Signs in the Stars

Jeremiah 33:14-16

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

Luke 21:25-28

‘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. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

Prayer for the Lighting of the Hope Candle

“Oh God, in the fog and fury of this dark age, keep the inner world of heart and mind in us clear and strong, that we may not be buffeted from our course by the wild winds of chaos and seas of bitterness. Help us onward through all kinds of weather to follow patiently the north star of thine eternal purpose and, if darkness and chaos hide it, hold us firm by every remembrance and hope to do thy will through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (From the Advent & Christmas prayers of Samuel H. Miller, OCBC pastor 1934-1959)


Advent is a season of expectation for something coming into the world. A time when the liturgical paraments and vestments turn a deep purple, because the light hasn’t yet risen and we move through the season in darkness – wondering, waiting, hoping for a light to shine forth in “the fog and fury” and “wild winds of chaos,” as Samuel Miller’s prayer reflects this morning. On the first Sunday of Advent in 1928, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went so far as to tell his congregation in Barcelona, “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul…and who look forward to something greater to come.”[1]

And, on this first Sunday of Advent, just like every year, we light the “hope” candle. It’s the quintessential candle of Advent, if you ask me. Hope, expectation, longing, wondering, waiting – it’s what the spiritual and liturgical practice of Advent is all about.

But hope has been a topic of some confusion for Christians. I don’t know when the confusion surrounding hope started but I would imagine it’s been a little troublesome since around the fourth century when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. It may have been then that hope started to turn into something a little less precarious and uncertain and take on a more self-assured, triumphant air. Even this week, I heard a preacher say “hope” is used in the biblical text to mean a “certainty, a realized truth.” Really?

It’s a far cry from Bonhoeffer’s “troubled soul who looks forward to something greater to come.” And the liturgical calendar doesn’t do us any favors when it comes to Advent either.

It’s difficult to really practice a spirituality of Advent when we know Christmas is coming on the 25th of December, just like every year. We can go through the liturgical motions of Advent’s wondering and waiting and longing, all the while cracking a little wry smile know that, soon enough, “Joy to the World” and “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” will ring through the rafters with the exultant sounds of trumpet and choir and organ.

We can rehearse the old stories of mystery and the unfolding of something great coming into “the fog and fury” and “wild winds of chaos” of the world, all the while knowing the shepherds keeping watch in their fields by night will make it to the manger scene just in the nick of time. The wise men in the east will see a star in the sky and present their opulent gifts to the babe in the straw. The silent Joseph will peer down upon him, not fully comprehending, but content to have brought a savior into the world. And a picturesque Mary, aglow in the moonlight, will treasure all these things and ponder them in her heart.

It’s Christmas. And it’ll be here in just 25 days.

But not yet. Today, we have the prophet Jeremiah, who begs us to forget about this triumphant notion of “hope” as a “certainty” or “a realized truth” and really lean into the spirituality of Advent’s wondering, waiting, longing, hoping-against-hope for something coming into the world. From where he sits, it’s all he can do.

            In 586 BCE, the Kingdom of Judah was overtaken and ransacked by the Babylonians. Solomon’s grand Temple lay in heaps of stone and ash, the central symbol of the religious tradition destroyed beyond repair. Thousands upon thousands of Israelites are removed from their homeland and deported into exile in Babylon. All those left behind in the land of Judah live amid the wreckage of their kingdom, worshiping in the rubble of their rich religious history, under the occupation of a foreign power.

            And Jeremiah, prophet of Judah, speaks these words into the midst of “the fog and fury” and “wild winds of chaos,” saying, “The days are surely coming…”

            That’s the hopeful spirit of Advent – in the midst of “the fog and fury” and “wild winds of chaos,” the prophet looks upon the dismal scene, unknowing of what is ahead, and says, “The days are surely coming…”

“a righteous Branch [will] spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

“The days are surely coming…”

Who knows when? That’s not the question: “The days are surely coming…”

Not 25 days later, for sure. And, in fact, more along the lines of nearly 50 years later, but when is not the question – there’s a spirituality to the waiting and longing and wondering and hoping. Can you hear it in the prophet’s words?

“The days are surely coming…”

If anyone can give us some assurance on a day like today, with Christmas so close at hand, it would be Luke whose birth narratives are near and dear to our hearts this time of year. But today, we have Luke’s Gospel, all right, but not the first two chapters of the birth of the Christ child, but a passage three chapters from the end of the whole book.

