signs of God's presence in the sky

(full online service video below)

Just when you are ready for the sign of a baby born in a manger, the appointed lesson for the first Sunday of Advent greets you with a message about signs of a different nature.  When you are ready to travel with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus, you hear Jesus talking about signs of distress in the things that order our daily existence: the sun, the moon, and the stars, the roaring of seas and the waves.  When you are ready to hear angels sing a song of peace, you hear Jesus talking about signs of distress in the things that order our eternal existence as the powers of the heavens are shaken and people faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.

The journey of Advent would be so much easier if Advent only led us to the sign of a cuddly infant wrapped in swaddling cloth and lying in a manger.  If only Jesus would stay small enough for us to hold him securely in our arms, then we would not have to deal with the signs that drive us to the arms of Jesus.  This is why the appointed scripture for the first Sunday of Advent is the scripture that we hear today.  It is a reminder that there are no easy answers to stressful questions as we face the reality of challenging and disturbing signs in our world.  It is also a reminder that Advent is the journey of faith that leads us to expect God’s presence in our lives as we become signs of God’s presence through our lives.

In John Boyer’s book, The Great Hunger, a stranger moved into a farming community.  “No Trespassing” signs indicated that he wanted to be withdrawn.  One day a neighbor child crawled under the fence in order to pet the stranger’s dog, but the animal leapt upon her and killed her.  Community anger and hatred for the stranger grew intense.  When the stranger went into the General Store no one spoke to him.  The clerk refused to wait on him.  He could not even buy seeds for planting.  At long last, the farmer whose daughter had been killed could take the tension no longer.  He took his own seed and sowed it on the stranger’s land.  The stranger’s heart broke.  As he wept, he asked, “Why did you do it.”  The farmer replied, “I did it to keep God alive.”

Advent is the journey of searching for signs of God’s presence in a trembling world so we may be signs of God’s presence in a trembling world.  Court cases underline tensions that have defined multiple generations.  A joyful Christmas parade becomes a site of unwatchable horror.  As we live in the reality of a trembling world, I invite you to hear where the journey of Advent begins.  Advent does not begin with the promised birth of the infant Jesus in the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke.  Advent begins with the promised return of the triumphant Jesus in Luke 21:27: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”  Before leading us to the signs of the expected birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, Advent begins with the signs of the expected return of Jesus and Jesus’ command be on guard in the present as we live with faith in Jesus into the future.

I recently received a message from a young person inquiring if we are living in the promised time of Christ’s return.  It was a topic that raised great concern and caused great anxiety for this youth.  It was not the first time I have been asked this question.  It is, in fact, a question I struggled with when I was a teenager.  In preparing for today’s sermon, I typed “return of Christ” into an internet search engine and had 110,000,000 responses in .68 seconds.  I venture to state that this number of responses in less than ¾ of a second is an indication that there are many people who share the question that my young friend texted to me.

In 1988, a book entitled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988 was mailed unsolicited and free of charge to 300,000 ministers across America.  It was written by Edgar C. Whisenant, a former NASA engineer and Bible student who predicted that the promised return of Christ would happen between September 11 and 13, 1988, the dates of the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashana that celebrates the beginning of the new year on the Jewish calendar.  Eventually, 4.5 million copies of the book were sold.  Whisenant was quoted as saying “Only if the Bible is in error am I wrong; and I say that to every preacher in town” and “[I]f there were a king in this country and I could gamble with my life, I would stake my life on Rosh Hashana.”

Whisenant’s predictions were taken seriously in some parts of the Christian community. As the date approached, regular programming on the Christian Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN) was interrupted to provide special instructions on preparing for the rapture.  Unfortunately, many people quit their jobs, ran up huge debts, and lived with no concern for the present when the predicted time of Christ’s return came and went in September 1988.  When the predicted rapture failed to occur, Whisenant followed up with later books and predictions for various dates for the return of Christ.

The final shout: Rapture report 1989. 
23 reasons why a pre-tribulation rapture looks like it will occur on Rosh-Hashanah 1993.
And now the earth’s destruction by fire, nuclear bomb fire. Prediction for 1994.   
Whisenant continued to issue various rapture predictions through 1997.

The promise of Jesus’ return in Luke 21:25-36 is not intended to result in the avoidance of the present responsibilities of life.  The promise of Jesus’ return is intended to help us live in the present expectations that Jesus makes possible in our lives.  This is why the journey of Advent leads us from the promised return of Jesus to the promised birth of Jesus.  It is a faith-filled reminder of the difference that the expectation of Jesus makes in our lives.

One Christmas season members of a New England church were preparing for their annual Christmas pageant.  A little boy who had been crippled by polio and who walked with crutches wanted to play a part in the pageant.  All of the major male roles had been given out – Joseph, the wise men, the shepherds.  Naturally, the boy was disappointed.  Finally, it was decided that he could play the innkeeper.  The boy was heartbroken because he was the only person in the play who have to reject Jesus.  All during rehearsals, this sensitive child was deeply troubled by the role he had been given.  The night came for the pageant to be presented.  The social hall was filled with parents, grandparents, and church people.  The play began with Joseph knocking on the door of the inn.  The time had arrived for the innkeeper to announce there was no room in the inn for the holy family.  Throwing open the door of the inn, the boy shouted at the top of his voice, “Come in!  I’ve been expecting you.”

The journey of Advent is a journey of faith as we remember the promise of Jesus’ return in glory and the promise of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem as we search for and become signs of expectant faith in Jesus.  May God bless us in the journey that is ahead.  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

by Pastor Marc Brown
November 28, 2021

Accompanying Scriptures: Luke 21:25-36

Fort Hill United Methodist Church
Order of Worship for November 28, 2021


The Good News                            “Signs”

Scripture Lesson                        Luke 21:25-36

Music                                                 “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”



Closing Music                            “The Holly and the Ivy”      arr. Edward Broughton

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