Take Heart: Endings Are Beginnings

The Gospel According to Luke 21:25-36

December 2, 2018: Advent I

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

It is finally Advent! Welcome to the season of insanity……if the definition of insanity, not the serious clinical definition but the cultural colloquial one, is doing the same thing over and over again with the expectation of a different result.

Because here we are again, the first Sunday in Advent. Just like last year, and the year before, and the year before that, here we are beginning our story, again. Our same age-old story, in a new year, presumably in a new way. And yet, it is not a new story, not even close. For some of us, Advent could easily feel like …Ground Hog Day, the movie…the same old unfulfilled promise of peace on earth, once again.  Every year we wait with joyous expectancy for a gift that never seems to come. Are wethat foolish? Or is Godthat untrustworthy? How can it be that God has already come on earth, and earth is still without God’s peace?

And to make matters worse, this morning’s Gospel reading from Luke makes us wonder if the promised peace on earth will even be worth the cost.  It reads like a sadistic doomsday threat: the devastation, says Jesus, it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place…even before Last Friday’s climate report. The report that is endorsed by NASA, NOAA, the department of defense and 10 other scientific agencies, according to the Atlantic. The report that represents the work of over 300 scientists over the course of decades. And the bottom line is that if we do not repent soon and very soon, “hundreds of thousands of lives may be lost.”

Today’s reading from Luke could easily be the preamble of that very contemporary report.

And so on this first Sunday in the festive season of Silver Bells we have made our way here to hear this prophesy through a world overflowing with twinkling lights and lawn Santas; through a maze of media that implores us to spend our money on things that will hasten our collective demise. We have navigated gluttonous lists organizing a fleet of holiday parties and gift giving and festivity. And having made our way here through all of that, we gather this morning in the homeof the Good News, to kick off this season of good tidings and great Joy to the World, where Merry Christmas isourvernacular…..and then we are met with this morning’s abominable reading from Luke’s Gospel.

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Bam! From holiday cheer to earth-ending fear. From Santa is coming, to life as we know it is on the way out. The is no question that if we do not make some changes…serious changes….well, we are going to be smack in the middle of this morning’s passage from Luke’s Gospel. 

Heaven and earth will pass away……

Jesus, Mary and Joseph!….and I invoke these names in the most reverent way possible. Is this really the time for such a depressing text? In this the Most Wonderful Time of the Year? Who chose this Gospel reading for this season of joy and good cheer?

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, on the earth [there will be]  distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken….

O Holy Night! O Holy cow! Jesus is not talking about an eclipse. And this cataclysmic Advent premonition is not at all suited to the soundtrack by Johnny Mathis or Bing Crosby or Rosemary Clooney. But the stark truth is that nothing in this Christian life, the life that begins anew this season of Advent, does. Because Christianity has almost nothingin common with popular culture. And this morning’s readings are testament to that.

Christianity 101. If we want to live into the outrageous story that begins with the Incarnation of the Divine and ends with the Resurrection of a Human Being, albeit a fully divine human being, but a human being nonetheless, we are going to have to come to terms with the upending of our cultural norms. The last shall be first. The first shall be last. Beginnings are endings and endings are beginnings.

We are going to have to learn how to hear the end of one thing as simply…..miraculously, and often thankfully, the beginning of another.

Heaven and earth will pass away, butmy words will not pass away.

We hear this general message every year in the Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent. The reading always assures us of the Second Coming of Christ. Each reading delivers the Good News that peace is still on the way. But they also remind us that peace will not just grace this world, it will replace this world. Altogether. Like the Incarnation and the Resurrection, the Second Coming will turn the world on its head; it will involve both an earth-shattering ending and a life-affirming beginning.

There is hardly anything more uniformly and widely attested in the New Testament than this scenario of the Second Coming of Christ. It is in all three synoptic Gospels, Acts, Corinthians, The Book of Revelation and so on. And even though we do not, in our contemporary culture, talk much about the Second Coming in this exact term, we embrace that hope every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Every time we pray that God’s Kindom will come on earth as it is in heaven. That is an explicit prayer for the Second Coming of Christ; a new beginning that will blossom from a painful ending.

And so this morning we hear Jesus’ answer to that prayer. Sit tight. I am coming. And then our instruction. Let us take a note: Our first task in this new liturgical year is to wake up and prepare. This may be where all of the decorating and Christmas pomp comes in, as was suggested in yesterday’s workshop on the Gospel according to Luke. Prepare so that we will not be…surprised.

 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away…..so Keep awake!Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life….