            In 70 CE, the city of Jerusalem falls again, this time to the Roman Empire. The second Temple that eventually replaced Solomon’s Temple that the Babylonians destroyed over six centuries ago – that Temple, center of religious life, is ransacked once again and burned to a heap of smoking rubble and ash.

            In the decades following this spectacle of violence, Luke the Evangelist pens his Gospel to the followers of Jesus still reeling from the fall of Jerusalem, still waiting for Jesus, the crucified and risen, to return again, full of uncertainty about the days ahead, and Luke puts these words on the lips of Jesus:

“‘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. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’”

            And, understandably, much has been made of these words by those who are concerned about the “when.” When will the signs appear in the sun and moon and stars and sea? When will Christ return with power and glory in the clouds? When will it happen?

            The first disciples thought he’d be returning again sometime soon…like maybe next Thursday. But that didn’t happen and ever since they passed from the scene, lot’s of folks have attempted an answer at the “when” question and continue to do so – sometimes still garnering quite an audience even on their fourth or fifth try.

            After all, “The days are surely coming…,” the great prophet says. Tempting all of the future prophet wannabes to add, “and I can tell you when!”

            But that’s not Jeremiah, nor is it Jesus. When them, you just get, “The days are surely coming…,” and “when these things begin…” These can comforting words “to those who are troubled in soul…and who look forward to something greater to come.” It’s the stuff that Advent spirituality is made of, if we could manage to practice it.

But we know that the brass and strings and choir and organ are already rehearsing and it’ll be all “Joy to the World” and “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” soon enough. The shepherds keeping watching in the fields will, as always, make it to the manger scene just in the nick of time. The wise men will see the star (How could they miss it?) and they’ll bring their lavish gifts to the babe in the straw. The silent Joseph will look down with contentment and Mary will treasure all these things and ponder them in her heart. It’ll be Christmas soon enough. Just like every year.

It’s hard to practice the kind of spirituality summoned by Advent when you know all of these things are coming in just four short weeks. It’s a spirituality of longing, waiting, wondering, of troubled souls hoping-against-hope for something coming into the world. John Caupto says,

“Religion, if it is worth its salt, is peppered with hope. What we call religion in modernity, along with its antecedents in antiquity…is a name for the endlessly different ways that human beings meditate their mortality and craft a hope for something that eludes our ability to come up with names…in speaking of hope we are trying to come up with a name for the coming of what we cannot see coming.”[2]

Advent is one of the brief periods on the Christian liturgical calendar peppering the religion with hope. And it’s how the whole liturgical year begins!

            Advent invites a spiritual posture of openness to the unknown and unnamable, that for which we long and hope and pray to come into the world – something coming that we cannot see coming.

            For the troubled soul, Advent fans a small flame in the hearts of those who are losing hope fast – provoking a fragile sense of wonder for something greater to come into the world.

            For the church, Advent is a challenge. It is a reminder of a time in our existence less triumphant and self-assured – a time that was long ago and a time coming again – when lighting the candle of Hope at the outset of this dark, expectant season is an act of resistance against “the fog and fury” and “wild winds of chaos” that would extinguish such a small flicker of hope-against-hope.

So forget what you know is coming just 25 days from now. To really practice the spirituality of Advent, you must really wonder if they’re will be any reason to sing with joy on the mountain. At Advent, there must be reason to wonder if perhaps, this year, even the herald angels will be silent. Advent invites us to wander the countryside with the shepherds keeping watch by night, not knowing where exactly we’re going or whether we’ll even make it in time. The spirituality of waiting and wondering through Advent holds the possibility that in “the fog and fury” and “wild winds of chaos,” the birth of a savior coming into the world may be a stillbirth.

In Advent, we practice a risky spirituality of waiting and watching and longing and hoping for something coming into the world that we cannot see coming. Because the light hasn’t yet risen and we move through the season in darkness – wondering, waiting, hoping for a light to shine forth in “the fog and fury” and “wild winds of chaos,” as Samuel Miller says. As Bonhoeffer reminds us, it’s a season “possible only to those who are troubled in soul…and who look forward to something greater to come.”

“There’ll be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars.”

“And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’”

“The days are surely coming…”



[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, ed. Edwin Robertson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 21.



[2] John D. Caupto, Hoping Against Hope: Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 161-2.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • November 29, 2015