Last week we finished off the year by celebrating Christ the King who will reign in power and glory when the kingdom of God comes in all its fullness. That is how the Christian story ends.
Now, today, we go back to the beginning. Today we begin a season of preparation, which helps us get ready to celebrate Christ’s birth.
For the next three Sundays, the Advent readings are what you would expect. They are about what comes before Jesus. They are about John the Baptizer, Jesus’ great forerunner, and about Mary, Jesus’ mother.
But today’s gospel reading seems like a puzzling choice for the beginning of Advent. Today’s gospel reading seems more appropriate to last Sunday, to Christ the King Sunday. Today’s reading comes from late in Luke’s gospel, and it is all about the end of the story, not the beginning.
But there is a great wisdom in starting the Christian year with the promise of Christ’s Second Coming.
That is because what we begin today is not just four weeks of preparation to celebrate Christ’s birth come Christmas. Today is that. But today is also more.
Today begins a year-long journey through Scripture and the good news of God’s saving work in Christ Jesus our Lord. That year-long journey culminates with the promise of Christ’s return to establish the kingdom of God in peace and justice. As we embark on that journey, as we tell again the story of Jesus from birth, through earthly ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, and all the way to final return, as we embark on that story, it is helpful to recall where the journey ends. And that is what our gospel reading is all about.
The point is probably obvious enough, but here is a trivial parallel. My son Benjamin is heading back to College today. The mother of one of his college friends will drive him. When I chatted with her about what time she would pick him up, we worked backwards.
She wants to be back home by 7:00. It takes just over three hours to drive back home, so she needs to leave Middlebury by 3:30. That means she needs to leave our house not later than noon. And that means Benjamin can come to Church today!
The point is, she and I started at the end and worked backwards to figure out how the trip should begin. In an important way, the end defined the whole trip. The same is true for our year-long trip through the Bible. Today we start at the end of the story so that we can know where we are heading as we set out.
So what does our gospel reading tell us about our ultimate destination?
First, it will be scary. Jesus says, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”
Some fear seems inevitable.
After all, we will come face to face with the all-powerful and all holy God. God can see right through all our pretenses and all our masks. God can see all the sin and guilt and shame that we try so desperately to hide. God knows our insecurities and weaknesses. Encountering the God who knows us perfectly, warts and all, is an unnerving prospect!
Or we can think about our society as a whole. Yet another violent episode was reported in the newspaper just yesterday, and this one closer to home. This time it was not a dark-skinned, foreign Muslim extremist killing people in another country. The story is still unfolding, but this one seems to have been a white American Christian extremist killing people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado.
Stories like that will keep coming. Stories like that can and do fill us with fear and foreboding.
So I say again, some fear seems inevitable.
But though fear may be inevitable, fear is NOT desirable. Fear is NOT one of the Christian virtues. Fear is NOT one of the gifts of the Spirit. Fear is NOT something we cultivate. Fear is something we suffer through.
We do not always get that. Some sermons are all about hellfire and brimstone. Some Churches show graphic movies about end-time tribulations to teenagers in order to terrify them into doing right. That is a mistake. It may work for some people, but it traumatizes others. And traumatized people know a lot about what it means to grow faint with fear and foreboding at what is coming upon the world. But traumatized people have a hard time hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.
And the good news is, Christ comes to set us free from the power of sin and death, and that includes freedom from fear.
In our gospel reading, Christ acknowledges the reality of our fear. But Christ invites us NOT to faint from fear and foreboding. Christ invites us “NOT [to be] weighed down . . . [by] the worries of this life.” In the key line of our gospel reading, Christ invites us to “stand up,” to “raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.”
We are called to be people of hope, not people of fear. We are called to stand tall, to raise our heads, to celebrate the good news of God’s redemption even in the midst of trials and tribulations.
We sometimes ask, what is our world coming to? Our gospel reading answers that question. Our world is coming to redemption. Our world is coming to a time when Christ will reign with power and great glory. Our world is coming to the kingdom of God.
And if we know that, if we know where the journey ends, if we can trust in the promises of God, then we can work backwards. We can make sense of our journey, even the hard parts. We can take our journey with courage and confidence, standing tall, with heads raised, looking for redemption and justice. We can see little signs of our ultimate destination in God all along the way.
All of that is to say, we need not be defined by fear even if we are sometimes afraid. Christ invites us to something better, to faith and to hope. Particularly on this first Sunday of Advent, we celebrate hope, hope for Christ’s final victory which ripples backwards over our entire journey towards God’s kingdom.
We are all at different stages in our personal journeys.
But today, on this first Sunday of Advent, we work all the way backwards, from the final consummation of God’s creation all the way back to the time before Christ’s first coming. Today, liturgically speaking, we embark once again on the journey. And even though we know that parts of the journey will be hard, frighteningly hard, today we embark in Christian hope, confident of our ultimate destination.
And so today I invite you to a holy Advent. I invite you to reflect on where you are in your journey and to remember where you are heading. I invite you to a season of preparation to greet our Lord at his coming. I invite you to make the words of our Psalm your own: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you.” I invite you to cultivate Christian hope.
In the name of the One who is to come. Amen.