Note to remote sermon people: I recommend watching the Bobby Kennedy speech via youtube; link included in text)
Sermon: Wake Up and Smell the Ozone
Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-12; Luke 21:25-36
Date: December 2, 2018
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
The lectionary texts assigned for the first Sunday of Advent contain more mood swings than a hormonal thirteen year old. You’ve got your hope and your foreboding, promise and threat, love and fear, righteousness and dissipation, alertness and drunkenness, gratitude and worry, distress and redemption, fainting and standing up.
Both Jeremiah and Luke are hinting at cosmic upheavals, building on ancient traditions of the Day of the Lord–which will either be terrible or fantastic depending on where you stand vis a vis the God who is cleaning up the world. There is a thread running through both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures envisioning God arriving in some dramatic fashion to “execute justice and righteousness in the land,” as Jeremiah puts it. Prophecies about this day that is surely coming often include unmistakable cosmic signs in the sun, moon and stars, and chaotic changes in the earthly landscape like mountains being leveled and the sea stirred into roaring turmoil. You can read such texts as end of the world forecasts, what you might be looking for as you scan the horizon of time.
On the other hand, the descriptions of hope and foreboding, promise and threat, love and fear, righteousness and dissipation, alertness and drunkenness, gratitude and worry, distress and redemption, fainting and standing up might just make us think of another ordinary day on Planet Earth. Read a couple of newspapers, visit an art gallery, go to work or to the Senior Center and you may well observe all these aspects of experiencing life on earth. Heck, you could see and hear it all on a single ferry crossing, if you listened in on all the conversations on a crowded boat: hope and foreboding, promise and threat, love and fear, righteousness and dissipation, alertness and drunkenness, gratitude and worry, distress and redemption, fainting and standing up. Jesus says in Luke’s gospel, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” [Luke 21:32] By golly, this day will not even pass away before all these earthly conditions reveal themselves. We could clip a few words out of the reading from Luke and turn it into a re-useable global headline: “On the earth, distress among nations confused.” It could run as a crawler on the screens of all the big news networks 24/7.
I’m pretty sure the text from Luke was understood as a prophecy of end times when it was first written. But I believe we can draw some wisdom from Luke and the other readings for these times as well as the end times, even as we remind ourselves that these times of ours are hard times, not end times. There is so much here that applies to each day as well as whatever will be the last day. We could re-frame the dramatic image of the Son of Man coming in a cloud as not so much a cataclysmic finale but instead a rather common occurrence, particularly here in the soggy Pacific Northwest. What if we thought of Christ coming into the world in power and glory as commonplace, an everyday kind of happening, like clouds in the sky in this neck of the woods? When these things begin to take place—clouds in the sky! In December!—stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. Jesus helped make a case for the extraordinary ordinariness of the Kingdom of God breaking in to our world throughout his teaching. The parable of the fig tree thrown into this passage also implies commonplaceness in signs of the nearness of the Kin-dom of God. Minister poet Steve Garnass-Holmes, inspired by Luke 21, wrote eloquently this week about looking for signs:
You have to know how to look
among the distress of the nations,
the fear and foreboding,
to see the little fig leaves,
the subtle bursts of possibility,
God’s faint but certain emergences,
the little gracelets that abound
and clue you in
on what is coming upon the world.
Look for the child who endures,
the woman who persists,
the beauty that subverts,
the love that sneaks in.
Watch for the free, outlandish life
that is not yet done arriving.
“That’s just the way it is”
isn’t the way it is.
Look till you see.
That’s part of our role on this earth, children of God. To look for the ways the Kin-dom of God is continually drawing near. To look till we see. But that’s not all. It’s not just about seeing but also about being. It’s about being a gateway for the love that wants to abound on this earth. It’s about springing up green again when we feel utterly cut down or cut off—springing up green like the righteous branch of the tree of God’s people that Jeremiah promises will spring up from the stump of Jesse after the people have been cut off by invasion and exile. It’s about leaning into the promise rather than withdrawing from the threat through fainting, drunkenness, dissipation, and so forth.
