Audio and video of this will be available on the Christ Church website.
On the afternoon of April 23, 2017, Dennis Dickey and his pregnant wife journeyed out into the desert near Green Valley, Arizona with some family and friends excited to reveal whether the baby she was carrying was a boy or a girl. This gender reveal party, and gosh am I glad my girls were born before these became a thing, was going to be unique. Dennis Dickey was a US Border Patrol agent who used his skills to pack a small package full of a target practice material called tannerite. From a safe distance away, Dickey shot the small package which exploded with a puff of blue smoke. For a moment, there must have been excitement and joy at the thought of welcoming a new baby boy into the family, but that quickly dissipated as the target’s fireball set the surrounding brush ablaze. In a video made available by the US Forest Service, you can hear the tone quickly change to panic as they pack up their belongings and hit the road. That small brush fire rapidly spread into the Coronado National Forest, and became known as the Sawmill Fire, burning almost forty-seven thousand acres. For almost a week, firefighters from some 20 agencies fought the fire, which caused more than eight million dollars in damage. This September, Dennis Dickey plead guilty to a misdemeanor, was sentenced to five years’ probation, and has to pay almost $8.2 million in restitution. So much for the joyful moment of expectation.
To me, Advent 1 kind of feels like that gender reveal party that went terribly wrong. The whole world outside these walls is decorated for Christmas. Trees, lights, and pictures with Santa, the season of joy and giving is upon us. Yet, here in church on Sunday morning, we’re stuck listening to Jesus, once again, predicting the end of the world and warning of signs in the heavens, distress among the nations, and people literally fainting from fear and foreboding of what is to come. As Becca said when we heard an almost identical lesson from Mark two weeks ago, where is the good news? Where’s the hope? Where’s the joy? After another week of wars and rumors of wars, images of children running away from tear gas grenades, and an innocent black man who was the proverbial good guy with a gun being killed by police, can’t we just put up a tree, sing Joy to the World, click our heels together, and wish our way to Christmas?
Unfortunately, we cannot. We are called to wait. When Jesus told the crowd that “this generation” would not pass away before all these things came to pass, he wasn’t so much talking about the generation of Peter, Mary Magdalene, Nathaniel, and Salome. The Greek is more generic than simply meaning a 20-year period in which people are born. This generation is an epoch, an era, or a season. We are stuck here because here is where God is. In the muck and mire, in the time in-between Jesus’ first coming – his incarnation, birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension – and his second coming in a cloud with power and great glory to, as Billy reminded us last week, restore all things to their perfect state in God. What defines this generation is our call to wait, not as idle observers, but as participants in the preparation: co-creators of the Kingdom of God.
Important things in life take time to plan, prepare, and bring to fruition. Rome was not built in a day, and neither is Thanksgiving dinner. It requires us to make a menu, develop a grocery list, and to know how long things take to cook. You can’t pull a turkey out of the freezer at 9am on Thanksgiving Day and expect to sit down to a feast at 2. The important things in life almost always take time, and then they are over in mere minutes. Christmas takes at least a month of planning, shopping, and wrapping, and by 8am, the bags are filled with ripped paper and everybody is ready for a nap. So too with the Kingdom of God. Its arrival isn’t something that happens overnight. Its preparation has taken two-thousand years. It could take twenty-thousand more.
In the meantime, this generation, of which we are called to be a part, is one of waiting and preparation. We are invited by Jesus to join with God in building the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. “When you see these things begin to take place,” Jesus says, “stand up, and raise your hands.” In the 2,000 or so years since Jesus said these words, there hasn’t been a time without war, famine, fear, and foreboding. If one were watching out the window for the signs of the times, it might always look like Jesus is getting ready to hop on that cloud and enter with power and might. Many have been made to shrink in fear that the end is nigh, but that’s not what Jesus calls us to.
Disciples of Jesus are not able to sit idly by, fearfully waiting for the day of judgment. Disciples of Jesus are called to lives of loving service while we wait. We are called to avoid the causal anesthetics of this life. Jesus calls them dissipation and drunkenness. We might call them iPhones, Facebook arguments, cable news, or retail therapy. Jesus warns us not to get so caught up in the here and now, be it the evil that we see around us, or the pacifiers we use to numb our fear-filled minds, that we lose sight of the bigger plan of restoration, renewal, and redemption. It is easy to become numb to the bigger picture when all we see on a day-to-day basis are the painful realities of sin, but to get caught in the cycle of anger and fear or to allow ourselves to get drunk on groupthink and the comfort of being right is to lose focus on the signs that point to something larger, something more hopeful.
Just as the signs that Jesus talked about: wars, fear, and distress; have been around since the beginning, there have also always been signs of hope. Even when things seem to be at their worst, we see people caring for those in need through acts of compassion and charity, strangers willing to love their unknown neighbor as themselves. To borrow from Jesus’ metaphor, the fig tree has been coming into leaf for quite some time. The Kingdom of God, even in our most godforsaken moments, is near at hand. It has broken in through the birth of our Savior on Christmas and it will come to full fruit when Jesus returns with power and might. In the meantime, as we long for moments of joy and hope amidst what can feel like the brushfire of everyday life, we are invited by Jesus to stand up, raise up our heads, roll up our sleeves, and get about the work of God: restoring all of humanity to right relationship with God and one another. Are we willing to do that work? Will we be able to see that the great revealing that will take place isn’t meant to harm and destroy, but rather, to build and to restore? Be on guard. Be alert. Get to work. As we prepare for the coming of Christ, both as an infant born of Mary and as the King of kings on judgment day, we are invited to a season of joyful expectation, of hope for the future, and of God’s great gift for the world. Amen.