First Sunday of Advent
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church ● Albany, California ● November 28, 2021
By Steve Hitchcock
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Today is the first Sunday of Advent and the start of a new church year. In the three-year cycle of Scripture readings created in the 1970s, this is now Year C. In the weeks and months ahead, most of the Gospel readings will be from Luke’s Gospel.
As we continue to live with this devastating pandemic and all its economic and social repercussions, Luke’s Gospel can be a source of healing and hope.
Luke is the longest book in the New Testament – with 800 Greek words not found elsewhere in the New Testament. Luke is the first volume in a two-part chronicle. The first part, Luke, is the story of Jesus’ life. The second part, Acts, is about the life of the early church, especially Paul’s missionary work that creates the church. Together, Luke and Acts make up more than quarter of the entire New Testament. So much of what we know and think about Jesus and the early church is down to these two books.
Half of what is in Luke’s Gospel isn’t found in the other three Gospels. In Luke alone do we find the annunciation and birth of Jesus as well as the stories of his infancy, up to his appearance in the Jerusalem temple at age 12. In Luke alone do we hear the pivotal stories of the widow of Nain, Mary and Martha, Zacchaeus, and the disciples who encounter the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus.
Notably, the last supper – Jesus’ Passover meal before his death with his disciples – is twice as long as in the other two Gospels.
Luke’s many unique parables – what I’ve called pearls on the silver chain of the Jesus story – include the Good Samaritan, the Lost Coin and the Lost Son (aka, the Prodigal Son), the Rich Man and Lazarus, the man who dreams of building bigger barns, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector praying in the Temple, and the parable of the unjust judge – or persistent widow.
Luke’s Gospel also presents a favorable impression of the disciples, who later becomes the Apostles in Acts. They don’t run away when Jesus is arrested in the garden, and Jesus looks with compassion and understanding on Peter in the patio when Peter denies Jesus.
Stuck in the End Times
Given all this, it seems strange that, on this the First Sunday of Advent, we don’t read some of the inspiring stories from the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Rather here we are in chapter 21, just a few chapters from the Gospel’s wrap up. And we’re back where we’ve been the past few weeks. Today’s Chapter 21 follows Mark 13, which we read two weeks ago. Like Mark 13, we also have the Son of Man from Daniel’s vision of God’s rescue of the Israelites in exile, which was the first lesson for Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in Pentecost. We seem stuck in the “end times” – with alarming predictions of collapse and cataclysm.
We have enough of all that in today’s news, if not in our own personal lives. Catastrophe and confusion are all around us. What’s the point of rubbing it in?
Of course, we could glibly reply that Advent is about Jesus’ three-fold Advent: his coming in his birth as the Christ Child, his coming in our lives today as we trust his promise of mercy and forgiveness, and his coming again at the end of all times.
Your Redemption Draws Near
But that’s too easy and Advent isn’t that simple. The point of Advent – what we are waiting for – is what we hear in verse 26: “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Of course, Luke has set the stage for this announcement by Jesus. In chapter 13, a woman who has been crippled for 18 years, hears Jesus say, “Woman you are free from your ailment.” She stood up straight and began praising God.
So today, we are invited to stand up, raise our heads, and receive God’s redemption for us at this very moment in our lives.
Only Luke uses the word “redemption.” Mark, you’ll recall, talks about Jesus’ death as a ransom for many. In Matthew, Jesus’ death is our forgiveness for sins. In John, Jesus is the Passover lamb sacrificed for us.
This redemption is a loosening, a release of constraints. In the weeks and months ahead as we read Luke’s Gospel, we will hear how Jesus releases people from sickness and suffering, how he loosens the constraints of poverty.
Redemption for Luke is also about being liberated from the bondage of wealth and greed. So many of Luke’s stories and parables are about wealthy people who either end up literally in hell – or who achieve liberation by using their wealth and possessions to help those in need.
Praying, Healing, and Eating
And what do we do with this redemption, this blessed release? In Luke’s Gospel, when people follow Jesus and listen to his teaching, they seem to naturally engage in lots of praying, healing, and – for St. Albanites, this will be good news – eating.
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus prays at the drop of hat – as does the persistent widow and the tax collector. More than the other Gospels, the miracles of Jesus are less provocative and symbolic; their purpose is to actually bring relief and respite. All this healing has led to the legend that Luke was a physician. And there are so many meals and banquets in Luke’s Gospel that you wonder whether Jesus had to go on a diet.
But today’s Gospel reading makes it difficult to put our minds and our hands to enjoying this feast of food and healing, much less to concentrate on praying.
Instead, we hear about distress among nations, roaring seas and waves, and even the shaking of the heavens. As for us, those events were very real for Luke’s first readers at the close of the first century. In 70 CE, Titus not only destroyed the Temple, but also killed thousands of people in Jerusalem. The streets were literally running with blood. Earlier there had a been a 10-year famine in Palestine, and a devastating earthquake in Philippi. No wonder some of Luke’s first readers thought the world was coming to an end.
“My Words Will Not Pass Away”
Luke, though, was encouraging his readers – and us – not to jump to conclusions. We’re not to be distractedby all these events, both the disturbing news and internal anxiety. Nor are we to despair. We might not use drunkenness or dissipation to dull our hearts and minds, but even our more enlightened addictions and obsessions avoid reality and dull our anxieties.
Yes, the world as we know it may come to an end, and, yes, Jesus will return as the Son of Man in judgment, but that is not now. Now is the time of our redemption, now is the time to hold fast to Jesus’ words. Now is the time to trust that, when we gather to pray and to celebrate the Eucharist, Jesus, the great physician, is praying for us and feeding us in his holy meal.
Jesus makes this promise to us today by pointing to fig trees. In chapter 13, a single unfruitful fig tree is cut down. Here, in contrast, a whole lot of trees are leafing, announcing the advent of Spring – and our redemption. These trees represent our new life and hope in the midst of all that troubles and cripples us.
This becomes even clearer in last two verses of this section of Luke’s Gospel, which we didn’t read. Here, after telling this tale of woe, Jesus spends his evenings praying in the Garden of Olives and his days teaching in the Temple, just as he did as a 12-year-old.
This attention to day-to-day life – this focus on trusting in God and serving others – reminds me of our parish administrator Karen Sjoholm. An abrupt departure of our rector, the emergence of a deadly pandemic, and the commotion of a new preschool. In the midst of all this, Karen kept her head up, did what needed to be done and managed it all with immense grace and great kindness. She has enabled and inspired all of us to stand up and raise our heads.
So, with thanks to Karen, with the expectation our redemption, and with our continuing to meet together to pray and hear Jesus’ words, “which will not pass away,” we begin Advent with joy and hope. Amen.