In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. During the season of advent we anticipate celebrating Jesus’ first coming as a baby, and we also anticipate his second coming as the returning king.
In today’s reading from Luke’s account of the gospel Jesus is at the temple in Jerusalem, the central location of Jewish worship. It is the week of his passion. He has already entered Jerusalem in triumph, being hailed as “the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” And while his disciples are unaware of what lies ahead that week, Jesus is fully aware of what awaits him: his suffering and crucifixion.
And at the temple Jesus makes a statement that is at once sobering and comforting: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
We’ll start with the sobering and then move on to the comforting. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus says. In other words, everything will eventually age and pass away.
During “Black Friday” weekend last weekend it is estimated that about 247 million shoppers spent about 59.1 billion dollars on things that are shiny and new. But soon every new and shiny item bought on Black Friday will be old and discarded.
Take cars for example. A couple weeks ago I was checking out used cars online on craigslist, and I came across some hilarious ads, including the following:
“It’s a bargain, needs an engine.”
“This car runs fine, and sometimes it starts by itself.”
“It ran great when we parked it in the yard…ten years ago.”
“This car is old, but it comes with an extra hood!”
There is a story behind each one of those cars that were once shiny and new. Perhaps one was bought by a young executive who had received a nice Christmas bonus, or perhaps one was bought as a graduation gift with a huge red bow on the roof, or perhaps one was bought by someone who had just divorced and needed something new to help adjust to a new season of life. Now each of those once shiny new cars is being pawned off on craigslist—of course the good news is that one of them at least picked up an extra hood along the way, because who needs a spare tire when you can have a spare hood?
And it’s not just things that age and pass away. We do too, as the local band Sons of Bill sings: “There ain’t no skatin’ by, we’re all gonna die, no matter what the plastic surgeon told you” (“Santa Ana Winds” on the 2012 album, Sirens).
Some of us, knowing that things will pass away and that we will too, decide to put all our stock in our families.
Several years ago I officiated a wedding for a brilliant couple, both uber-overachieving young doctors. Both had gotten married very young and suffered through painful divorces, and they were so grateful to have found one another a few years later, so grateful for a second chance. As we were waiting for the rehearsal to begin the father of the bride asked if he could have a word with me.
We stepped out of the sanctuary and he spoke to me at length about how smart and accomplished his kids were, all Ivy League-educated, all doctors or lawyers, very impressive for sure. But then he shared with me how disappointed he was in his daughter (the bride to be) because of her divorce, because it was the first ever divorce in his distinguished family.
Rather than being happy that his daughter had been blessed with a second chance, he was angry at her because her divorce ended their family’s impressive non-divorce streak. It was sad to me, because as his daughter’s world had fallen apart it was probably not her family’s non-divorce streak that was on her mind, and I suspect what she needed from her dad was a hug, not a guilt trip.
Every week Paul or Dave or I will have people talk with us in our offices about broken relationships in their family. Sometimes even the most promising and fulfilling family relationships can become severely estranged or simply fall apart. These things happen to all of us, no matter how strong, smart or beautiful we are.
Last spring there was a fascinating article in The New York Times about a publication that Harvard puts out every five years. It’s referred to as the “Red Book” and contains all kinds of updated information on Harvard alumni. Listen to how the writer describes the “Red Book”:
“It’s all there. The deaths of parents, spouses, classmates; the births of children; prostate cancer, depression, money made and money lost, triumphs and tailspins… But the main point is to compare… Who’s happy, who’s depressed? Whose children turned out great, whose are still ‘finding themselves’? Who’s rich, who’s not?… What often emerges, after several throat-clearing paragraphs, is that life has not invariably been so good, whether the author knows it or not; and it’s that feature—the truth inadvertently revealed—that makes these thick volumes so horribly fascinating” (James Atlas, The New York Times April 15, 2012).
