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The First Sunday of Advent, 2021
Zechariah 14:1-9; Psalm 50; 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:25-33

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Sign, sign, Everywhere a sign. Blockin’ out the scenery. Breakin’ my mind. Do this, don’t do that. Can’t you read the sign?”  Like several of us here, I’m old enough to admit to being able to remember that song lyric, by the “Five Man Electrical Band.” It was one of my favorites and took the protagonist through a series of—well, I guess you’d call them adventures—caused by signs that people had posted calling for or restricting certain behaviors.

In any event, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves.” Jesus foretold of horrors so great that people would faint with fear at the end of the world. Over the 2,000 years since Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, the surest way to prove oneself a false prophet has been to name a date for the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. According to prediction after prediction, we should not be here at all. Jesus says, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

A few years ago, I read a couple of very good books. One, by Tom Holland, was called “The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and The Epic Rise of the West.” The other, by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, was called, simply, “The Year 1000.” Both looked at the kind of panic that set in, especially in Europe, as the year 1000 approached—being the millennium, so it was calculated, since the first Advent of the Lord Jesus. The thinking was that the world should have ended 1,000 years ago when the first millennial scare hit. Or maybe one of the many other times a warning went out that the end is near.

Time and again, people have wrongly predicted the end of the world.  We only have to look back and snicker at how the Y2K threat fizzled out with hardly a whimper to see how big scares can turn into nothing. Though, I will say that I think this is where a lot of our current conspiracy theories find their roots.  Jesus says, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

The disciples thought Jesus would come back soon, maybe, probably, even in their lifetime. They lived their lives thinking that at any moment Jesus would return.  One author expressed it as the Apostle Paul turning a corner in, say, Corinth, and expecting to run into Jesus coming the other way. It’s like holding off just a few more moments by saying, “Wait for it. Wait for it. Now!”  But they had the “Wait for it. Wait for it.” And “now” never came. In fact, it has yet to come.

The Christian church around the world has been collectively holding its breath for nearly twenty centuries. Always waiting, always watching. And still the time has not come for Jesus’ return. Not yet. Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Advent: the word means “coming.” This is the first day of the new church year, and like every church year, we start by remembering when Jesus first came into the world and remembering that he will come again. And yet we can’t walk around all the time with our heads raised to the sky in anticipation. For one thing, we would look silly, and nothing would be accomplished. What are we supposed to do if we think the world is falling down around us?

Martin Luther was asked this very sort of question. Someone challenged, “What would you do if you heard that Jesus would return tomorrow?” Luther said that he would plant a tree. For in all likelihood, the rumor would be untrue. After all, Jesus said elsewhere that no one knows the hour or day when he would return. No one but the Father.  So why not plant a tree and plan for the future? Then if Luther was wrong and his Lord did return, he would find Luther taking care of the earth.

Jesus told this parable, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” The signs will be there for anyone to see. We need only look around us to see that the world is coming to an end.

But there have been so many signs. Thirty years after Jesus’ death, the Romans crushed the Jews in a horrible war that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Many Christians at that time still worshipped at the Temple. How could that not be the beginning of the end? Or what about the fall of the Roman Empire, or the rise and fall of the Nazi Empire, or Stalin’s reign of terror in Russia, Pol Pot in Cambodia or the many other conquests for power that have ended in the deaths of tens of thousands? Were these not the signs of the end?  How could we possibly know what truly signals the end of times?

So, if we humans have proven stunningly bad at reading the signs of the times, what good are passages like this? Why bother with the Apocalypse anyway? We may get an Apocalypse—an end of the world sometime. But the Apocalypse is always immanent. It is the very nature of Apocalypse. Soon and very soon. When will the Apocalypse be now?

Today is the end of the world, right now. This is the day for somebody. Thousands of somebodies, maybe a million or more. All over the world, today is the day of judgment. Many, many people will die today. Many others will reach an important point of decision. For all those people, the end is very near. Passages like this remind us that we don’t have forever to decide what we think about this Jesus of Nazareth. There is a time to decide, and that time is always now.

We always have now. Jesus reminds us that we don’t always have later. Jesus either was who he said he was, the Son of God, or not.  And if he was who he said he was, we can have a relationship with him right now. Then the end of the world is more or less irrelevant, as we have already begun eternal life. But if he wasn’t who he said he was, then he was just plain crazy and we should drop the whole thing. It’s that straightforward.

Passages like the gospel reading for this morning remind us that we are in a radical option situation right now. We can accept or we can reject.  Either way, the Kingdom of God is near. If we accept God, we enter into that kingdom here and now. If we reject God, then we are still standing by waiting and watching. Chicken Little runs around in the fable yelling, scaring everyone with the news that the sky is falling. All that happened was an acorn fell on her head, but she just repeated, “The sky is falling. The sky is falling. The sky is falling,” until everyone but the fox was scared, too.

Today, some folks have said the end is near so often that they can sound about like Chicken Little to us. But try this Christian version: Instead of “The sky is falling,” think “The Kingdom of God is near. The Kingdom of God is near. The Kingdom of God is near.” Because whether Jesus returns in glory before this service is completed or he waits another millennium, the Kingdom of God is near. The Kingdom of God is as near as a prayer. The Kingdom of God is as near as the bread and wine in this communion service. God is here among us, and the Kingdom of God is very near indeed. Jesus says that we are to be on our guard that our hearts are not weighted down. He told us to be alert at all times, praying.

But we need not fear the end of the world. If there is distress among the nations or even if the sky is truly falling, we need not be afraid. That Christ is coming is Good News. And as the Body of Christ gathered on this day, we rejoice that Jesus is not waiting to come into the world at the end of time alone. Yes, we affirm a belief in Jesus’ return in glory at the end of the age, but more importantly, we affirm that Jesus is here in our midst right now as more than two or three are gathered. And in our hearts as we worship, the Kingdom of God is near. Thanks be to God! We need not fear the signs of the times, we only need to trust in our Lord.

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.