Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent – December 3, 2023
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
When you look to the future, what do you see? What do you hope for? What do you expect it to be like? Are you excited? Are you afraid? Are you a little of both? If you’re like me, it depends on the day.
Back in the 1950s there was a strong sense of optimism. The second World War had been decisively won, and the technologies developed to win that war were now being put to use to make life easier and better through a myriad of new convenience products. This optimism about the future found its epitome in Walt Disney’s “Tomorrowland.” I remember going to Disneyland as a kid in the late 70s and seeing the displays of how technology was going to make everyone’s life into a utopia. The future looked like “The Jetsons,” where every family would have a flying car and a robot maid and a vending machine-like contraption which would spit out meals with the push of a few buttons. People would live in gleaming, streamlined cities designed for efficiency and comfort. The view towards the future was one of optimism, even utopianism. Through technology and human ingenuity, everything was about to get better!
Today that optimism seems to be harder to come by. Our cultural vision of the future is no longer utopian. It is now more often dystopian. Think of popular culture the last few decades. We had the Terminator movies in the 80s and 90s, where our machines were depicted as turning against us. There was the Hunger Games in the twenty-teens, which depicted a future where people are pitted against each other for entertainment. More recently there was the popular HBO series “The Last of Us.” Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road,” is one of the most celebrated novels of the past twenty years. There is an entire genre of dystopian stories, and they are very popular. When the storytellers of today look to the future, most of them seem to see darkness. They see civilization descending into chaos. They see technology turning against us, wreaking havoc. These stories might be entertaining. They might be insightful. Some of them might even end up being prophetic. But one thing is for sure is that as a genre with remarkable popularity they mark a shift in the cultural mood towards pessimism about the future.
What are we to make of all this as Christians? How are we to look at the future? Are we to be utopians or dystopians? Are we to be optimists or pessimists? This is what our gospel reading is all about on this first Sunday in Advent.
At first glance, Jesus’ words seem pretty pessimistic. They sound like they fit right in with the dystopian genre so popular in our culture today. Using apocalyptic language of cosmic calamity, as was common in Jesus’ day, our Lord describes the future darkly – literally! “The sun will be darkened,” he says. “The moon will not give its light. The stars will be falling from heaven. The powers of the heavens will be shaken.” This is all symbolic language used to describe dark times, times of suffering and chaos and disorder.
Jesus is simply telling the truth here. He is being honest about what the world will be like between his first coming as a baby in a manger and his second coming on the clouds. There will be dark days. And who can deny that this is the case? We are living in dark days right now – and not only because the sun goes down at three in the afternoon! We see a culture sliding back into the darkness of paganism. We see the fault lines between nations starting to heave with greater and greater intensity. We see an alarming rise in open and increasingly violent antisemitism.
In his recent year-end letter, the commandant from my son’s Corp of Cadets at Texas A&M cited many of these factors and then asked, “Is this what it felt like in 1937?”
We are living in dark times now as we experience disease and wars and poverty. Mental health care providers and school counselors will tell you there is an epidemic of personal darkness people are struggling with too. And so the so-called “dark ages” are not just something from the past. Neither are these dark times something yet to come in some future tribulation. Jesus is describing what the world will be like in the generation of human history between his first coming and his final coming. The four horsemen of the apocalypse have been trotting across human history, and they continue to gallop across the headlines to this day. And so, as Christians, we acknowledge that in many ways we live in dark times, just as our Christian ancestors did in ancient and medieval times, and just as future Christians surely will.
But this does not mean we are dystopians! For we also have reason for hope! We aren’t complete pessimists – we also have reason to be full of courage and peace and even joy! You see, in the same breath that Jesus paints this dark picture of the future, he also makes us some wonderful promises! He says it won’t be dark forever! Jesus says we will see him coming in power and glory. He says that he will send out his angels to gather his people. He says that when we see this darkness taking place, he is near – at the very gates! He says that though heaven and earth will pass away, his words will never pass away. He says that he is coming again at an unexpected hour. Therefore, we are to keep alert. We are to keep awake – which doesn’t mean guzzling caffeine and propping your eyelids open with toothpicks – it means keeping the faith. The short term might include some dark days, but Christ is coming again. He is with us now, to be sure, but he is not yet with us as we will be. Something much better is coming – and so there is hope even in the midst of the darkness.
