Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!
(You may be seated)
I must admit that I struggled to write this sermon.
I kept trying to interpret today’s prophetic and apocalyptic lectionary readings through the lens of the increasingly violent news of the last two weeks.
But my mind kept spinning in circles…
I couldn’t manage to make sense of any of it. The days counted down and I still couldn’t find the right words.
- As I read Isaiah’s prophecy of paradise, I kept thinking about the multiple mass shootings that we have endured over the last couple of weeks. And the bigotry and legacy of violence that make killing our neighbors seem like an option at all.
- As I read the Psalm, I found myself sighing with the knowledge that, in every generation, we have needed to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
- As I read Romans’ morality checklist, I found myself frustrated at Paul for wasting his words on little behavioral issues in the midst of so much worldly chaos.
- And as I read Jesus’ apocalyptic warning, I wondered, as I often do these days, if maybe we have endured as much as we can.
Maybe Christ really is coming soon.
Of course, we know that Christ is coming soon.
In Advent, that’s what we’re waiting for. Only four more weeks to go!
Though, I bet when most of us think about Jesus coming this time of year, we are likely picturing a baby in a manger and not a grown man descending from the clouds as our friends and coworkers are mysteriously “taken.”
But, Advent has always been trippier and time-warpier than the quaint nativity would lead us to believe.
When Christians use the word Advent, we are simultaneously referring to the arrival of the baby Jesus and the second coming of Christ.
In other words, his coming and his coming again.
The mental work of holding the past, present, and future together in our minds reminds us that our faith is disruptive. It takes us out of finite and linear time.
Just as we think the story has ended, it starts all over again.
In this season, we are dropped back into a story we are already participating in.
It is a story that we live as people of faith whenever we declare hope in the face of death and love in the face of hate.
So, it’s kind of a side effect of Advent that everything feels a bit wobbly. It’s no wonder I struggled to find the words!
But, as I kept thinking about it, I began to see today’s readings as origin stories…
Creation and destruction, beginnings and endings. These prophecies, songs, exhortations, and apocalypses ALL tell us something about the ancient people who followed God into the wilderness of their lives.
They reveal their terror. And their ultimate hope that God would intervene in their displacement and their grief.
And they reveal a God who promises to intervene, and then actually shows up.
These stories tell us about the ancestors of our faith, in hopes that we can glean something from their witness and their wisdom.
In other words, when we tell these stories and listen to them, we are attempting to learn something about who we are and who God is.
As we hear them, we take on the responsibility of interpreting them and letting them change us. Because our origin stories are not just old wives’ tales or ancient myths. They are calls to action.
But, I didn’t fully understand all of that until I visited the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City a couple of weeks ago.
The museum, which was curated by 39 of the indigenous tribes now living in Oklahoma, is essentially about origin stories.
Let me walk you through the exhibit…
At the beginning of the exhibit, you are greeted by a video that tells the creation stories of three of the tribes who were displaced to Oklahoma in the 1800s.
The clear voice of a young woman pierces the darkened room. She says:
“Our stories give meaning to our lives. They teach us how to live and how to act responsibly. They are always with us.”
These indigenous creation stories are harmonious and hopeful. They talk about a divine creator who cares for humankind and gives them everything they need.
They find food in the fruitful forests of North America, and companionship in the animals around them.
The Creator is fundamentally good, and all is well in this earthly paradise.
But, too quickly, you walk a little further in, and the story changes.
As you turn the corner in the exhibit, a new video begins playing. This time, the mournful voice of an elderly woman sings in the background.
This is the story of the Trail of Tears…
Between 1830 and 1850, as many as 200,000 Native Americans were forcibly removed from their homelands by the U.S. government.
Since the start of European colonization, 55 million Native Americans had already been killed by disease and violence. At least 3,000 more died while taking the arduous journey from the east coast to the expanding American West.
After they arrived, they continued to face encroachment and violence from white settlers.
Firsthand accounts describe grandmothers and children being slaughtered in front of their family members. One indigenous educator, still alive today, recalled that her great-grandmother always slept with moccasins on her feet, in case she needed to run.
This destruction story shapes contemporary indigenous life just as much as their creation stories do.
And then you walk a little further in…
In the third section of the exhibit, activists, educators, and elders share stories of indigenous autonomy, pride, and activism. Like the ancient prophets, this generation of indigenous people “have a fire shut up in their bones…and cannot hold back.”
They are responsible for their stories. Because they know that who they are today is dependent on telling and retelling their stories with as much clarity and truth as possible, in order to understand who they are and who their Creator is.
Their creation stories remind them that the Creator is fundamentally good, and that the earth is rightfully a place of peace, abundance, and joy. Displacement and destruction cannot take away that promise. When everything is ending, their stories show them how to begin again.
They tell their stories, because, in doing so, they shine a light on the past that makes a bright future more possible.
The First Americans Museum gives Christians a good reason to be ashamed of our origin stories.
After all, the colonists interpreted the Bible’s stories as an excuse for domination. To them, America is what God owed them as God’s chosen people. They failed to remember that whole part about “beating their swords into plowshares.”
And there is no doubt that the recent massacre in Colorado was influenced by violently homophobic interpretations of Bible passages.
For good reason, I think we often get hung up on the way our origin stories have been dangerously misinterpreted. It can be easier to keep them at arm’s length.
But we can’t move forward as people of faith without knowing who we are and who God is.
When I think about Biblical origin stories through the First Americans Museum’s lens of responsibility, they show me a path forward:
- In Isaiah, I hear that God’s aim for all creation is peace, abundance, and joy.
- In the Psalm, I hear that our call as people of faith is to praise, pray, build unity, and do good.
- In Romans, I hear that our commitments to Christ create new rhythms for our lives that draw us into the fellowship of God’s church.
- And in Matthew, I hear that Christ has not deserted us. Though we can’t predict the future or mark our calendars for Christ’s return, we can know that Christ is with us in an eternity that goes in both directions, from past to future. We are never alone.
We have a responsibility to listen to our stories with faithfulness and humility, and to be honest about the past so that we can travel the path to Christ’s future.
Advent’s time loop reminds us that we are always in a process of interpreting who we are in light of where we came from.
And just when we think the story is over, a little light gets into the darkness of our apocalypse, and we can begin again.
And yes, our stories are often strange and inconceivable. Because in a world burdened with violence and sorrow, it is inconceivable that God could ever show up.
And yet, our stories remind us that God, in Christ, is present and active.
They make it a little more possible to believe that our fragile, mortal lives carry meaning and promise.
They remind us that we are called to build communities without borders or barriers, where love is the highest value.
Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord! Amen!