1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
It’s already happened. You should buy presents and make cookies and plan the holiday feast, and celebrate Christmas, I’m not denying that. All I am trying to say is that if you’re waiting for Christmas, for the actual Incarnation of our Lord in the city of David, you’ll wait forever. It’s too late. Christ was already born in a barn or a cave, has already grown into a man, has already been crucified, has already been raised from the dead. Christmas is gone. It’s over. You missed it. So, if you are a Christmas-hater, don’t stress--it's already over! If you love Christmas, don't stress either--just celebrate it.
And, as a pastor, I have another thing I have to say, something that is also kind of hard to believe. Advent is also not about preparing for Christmas. It’s about getting ready for the end of time and completion of the reign of Christ. During Advent, we’re not getting ready for Christmas. We’re getting ready for the end of the world. Advent ought to make doomsday preppers out of us all.
I’m not joking. Now comes the season of merriness and mirth, and Christians ought to be merry and mirthful doomsday preppers. But doomsday nonetheless. In Sweden, the church calls this day the Sunday of Doom, perhaps for the fear and foreboding Jesus mentions in the Gospels, perhaps because by this time of year in Sweden it is very dark. But a feeling of doom is exactly right for Advent, doom not exactly in the sense we have today of gloom and doom, but doom in the sense that the word was originally used, as the judgment of the king to set or put something, as in the judgment and work of a king to redress a wrong and put something right—with adverse effects for the guilty. That’s the kind of doomsday prepper our text tells us we shall become.
Take a look at what Jesus says today: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, the stars, and on earth distress among the 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. The they will see the ‘Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” That’s the doom we’re used to hearing about, darkness and flashes of light, and Jesus on a flying saucer. This picture of the Lord has been used to frighten people throughout the history of the church, even some of you. Now listen to what Jesus has to say about this: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Over Advent you hear this theme a lot: don’t be afraid. Lift up your heads. Meet the day, welcome the Lord. We do such a great disservice to Christ when we make him solely the subject of cute stable scene, as powerful and as wonderful as that image is, it is not the whole picture of Christ. Neither is the picture of Christ suffering and dying on the cross, and even rising in glory sufficient. We also need Christ to come and meet us, now, and here, in our days of gloom, with judgment to put things right, to condemn wickedness, to lift up the lowly, to be a King who holds the power of doom—the defeat of the demonic forces of fear and violence.
Right now, we are a people of fear. We fear the reach of ISIS, a tiny, insignificant army that somehow gets our political candidates to froth at the mouth. We fear our police, sworn to protect us, but who can get away with murder. We fear the coming of Christmas, we fear that Christmas will end. We fear God’s judgment and therefore make elaborate theological justifications for it not coming at all. And even all the global sociopolitical problems are just atmosphere for our everyday fears: the very real and nontrivial fear of a meal with your extended family in all its hurt and complexity, the fear many know of living with family who struggle with addiction or who hit or scream. Or the fears of a horrible job at a horrible company, or fears that you will never pursue your dreams and that your life will simply slip by and fade away, in which you were never more than a possibility. There is so much fear—so much of it warranted, so much of it coming from the horror of life. Even here, in this beautiful city, this is the time of year when people all over this city face another rent hike without a pay hike, another security threat. This is the country where people just show up and shoot as many other people as they can, out of rage and desperation—and finally, out of fear. And there are preachers who suggest these are the end times, when Jesus will rain fire from the sky, and all the evildoers will be banished, and the righteous few will dance on their graves and laugh at them in hell.
People will faint from fear and foreboding—people will also try any means of diverting their gaze from the reasons to fear: Jesus says we should not be weighed down in drunkenness and dissipation, and I take him to mean that in its broadest sense. We are drunk with oil, with an entertainment industry, with television and the internet and games of all kinds, with the political horse races, not just with strong drink. We are dissipated in the priorities of our lives, with social media success, with perfect bodies, with the creation and hoarding of wealth, with any mark of success, anything that will remove us from things that cause us to fear. And many of us believe that if we arm ourselves, we can banish fear of violence with yet more violence, that if everyone fears their neighbor, we will finally be safe.
But Christ has judged fear and uttered his doom: fear will be no more. It will be wiped out. When the fearful world roils and trembles, Jesus calls us to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” I think Jesus means that we should not fear the turmoil and the violence of this world, nor despair and seclude ourselves from it. Instead we should lift up our heads and to find Jesus in it, and meet him in the midst of fear. Because God has pronounced his doom, and the doom is that the world will be set right. Heaven and earth will pass away, but the Word will not pass away—and if we are in the Word, neither will we.
But where will we find the Word, and how can we remain in it? Paul today tell the Thessalonians that he knows about distress and persecution, but he does not make mention of fear. Instead he tells them that he has heard from Timothy news of their faith and love. He tells them that the news has given him courage, that he can stand firm in the Lord because they are standing firm in the Lord. And not only that, he wonders how he can thank God enough for all the joy they have given him. And he prays that love may abound more and more among them, that they will have strong hearts in holiness. Paul, in other words, is encouraging them to be the church, the people who live under the doom of God. He is telling them that because they are together, because they have faith in the risen Christ and look for his coming, that they can overcome their fears and their trials. Paul reminds them that God is in control, and that the horrible things of this world have met their doom. If you were a member of that community in Thesssaloniki, you may have felt revved up and ready to meet Jesus at his coming. And, just as importantly, you may have wanted to go and tell somebody else, someone who was suffering and without hope, to fear not, to lift up her head, and to walk straight into the fearful world to proclaim doom of God for the world, the good news of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
We find our strength and our hope for dark days and times, right here, together. Right here where we meet as a community of faith, as people who love one another for no other reason than we share the love of God who has first loved us in Christ Jesus. Yes, we are too late for Christmas, but that is good news because that means Christ’s love has already been at work among us, and for our entire lives. This parish, you who are all gathered here, God has summoned you hear so that you might take courage and get strength. God’s love and joy will fill all the vacuum of fear and overflow in blessing.
So when the world seems too powerful, when it seems dark, when it seems out of control, that's when our Lord's words are most important for us: stand up, and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near. Here we are doomsday preppers, encouraging one another to take heart, to pray and work and love this beautiful world that trembles in fear, to soothe the raw hearts of the hopeless. The dark parts of life, the tempests, the storms--these are times for us to enter and to believe that light casts out darkness. And when we see those moments, those things that make us wonder if the world is going to end, we know what to do--to go and meet Christ as he meets us in the world. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack