A sermon preached by Pastor Bob Schaefer
First and Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
First Sunday in Advent – November 30, 2003
Text: Luke 21:25-36
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
I put almost 800 miles on the car this weekend. Nikki and I hit the road from Litchville Thursday morning, in order to be home to my parents’ in time for an early afternoon Thanksgiving dinner. On Friday, Dad and Jeff drove into Minneapolis with me to hit a few early-morning day-after-Thanksgiving sales. Then I popped into Fairview University Medical Center to see Terry Carlson, before heading back to Hutchinson for a nap. Yesterday morning, I loaded up the car and set out again for home, with Nikki in my front seat and Dad following along behind. 760 miles…and signs to help me get from here to there each step of the way.
While we were on the road, there were the usual array of traffic signs to interpret the road ahead. Merging traffic from the right. 31 miles to Fergus Falls. No services this exit. All way stop. One way – do not enter. Speed limit 75. 65. 55. Hospital parking ramp, turn here. All the usual signs, the ones we take for granted. For the parts of the trip I knew well, they provided helpful little bits of information: How many miles left? Can I get gas at the next exit? But on those segments of the journey that were less familiar, those signs were a lifesaver, helping me find my way in unfamiliar territory and heavy traffic.
Signs were no less important once the car was parked and I was hoofing it through the medical center’s tunnels. Do I turn right or keep on going straight? Where’s the information desk? Is there an elevator nearby? Section 6c…is that on the fourth floor or the sixth? Where’s Terry’s room? Is Terry still in that room, or has he been moved? Without the signs, I would have been literally and figuratively lost. No idea where I was going, or how I was supposed to get there. Even the best directions from the nice fellow at the information desk wouldn’t have been enough to get the job done if there weren’t plenty of signs to help me on the way.
The thing about signs is that their whole purpose is to point to something else. Whether that something else is a place – like Hutchinson – or an idea – like don’t drive faster than this! – signs always point beyond themselves. The point isn’t the sign, it’s the thing the sign is pointing to.
The season of Advent is all about signs. And like all good signs, the signs of Advent point beyond themselves. They point toward Jesus.
What kind of signs might we find this Advent season?
Let’s start by dismissing a few possibilities right out of the gate. First of all, snow isn’t a sign of Advent. It’s true that in our part of the world it’s almost always white out there this time of the year. When December rolls around and the church calendar says we’ve begun a new church year, we grizzled Midwesterners are almost a little disappointed if there’s not some snow on the ground and frost coating the trees. But in many parts of the world, it’s the start of a long, hot summer right now, and the cold stuff is the farthest thing from their minds. Snow and ice, while they might be considered signs of another Dakota winter, are not signs of Advent.
Nor are Christmas carols on the radio, Christmas decorations in the malls, or Christmas lights on our homes. Remember that Advent signs point beyond themselves…they are an anticipation of something, something big. They are the pregnant pause while we remember the pregnant mother, so soon to give birth to her son, the Son of God. All of these Christmas goodies that are thrust upon us from Thanksgiving onward are signs, it’s true, but they are not signs designed to point toward the Christ child growing silently in the womb. They are intended to point us right into the holiday sales. They are intended to point us toward a happy and generous mood, the kind of mood that produces good receipts for the merchants. These Christmassy things that wash over us this time of year actually numb us to the real signs of Advent. Anytime the great festivals of the church are used for profit and market share, Christians should be cautious, indeed.
The real signs of Advent are those we find in our service today: Prophecy. Candles. Prayers. Worship. Longing.
We hear from the prophets of the savior who is to come. They warn us to turn from our sins, and encourage us that salvation us at hand. The prophets lay out the signs that will point us in the right direction to recognize our savior when we see him: not wrapped in purple on a princess’ knee, but lying in a manger among the village livestock. The words of the prophets are a sign of Advent.
Candles burn to count the weeks until our celebration begins. Four candles in a ring, with a fifth, white candle in their center, mark the four weeks of Advent and the holy day of the Nativity – Christmas. With each additional candle that is lit, we can’t help but be reminded of those that will remain dark for seven more days, and so both lit and unlit candles point toward the birth of our savior at their center.
Prayers and worship always point us toward Christ, but they are especially powerful signs in the midst of all the commercial hubbub that besieges us this time of year. While the stores playing Christmas carols practically drag you into a garishly decorated sales floor to leave behind your cash, the reflective Advent hymns quietly draw us into the great mystery of the Incarnation – God becoming one of us, being born a human child – to dwell in that mystery for a time. In prayer and in worship, we discover the spiritual center we need to find our way through the sales pitches to the Christ child. Both prayer and worship are signs of Advent.
Finally there is the longing. We long for Jesus, long for him with all our hearts. We long to remember how he came to be with us, and we long for him to come again and take us home. Longing is always a bittersweet thing; at its heart is a joy dearly hoped for, but that joy is tempered by the reality that it has not been realized yet. So it is with our Advent longing. We know the joy of Christ’s salvation even while we see all around us that things will not and cannot be made aright until he comes. That longing points us toward both our Christmas celebration and also the great cosmic celebration when the Son of Man comes in a cloud with power and great glory. The hopeful yet wistful nature of our longing makes it a sign of the season.
These are the signs of the season. Seek these Advent signs in the next four weeks; watch for them. When you notice the signs of Advent on your journey, turn them over in your heart even as Mary turned over the news that she was with child. Ponder them. Cherish them. Dwell in them. There are many signs competing for your attention at this moment. This Advent, turn toward the signs that whisper rather than scream; turn toward the ones that urge reflection rather than impulsiveness; turn toward the ones that point you toward the great mystery of God made flesh rather than any other sign.
Just like the countless signs I encountered over the miles of my journey, so you will find the true Advent signs to be your faithful guides. They will get you to the places you need to be. They will point you in the direction of Emmanuel – God With Us. May God show us these signs, and bring us safely and fruitfully to a blessed Christmas in just a few short weeks. Amen.