December 2, 2018
First Sunday in Advent
(Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36)
Most of us look for meaning in the signs and events of daily life. We wonder how God might be acting in our lives – or if he is absent. Was this a chance meeting with an old friend, or part of something greater? Was it a coincidence that I was thinking of this person when I received a call from him or her? Did the inclement weather keep me at home so I was able to spend time with my family? Not only we, but generations of those who have gone before us, discerned meaning in the events of daily life. The ancient pagan Romans looked to the sky for omens, and read the entails of slaughtered chickens to discern how the gods were acting in the world.
The Gospel reading today gives readers signs that will accompany the end times, the coming of the Son of Man. But we would be mistaken if we took these passages literally. And it’s certainly true that hundreds if not thousands of people have done just that – looked for signs to be fulfilled literally.
So, where would we be without signs?
You probably don’t think about them that much, but you use them every day. They tell which streets are one-way, how fast you are allowed to drive, where to find a restroom (and which one is for your gender when you get there), when your favorite store is open, where to buy a meal, what dangerous areas to avoid, where to find a sale, and a zillion other things that are part of daily life.
Without signs, we’d be confused, unsure where we were, have no idea where to find our daily necessities and, a good bit of the time, actually lost. (Of course the adage goes that men don’t stop to ask directions – I tend to add that they do not read signs either!)
But what happens when signs give a mixed message or simply make no sense? That’s the case more often than you might suppose. Doug Lansky, author, columnist and occasional show host on the Discovery Channel, released a book containing photos of signs he and others have taken on travels around America and a number of other countries. Titled Signspotting, the book shows some signs that are unintentionally comical because they were composed by people for whom English was not their first language, such as a sign spotted in Thailand that reads, Of clouse, we spoke England! or the one on a clinic in China that announces the name of the institution in Chinese, but then translates it into English as Painful Treatment Center of Cancer. Or this one from Namibia: Toilet / Stay in Your Car.
Other signs shown in the book are from English-speaking countries and composed, we assume, by people who have spoken English all their lives, but the postings are laughable. Since I need a pick-er-up this week, here are several more examples:
• From Los Angeles, California: Caution: Blind Drivers Backing Out.
• From here in San Diego, California: Cruise Ships / Use Airport Exit.
• From Lake District, England: Barf Bed & Breakfast.
Some of the best, however, are those that send a mixed message, such as these:
• From Kanab, Utah: Six Mile Village / 3 miles.
• From Los Angeles, California: Antique Tables Made Daily!
• From Mill Valley, California: A sign reading Evacuation Route, with an arrow pointing straight ahead, but on the same post directly above it is another sign reading, Not a Through Street.
• From a portable sign in Racine, Wisconsin: Happy Easter! / We Rent Handguns.
• From Burleigh, Wisconsin: Reserved for Drive Thru Parking Only.
• From Mitchell, South Dakota: Safe Haven Small Animal Hospital / Hunters Welcome!
• From Maui, Hawaii: Bottomless Pit / 65 feet deep.
• From Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Walker’s Funeral Home / ATM Inside.
• From Pigeon Forge, Tennessee: Please Help Keep Boogertown Clean.
• From Warwick Castle, England: Torture Chamber / Unsuitable for Wheelchair Users.
Maybe one reason we enjoy the contradictory signs is because contradiction seems to be a characteristic of the more important signs in our lives, too.
Our Gospel reading has Jesus talking to his disciples about signs that will precede the return of the Son of Man to earth. He speaks of cosmic changes, signs in the sun, moon and stars, as well as distress among the nations and deep foreboding in the hearts of individuals.
But some of us might want to say, “Well, that’s fine that you can describe the signs and their meaning, Jesus, but I’m not having that kind certainty when I look at the world. It seems to me that we’ve got all kinds of cosmic changes (witness the hurricanes and devastating fires this year or the dire predictions about global warming that we’ve been hearing for several years now), and certainly there is no shortage of distress among nations today. And many of us are often filled with foreboding after listening to the evening news.”
