First Sunday of Advent. Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary. November 29, 2015

Text: Luke 21:25‑36

25 ‘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 the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

“Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.” That is the prayer of Advent. Advent means “coming,” and the plea for the coming of Christ is reflected in all the great Advent hymns: “Savior of the Nations, Come”; “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”; “Oh, Come, Oh, Come Emmanuel”; “Come, O Precious Ransom, Come”. All the prayers and hymns of Advent invoke Christ’s coming—urgently!

“Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.” The older form of this prayer from ancient Gaul was, “Stir up, we beseech thee, thy power, O Lord, and come; that by thy protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins, and saved by thy mighty deliverance.”

When we think of our sins we think of confession. But these ancient words are a strange kind of confession. They are a confession that we cannot rescue ourselves because the threatening peril of our sins is beyond our power to deal with. We confess that we have, by our fault, by our own fault, by our own most grievous fault, empowered the Evil One, who prowls around seeking someone to devour, and now he comes to collect his due.

“Stir up, we beseech thee, thy power, O Lord, and come.” Stretching this ancient prayer over the three year lectionary for the First Sunday of Advent, Evangelical Lutheran Worship added to “save us from the threatening dangers of our sins” in year A, “awaken us to the threatening dangers of our sins” in year B, and “alert us to the threatening dangers of our sins” in this year C. “Awaken” and “alert” seem a little tame in the light of what we’re up against. In the light of what we have just heard in the Gospel reading, do we really want Christ to stir up his power and come at all?

These ancient words are not a confession in the usual sense. But they are a plea, a supplication for help. We cry out for help when there is no other recourse. We plead with the Lord  when there is no one else to turn to: we plead that the Lord God Almighty would stir up his power and come and rescue us.

There’s a lot of terror we want to be rescued from. The prayer refers to “the threatening dangers of our sins”. The sins are not just our personal actions that put us in harm’s way, but refer to the sins of all humanity which threaten all of humanity. The recent manifestations of the reach of ISIS over the Sinai peninsula, in Lebanon, and in Paris, and other terrorist assaults in other parts of the world, like Al Qaeda in Mali, show us that there’s no place in the world where we’re immune from terrorist threat. Terrorists are raised up from among us here in our homeland to do their evil work. Who knows what they have experienced in their lives that has caused them to respond to the siren song of terrorist groups. There is really no place to hide. While our intelligence agencies are pretty effective they can’t possibly follow every kid who is being seduced into blowing up himself and taking out as many of his fellow citizens as he can with him. If this is the way the world is going to be, nothing short of divine rescue will allay our fears and insecurities.

There’s also the threatening danger caused by climate change, which human beings have contributed to through our industries and technologies and pollution of the air and the seas. What has been happening in recent years in the hurricanes and tornadoes and floods that some parts of our country have endured is just a foretaste of what could come in worse doses in the future. The winds roar and the rains pound and roads are washed out and houses are flattened and it seems, at least from where we stand within the whirlwinds, that the world is being destroyed.

Actually, all the signs of change are not terrible. Jesus says, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees.” The leaves are green in the summer, forecasting the harvest to come. The harvest is a critical time. Will the trees bear fruit? But as we look at fig trees today, they have moved farther north due to climate change. Or look at the Maples. Quebec is becoming a maple syrup producer to rival Vermont.

But these are signs of things going on in our world. As the trees move farther north they are a clear indication of climate change. And on a worldwide scale this is not good. They are signs of the end, although not the end itself. They are signs reminding us to be prepared at all times for the coming of Christ, which we pray for with an increased sense of urgency: “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.”

But sometimes we need to think about what we are asking for. If the Lord Christ summons all his power and comes, it will be the end of history as we know it—even the end of natural history.

Can you picture what the end will be like in the light of today’s gospel reading? Can you imagine the sun and moon and the stars crashing around in the heavens? Can you hear the roaring of the wind and the waves and sense the return of chaos as the sun goes down forever? We live from the life-giving sun. Life is no more if the sun goes out.

“Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come,” we pray. When the heavens are shaken and the earth no longer moves on its steady course, when the nations are in consternation over their inability to live in peace and we dare not watch the evening news for fear of what the next crisis will be and how close it will be to us, will we look for the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory?