Jesus says our posture towards the future is to be like that of a doorkeeper on the watch for the return of the master of the house. It might get late. It might get dark. Jesus, our Master, might not come until midnight, or at cockcrow, or even dawn. We are going to get sleepy. We’ll be tempted to nod off for a bit. But no matter how late or dark it gets, we are to keep alert. We are to keep awake. We are to keep the faith. We are to watch and wait with anticipation, and with confidence, with courage, and with hope.
This is a time of year when many people in our region suffer from seasonal affective disorder, which has the apt acronym S.A.D. The quite literal darkness of the northern latitudes in the fall and winter sometimes causes a set of symptoms in people which include lack of energy, fatigue, an increased desire to sleep, even mild depression.
One of the ways of treating S.A.D. is the use of a light box. By basking in the right kind of light – the kind that mimics natural sunlight – many of these symptoms can be alleviated. I’ve mentioned before that this is something I’ve struggled with a bit. I’ve used these light boxes from time to time. (When one of our members heard this, she came in and installed special lightbulbs in my office which mimic natural light. And it has helped. I haven’t used the light box since.)
There is a spiritual version of S.A.D. as well. The darkness we see in the world around us sometimes robs us of our energy for discipleship. It robs our faith of its vitality. The darkness we experience in our lives sometimes makes us spiritually fatigued. We become apathetic. We become spiritually lazy. All we want to do is doze off. We close our eyes to Christ and his Word. We can even start to drift out of faith and into unbelief. And where there is unbelief, despair is never far behind.
The promises our Lord Jesus gives us in our gospel reading for today are like a light box for our souls. They provide hope and courage and peace in the midst of darkness. They assure us that while the future in the short term may well include some dark days, Christ is coming again to light up the world with his great power and glory. They assure us that on those dark days when our Lord seems so far away from us, he is actually quite near – at the very gates. They assure us that although it often seems like everything is passing away – because it is! – Jesus’ words of promise will never pass away. They will only grow brighter and brighter as they are fulfilled. The light of these promises keeps us alert and awake. They help us to watch and wait for the Master of the house with confidence and hope and joy, even when it gets late and dark.
The holiday season is officially underway. This is a fun and exciting time of year for many. They holidays bring all kinds of opportunities for feasting and celebrating and joy. But the brightness of the holiday season also casts some long, dark shadows. For those who are missing loved ones, those absences are felt even more profoundly. For those who are suffering from broken relationships, the jagged edges ache all the more. For children of divorce, the tensions of family life can cause great anxiety and heartache. For those struggling financially, this can be a season of great stress. For those who are sick or hurting, these weeks on end of enforced cheerfulness can be salt in the wound.
It may well be that there is a shadow of one sort or another casting its darkness across your life. Don’t let that darkness lull you into spiritual fatigue. Don’t let it cause you to nod off, closing your eyes to Christ and his promises. Don’t let it put your faith to sleep. “Keep alert!” Jesus says to us. “Keep awake!” Keep your head in the light box of J esus’ promises and be energized. Make worship and prayer and scriptural devotions a priority. That’s what this season of Advent is designed to do. It isn’t about non-stop indulgence. It is about keeping alert. It is about keeping your head in the light of Christ’s word. So bask in his word, this word that will never pass away even when everything else does. Let it fill you with hope.
As Christians we are not utopian optimists, nor are we dystopian pessimists. Instead, we are hope-filled doorkeepers awaiting the return of our Master, doing his work while we wait, trusting that he is coming again to gather us to himself, to bring us into the warm, bright, and eternal light of the new day.
Who doesn’t want to be awake for that?
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church