But — and here’s our problem — in one form or another, this sort of stuff has been going on for centuries, so what do those signs mean, if anything, other than that life isn’t easy? Is Jesus about to come back or is what we are witnessing just the way things are in a world where good and evil battle it out?
One senior citizen remembers as a kid hearing a grown man commenting on world troubles in the news at that time and saying “We must be living in the end time!” But now that kid is an old man himself and the world is still going on. So the troubles back then weren’t signs of the end after all. My mother used to exclaim that the world was going to Hell in a hand-basket, and yet here we are and now I hear myself saying the same words. Apparently, we have forgotten the short-cuts or misread the signs.
Further, even this Gospel text itself is contradictory. Jesus’ comment about signs is part of a conversation with his followers. It began when some of them commented on the magnificent stones used in the building of the temple and Jesus responded by saying that the day would come when not one stone would be left standing. He was clearly predicting the demolition of the temple (which actually happened later that century, in A.D. 70) at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.
Jesus’ followers then ask what sign will signal the coming of that calamity, and Jesus answers by reeling off a list of troubles — false messiahs, wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues and cosmic disturbances. But even before all of that, Jesus continues, his followers will experience persecution, which will also be a sign. In addition, Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies, Jesus says, but then we get to the passage we read today, and all at once Jesus is talking about these disturbing signs as signals that he is about to return to earth.
You can imagine his hearers’ sudden confusion. “Say what? I thought we were talking about the end of the temple and the city and now you’re speaking of the end of the world?”
And, of course, we know that did not happen in A.D. 70.
Finally, as if to cement the confusion, Jesus says to his hearers (in verse 32 which is not part of our reading today), “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”
Okaaay. But which things? Well, the temple and city, but not the second coming, yet isn’t that what Jesus was saying?
Now it’s certainly possible that Luke, in recording this conversation, actually mashed a couple of different topics Jesus discussed together, but if that’s the case, then Luke was having the same kind of trouble we have in distinguishing a crisis near at hand from another one yet to come — trouble making sense of the signs. If we did not have trouble distinguishing crises, then we would not have times when we think, “We must be living in the final days” or “How can things get worse than they are now?” or “The world is going to hell in a hand-basket.”
Now here we are in the season of Advent. The word “advent” means “coming” or “arrival” and symbolizes both the era before Jesus came the first time, when people were waiting for the promised Messiah, and also our era before the Messiah comes again. And neither the people who lived before the first advent nor we who live before the second have proven very adept at reading the signs.
This is complicated by our trouble knowing what the New Testament’s words about the second coming even mean. The first Christians apparently took them quite literally, and many expected Christ to return within their generation.
But 2,000 years later, it’s hard for many to know quite what to make of Second-Coming talk. You can only stand gazing eagerly at the sky for so long with nothing happening before you start to feel ridiculous.
And so eventually, if you are a person of faith, you might conclude that maybe the second coming is not meant to be understood quite so factually but instead as a promise of God’s final victory and the full coming of his kingdom.
But even that is clouded by the ongoing march of time and the endless stream of troublesome happenings on the world stage. Those troubles could be read as signs (and sometimes are by some people), but once those troubles are past, they seem in retrospect to not have been signs after all, but simply events, and now part of history.
Yet we cannot dismiss the idea that some events are indeed also signs, and to miss a sign can mean to not be ready for what they portend.
Consider this example: World War II actually started on September 1, 1939, when Hitler’s army invaded Poland, but there was a warning sign before that. Hitler’s original plans called for the invasion to begin the preceding week, on August 26. In fact, he had 16 combat units in place and ready by that date. But then, the evening before the 26th, some last-minute developments — including Italy’s sudden decision not to help with the invasion — caused Hitler to put his plans on hold. He had word sent out by radio to all his units to come home, but communication technology being what it was in 1939, one unit didn’t get the message. Thus, at the stroke of midnight on the 26th, that unit entered Poland and captured a strategic mountain pass and railway, and took some Poles as prisoners. When that unit’s leader telephoned headquarters to report the victory, however, he was told of the change of plans. So he released his prisoners and led his unit home.
