A Sermon on Luke 21:25-36
by Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
in a joint service with Calvary Presbyterian Church
November 29, 2015 – First Sunday in Advent (C)
25“There will be 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. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Growing up in Mississippi, football was less of a hobby and more of a second religion. While I can’t say that I particularly even like football personally, there’s a pervasive cultural dedication to sports in general that you just can’t escape growing up in the SEC. And one of the legends in the Southeast is former Alabama coach Bear Bryant. Among a number of things, he’s known for his pre-game and half-time speeches to the team, one of which went like this:
“In this game, there are going to be four or five plays that will determine the outcome. Four or five plays that will swing the momentum toward us, or away from us. I don’t know which plays these will be. You don’t know which plays these will be. All you can do is go out there and give all that you have on each and every play. If you are doing that on one of those crucial plays…that play will swing things in our direction. And if we rise to the occasion like that, on those four or five plays, we are gonna leave here today a winner.”[i]
I’ve heard this speech repeated a number of times at pep rallies and sermons, usually in the context of making the right choices or encouraging a certain work ethic. But what strikes me the most about these words today, the First Sunday of Advent, is how much Bryant leans into the inevitable uncertainty he’s facing. He knows that there will be a game with a winner; he knows even that there will be crucial moments that lead toward the end. What he doesn’t know is what those crucial moments will be, when they will happen, or even what all they will involve. He’s encouraging his players, then, to be alert to the unexpected possibilities before them. He won games by being on guard, and not letting his players be weighed down by the enormity of an entire game but rather to anticipate those individual, crucial moments that make things happen. To be prepared. To be awake.
This Sunday marks our own journey into inevitable uncertainty as we step into a season that is rich with mystery and anticipation. Advent is a season in which we look back and prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, and at the same time look forward and prepare for Christ’s return. And yet, whether we look forward or back, we are still in the midst of Advent; we live in the now, in the in-between season. So, how do we live in this in-between space? The message this Sunday is clear: Be alert![ii] Keep awake![iii] Expect the unexpected.
There’s a story that came out of Oxnard, California, last month about an unnamed family who stayed awake in the midst of the unexpected. What was unexpected was the fact that the daughter’s wedding would be cancelled last minute. This isn’t unheard of, of course: engagements get called off, hearts get broken, weddings get canceled. But no one ever plans to be in that situation; it’s not something that we want to happen. But for this family, it came up – and it came up after the reception dinner was paid for and it was too late to cancel the plane tickets. The father was alert to what Bear Bryant might have called a crucial play: instead of taking the financial hit and staying home, the family flew out to California and hosted an expensive plated dinner for 150 people, not who were invited as guests to the wedding, but who lived in the area and struggle with homelessness.[iv] They recruited guests and helpers from the local homeless shelter and fed over 100 people. And so they gathered and celebrated not what they had expected, but something that I suspect was life-changing and unforgettable all the same. They were alert during life’s inevitable uncertainty despite its difficulty, and because they woke up to God’s possibilities, they changed people’s lives – at least for a day. And they offered the world a fresh perspective on what it means to celebrate.
We usually read this scripture passage as a foretelling of things to come, but when we’re honest, we have to admit that this distressed, fainting, foreboding prophecy speaks to our reality right now. Broken relationships, social tension, questions of security and peace. It might be tempting to say “Look, here are all those fig trees that Jesus was talking about – this must be the end!” Here’s the thing: people for generations have looked at current events and seen the fig trees from this passage. And that’s just it – the brokenness and tumult of the world is a continuing given – we live constantly in a world of inevitable uncertainty. The real question is, in the midst of all that, who is Jesus and who are we in response? Are we alert? Are we awake? Are we ready for the unexpected?
This Advent, I would suggest that you are all awake to God’s movement in the world. Did any of you expect to be uniting churches? I certainly didn’t, at least not when I arrived two years ago. Nor do I think any of us anticipated all of those crucial moments that went into this happening. None of us expected two churches to be planted within three miles of each other. None of us expected that decades after their planting, we’d hit a recession. None of us expected that as the economy tanked, the upcoming generation of adults would just stop going to church. None of us expected what a crisis and what an opportunity that would create for churches nationwide. None of us expected how incredibly similar our churches would be, from the way we structure our sessions to the fellowship activities that we love. No one could have expected that years ago when God planted two churches and put all that in motion, that that plant would sprout into a fig tree with full leaves. But faithful still, you were awake to the possibility. You might not have known what moment to look for, but you were faithful disciples in every moment – or at least as many moments as possible – so that when that crucial moment came up, ripe with possibility and uncertainty, you were ready. Like Luke says in our passage, you did not let yourselves be “weighed down” by “the worries of this life,” but you were alert and kept your heads raised high.
I wonder what other unexpected things that God may have in store for us as we move forward. The message today is still clear: Be alert![v] Keep awake![vi] Expect the unexpected. We’re entering into our own Advent of sorts, preparing with anticipation to unite as one church, just as we wait to celebrate Christmas, just as we wait for Christ to come again. It’s in these in-between times that we stay awake, that we anticipate the “crucial plays” of faith to come up. This world is inevitably uncertain, and yet we will give it our all for the one who created us, who redeemed us, who shapes history and unites churches and comes in riding on clouds. The great king and messiah who come to us, unexpectedly, as a baby. God made flesh. Stay awake: God is unexpected, and has amazing things in store for us. Amen.