What Are the Signs of Advent?

December 2, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36

The halls are decked, the greens are hung,

and Christmas carols soon will be sung.

‘Tis the season of hope and good cheer,

for love in the flesh soon will be here.

Advent offers those who still remember the true meaning of Christmas the chance to savor the impending birth of the Christ child. There’s no rush to get to the manger. We can linger with prophets of old and imagine together how the messiah will come.

This season of anticipation belong to us, not to the world of glitzy sales and commercial displays. There’s no retail advantage to Advent; it’s simply a time to sit quietly in the flicker of candles and sing our way to hope.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here, until the son of God appear.”

We’re inching our way toward Christmas, taking baby steps through the night. There is no rush to get to the manger. This is our season of delayed gratification and cultivated promise. We wait with all creation for the great turning of time – for with the one who is to come, a new day dawns.

Last week we put up a Christmas tree at our house, a little earlier than usual because family was in town. The tree sits resolutely in the corner of the living room, its lights merrily glinting off the colorful balls and shiny plastic icicles. There’s a certain dutiful quality to it; the tree knows its assignment is to signal what lies ahead.

I noticed the other day that the entire installation – so carefully placed – is leaning to the right. High atop the tree, ducking to avoid the ceiling, the haloed angel appears to be in command. She’s also looking to the right, lifting her arms gently, conducting the tree in a certain direction, leaning toward the light. I wonder what she sees from her lofty perch?

That’s the question for us in Advent. What do we see as we peer into the patient expectation of these slow weeks, as the world – in the words of poet W. B. Yeats – “slouches toward Bethlehem?” What do we see in Advent?

Advent has an apocalyptic edge to it. You hear it in the gospel texts selected for this season, words that point to the second coming of Jesus, rather than his birth. The words are full of shadowy imagery and are, frankly, terrifying. They have a foreboding tone, meant to warn the people who follow Jesus in that mid-first century context.

Luke expects the imminent return of Jesus and the conclusion of history, so he uses words of warning… Keep awake! Watch for signs! Be alert! The skies will darken, the seas will roar, the earth will tremble. The apocalyptic language he employs does not instill much hope; they’re so sinister I almost wish they weren’t in the gospel so we wouldn’t have to preach on them!

We who have been to the manger and back multiple times hear these texts and wonder if there’s still a warning in them we should heed. What do they say to us? Luke and others who use this kind of apocalyptic language look for signals in the realm of nature:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,” Luke says,

“And on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” (Luke 21:25-26)

Luke assumes the Creator’s distress with humankind will be made manifest in the very creation itself, in the wild havoc of nature.

Little does he know.

Polar ice melts. Glaciers disappear. Oceans rise. Islands and coastal regions drown. Drought descends. Torrents of rain cause devastating floods. The scenarios playing out on the earth in our time share Advent’s apocalyptic tone. Heat kills. Forests burn. Habitats are lost. Animals flee. Disease spreads. Extreme weather is the norm. Crop yields decline. Human migration increases. (See https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/)

The whole creation advances toward a future that reflects first-century fears reflected in Luke’s words, slowly at first, but now with increasing speed: “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

The Fourth National Climate Assessment released by our government last week reads like the eschatological texts of old, and offers warning signs this Advent: “By the end of the century,” the analysis says,

“Unchecked climate change could cause tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars in losses and damage. All the evidence points to human emissions of greenhouse gases…as the cause.”

This frightening world is the result of human impact on the environment: “There is clear and compelling evidence,” one scientist involved in the study says,

“That global average temperature is much higher and is rising more rapidly than anything modern society has experienced, and this warming trend can only be explained by human activities… After mid-century, how much the climate changes will depend primarily on release of greenhouse gases.” (https://www.wired.com/story/a-government-climate-study-contradicts-the-president/?mbid=email_onsiteshare)

There’s no doubting the science: the report is the result of two-and-a-half years of study by 13 government agencies. Its release is well-timed for those of us who hear these words in Luke’s gospel and are looking for signs in our Advent. In its words we hear Creation “groaning in travail” – to use the Apostle Paul’s words – under the onslaught of human abuse. The earth itself is speaking up, demanding to be heard.

Signs of ecological degradation abound this Advent, and they raise a theological question: How shall we live as stewards of creation, charged by the Creator with caring for the earth? Advent invites an urgent, but long view, calling us to live in our time in ways that sustain the planet for generations to come. The National Climate Assessment doesn’t only take a negative view; it also offers pathways for response, actions that can be taken today to help tomorrow.

We know what we need to do, and it starts with concerted action to dramatically curtail human dependence on fossil fuels. We’re not likely to experience in our lifetimes the results of today’s earth-saving efforts. There’s rarely immediate change when it comes to environmental action. But that’s no reason not to try.

The prophets of Israel, after all, clung to an enduring vision they would never see. They were stewards of the hope of God, in it for the long haul. Centuries before the birth of Jesus they spoke of one who would come to fulfill divine intentions for the human community and all the earth. It would be many ages until the angels bent low over the earth to sing their Alleluias. The seers would be long gone, but those prophets held fast to their hope. They were confident dreamers.

“The days are surely coming,” says the Lord through the prophet,

“When I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jeremiah 33:14-15)

The Advent of old is a time of unflinching hope in the face of long odds; our Advent can be like that, as well. We should not limit our sight only to signs of the night; some point in the direction of the dawn. The prophets did; they spoke of relief for the poor, release of the captives, an end to war, strangers welcomed, and a return from exile. And in our time we see nations of the world uniting to slow the rate of climate change, we see the growth of renewable energy, we see a new generation of eco-minded youth.

If Advent’s warnings – in whatever age – are meant to frighten us into submission and paralyze us with dread of these awful signs, then I want nothing to do with the season. But if Advent is urging us to look for other signs, indicating a new day, signs of a Messiah foretold by ancient prophets, signs of a time when God’s intentions for this world are realized, then count me in.

“In those days and at that time,” the Lord says through the prophet,

“I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up… and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jeremiah 33:16)

In those days and at that time, all creation will be restored. Even with Jerusalem destroyed and the people in exile, the prophet looks out – like the angel from the top of the tree – and sees signs not of shadows and night, but of a coming dawn.

That is our task this Advent: to look for signs that love and justice are on the move, that light may yet break into this dreary world, that the reign of God, as Luke says, the reign of God has come near – and that we may be part of it.

The halls are decked, the greens are hung,

and Christmas carols soon will be sung.

‘Tis the season of hope and good cheer,

for love in the flesh soon will be here.

Advent offers those who still remember the true meaning of Christmas the chance to savor the coming of the Christ child. There’s no rush to get to the manger.

This season of anticipation, anticipation of good news yet to come, belongs to us.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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