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Advent 1: Signs and Portents

December 2, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2012.

1 Thessalonians 3: 11-13     Luke 21: 25-36

The composer of the 25th psalm implores, “Be mindful of your mercy, O God, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from old.” (v 6)

God’s mercy is dependable and sure.  It is, as the Psalmist sings elsewhere, “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 103:17).   God extends mercy to us, not because we deserve it, but because we need it.  Time and again we fall short of God’s hope for us and God’s intention for our world.  And yet as Christians, we trust the promise that in Christ Jesus, all things are made new – that not only we, but the entire creation, is ever being embraced in God’s redeeming love that we might live well together.

In response to this outpouring of divine mercy we, with thanksgiving and hope, show mercy toward one another.  But this is dangerous business, because we may not be met with mercy or even understanding in return.  And yet Jesus calls us to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  We are not God – in fact so much of our sin comes from forgetting, as St. Augustine once put it, “the right measure” of ourselves.  But as faithful people, we are called to be merciful – to love and to not give up on one another, not even on our enemies.

But what about the sins that have lasting effect, long term consequences that seem unforgettable?  After all, in our reading for this morning, Jesus speaks of “signs and portents in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”  Even the powers of heaven are “shaken.”

A generation ago, at the same time I was coming to environmental awareness through a school project on industrial air pollution, E.F. Schumacher spoke about our society’s illusion that “science can solve all our problems.”  Recently Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Poisonwood Bible and other works, updated the state of that illusion:

“Most of the populace and all of our leaders are participating in a mass hallucinatory fantasy in which the megatons of waste we dump in our rivers and bays are not poisoning the water, the hydrocarbons we pump into the air are not changing the climate, over-fishing is not depleting the oceans, fossil fuels will never run out, wars that kill masses of civilians are an appropriate way to keep our hands on what’s left, we are not desperately overdrawn at the environmental bank, and really the kids are all right.”[1]

The signs and portents spoken of by Luke are those terrifying things in our lives that are the result of our living in rebellion to God’s covenant – a covenant which calls us to care for one another and the earth.  Notice that sin not only disrupts our relationships with each other, it is evident in the destruction of the very earth.  I have spent the last several years reading scripture with an interest in its vision of environmental care and responsibility, which we will take up in adult education classes in January. This connection between our health and the earth’s health, our sin and the devastation of the land, is as old as Genesis chapter 3. In the Bible, the results of our “turning away” from God are often “signs and portents.”

“There will be signs and portent in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

Jesus words from the gospel of Luke this morning are about judgment:  God judges us for what we did with the time we had at hand.  That is a hard word.  But there’s no getting around it. 

N.T. Wright, biblical scholar and Bishop of Durham (England), said, “God’s judgment is the form that [God’s] mercy takes, when faced with a world out of joint.”  He insists that, as Christians who are awaiting the time when God through Christ Jesus will set aright all things in our world, we are also called, from that vantage point, to pronounce judgment on practices that impact the public sphere, judging them against God’s intention for our world, as best as we can discern it.  Even as we recognize that our best efforts are approximations of the fullness and well-being God intends for our world, we are still called to judge and proclaim God’s intention for our world and work to realize it.  Wright continues,

when the early church announced ‘forgiveness of sins’ in the name of Jesus Christ, this didn’t just mean that individual sinners could get right with God, though of course it did mean that: forgiveness was a whole programme, a whole way of life, the new covenant way of life in which the restoration which God offered to all who believed in Jesus was to characterize families and communities, worldviews and life-paths, a Jubilee movement that, whenever it came upon anything amiss in human relations or society, would move heaven and earth to put it right, to restore things to the way they should be.[2]

The signs and portents Jesus announces are like a foghorn, bleating loudly to urge a ship back on its right course.  The signs and portents have not yet come to pass; indeed we may even escape them, if we can reorient ourselves once again in love toward God, toward our neighbor, and toward the earth God has entrusted to our care.  The idea is not to give up and look to the heavens but rather to heed Jesus’ call to take responsibility and to begin to live differently together, now.  So while during Advent we expect the divine to come anew into our world, God also has expectations for us and for our world.

Advent has two faces, two orientations.  It looks to the past in the sense that it is a recapitulation of the longing with which women and men of faith living in a bygone era anticipated the coming of God’s Messiah.  But Advent also looks to the future in an attitude of expectancy over what God has yet to do in the life of humankind and the very earth itself.

Luke wrote his gospel with a deep and growing sense that Christian discipleship is a kind of living in between – or as Wesley Avram has put it, “aware of Jesus, waiting for Jesus, and coming to know this Jesus for whom we wait in the midst of an eventful, unpredictable, even tumultuous world, waiting to stand before him, yet not always knowing where he is.”[3]

What would make it possible for us to enter into this season of Advent, of expectation, not only looking back to the birth of Christ but forward to the advent of God’s full kingdom – I mean to seriously imagine what the coming in of justice and peace would mean?  What would make it possible for us to enter into this season not only as a time of looking back over our own life and past, our preoccupations, mistakes, missed opportunities, but also a time of looking forward with real anticipation to a changed life?  What would be necessary for this anticipation to become REAL; and SERIOUS; and IMPACTFUL?

I think the Psalmist suggests that it is only the depth of God’s mercy that will make it possible for us to live differently.  That it is God’s faithfulness – even as the world crumbles and our relationships falter – God’s refusal to give up on us, God’s refusal to count the “sins of our youth” against us, God’s refusal to turn God’s back on us, that will allow us not only to imagine anew but to act in new ways as well.

This Advent, let us, like the Psalmist call upon God’s mercy, depend on God’s mercy, and show forth mercy to one another.  And in so doing, may we glimpse the one whose very character is mercy, Jesus Christ, coming once more.


[1] Barbara Kingsolver, “Forward” in The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future o Culture, Community, and the Land. Edited by Norman Wirzba. Counterpoint Press, 2003.

[2] N.T. Wright, “Jesus the Risen Judge – And Forgiver,”, accessed on 11/09/09.

[3] Wesley Avram, Feasting the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Year C, Volume 1. Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009.


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