“There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding for what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and glory.” (Luke 21:25-36)
In this passage the world is being shaken loose. It occurs to me that the upheavals described in apocalyptic texts like this one are very much like the language of creation only in reverse. In the first chapter of Genesis God calls things into being one after the other and pronounces them good. The sun and moon, the earth and waters, and all the living things are summoned into life by God’s creative Word. A world takes shape.
But in our Gospel today that world is shaken to its foundations. The secure, predictable world we have come to know and rely upon is threatened and can no longer be relied upon. The primordial chaos that the original creation turned back, now threatens to break loose upon the world. Then at the very climax of the distress the Son of Man appears in power and glory.
Those early Christians who heard these words in the New Testament period no doubt heard them as reassuring words. Words that expressed the faith that although the world around them was up for grabs and insecure Christ was still in charge and coming soon.
Isaac Watts expresses the mood of this passage in this hymn:
“Deep are his counsels, and unknown,
But grace and truth support his throne;
Through gloomy clouds his ways surround,
Justice is their eternal ground.
In robes of judgement, lo! he comes,
Shakes the wide earth and cleaves the tombs;
Before him burns devouring fire;
the mountains melt, the seas retire.”
Although we may not share the world view of first century Christians let me suggest that their description of a world where everything is being shaken loose can speak to our own sense of insecurity in a world whose foundations are shaken.
How many of us have felt the secure world we knew was being shaken to its foundations? Our life is a perpetual series of change. We move, we gain or lose a job, we marry, have a child, someone we love gets sick or dies, a relationship ends, things change. In truth we live among flux and change all the time. It is not always cataclysmic change, but change nevertheless.
Last spring I was coming back from my Princeton program and I stopped in Bergen County, New Jersey to visit the little town I grew up in. The small old church looked very much the same as when I left over forty years ago, but much else had changed. The house I grew up with was torn down shortly after I left, but there were also new roads and developments, and as I drove around I got disoriented sometimes by the changes. The town that exists in my own mind and the town that exists now bear some resemblance, but are not quite the same town, just as I am not the eighteen year old who left that town so many years ago.
There was an obituary this week for someone who worked at The Busy Bee, a Pittsfield restaurant that I have heard about, but was long gone even when I got here in 1982, displaced by the misguided urban renewal of the nineteen sixties, the same plan that took away the much missed train station on Depot Street. Folksinger Dave Mallet sings a song that laments these losses:
“I miss Main Street, where everyone knew you by name,
I miss Main Street, O how this little town change.
It’s all part of progress, changing the old, for the new.
I miss Main Street, What in the world is this world coming to?”
The point is that the security of the familiar is an illusion of time, and in time we eventually all come to know the feeling of a world that no longer feels secure.
Advent invites us to consider what there is of abiding security in the face of the shaking of the foundations. What can be counted on in a world where everything is shaken loose? Listen to the witness of Psalm 46:
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the seas;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”
We need such a word of hope and reassurance. It is too easy sometimes for us to become fearful and insecure in the face of the world’s changes. Things will change, of that we can be sure, although the changes are often as unpredictable as the results of the recent election.
There was a good slogan on the sign board at Zion’s Lutheran Church this past week. It said: “Election results: God Reigns!” That is just right. isn’t it?
Advent reminds us that God comes to us not only at the end of time, but also from time to time, in gentle visitations that we may miss for our preoccupation with making a secure world apart from him.
The Advent word is not just a word of reassurance, but also a word of judgement, a word of challenge and an invitation to change. There are things about all of us that need shaking to the foundations, and surely things in our society that could well be shaken loose to make the world a more just and Godly place.
Our attempts to find security can be idols. There are idols of race and clan and class that tempt us to find security there. There can be a fearful clinging to a secure past which is not open to the new thing that God is doing in our midst.
A world where the solidities we have counted on are shaken loose offers us the opportunity for new life, new hope, and new faith in the God who comes to meet us even as the foundations are shaking.
The language of Advent is the language of anticipation for God’s new future. It is not a future we can make for ourselves. It may be something we can not readily see or even imagine. Through thick and thin, through trying times and good times, faith waits and watches, alert for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
(I preached this sermon on December 3, 2000 at the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts)