1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Things look a bit different around here this morning, don’t they? Everything is decked in blue. The Advent wreath is blessed and the first candle lit. The smell of Christmas-tree is in the air. But Luke the Evangelist plops us right back where we’ve been for the past few weeks – preparing for the end-times. Welcome to Advent, friends!
Two weeks ago, we read from the 13thchapter of Mark which, as I told you, is known as the “little apocalypse.” Well, this is Luke’s version of that, probably borrowed from Mark but with a few changes. So, if this is Advent and we are waiting for the birth of the Christ-child, why are we talking about the apocalypse again?
Advent is a time of waiting. It comes from the Medieval Latin word adventus, meaning arrival or appearance.So we are waiting for the arrival of the child in a manger, yes, but we are also waiting for the second appearing of Christ the Sun of Righteousness. It is popular in many circles to describe ourselves as “resurrection people,” those who believe that even out of death, life is born. And this is so. But really, we are Advent people, perpetually in this liminal space of already but not yet. We tell the story of Christ’s birth and life and death and resurrection and the birth of the church year after year, always in expectation that, ultimately, God’s reign will come on earth as in heaven, a time when all of creation is restored in right relationship with God, and there is peace on earth. Theologian Walter Brueggemann wrote that “prophetic word marks a disconnect between that which we cling to and that which we yearn for, what is and what will be. Ministry happens in the space between clinging and yearning.”I think that perfectly describes Advent, somewhere between clinging and yearning.
It sometimes feels like an illusion, because we seem to descend ever deeper into sin and despair with each passing day. But then, but then we read Jesus’s words, some of the final words he will speak to them gathered together, when these terrible things begin to happen, he tells them, “…stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). This is the Jesus version of “do not fear,” that phrase that appears on the lips of priests and prophets and angels 120 times in scripture, usually when the person hearing those words has every reason to be afraid! So, even though signs of the end times might be upon them, Jesus is telling his followers not to be afraid, to straighten your spine, and look ahead, because something good is coming. This is what it means to live in hope.
At the time Luke wrote this gospel, things were not going well for the community of Jesus followers. The temple in Jerusalem was in rubble, just as he had said it would be: ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down’ (Luke 21:6). There was serious disagreement between the Jewish authorities and the Jews who followed Jesus. This is where all the anti-Semitic language in the latter portions of the gospels comes from. It was an inter-Jewish argument, not aninterfaithone. So, rather than hearing these words from Jesus as about gloom and doom, there could actually be good just around the corner.
I received in the mail this week a copy of a new memoir by Barbara Harris, the first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church who was also the first African American woman bishop. The title she chose is taken from an old gospel hymn, Hallelujah Anyhow. The refrain is
never let your troubles get you down,
whenever troubles come your way,
hold your hands up high and say,
You can imagine the kind of resistance she faced over her election as bishop, as a woman, and a black woman, at that. Although she grew up in Philadelphia, she was not immune to the racism that so pervades our country, even before she engaged in Civil Rights work in the South. When the Philadelphia 11 were ordained as the first women priests in the Episcopal Church in July, 1974, Harris, vestry warden at the Church of the Advocate where the service took place, carried the cross. Six years later, she was ordained, and a decade after that, she was elected bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Massachusetts. She was advised to wear a bullet-proof vest for her consecration as bishop. The vitriol she endured, the refusal of churches to welcome her fully, the difficult working relationship with other bishops – it would have been enough to discourage anyone. Reflecting on the racism of the Episcopal Church, she writes, “It’s enough to make me ask what’s the opposite of “Hallelujah.””
And yet, she persevered through it all. Now, at the age of 88, she is revered, not by everyone, but certainly by those women for whom she blazed the trail. There have now been six African American women elected bishop. Our own bishop, Carlye Hughes, was number four.
Sometimes when the going is difficult, you have to heed the words of Luke, stand up and raise your head, and say “Hallelujah anyhow.”
So whether your Advent is filled with challenge and sadness or joyful anticipation of Christmas, the Advent story is for all of us. As a dear friend of mine wrote in an essay a few years ago:
…this is really the season the Church has given precisely for this proclamation to each person without distinction: God is near you. Advent is when God comes to be with us in our longing, in our tears, in our anxiety, in our mourning, in our incarceration, in our poverty, in our illness, in our hidden loneliness, and even in our hatred of Christmas. God is near, and God is coming toward us to be with us.
These four weeks of sacred waiting are hard for those who have cheerful anticipation, just as they are hard for anyone who endures them with any difficulty. The truth written into them over two thousand years—and, we believe, for thousands of years before Bethlehem, too—is that God will join us in the dirtiest and coldest room of our house, in the worst of circumstances, in the most difficult of moments in history, and that he will cry there in the moment of his birth. He will cry because that is what babies do when they take their first breaths, but he will cry, too, because in his tears we can see and hear all of our own tears, and he can see and hear all of ours.
My friends, on this first Sunday of Advent, “…stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” and say “Hallelujah anyhow.”
Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 103.
Barbara C. Harris, Hallelujah Anyhow: A Memoir, (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 2018), xiii.