If we do, is that a terror to be feared? Or do we trust Christ’s word that he means to save us from the threatening peril of our sins? If your life is in great personal turmoil, if your job is insecure, if you don’t know what the outcome will be of your medical exam, if your house is filled with silence because you don’t know what to say to each other, do you then look up and trust that God will do something new in your lives? Do you call out to God for help, or do you just trudge along, keeping your head down, and trying not to notice how bad things really are? Oh, and there are all those Christmas gifts to buy and its only four weeks until December 25 and company’s coming for the holidays and we need to clean the house. So life must go on, the same old life, with nothing getting any better. The celebration of the coming of Christ becomes an excuse to preserve the status quo rather than a wake-up call to face the crisis we are in.

When you think about this prospect of no change, and things going on as they have always been, only worse, do you call out to Christ to come now and make all things new?  If you don’t trust God enough to look to him now, do you really think that you will look to him at the end? If you don’t place your life in his hands now, who will you trust when things really get bad? Is not our Advent prayer also a cry for Christ to come now into our lives and save us from the threatening dangers of our sins, or at least to alert us to the threatening dangers of our sins? Are we willing to light a candle in the encroaching darkness and let it be a beacon of where God can find us when we call out to him?

Advent candle

The signs of the end are always around us, from another hotel bombing to the daily obituaries in the newspaper. The signs of the end are always around us, and what we do now may give us a clue as to what we will do when the end really does come. The signs of the end are always around us, from another terrorist’s self-destruction in a crowd of people to the melting of the polar ice caps. These are all but a prelude to the day of judgment when we will be stripped bare of all our external and internal resources and can make no pretense about who we really are, for the peril of our sins is beyond our power to deal with. When that day comes, will we look up and call out to the Savior because our redemption is drawing near?

When you have at last learned that no power on earth will save you, when you finally believe that you cannot control your own destiny, when the trembling in your heart ceases, and when you realize that you can do nothing on your own—will you look to Jesus and expect him to be there? Can you look to Jesus now and expect him to be there for you now?

The promise is that the Son of Man will come in power and great glory with all his saints and the nations will wail greatly but he will give you the strength that you need to endure the last judgment and save you in the end.

The secret is to look to him even now. You can call on him to stir up his power and come and save you this day from the threatening perils of your sin. It’s just that he will come to you day by day in little signs, more like a baby being born than like an emperor invading enemy territory.

Gerard_van_Honthorst_nativity

“Nativity” by Gerard van Honthorst

Jesus Christ came into the world under the bright and shining stars of a cold winter night, and he left it when night took over the middle of the day. In the heavens were signs of his glory, but the earth was looking away. His birth and his death went unnoticed for most of the world, but when he comes again, there will be no mistaking him.

The signs of his coming, in that day, will be seen by all. There will be all these portends in the heavens and the clash of nations on the earth, but those who look for and expect Christ’s coming will be unafraid because he has come into their lives now with a gracious suspension of judgment when there have been ominous signs in or lives and  collisions with others.

We will have kept in touch with Christ through the means of grace he has provided. We will have attended to the hearing of his word and gathered with the faithful around his table. We will have brought our children to be baptized in his name. We will have done works of mercy to the least of his brothers and sisters and discovered that we did these things to him. We begin today another year of grace in which to keep on doing these things.

We don’t know when the end will come but we live by faith in the promise of his coming. We are trying to stay awake even though the day is far spent and the night has come. We light our Advent candles and offer our prayers in a confident appeal to him to save us when he comes in great power as mighty Lord of all.

And so we pray, making that ancient prayer our first prayer of this new church year, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection alert us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and redeem us for your life of justice.”

Amen.

Below is the complete painting of “The Last Judgement” by Michelangelo. It covers the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel. The central portion of the painting is the image above this post. Use it as a way to meditation on the coming of Christ.

Michelangelo portrays a scene of great complexity with amazing artistic creativity. The picture radiates out from the center figure of Christ the Judge with the books of the saved and the damned. His saints are with him and Michelangelo has chosen to depict the various saints holding the instruments of their martyrdom rather than the actual scenes of torture since their bodies are restored in the resurrection. At the bottom of the painting the dead are being raised. The saved are ascending into heaven and the angels are pushing the damned into the Charon’s ferry to be taken to hell. It seems that the artist was given artistic license by his patron, Pope Paul III.

Unfortunately it was decided later on that works of art in churches had to be modest and a pupil of Michelangelo, Daniele da Volterra, was commissioned to cover the figures’ nakedness with loincloths and veils. Originally all the figures were naked but da Volterra’s intervention earned him the nickname of “the maker of breeches”. Other over painting was added in the next two centuries for the same reason. With the restoration of the chapel in the 1980’s and 1990’s only Daniele da Volterra’s additions have been saved as part of the history of the painting; all other additions have now been removed.

– Pastor Frank Senn

Michelangelo Last Judgment Sistine Chapel