A few years back I was walking through Opry Mills with Jennifer and the kids. It was early December, so the mall was decked out in all the trim and finish one would expect a palace to consumerism to have. As a Millennial, I’m three generations in to the sights and sounds of post WWII secular Christmas. It is the air I breath. It is the default. It comes and goes in my life expected, but also unnoticed, like July 4th and Halloween. The day after Thanksgiving it springs up as if out of nowhere and no one misses a beat when Kroger starts playing songs about magical snowmen instead of pop hits from the early aughts. That particular day, however, something did stand out to me. As I stood outside a store keeping Oliver moving in the stroller, I noticed a large display. Taking up the entire middle space where a pop-up store could go, were giant red sparkly letters all decorated for Christmas. They spelt out the word “believe.”
Now, I could go on and on about that secular display. Believe in what? Believe in whom? And, I’ve even got a pretty good idea what they want you to believe in. But, y’all didn’t come here today to hear a guy from East Nashville tear down the idol of consumerism. Y’all came to hear about Jesus.
I’ll admit, what first excited me about that believe sign was my latent fundamentalist desire to judge. I wanted to lean in hard into secular Christmas and all the things I dislike about it. But, then, I realized, I actually say “I believe” in things quite often. “I believe” crosses my lips at least once a day in the creeds said in the daily offices. “We believe” has been the response to almost every sermon I’ve heard my entire adult life. Instead of driving me to anger and judgement, this secular decorative “believe”, I now see, could be used as a way to dig deeper into Advent and into our relationship with the Coming Lord.
“I believe” with these words we respond each day to God’s Word given to us in scripture and proclamation. “I believe” when we call out to Jesus in times of trouble and ask him to help our unbelief. “I believe” our parents and Godparents proclaim as they carry us to the ark of Christ’s church in baptism.
As Christians we believe. This belief is more than just agreeing with a statement of fact. It is more than just knowing particular things about God or affirming the right thoughts about him. Yes. Belief is stepping into the known-unknown in faith. Belief is putting faith into action and living as if something we hope is so, truly is — despite the consequences and what we see before us with our eyes.
Belief is Mary saying, “be it unto me according to thy word.” Belief is dropping our fishing nets and following Jesus without a second thought. Belief is stepping into the Jordan because a wild prophet says it’s preparing us for the Messiah. Belief is marching around a city blowing horns for days.
Advent, more than any other season, is a time when we step into belief. We know the Messiah has been born — Christmas. We know Jesus lived and suffered with us and for us — Lent. We know he died on the cross and rose the third day — Easter. These things are all in the past. We have some details, and the narrative has been written. We must only step out in faith on the parts that are unclear and believe in the Spirit who breathed scripture to us.
Advent is different. In Isaiah, Daniel, the Baptist, St. John, and Jesus himself we hear of something that has started to happen, but is not yet complete. We don’t have the details. And, the details we do have are cryptic and don’t make a lot of sense. The narrative is still unfolding slowly before the eyes of generations. In Advent we need to believe not only in the narrative we’ve received, but we must believe and trust God to write the narrative that is yet to be.
Believe. Amidst the hustle and bustle of secular Christmas this word — believe — stands out like the barren fig tree amongst the evergreens of Israel in winter. We want to escape the anxiety of the unknown in the comforts of the songs and symbols we know best. We want to look past the discomfort of final things and look instead to the known story of the baby in the manger and the snowman who will come again as sure as winter does each year. Advent forces us to face the reality of the still being written narrative of God and his people. Advent compels us to look into the unknown and simply believe in all the discomfort of our vulnerability.
In today’s gospel we hear Jesus telling his disciples about two ends. One which will come in their generations — the destruction of the temple and the falling of Judah’s political order fully to Rome — and the other which is yet to be; the Son of Man’s final coming to completely establish his kingdom upon the earth and to judge the nations.
These readings are uncomfortable. They make us think of things we’d rather ignore. We don’t like thinking about judgement. I mean, when was the last time you saw a children’s book about Noah that wasn’t just a book of cute animals that mentioned God a few times?
But, face it we must. This — not the tinsel and snow-covered peace — is the reality. The world is fallen. Sin and evil exist. Nice thoughts, kind stories, and songs about happiness are not going to save us. These things cannot put things right.
Y’all, Jesus really is coming back. We will see our Lord face to face, and he will be our king and we will be his people. He will wipe every tear away. He will usher in the New Creation. All things will be made whole. Evil will be judged. Satan will be trampled under his feet. Jesus did not save us from our inner selves or show us the way to some sort of internal, spiritual enlightenment. He saved us from the powers of sin and darkness. He saved us from hell. He saved us from death and destruction. He saved us from real things. He is truly a savior and redeemer.
If Christmas is just about a baby being born, we have no hope. If Christmas is just God becoming human so he can understand us and teach us better, then we have no hope. Advent helps us remember our hope found in the Living God who truly died for our sins. Advent helps us face the anxiety of the last things and the reality of our fallen world. We believe he will come again. We believe he will be with us as he was of old as we face the unfolding of his eternal will for our good. We believe he will meet us in our unbelief and strengthen us as we face the end of this age.
Hear the good news in what Jesus is telling us today. For our sisters in Christ kidnapped in Nigeria, Jesus will return and judge evil. For the children needlessly slain hidden under their desks, Jesus will return and judge evil. For those tortured in war, Jesus will return and judge evil. For the weak, for the downtrodden, for the orphan, for the widow, for our dying Earth, Jesus will return and judge evil. As sure as Mary held Jesus, as sure as God parted the Red Sea, and as sure as God led his sinful, exiled children home — the final things will come and Jesus will be with us again and will reign forever as our king in the glory of his New Creation.
He tells us these things, so that we do not lose hope. He tells us these things so that we might continue to believe in the story he is writing and trust in his faithfulness to lead us into his eternal kingdom.
When I think of Christ’s return and final judgement, I get a little anxious. It’s a lot to think about and kind of scary. Jesus, in love, calls us back to Noah. Not the Fisher-Price board book Noah, but the Noah of the Bible. That was no doubt a terrifying experience. It’s not great to think about the reality of the Flood. But, Noah believed. Not every day, I’m sure. I’ve no doubt he had anxieties and worries. I can’t imagine the thoughts and stresses he and his family went through building a giant boat. But, through it all, God, in his patient mercy, gave them faith. He helped their unbelief. God provided the ark — the materials, the plans, the skills, and the strength — to safely carry Noah to the new age of God’s never-ending story.
We know the story that’s been written thus far. We know the character of the God of Lent, Easter, and Christmas. We’ve seen his heart lying helpless in the manger. We’ve seen his arms stretched out in love on the hard wood of the cross. We’ve heard his loving words to Thomas' doubt in the upper room.
Advent calls us into the ark of Christ’s Holy Church where we’ll stand safe and secure as the next age unfolds before us.
Believe. Believe in him who was and is and will be. Believe in him who died for you. Believe in him who comes on clouds descending.
Let us pray and remember the prayer that was prayed for us at our baptisms:
Almighty and everlasting Father, in your great mercy you saved Noah and his family in the Ark from the destruction of the flood, prefiguring the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Look mercifully upon these your servants. Wash and sanctify them through your Holy Spirit, that they may be delivered from destruction and received into the Ark of Christ’s Church; and being steadfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in love, they may pass through the turbulent floods of this troublesome world and come into the land of everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Remember your baptism. Safe from the deck of the ark, we will welcome our king as he descends. In the warmth of his light, the waters of judgement will recede to reveal the Earth in its perfect glory. Believe.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.