Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Signs of Our Times: My sermon for the first Sunday of Advent

Seven cities in Europe, as part of a project implemented by the European Union, are currently undergoing an experiment. They are getting rid of all their traffic signs. A November 16th article in Spiegel Online, one of Europe’s biggest weekly news magazines, reports: (and I quote) “about 70 percent of traffic signs are ignored by drivers. What's more, the glut of prohibitions is tantamount to treating the driver like a child and it also foments resentment. He [or she] may stop in front of the crosswalk, but that only makes him feel justified in preventing pedestrians from crossing the street on every other occasion. Every traffic light baits him with the promise of making it over the crossing while the light is still yellow. (Sounds familiar? To continue,) The result is that drivers find themselves enclosed by a corset of prescriptions, so that they develop a kind of tunnel vision: They're constantly in search of their own advantage, and their good manners go out the window.” Interestingly, removing traffic signs has actually been effective in reducing accidents because it encourages drivers to take more personal responsibility for themselves and their vehicles. The guiding vision for this project is one of (quote) “drivers and pedestrians blending into a colorful and peaceful traffic stream.”

Transplant this idea of no traffic signs to the United States. Although there are times I sorely wish that we could abolish traffic lights (especially when stopped at an unrelenting red light), think about what the absence of traffic signs would do. Think about traffic at rush hour. Think about unregulated traffic in New York City (though to me, I can’t imagine the traffic getting any worse). I can just envision the chaos – the streets messy with cars, pedestrians, bicycles – all going every which way with no sense of direction, no guidance, and no one to restrain aggressive drivers. I see accidents on every corner, pedestrians being mowed down…a traffic planner’s nightmare.

Though they can be an annoyance from time to time, traffic signs serve a very important function. They alert us to potential dangers in the road ahead, denote busy routes, and protect other drivers on the road. Reading and interpreting signs help us get to our destination safely. Without signs, especially when driving in unfamiliar places, we would be lost. Signs point us in the right direction.

Friends, this morning’s text from Luke’s gospel reminds us of the importance of signs in the world around us. To be sure, this is not an easy passage to start the Advent season off with – we all want to get into the Christmas spirit – to feel the joy the season inspires, to spend time visiting with family and friends, and to drink in the holiday cheer. But this passage makes us step back for a moment. It says, “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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” This doesn’t sound like a very happy message – it seems more awe and fear inspiring. Terrifying. Frightening. These signs…do not look good. And Jesus is telling the disciples, to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Now I can tell you, I’m not about to go out celebrating if I see the end of the world coming at me, and I’m certainly not going to think that any sort of redemption is near.

However, I don’t think these signs merely point to a cataclysmic second coming akin to what one might find in the “Left Behind” series. Jesus reminds the disciples that these signs signal the nearness of the kingdom of God. The message is more than just doom and gloom and impending destruction. The kingdom of God is already actualized; the disciples simply have to watch for signs of this kingdom in our earthly existence. The foreboding signs indicate the presence of God’s kingdom, and this presence is what gives us the hope for redemption.

One of the professors at Drew Theological School, Dr. Leonard Sweet, puts it this way. When you buy a new car, what happens when you drive it off of the lot? It becomes a used car. Right. Now, what else starts to happen? You start to see this car everywhere. You notice it in parking lots, driving on the highway – it just seems to pop up everywhere you look! Amazing, right? But the thing is: nothing around you has changed. It’s not that people are suddenly buying the exact same car as you, but that you have a different outlook. You are better able to notice these cars that have been there all along! As Christians, we are called to have a similar mindset. We should see the signs of God’s kingdom already present with us along with the signs that tell us that God’s kingdom is needed now more than ever. This passage demands that we pause and take a good look around us, and ponder the “signs of the times” for our own day and age.

So what are the signs in our society that tell us God’s kingdom is at hand? That tell us our world needs God’s presence? One sign arises from all of the media attention given to the release of the new gaming systems by Sony and Nintendo, particularly that of the Playstation 3. If you’ve been following the news, you’ve heard not just how popular these new consoles are (and how much fun they’re supposed to be!), but also how people have come to blows over getting one. A man stole a seventeen year-old’s Playstation 3 at gunpoint in a mall on November 18th. A Super WalMart in California had to be shut down after riots broke out in the crowd waiting outside to purchase one of these units.

These stories show that our society values materialism, the belief that “the one who dies with the most toys wins.” However, Jesus calls us not to be attached to our worldly possessions, because they have no lasting claim on our lives. Our culture’s over-indulgent materialism is a sign to us that God is sorely needed in our society. We need God to reorganize our priorities and our values – to help us take care of our neighbor instead of being concerned with merely ourselves.

This is only one sign that tells us how desperately our world needs the love of Jesus. Almost everywhere we look there are others: the war in Iraq, the destruction from hurricane Katrina, genocide in Darfur, street killings and shootings, and I’m sure you can think of many others. These signs tell us how much God’s presence is needed in a world that is broken, hurting, and suffering.

Yet, there are also signs in our world that point to the presence of God’s kingdom in our time and place. Take the same phenomenon of the Playstation 3. One eighteen year-old in Manchester, NH camped out for 34 hours to acquire one. He had planned to sell it on E-bay to make a profit, but his teacher told him about 2 classmates of his, a brother and sister, both of whom are battling cancer. He decided to donate it to a raffle designed to raise funds for their medical bills and Christmas presents for them. This student gave up his own shot at a healthy profit and instead put his newly purchased Playstation to a better use – helping those who are in need of it. It is in moments like this that we can see God’s kingdom already here on earth, even in the midst of all the greed and other negative values of our culture.

These signs constantly remind us of how much the world needs God and how close God’s kingdom really is to us. These signs are all around us, and at this time of year, when we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus, they remind us of why he came to earth in the first place. Jesus came to proclaim the nearness of God’s kingdom, and it is our job to be watching for how God’s kingdom on earth is already coming about.

Even more than this, however, is that we are not only supposed to watch for the signs, but we ourselves are called to be signs to other people of God’s kingdom. We are signs of God’s presence among us and the people around us will look for signs of this kingdom in our lives. Just like the teenager who donated his Playstation 3 for a greater cause, Christ calls us to make our families, our workplaces, our schools, and our communities more like God’s kingdom. Through our actions, other people will be able to see glimpses of the kingdom of God.

There a lot of small ways to do this as we prepare for the coming of Christ this Advent season. For instance, instead of buying another Christmas present for someone, make a donation in their name to a local charity. Donate food to the Helping Hands Food Pantry. In a season where heating costs can be a terrible burden, help lighten that load by donating to charities that help low income families with that cost. There are lots of other things that you can do to be signs to other people of the kingdom of God.

In a season where it’s easy to get swept up in the shopping, the Christmas concerts, and the other trappings of the holiday season, our world needs this assurance of God’s presence. Whereas society gives us signs of greed: huge holiday sales, must-have gadgets, and images of piles of presents around the Christmas tree as “signs of the times,” we must be signs to the true meaning of the season: that God in Jesus Christ has come among us to proclaim the arrival of the kingdom of God. So rejoice! For our redemption, the kingdom of God, is truly at hand. Watch for the signs and be ready. Amen.

BENEDICTION: Friends, the kingdom of God is near to us. Go forth, and be signs to the world that God is here among us. Go out in the name of the one who created you, the one who redeemed you in Christ Jesus, and the one who sustains you by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great sermon... and I'm a little jealous that my roommate got to have lunch woth you today and I didn't ;-)