Today is the first day of Advent, the start of the church year, the year of the Gospel of Luke. So you may wonder, why do we start at the back of the book with this doomsday sounding story of the coming of the Kingdom of God?
I’m not sure why we always start with “eschatological” readings – which is just a long fancy word to say the end of time, the time in which Christ comes again. However… it might be to remind us that we read the whole story as one that is not over yet.
Especially at this time of year in which the culture gets so wrapped up in sentimentality – we can use a reminder that Jesus, the Son of God, came with a purpose. Jesus came into the world as one of us to set us free from the powers that threaten to destroy us. But that’s not all. Jesus promised to come again. In our lesson today we are reminded, the Kingdom of God has come near – but it is not complete. God is not done. That means we live “in the meantime.” And Jesus has a job for us – so pay attention.
Pay attention. As Jesus says, there will be strange earthly signs and signs of war. For the people first hearing Luke’s Gospel, they would think immediately of the destruction of the temple in 70 AM. That was a terrifying time for the city of Jerusalem and for both the Jews and the new Christians who fled the city as refugees.
People today might worry about terrorists in Paris or refugees fleeing Syria or Russian planes being shot down over Turkey. Some have worried out loud about whether this is a prelude to World War III.
Jesus does not pacify his followers of any age. Bad things are going to happen. But Jesus’ message is not to prepare for the end of the world or to succumb to fear. He does not issue a call to arms or to fight. But neither does he give platitudes. Instead, Jesus gives two commands. First: “Be on Guard” so that we are not distracted or our senses dulled with dissipation – that is wild and reckless living, drunkenness or the anxieties and fears of this life. Secondly: “Be watchful.” In other words, don’t ignore the world around you. PAY ATTENTION. Jesus knew – and told his followers – that the world is a dangerous place but he also knew – and demonstrated by his actions – that the world was a place in great need.
Pay attention, because as followers of Jesus, you and I, like Luke, have a role to play. We know the end of the story. Our job, a job that we have been called to do by Christ, is to both do Christ's work in our world of need and be witnesses to Jesus at work in our world. We are called to be witnesses to God’s work in our world because, by faith, we are able to see what others do not.
I heard this story at a conference a few years ago about two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and says, "What the heck is water?"1
Sometimes it’s the most seemingly obvious things that don’t get spoken – that don’t get named. As Christians, as followers of Christ, we are called to name the water. We are called to point out the work of Christ. Others don’t have eyes to see it.
Another story. A Christian and an atheist were having an argument about faith. Finally the atheist said – you know, I tried prayer once. But it didn’t work. The Christian said, “Really? What happened?” The atheist said, “Well, I was out in the middle of a snow storm up in Alaska and I had completely lost my way. I thought I was a goner for sure. So I prayed to God for help.”
The Christian said, “Well… you’re here aren’t you? Your prayer must have been answered.”
The atheist replied – “No. I got lucky. Two Eskimos on a dogsled happened to be going by and they stopped and brought me back to safety.”2
How would you interpret that story? The Christian saw it with eyes of faith. The atheist saw it as good dumb luck.
As followers of Christ, we can see that we are swimming in the water of the Kingdom of God. And so we are called to “Pay Attention” to Christ’s work in our world. We are called to point out the work of the Holy Spirit. Christ has come. The Kingdom of God is not just near – it’s here! Christ has come… And Christ will come again.
But what does that look like? Knowing that we live in the waters of the Kingdom of God, how do we live out our lives – especially when situations when things look dire?
One May day in the early years of the Connecticut House of Representatives, the room was bright and so the delegates were able to do their work by natural light. But then, right in the middle of debate, the day turned to night. Clouds obliterated the sun, and everything turned to darkness. Some legislators thought it was the Second Coming. A clamor arose. Some wanted to adjourn. Others called for prayer. A cry went out to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
But the speaker of the House had a different idea. He was a solid Christian believer of good faith and not easily rattled. So he said, “We are all upset by the darkness and some of us are afraid. But, ‘the Day of the Lord’ is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty. I therefore ask that candles be brought.”
And so they went back to their desks and resumed their debate.”3
Do your duty. It sometimes feels rather ordinary. How do we, as one Christian wrote, get caught “living the sort of life that makes people say, ‘Ah…so that’s how people are going to live when righteousness takes over our world.”4 The truth is that often other people won’t notice.
And yet, whether other people notice or not, Jesus calls us to care for one another. And so we: feed the hungry: bring dinner to shut-ins at dinner at your door; supply food to the foodshelf, provide breakfast for the community, brighten someone’s day with a gift to the NEAR toy exchange. These are ways – seemingly ordinary ways – in which we, as followers of Jesus, can love and serve the neighbor.
Loving and serving the neighbor takes practice. And it takes intentionality. On youth trips, one of the questions that we ask the youth in the beginning of the day is to pay attention to how they see God at work. It’s amazing what they share at the end of the day after they have spent the day looking for God’s work. Some see someone helping a child. Others recount the hard work that they did – and the grateful response they received. Still others note a small kindness – an act that might otherwise have been forgotten.
And so, brothers and sisters in Christ, I urge you to be a part of God’s work in our world AND pay attention. Pay attention because the Kingdom of God is at work in the world.
And…. if you have eyes of faith to see it – then Jesus Christ asks you to share that Good news with others so that all can see. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Pastor Pamela Stalheim Lane
November 29, 2015
1 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address - May 21, 2005 by David Foster Wallace
22005 Kenyon Commencement Address - May 21, 2005 by David Foster Wallace
4Standing on the Promises by Lewis Smedes