Personally, I’m a big chicken, and if the world is going to come to an end, I would just as soon sleep through it! I don’t want to keep awake. It scares me to death. And I am guessing I am not alone. The same way the possibility of nuclear war with North Korea scares us to death. The same way the wild proliferation of gun violence in our schools and synagogues and public life scares us to death. The same way the opioid epidemic scares us to death. The same way the lifting of all regulation on carbon emissions and all earth-warming, creation killing activity scares us to death. And so as it turns out, Luke’s Gospel proclamation of the Second Coming does not have a lock on terrifying endings. We already know what it feels like to be scared to death.

But the difference is, in Luke’s Gospel, the end is not just the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad end. In the Gospel, the end is more of a means to a beginning….an end that is required to clear the decks for a brand new, life-giving beginning. Because every beginning is preceded by an ending. It’s just the law of Creation.

It’s the Bad News Good News of life. When we embark on a new beginning, something is going to have to come to an end. Something is going to have to be left behind. And not just chaff in our lives, but also, maybe, some of the wheat. The choices we make will make all of the difference.

And so in this morning’s Gospel, I might have suggested a different exhortation for our preparation for this terrifying ending. Because, while staying awakeis surely good practice, I think that a more accurate instruction might have been to let go.Let go of all the things that block our embrace of this ending as anything other than a divine new beginning. Let go of everything that we fear we will lose on the road to building the Kindom of God.

Let go of our obsession with security. Let go of our grip on prosperity. Let go of our cultural and constructed notions of home and family and belonging and citizenship. Let go of our comfort and complacency and competitive drive to win, win, win. Let go of our notion that death is worse than suffering. Sometimes it is not. Let go of our notion that life begins with, and belongs to, us alone. Let go of the temptation to protect the status quo that keeps us comfortable. Let go of every human construct that gives us something to lose when we reach for God. Because lose it we will. All of us. All of it. Eventually. Whether we lose it now or later, in the course of our lives or at the end of the world…everything is going to go.

Everything except the Word of the Beloved.

And so the Good News is that either way, there will be life abundant in the aftermath. So Advent may well be the time to prepare for the new beginning by letting go of our fear of the ending.

This morning we lit that first candle on our Advent wreath. It is the inextinguishable sign that we are not in Kansas anymore. We are now powered by God’s particular light; we are empowered by God’s expansive vision; we are overpowered by God’s everliving love.  We are in God’s time. With God’s blessing. In God’s hands.

I think it is no coincidence that our Christian calendar begins in the darkest part of the year. When the days are short and the light of hope is waning.  I think December 21st….the longest night is a bit of a metaphor for Luke’s message. The days become shorter and shorter….darker and darker until one day, in the blink of a single night, they suddenly begin to grow longer and longer…lighter and lighter. December 22 is immediately lighter than was December 20th. Just like that. One day turns the whole tide. From darkening to lightening in a flash. So fear not!

But let us be duly aware that there will be darkness before there is light. And then there will be a radical new world that we cannot begin to foresee!  To say that the Second Coming of Christ will be mind-blowingly radical is an understatement. It will be off the wall! Over the top! Beyond the pale and out of this world! Profound. Extravagant. Revolutionary. This binding of endings and beginnings in God’s realm will turn the world and everything in it on its head. All of our expectations will be moot. And all of our norms will be shattered, And all of our fears will be cast out by nothing less than love. And all of this is guaranteed by nothing less than……our steadfast faith.

And so this Advent season we are embracing a sliver of the radicalness of the Coming of Christ by ending our use of third person singular pronouns in our liturgical language, our too all gendered expressions of God. Because words matter. And I can think of few practices that might offer the same radical experience of upending our cultural norms, unseating our collective comfort, unleashing the radical welcome and inclusivity that is promised in the Kindom of God, than adapting our language to fit our faith claim that we are one in Christ. Because we are.

Instead of referring to the Divine with inappropriately singular masculine pronouns, he and him, we will instead use the genderless third person plural pronouns, they and them. This change not only alleviates the unsuitable implication that God is male, it highlights the core of our faith that God is the trinity – three in one persons – they and them. Likewise with the Holy Spirit whom we, in this place, usually refer to with the equally inappropriate feminine third person pronoun, she and her. The preferred pronouns for the Holy Spirit will also, during Advent, be they and them. The only person of the trinity whose pronoun will not change (this year) is one whose gender is actually……human – the Incarnation who is the Son of God.

So in this holy season of Advent, a season set aside for God, let us take stock of our world and prepare for a New Creation. Let us, as Luke instructs this morning, be alert, wake up, stand our ground for love, and pray. Pray hard. Because Jesus is coming. To turn the world on its head. Jesus is coming. Again. So we had better pay attention.


© November 2018, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw


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