upper room daily devotions

Sunday, December 09, 2012

"The Beginning is Near" - A Sermon for Advent 2C

The Beginning is Near.

A photo of this sign was sent to me a week or so ago. It has stuck with me. Of course, we never hear "apocalypticists" herald that The Beginning is Near; they always announce that the end is near. Just to show you how much attention we give to the idea of an apocalypse, I want to show you what I found when I went to the internet to pull off a quick definition of "apocalypse." The following three things came up and, I kid you not, were news headlines. They read:
"Be honest; Apocalypse seems exciting, in a way" (CNN)
"Mayan Apocalypse: spreads as Dec 21 nears" (Telegraph)
and, more simply: "Zombie Apocalypse"

All around us are murmurings of apocalyptic activity. Just yesterday, I treated myself to a spa day and my massage therapist started talking about the Mayan calendar and odd cosmic alignments. I remember not long ago when the country was up in arms about Y2K. And, of course, in our perpetual war on terror, we color coded our safety in such a simplistic and unhelpful way that no one could take it seriously, but it was always there on our tvs glowing orange at us. Whether people are decrying the state of our political affairs, nuclear armament in unstable or despotic countries, or things as fanciful as cosmic alignments and zombies coming to eat our brains, it's easy for us to believe that the end is near. But, what about the beginning? It seems much more difficult to trust or expect in new beginnings.

Our readings from Malachi and Luke are all about beginnings. Endings, too, for sure. But the endings serve only one purpose, to give way for a beginning. You see, I finally made my way through Mayans and Zombies and found a proper definition of apocalypse on the Merriam-Webster website, which says this: "one of the Jewish and Christian writings of 200 b.c. to a.d. 150 marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom." That's what apocalypse really means. A cosmic ending to injustice and the beginning of a holy and righteous justice. An apocalypse is an an ending/beginning collision.

Luke is not considered apocalyptic writing, but it is tinted with apocalyptic assumptions...and hopes. Right off the bat, Luke does something that none of the other gospels do - it includes three songs that proclaim a coming ending/beginning moment. This is something we need to pay close attention to. When a non psalmist includes a song, something major is happening. In the Exodus, after the Israelites cross through the parted waters, Miriam dances and sings what is possibly one of the oldest hymns in the Bible: “I will sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea."
(Exodus 15)

So, when Luke puts song in the mouths of Mary, Simeon, and Zechariah, we need to pay attention. Mary sings the Magnificat (and we will, too, on Dec 23). Simeon sings what is known as the Nunc Dimittis (or in English "now dismiss"). It is a beautiful song of beginning/ending collision. In his song, Simeon, an old man who has faithfully waited for the Messiah, stands as a representative for all of Israel and, in many ways, the whole world, when he sings at the sight of the infant Jesus: "Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
Your word has been fulfilled.
My eyes have seen the salvation
You have prepared in the sight of every people,
A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel."

What a gorgeous and haunting giving way to God's glory.

Today, we hear Zechariah's song. The angel Gabriel visits Zechariah in his priestly duties and announces that he and his wife will bear forth a son who will be a messenger for the Messiah. Zechariah is struck dumb. His voice is muted until his son is born. There is no way, his rational mind tells him, that he and his wife, advanced in age, could bear forth new life. In many ways, Zechariah is like Sarah in the Old Testament. Beyond child bearing years, Sarah laughs at hearing of her impending pregnancy. Such a beginning is impossible. She is compelled to laughter. Zechariah is pulled into muteness. But, God has different plans for each of these of our ancestors. And, once those plans are put into place, what collisions we have. And, what songs are sung.

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth both hail from priestly lineage. Yet, they do not bring to us a priest. They give birth to a prophet who heralds the ending of one age and announces the immanent appearance of a new age, which will be known by a man of peace. Zechariah's song is known as the Benedictus, so called for its first word "Blessed." It is no coincidence that his song begins with that word and ends with "peace." This is both blessing and proclamation of hope. In fact, the coming Messiah's role as the Prince of Peace runs throughout Luke in a very special way. He uses the word "peace" more than all of the other gospels combined. Zechariah sings of the approaching Messiah and of the immanent birth of his own son, who will prepare the way for this One of peace. His song situates both of these two births in a long line of God's mighty acts with, through, and on behalf of the Jewish people. He uses the language of the prophets, who heralded their own delivery from oppression and slavery and exile. He places the coming One in the House of David. His song anticipates the very wonder it proclaims. It is a masterpiece of faith.

In Luke 3, our gospel reading for today, the gospel writer once again wants us to believe that new beginnings will be transpiring here on this earth among us as real people. The reading starts, "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,

3:2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness." These are real people, a real political world, a real religious world. When Jesus comes, it will not be in an abstract way. He comes. Here. A new beginning here. In our mess. In this mess. Among us. That's the Incarnation which we proclaim during this season.

Last week, I invited you not to run away from the darkness of this world or the darkness in your souls. I said that for the season of light to have any impact on us, it must contrast with the shadows of this world. Today, we move from that more abstract image of Light amidst Darkness into the concrete world of the here and now, of what it means for God's hope to be born, for the injustices, wounds, and injuries of one age to pass away and for something else, something better and holy to take their place.

So, I ask you. How much easier is it to believe only in endings. In death. In mortality. In broken political systems? How much easier is it to trust that others are out to hurt, wound, belittle, and dismiss you? It's so much easier to believe that the good things of this world will go away leaving us only with despair. It's easier because the alternative requires something of us while despair does not. With despair, we relinquish our part in the world, our hope, our expectations of goodness and connection and love and reparation. But, with songs like those sung by Mary, Simeon, and Zechariah...with a real apocalypse, we expect change here and now. Changes that will bring a new age of healing and wholeness and love and justice and, as Zechariah sings, peace. To trust in this new beginning requires us to invest in it, to offer ourselves as do Mary, Simeon, Sarah, Zechariah and the soon to be born John the messenger and preparer of the way. If we really expect Jesus to be born on Christmas, for God to break into our world in a cosmic way that upsets the powers and principalities of this world, then we have no choice but to respond and to invest ourselves and to offer all that we have and are for this new age. Such a hope places a claim on us.

As we move inexorable toward Christmas, I invite you to trust not in the Mayan calendar or wars on terror or the zombie apocalypse. I invite you to trust in something much more fanciful and difficult. I invite you to sing with Mary, Simeon, and Zechariah - to labor with John in preparing the way - and to trust that The Beginning is Near. Amen.

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