Zechariah 9.5-10

Luke 21.9-19, 25-28

What a World, What a World

First Sunday of Advent

            The lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Advent never fail to perplex me.  (Did you have fun reading about all that doom and gloom, Jennifer Gill?)  For example, two years ago on the first Sunday in Advent, it was Matthew:  “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”  Last year on Advent 1, it was Mark:  “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”  This morning it is Luke’s turn, as Jenn read Jesus’ words from the gospel:  “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”  Delightful, no?  And here is my perplexity:  at the time of year when we’re putting up our decorations and singing our favorite carols and doing our best to be of good yuletide cheer, along come these visions of portent and disaster and apocalypse and doom, and with only four Sundays of Advent to pull us all into the Christmas spirit, what is the poor preacher to do?

            A week ago Friday on the day after Thanksgiving, when most of us were still digesting the feast from the day before and planning what to do with our leftovers, and perhaps braving the crowds at the mall, the White House released its quadrennial report on climate change.  You might be forgiven for thinking this was yet another version of the gospels we heard this morning, because it sounds so eerily similar:  the report anticipates an increase in wildfires such as the type that just ravaged California; floods, particularly in the northeast US; the loss of inhabitable land along the world’s coastlines, where the poorest populations tend to live; a decline in arable land leading to the diminishing of both crop production and livestock sustainability; an increase in insect-borne disease; air that is more difficult to breathe because of both particulate and pollenate matter in the atmosphere; and a decrease in productivity due to an increase in illness, one hundred degree days and an infrastructure compromised by weather extremes, heat and precipitation and storms.  “There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”

Which is the reading for Advent I, and which is the climate report?  Extra points if you can spot the difference.

At least we know how Advent ends a few weeks from now on December 25:  “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  But what a roundabout way to get there!  Why can’t we start the Advent season with a Christmas story?  Everybody else does!  I think the reading from Zechariah gives us a clue.  The first part of the prophecy sounds an awful lot like the reading from Luke – it is a vision of disaster and doom:  “Gaza shall writhe in anguish, Ekron’s hopes are withered, the king shall perish, Ashkelon shall be uninhabited, I will take its blood from its mouth and its abominations from between its teeth…”  Yikes.  What kind of a place is this?  What kind of a world is this?

But before we get to the second half of Zechariah’s prophecy, let me tell you a story about my cousin.  Tom is five years younger than I am, and he has a wonderful sense of humor, slightly skewed and off-kilter, the kind I really appreciate.  I married cousin Tom – and his bride Ann – about fifteen years ago; in fact they were married not too far down the road in the gazebo at Water’s Edge.  Tom had been married once before, it didn’t end well, and he was a bachelor again for a number of years.  I thought of Tom this week because he chose as his wedding song, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” by R.E.M.  Think about that for a minute, and you’ll understand not just Tom’s wry sense of humor – but also why our scripture lessons this morning made me think of Tom and Ann’s wedding music.  R.E.M. sang,  “That’s great, it starts with an earthquake / birds and snakes and aeroplanes / eye of a hurricane…”  Jesus said, “There will be great earthquakes and in various places famines and plagues…”  Zechariah prophesied, “Gaza too shall writhe in anguish…”  And just for good measure let’s throw in Johann Sebastian Bach’s 70th Cantata for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost,  “Ah, shall not this great day, the collapse of the world and the ring of the trumpet, the unheard-of last stroke… the open gates of Hell’s wrath, awaken in my mind much doubt, fear and terror?”

Indeed, what kind of a world is this at the dawn of Advent?  This is the world into which the Savior will be born.

Without rushing too far ahead toward the end of Advent, the second part of Zechariah’s prophecy speaks to us with more comforting and familiar words:  “Rejoice greatly O Zion, shout aloud O Jerusalem!  Look, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  These are the words that will be repeated at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  In other words, the visions of disaster and doom that the lectionary lays out for us on an annual basis at the beginning of the season of Advent, is the world into which the savior prepares to come once again.

Does that world look anything like our world?  Earthquakes in Alaska?  Wildfires in California?  Rising tides and disappearing coastlines in Southeast Asia and the Southeastern United States, Florida and Alabama and Louisiana?  Famines and plagues and insect-borne disease catalyzed by warming global temperatures?  Well, if it does, then this is a good thing because this is the world to which the Savior appears.  Jesus does not walk into a bright and happy world and make it brighter and happier.  Jesus is born into a world of sorrow and hurt, of disaster and disease, both natural and human, because this is the world that cries out for redemption and salvation.  And by placing readings like this at the beginning of Advent, which it does every single year, I think the lectionary is reminding us that you and I live in a world that needs redemption, and that the one for whom we are waiting moves among us to bring it to life.

            There is of course one other blessing in these dark readings:  they keep us from prematurely leaping headlong into Christmas.   Everyone who has ever lamented the holiday decorations that go up the day before Hallowe’en will welcome the fact that the church year does not allow us to behold the manger without first thinking about the road that takes us there.  The road that takes us through Ashkelon and Gaza and Ekron, the road that endures earthquakes and famines and plagues, the road that goes through Bethlehem on its way to Golgotha, the road that comes off Route 9 and takes us down West Main to the United Church.  It’s a road that takes twenty-three days to travel, and every one of those days is a gift.

            On this first Sunday of Advent, remember, only one candle is lit, as if to say, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on them the light will shine.”

            Amen.

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