Naturally, this stumble should have alerted the Polish leaders that Germany was up to no good, but inexplicably, they let the incident pass without recognizing what it meant. Thus, when the Germans did invade Poland on September 1, the Poles were taken by complete surprise, and quickly succumbed. They were not ready.
That idea of not being ready can happen spiritually, too. An old poem by Lois Blanchard Eades titled “If Jesus Came to Your House” put the idea of Jesus’ return in a one-on-one setting.
It begins by asking what you’d want to do if Jesus suddenly announced he was coming to visit at your house for a few days. Would you be eager to see him or would you be busy hiding certain materials you’d be embarrassed for him to see? Would your family conversation be able to go on as before or would there have to be some coaxing of family members to clean up their act? Would you suddenly have to begin using a table grace? Would you take him with you all the places you had planned to go and would you want him to meet your closest friends? The poem ends by asking:
Would you be glad to have him stay forever on and on? Or would you sigh with great relief when he at last was gone?
That may be a bit too literal for some of us to make much out of, but it captures some of the anxiety that the idea of missing the signs suggests.
So in attempting to understand and interpret the events of our day, one hazard is that we’ll miss the signs altogether.
But a greater danger is that we’ll misread them. We can watch reports of great trouble in the news and look at the difficulties in our own lives and view them as signs that despair is warranted. There are facts that even in the broad sunlight are hard enough to take, but couple them with a midnight mood, when all our defenses are down, and they can lead us to lose hope. This is as it has seemed for me this past week.
It’d be a shame to do that because despair can cause us to miss the most important thing Jesus said in this whole passage. Remember that he was talking to those who were following him, and to them he said, “But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”
In other words, Jesus says that to read the world’s troubles only as omens of doom is to misread them. Instead, and against all conventional logic, we should see them as foreshadowing’s of our redemption, advance notices of God’s kingdom, in which, as followers of Jesus, we already hold citizenship.
Doom and gloom precede redemption and salvation.
And if that’s the case, then the world’s tribulations and our personal trials can be understood as reasons for us to remain faithful, hopeful and optimistic in the long view.
And the long view is what is called for. Harry Emerson Fosdick, tells of having a conversation with the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was so convinced of the universal tendency for humans to abuse power that he was pessimistic about the possibility of society becoming moral. Still, he was not without ultimate hope in God and believed that individual acts could be conducted on a higher moral level than that of the society in which the individual lived. Fosdick, however, had more confidence in humankind’s ability to progress, and thus, he urged Niebuhr to be more optimistic.
Niebuhr responded, “If you will be pessimistic with me decade by decade, I will be optimistic with you aeon by aeon.”
That’s a hard position to take when we are in the midst of conflict, troubles and threat, for it calls for us to see the good news behind the bad news. But of course, Good News is what the Gospel of Jesus means. As Niebuhr put it elsewhere: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.”
Thus, if we believe Jesus, then we should not view Advent as merely a preparation season for Christmas. It is a time to remind ourselves not to misread the calamitous signs in our world as reasons to despair. Rather they are signals to stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.
Let us pray.
That the Church to be a beacon of hope in troubled times. We pray to the Lord.
That all people throughout the world dwell in safety and work for justice. We pray to the Lord.
That those who suffer from depression, anxiety, and mental illness might know the love and tender care of the God of hope. We pray to the Lord.
That each of us here might give up our daily anxieties so as to live more fully into God’s promise of peace.
That we be reminded that during Advent preparation should begin for Christmas. We pray that our preparation be a spiritual one and that our real joy be in celebrating the coming of Christ, our Savior. We pray to the Lord.
That the Lord grant us the time and energy, the foresight and the wisdom to review how we each live our life – with our family, our friends, our community, our work and most importantly, with our God. We pray to the Lord.
We remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers. We pray to the Lord.
God of abounding love, you call us to live with you in holiness and peace. Grant our prayers that we might grow closer to you each day. Jesus said in today’s Gospel that we should always be awake, for we never know when our loving Father will call us to Him. We pray Lord that in our busy lives, we always remain alert and be prepared to listen to Your voice and carry out Your holy will. We ask all this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA
Happy Advent, everyone!!