A Journey towards God

The First Sunday of Advent, 2018, Year C

The children were given binoculars on Sunday – as we look on this Sunday to the horizon of history. The theme for the day was “A Journey towards God,” and the texts for Sunday can be found with the post: “The season of hope.” These are a few passages from the day’s sermon. The full message can be found here.

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I need to begin this morning by acknowledging that we have turned our attention to the Gospel of Luke. Advent is the beginning of a new church year, and each year our Gospel readings center on one of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark or Luke – with readings from John scattered throughout the year on special days and seasons.

Again, just as a reminder, it seems clear that Matthew and Luke built their Gospels using Mark as there base, sometimes copying Mark verbatim, but usually correcting Mark’s grammar and style. Mark’s Gospel seems to have been an oral gospel, a recited story that was written down and passed around. Matthew and Luke are more literary; Luke, especially, follows the conventions of ancient historical writing.

Part of what this means is that Mark was composed in the urgency of the moment, during the brutal Roman war. Luke is composed some ten years later in the aftermath of that horror. So, in a sense, Mark is about “How do we survive this moment in time?” while Luke is asking, “How do we live as Christians in a changed and changing world?” Mark is dealing with refugees. Luke is dealing with life ten years later.

Luke has also written a two-volume work, telling not only about the words and deeds of Jesus, but the story of Jesus’ followers we know as the Book of Acts. So we might describe Luke’s work as an account of the mission of Jesus in his life and through his followers.

This is deeply important for us to hear. The work and words of Jesus continue in the lives of his followers. And this means not just in those we have labeled as apostles, or those in the ancient church, but the mission of Jesus continues in us.

And what is the mission of Jesus? (Or, more precisely, what is the mission of God in Christ Jesus?) It is to reconcile the world to God and to one another. It is to bring the reign of God, to bring the new creation, to bring the healing and transformation of the world.

We hear this from the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel. When Gabriel appears to Mary at the annunciation he says to her:

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:30-33)

Or think about what Mary sings in the Magnificat

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
….and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
….Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
….and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
….from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
….he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
….and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
….and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
….in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
….to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

What is present to us in Jesus is a new birth of the world. And the followers of Jesus are the messengers of Jesus carrying that new birth to the world.

So when we describe this first Sunday in Advent as being about our Journey towards God, we aren’t just talking about my individual spiritual journey, but the journey of the whole world to its recreation. We are being made new. We are being brought to our true humanity. The world is being restored to its perfection, its wholeness. As the father of John the Baptist will sing

By the tender mercy of our God,
….the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
….to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79)

The journey to God is the journey of all creation to its true life.

On the one hand, it’s odd that we don’t start this new year in the Gospel of Luke with the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. We start way back in chapter 21. The only thing that comes after this is the death and resurrection of Jesus. But, on the other hand, this is the right place to start, because the text is looking to the horizon of human history. The church year is starting with a reminder that the human story is moving towards redemption.

We are moving towards a creation made new. We are moving towards the day when the Spirit of God reigns in every heart. This means we are fundamentally and profoundly people of hope. We don’t look on the sorrows of the world around us with despair. We don’t lay our dead in the ground imagining this is the end. We don’t see the triumph of lies and deceptions and hate as the end of civilization.   It may be the end of our civilization, but it is not the end of God’s work with the world. It’s not the end of the human story.

This is the struggle that happens to Israel in Babylon when everything in Jerusalem has been utterly destroyed. Nothing remains of the kingship, the temple or the people but rubble. And in the face of that desolation many say that there is no future for the people. They should adopt the values of Babylon. But Jeremiah is sent to declare that a new branch will rise from David’s fallen line.

He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 33:15-16)

We hear this same deep and profound hope in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi when he writes about the love of God overflowing in them knowing that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)

Almost everything you hear from radio and TV preachers and all those who are so obsessed with the end times, fails to understand what the scripture is saying. It’s not punishment that’s coming; these are but the birth pangs of a new world. And we are not supposed to be sitting around waiting to be plucked off the earth; we are supposed to be doing our Father’s business. We are not to be preoccupied with the cares of this world, but with lives of faithfulness, justice and mercy, with the word of Grace, with setting people free from the chains that bind them.

This is why the book of Acts is so important. For what do we see there? We see outcasts welcomed, and the lame walking and leaping and praising God. The Ethiopian Eunuch is baptized and welcomed into the household of God. The Roman centurion Cornelius is given the gifts of the Spirit. The young Eutychus is raised from the dead. (Eutychus was sitting in a second story window and fell asleep during the sermon and fell to his death.) The young girl oppressed with a Pythian Spirit is delivered. The Philippian Jailor is saved from death and takes Paul into his home and washes his feet – an action that reminds us of Jesus bending to wash his followers’ feet at the last supper.

We are not waiting with dark pleasure at the thought that the wicked are finally going to get their due. We are rejoicing in the rebirth and transformation of the world. We are sowing the seeds of mercy and light. We are living our reconciliation. We are bearing witness to the mercy of God. We are bold in the face of death, for death has lost its sting. We belong to God. The world belongs to God. And we are headed toward life. Even if it were possible for heaven and earth to pass away, says Jesus, his promise will not pass away.

The shaking of the powers of the heavens doesn’t mean literal changes to the physical universe – the reference is to the governing powers that oppress human life. The powers that are shaken are hate and fear and racism. The powers that are shaken are tribalism, greed and falsehood. The powers that are shaken are all the tyrants that rule – because a new king is coming: one who reigns in justice and righteousness, one who fills all creation with faithfulness to God and one another, one who sets right the world.

And we are part of that mission. We are the resistance. We have seen the empty tomb. We have tasted the Grace. We have felt the Spirit’s breath. We know the powers of this world cannot stand. We know the world’s true king. We know that redemption is drawing near.