December 2, 2018
First Sunday of Advent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
The language of this gospel text is cryptic, shocking, apocalyptic. But it was common in Jesus’ time among Jews. For several centuries, the tiny nation of Judah was under the often violent and culturally dismissive rule of foreign powers. It often felt like there was no future without oppression. There was no tangible sign that they were still God’s chosen people. This dramatic language was used to reveal something that was going on behind the scenes; something not apparent to the eye or even to the heart, yet apocalyptic prophets always wanted to remind their listeners that God was faithful. There was reason to hope.
So watch for it, lest it come upon you as a trap.
Most years, our family traveled to my aunt and uncles house for Christmas. Their little house was packed with the extended family. As soon as it was polite, we escaped the adult conversation and went to the bedroom at the end of the hallway to play with the Mouse Trap Game. It was probably the original game that came out in 1963. We never really played the game. We just built that elaborate mechanism that caught the mouse. You turned a crank that made a boot kicked a marble down a winding track that knocked another marble that fell on a see-saw that launched a diver into a bathtub that bumped a pole that dropped the trap on the mouse.
Now, it’s a good thing that the mouse was plastic because it would have seen the trap coming a mile away. All of us arguing and building the mechanism, trying it out, losing the marble under the bed; trying again; getting the level just right; making sure the bathtub moved the right way.
The trap doesn’t actually come out of the blue. It gets built piece by piece along the way. If we were, on this first Sunday of Advent, to imagine a destructive end to the world, it wouldn’t likely come all of a sudden but be the result of a million little adjustments, pieces of building structures, words or phrases set into motion—all with implications down the road. If the oceans are to roar, it’s likely because one plastic bottle led to two, led to millions, led to a Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating island as large as Texas. If there is distress among nations, it comes from the accumulation of small insults or self-serving motivations; jokes made about a culture, assumptions about a language or a race. The murder of one critic leads to strategic plans for ethnic cleansing. The choice of one child over another leads to policies that divide families and start civil wars. Unquestioned definitions of normal draw maps that leave many out. If families are fearful, it’s likely that generations of abuse or denial–all somehow falsely justified in the moment–add up to brokenness that seems overwhelming.
Jesus isn’t describing a world that is coming, a future brought by some wrathful God. He’s describing the world we have created for one another, a world that makes us shake. All the latest eruptions of racism and nationalism; all our narcissistic twittering are symptoms of deeper structures that infect all of us. It has not come upon us as a trap. It has been centuries. And we have all played our part, even if it’s by being silent or looking the other way.
The first Sunday in Advent is always a shock to wake up, open our eyes, and see what’s true. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t say, “Look out. You made your bed. Now you’re in trouble.”
“Stand up, raise your heads. Your redemption is near.”
I go to a gym class three mornings a week. It’s the only time I really mean it when I pray, “Come Quickly Lord Jesus. Feel free to end the world before this hour is over.” On Monday, we did dead lifts. We have a new instructor that pays way too much attention. I usually prefer when they’re looking the other way. I can fudge the counts or take a little breather. But she was right there watching my form. “Put your shoulders back and look up. If you try it that way, all hunched over, pulling with your lower back, you’ll hurt yourself.”
It was an apocalyptic workout. Put your shoulders back, look up. Then stand up and face forward.
For many of us, we are facing some heavy lifting, come kind of ending. Maybe not the end of the world, but sometimes it feels like it. In the face of all our endings, Jesus says, “Stand up, raise your heads. Your redemption is near.” If we’re curled in, we’ll hurt ourselves and one another.
It’s more like an invitation to pray. I grew up being asked to fold my hands and bow my head for prayer. I almost never do that anymore. It draws me down and away, toward the inside. I had to learn how to pray the liturgy with arms wide open, shoulders back, chest up, facing forward. It’s how ancient people prayed. It’s probably how Jesus prayed.
Do it. Stand up. Put your arms out. Open your palms toward heaven. Put your shoulders back; stand up tall. This is the posture to face the future, to see what’s ahead.
There is, indeed, a trap that’s falling on us. It’s been in the making for millennia. It started when God made garments for Adam and Eve, thrown out of the garden. It continued when a shepherd boy outside in the field was crowned as a king, a righteous branch from the stump of Jesse. When exiles were told stories of creation and exodus; when prophets thundered and promised flowers in the desert. It was heard as a cry in the night from Bethlehem; when a few fish and loaves fed thousands; when eyes were opened; children welcomed; lepers cleansed; when, on a night of betrayal bread was broken and wine poured; when forgiveness was announced during an execution; when a stone was rolled away; when disciples caught fire, and when the followers of Jesus began practicing simple acts of love and justice, service and generosity. In millions of simple acts and simple words, the world began to turn.
This, my fellow mice, is what we are invited to stand up and see. Not destruction, but redemption. Not endings, but beginnings. Before our very eyes, the future is being revealed. For, despite us, despite of what we have made of this world, God is faithful. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Who would think that a baby could trap us all?