights goes something like this:
Parent: ???????? Okay, buddy. It?s time to head upstairs.
Child: ??????????????????????? NOOOOOO! I don?t want to go upSTAAAAAAIIIIIIRRRRSSSSS!
Parent: ???????? Oh, I know. Wouldn?t it be nice if we could just stay downstairs all night long! What do you think we?d do down here? Would we sleep on the floor? Or maybe on top of the kitchen counter? Even better! Maybe we could go outside with a flashlight and play in the yard all night long, just looking around in the dark. Going upstairs is no fun. I wish we could play all night instead. Maybe when you?re grown up you can stay up all night long.
There is usually a lot of giggling happening by this point. We typically get a few more complaints out of him but he reluctantly gets ready to go to bed. Before we started doing this silly little fantasy tap dance we were saying things like, ?Well, I?m sorry you?re upset, but we do have to go up now. I gave you a warning. We go upstairs every night. It?s important to sleep so we can feel rested.?
I had read in several books that if you just go with whatever you child really wants and make it into a big game, imagining wilder and crazier things with them, it will often alleviate their frustration. Somehow they feel heard and understood. I was very skeptical about trying this because my adult brain told me, ?But if you say something like ?let?s go outside with flashlights? then he?ll just be even more angry that you can?t actually DO that, right??
Nope. It doesn?t make him more angry. It calms him down. It?s astounding. I don?t pretend to really understand how it works, but when it comes to parenting I don?t really need to understand why something works. If it works, we keep doing it until it stops working. So we?re going with this whole fantasy thing.
Today?s passage from Luke takes us into the realm of fantasy, too. Last week I thought to myself, ?Oh, good. Advent starts next week and we?re doing the Gospel of Luke this year, so that will be nice.?
But I had forgotten that Advent with the Gospel of Luke begins with a big apocalyptic bang. This is not a touchy feely text. Instead it?s filled with signs of the end times and warnings about tribulation.
Why on earth would the season of Advent begin with a text like this? Well, for starters, this is a text about waiting. And Advent is, of course, the season of waiting. Waiting for Christ to be born in our midst. Waiting for the strange warming that comes to our hearts when we greet the Christ child in the manger. Waiting for that kindling of hope that comes with the realization that God comes to us again this year in unexpected ways.
Apocalyptic texts like this one are all about waiting, too. Written to give hope to those cast out into the margins of society, apocalyptic is meant to strengthen people living in the midst of chaos. It asserts that there are unseen rules governing all of creation. It asserts that judgment is coming on those who live in ungodly ways. It promises that the poor and the least and the lost will one day be lifted up in glory.
David Lose, a preaching professor at Luther Seminary up in St. Paul, brings forward another reason this Luke passage is appropriate for the beginning of Advent. Lose says that in order to really grapple with this text ?we should first and foremost admit that it will sound to most of our hearers ? and, quite frankly, also to us (if we really listen to it) ? as sheer fantasy.?
Now, lest you think that calling a biblical text fantasy is heretical, hear him out. Here?s a long quote. I?ll let you know when it?s over:
Notice, however, that I didn?t say it?s not true, but rather that it?s fantasy ? as in fantastical, beyond our experience, extraordinary, not of this world. And, I would argue, precisely because it is not of this world, because it is beyond our physical and material existence and experience, it has the power to redeem us. That is, I believe the Bible not because it tells me of things I have seen and know for myself but precisely because it describes a reality that stretches beyond the confines of my finite, mortal existence and therefore has the capacity to redeem me?and you?and this life and world we share.
Fantasy has the power to redeem us precisely because it is not of this world. I don?t understand how this works any more than I understand why spinning tall tales for my two year old helps him make peace with the idea of going to bed, but something about this rings deeply true for me.
As the nights grow longer and the days grow colder, my soul aches as I try to hold together all the things this season brings.
Cheerful holiday gatherings : tense interactions with those we are supposed to love best.
Hymns and prayers urging us to slow down and savor this time of waiting : a sense that December 25 will be here before we know it and there?s still so much to do.
Letters in the mail urging me to do my part to help those in need : catalogs begging me to buy my children more and more toys they don?t need.
News stories of violence in lands far and near, super storms, fiscal cliffs : the warm smile of a perfect stranger who opens the door for me at Target as I rush in out of the cold.
Being human means holding together all of these things.
Living fully into the season of Advent means letting go of much of the familiarity of the rest of the year. This season calls us into a unique time.
It?s a fantasyland, really. We crane our necks to witness the birth of a poor nobody child in a barn. We give beyond our means. We wait for the sound of hooves on our rooftop and leave out cookies for a jolly old elf who comes bearing gifts. It is a time unlike any other in the year.
Like fantasy, I think Advent has the power to redeem us precisely because it is not of this world. If we allow ourselves to live more fully into this fantasy time ? to lose ourselves in the midst of the radical, life-giving promises of Advent ? we will find ourselves changed.
I have some dear friends at Broadway United Methodist Church up in Indianapolis. At Broadway they have a saying, ?Live as if the gospel were true.?
It doesn?t sound like much, right? I mean, surely, as Christians, we should be living as if the gospel were true.
I?m not here to tell you what I think your gospel should be. And, yes, I really do think we can each have our own. In fact, I think it?s one of the great quests of the Christian life to find your own gospel and proclaim it to the world. After all, we have four books that are titled ?gospel? in our holy scriptures. That alone should tell us there is room for all kinds of good news in this world.
My gospel is constantly evolving, but the core of it is this – I believe the opening lines from the creed of the United Church of Canada, ?We are not alone. We live in God?s world.?
We are not alone. To me, that is some of the best news I can imagine. We are not alone. On days when I am living as if that were true, I feel a little less despairing. I feel more loved. I feel stronger. And, in turn, I am able to be kinder. I am able to remember my connections with others. I am able to find more patience with the things that frustrate me. And in the face of deeply frightening situations, I am able to find a sense of peace, knowing that I am not alone.
And we live in God?s world. The beauty that I encounter belongs to God. The horror that I sometimes find still rests in God. There is nothing in this world that can be separated from the love to God. It all exists in God and God exists in all of it.
So what is your gospel? And do you live your life as if it is true? Don?t worry ? I?m not asking you to answer that question right now.
What I am asking is that you consider yourself invited to live more fully into the fantasyland that is Advent.
As you hold together the highs and lows and wrongs and rights and darkness and light of this odd season, give yourself over to the fantasy of it all. Set aside some of your need for concrete answers and facts and rest in the beauty of asking why or how?.and finding no answer. Seek out your gospel ? whatever it may be ? and live as if it were true.
Fantasy has the power to redeem us because it is not of this world.
Advent has the power to stir our souls because it is not ordinary time.
The gospel has the power to save precisely because it is incredible.
?This Advent, may your imagination run wild and may you live as if the gospel is true.