Kate Huey restates the promise of Jeremiah in these words: “After a long and terrible night, said Jeremiah, a brilliant morning would dawn and a generation of God’s people would wake up in safety in a place renamed ‘Justice.'” She then asks the question, “What would it be like to live in a place called ‘Justice’?” This is the sort of question a faithful person might keep in mind at any moment, and especially at a crossroads where it is abundantly clear that there is a choice between fear and trust, between giving up or seeking strength, between fainting and standing up. Huey’s Sermon Seeds commentary called attention to a speech made by Bobby Kennedy at just such a moment, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Listen for how he encourages people to rise to their better angels and to strive for the kind of country we would prefer:
I read somewhere that Indianapolis (where this speech was given) did not have the violent, fiery riots that occurred in some other cities that night after King was killed; it’s quite possible that Bobby Kennedy’s speech may have been a factor in people deciding against seeking vengeance. Hard to know. I admire the way he stood at a crossroads and urged love and justice, as if he was keeping front of mind what it would be like to live in a place called “Justice” even at such a traumatic moment. He wasn’t preaching a sermon but by invoking love in a moment when the temptation to hatred was so strong on all sides he was essentially praying (without naming the Lord) the way St. Paul did for the Christians in Thessalonika: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all…” An excellent prayer, an excellent appeal.
We live in a time of fear and foreboding, a time of hearts being weighed down, a time of rising suicide rates, a time of proliferating methods of getting drunk or high so as to escape anxiety, a time of a million means of dissipation of time, energy, money and other resources. This is just the time for the faithful to look for the Son of Man, the Christ to arrive with the clouds.
I’ve been in some dry places when a storm gathers, sometimes with fearsome sounds of thunder and glimpses of lightning. Sometimes you can smell the ozone in the air signaling the storm’s approach. Have you smelled that distinctive aroma? It’s created when molecules of oxygen get split by electrical energy and make O2s into O3s with their sharp grey bouquet, and they get pushed down into nose range. Imagine we were alerted to Christ arriving with our noses as well as eyes and ears. Recall the scent of ozone in the air, piercing, heralding power and glory travelling with the clouds. Suppose that sort of scent acted like smelling salts for the faithful, preventing us (or maybe reviving us) from fainting from fear and foreboding. When these scary things we experience threaten to weigh us down and overwhelm us we look into the clouds for Christ arriving, recalling that God in Christ promises to be with us always. As David Lose writes,
“Across the board, Jesus promises not to abandon his disciples amid the tumult and trauma of the world but to be with them, strengthen and encourage them, and equip them not merely to endure the challenges of the day but to flourish. Jesus’ promises, I want to be clear, do not eliminate fear or hardship from the lives of his disciples – then or now – but rather create courage, the ability to be faithful, to do one’s duty, to retain vision and compassion and empathy, even while afraid.”
Whether it’s storms-a-comin’ or storms-a-raging, when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads; redemption is drawing near. Be alert; wake up and smell the ozone. Pray for strength, look for gracelets showing themselves, testify to righteous love, toil for justice. Here’s another encouraging word from pastor poet Steve Garnass-Holmes:
“A great disturbance approaches—
but not some dire calamity flung upon us,
the fantasy engorged preachers like to invoke.
No, it’s a greater upheaval:
a rift in the very fabric of selfishness,
a disturbance in the powers of evil.
God knows the secret, fatal weakness
of the Opponent of Life:
his power is built entirely on lies and fear.
Even the simplest truth unravels it.
Even the smallest gift, the most subtle beauty,
shakes the powers.
The energy of love overpowers evil,
converts it, as light does darkness.
God mends this troubled world
not by mounting a war of good against evil
but by sending a helpless child,
a child who prevails, not by winning—
for eventually evil will kill the child—
but by evoking such unkillable love in our hearts
that the powers in the heights are shaken.
So when we see these things we raise our heads,
for our redemption is drawing near.”
 Garnass-Holmes, Steve From
 Lose, David From
 Garnass-Holmes, Steve From