Sermon for First Advent -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
Have no fear.
One theme which runs through Christianity and is especially important in this preparation and waiting season in the church we call Advent is “have no fear.”
And, it is certainly a theme for us Christians can and should rally around in 2015.
We are living in very fearful times. Polls and the news media tell us that, even though there is no credible evidence, 85% of Americans fear an attack on US soil by ISIS, an imminent attack. Immigrants and Muslims and African Americans and now even disabled people are scapegoated and mocked by US presidential candidates. They all are people not to be welcomed and embraced but people to be feared, or dismissed and ignored, or so we are told.
And yet, Christianity, our faith, tells us, “have no fear.”
At first glance, today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 21:25-36), this first Sunday in Advent, sounds pretty fearful: The text includes words such as “distress among nations,” confusion, people fainting with fear, “the powers of the heavens will be shaken” – sounds pretty fearful to me.
However, in light of similar words in both Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels and with a more complete reading and a closer examination of Luke’s telling of Jesus’ words about the “end times,” I believe this text is not only not fearful, I believe it delivers the opposite message and that message is “have no fear.”
Scholar David Lose suggests that, while Mark ties dreadful signs in heaven and earth to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Luke in today’s lesson, writing ten to twenty years later, distances the promised end of history from the Temple’s destruction. Luke, Lose suggests, is deliberately vague about when Jesus will return, refusing to offer any hint of a timetable. Instead, Luke asserts that just as budding fig leaves unmistakably herald the advent of summer, so also will the signs of the coming kingdom be transparent to the Christian community.
Different from the other Gospel writers is Luke’s emphasis not only on watchfulness but also on the character and behavior of the discipleship community. Jesus, in Luke’s account, urges his followers to avoid getting caught up in either the excessive pleasures or worries of the day. Jesus’ followers should not despair or be hopeless. And, they should also not be absorbed in this world’s pleasures. Instead, Jesus’ followers are to watch confidently for their Lord’s return, whenever it might come.
You see, Luke has shifted the question from “when will these things happen?” to “how shall we live in the meantime?” Shifting the question from “when” to “how” highlights what is the most stunning part of this passage – the most stunning part of this passage is the part when Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
In the face of fear, Jesus calls us to “stand up and raise our heads.” How can Jesus assert that ominous and foreboding events are actually signs of our redemption? Because, according to Luke and other early Christian theologians, we live and work, love and struggle between the two great poles of God’s intervention in the world: first, the coming of Christ in the flesh in order to triumph over death through his cross and resurrection – and today’s text does come just before Luke’s account of Jesus’ passion and death – and second, the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time and Christ’s triumph over all the powers of earth and heaven. Thus, we live in an “in-between time,” sometimes fraught with tension, but nevertheless also a time that should be characterized by hope and courage. That is because we know that the end of this story, while not yet here, has been written by the resurrected Christ.
Hope and courage, not fear. Have no fear.
I believe these are important words for this and any time. For this time, they are words that can remind us that when others are afraid to be out during the holidays for fear of terrorist attack, we can stand up and raise our heads, for our redemption has already drawn near in Jesus. When we are too afraid to admit to our country those seeking a safe home for fear they may be terrorists, we can remind each other to stand up and raise our heads, for our redemption has already drawn near in Jesus (who himself was a refugee as a child!). When the violence of our city streets push us to abandon civil rights and protections for all people regardless of their race or ethnicity, we can remind each other to stand up and raise our heads, for our redemption has already drawn near in Jesus.
I believe that violence is not the greatest threat to us today, but fear. Fear drives us to forget who we are. Fear causes us to see people in need as the enemy. Fear convinces us to place securing our safety and comfort above meeting the basic needs of those in distress. Thus, fear is more dangerous than violence because fear can lead us to forget our deepest identity and betray our most cherished values. Fear, as we see in the current Presidential campaign, brings out the worst in us.
In this context, Jesus reminds us that he is the Lord of history and, because we trust that he will in time bring all things to a good end, we can in the meantime stand together in courage and compassion and treat all persons with the love of God we have known in him. This is the hope that is a hallmark of the Christian faith, from the angels telling the shepherds that first Christmas Eve not to fear, to the angel telling the women on Easter morning not to fear. This is the hope that rings throughout Scripture each time a biblical character sings that summary of the Gospel, “Have no fear.” It is a message never more needed than today, when so many of our actions and decisions seem driven by fear, a lack of confidence, and an overwhelming sense of insecurity.
This Advent, as we wait and prepare once again for Jesus to come anew into our hearts this Christmas, our congregation can be, should be, a place of light and hope, courage and confidence as we welcome all those struggling with fear and darkness. And, we can be this sort of place, because we know, as we will hear again and again this Advent and Christmas season, we know that the light of Christ shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The light of Christ shines on the darkness and the darkness has not, does not, and cannot overcome it. That is the message of Advent and Christmas this year and all years.
So, stand up, raise your head, your redemption draws near.
Have no fear.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Have No Fear
Sermon for First Advent
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
November 28/29, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California