Another image…a few months ago Rolling Stone magazine published a special issue: Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Coming in at number 77 was country western music icon Willie Nelson, who has played the same guitar for over forty years. Listen to this:
“Amazingly, Nelson has been playing the same Martin M-20 classical guitar, nicknamed Trigger, since 1969…Though the guitar now has a large gaping hole, Nelson still plays it nightly. ‘I have come to believe we were fated for each other,’ he said. ‘The two of us even look alike. We are both pretty battered and bruised.’”
I would imagine many of you in one way or another may feel like Willie Nelson and his guitar, Trigger, “pretty battered and bruised.”
“Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus said. In 1965 singer-songwriter Paul Simon released a song called “Leaves that are Green” that paints a simple but poignant picture of the idea of heaven and earth passing away:
I was 21 years when I wrote this song
I’m 23 now but I won’t be for long
Time hurries on
And the leaves that are green turn to brown
And they wither with the wind
And they crumble in your hand…
I threw a pebble in a brook
And watched the ripples run away
And they never made a sound
And the leaves that are green turn to brown
And they wither in the wind
And they crumble in your hand
Hello, hello, hello, hello
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
That’s all there is
And the leaves that are green turn to brown
Heaven and earth will pass away. The leaves that are green turn to brown. This is not only true on an individual level but also on a universal level.
My all time favorite cartoon strip is The Far Side by Gary Larson. One features a disheveled middle aged man named Wayne standing at a window of his house looking out over his front yard which is packed with people who are angry at him. They are shouting and holding signs that say things like “Destroy Wayne,” “Down with Wayne,” “Wayne Must Go,” “No More Wayne,” “Wayne, you nerd!” And the caption underneath simply reads, “The world was going down the tubes. They needed a scapegoat. They found Wayne.” Poor Wayne.
“Heaven and earth will pass away.” It’s not just Gary Larson and Paul Simon who see it, so does the Apostle Paul, as he describes in his Letter to the Romans:
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:19-21).
“Heaven and earth will pass away.” That’s the sobering part of Jesus’ statement.
But Jesus continues with something comforting… “but my words,” he says, “will not pass away.”
This is where the gospel comes in.
The good news on this first Sunday of Advent is that one day the storm will be over.
Perhaps today you are feeling battered and bruised, or like the green leaves you were once holding have turned brown and are crumbling in your hand. Or perhaps in your family there are broken streaks and broken relationships. Or perhaps you have experienced more tailspins than triumphs. The good news of the gospel is that while heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus’ words will never pass away.
The world indeed needs a scapegoat, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God, willingly took that role upon himself. Even though Jesus was invariably good, his life was not, as things came to a head in his passion as Jesus, the king who came in the name of the Lord, was battered and bruised, as our iniquities literally made large gaping holes on his hands, as on the cross Jesus Christ, through whom the heavens and earth were created, passed away.
But according to Jesus’ word, which never passes away, he was also raised again on the third day. And also according to his word, which never passes away, he will return as the victorious king.
Toward the end of The Return of the King, the third part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, one of the main characters, Aragorn is identified as the returning king. Although he was valiant and wise, Aragorn was not identified as king because of his valor and wisdom. He was identified as the king because of something else, his healing hands. “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer,” Tolkien wrote, “and so shall the rightful king be known.”
When Jesus returns, as he most certainly will because his word never passes away, he will bring healing for all, including you. His scarred hands are healing hands.
One final illustration… the final song on the debut album of local band The Hill and Wood, led by the incomparable Sam Bush, is called “All’s Well that Ends.” It is a beautiful picture of hope, a reminder that one day the storm will be over:
So the winds blew for days
In so many ways
You were buried in cloud
But now it’s left you alone
You’re drenched to the bone
But you’re safe now somehow
The gales have died
And your clothes will dry
Your questions have drifted away
You never got answers
But you turned out okay
You’ll hear the faint sound of thunder out there
Though you may shudder
You won’t have to be scared
It won’t return
I give you my word
If you fall back in fear
The future’s as clear
As the sea before dawn
Wait for the world to turn
‘Cause the darkness can only hold on for so long
The sun will rise
To your surprise
All by itself
Without your help