Luke 21:25-36 A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs
“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. “
Yeah. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, right?
Sometimes it does feel like everything’s coming apart—like the proverbial End of Days—wars and rumors of wars; a baking planet, bad news upon bad news. Fear begetting more fear. Joking aside, the genre of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction does tend to stoke peoples’ anxiety as they try to match the plot up with the news cycle—because that’s what sells. And for creators and purveyors of doom-related scenarios, that’s the point: Fear equals ratings. But a better understanding of Apocalyptic literature, of which today’s Gospel is a sample, tells us that the panic (or resignation, or eagerness, take your pick) about how current events presage the world’s doom is misplaced. Apocalyptic literature isn’t a crystal ball predicting the future. Attempts to use it that way have resulted in many calendar dates circled in red—THE END IS HERE—and then the sun comes up the next day anyway. You would think people would learn that this isn’t a great strategy for how to plan the program year, or for that matter, how to enact environmental policy. The fact remains that the timing of the end of days is, frankly, none of our earthly business. God is God, and we are not.
Stand up and raise your heads!
The original purpose of apocalyptic writings was to respond to times of turmoil, violence, persecution and fear. They go back at least as far as the 2nd century BC, when the Book of Daniel was written, and it is this scripture that Jesus evokes in today’s passage—the vivid image of the Son of Man coming in the clouds. The point of apocalyptic asa genre was to offer people who lived in fear signs of hope amid the chaos of their time. They saw the turmoil in the sky, the earth and in the nations as reflections of a larger battle of good and evil taking place on another plane of existence—a hidden place that the writers could only imagine. And when they imagined, they imagined big. They didn’t know what the end times would look like anymore than we do, but the vivid stories they wrote provided hope to people living in fear of earthly events.“
Writers of Apocalyptic texts had rock solid faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, on earth and in the heavens. They had faith in their redemption– that God would act—indeed was acting to bring God’s Dream of justice, healing and reconciliation ultimately to fruition.
When will all this happen? We don’t know. What do we do in the meantime? We wait. We wait within the reality of the challenges of the present, by virtue of our faith in the future; our faith that God is faithful to us.
We wait, and watch. And hope.
In today’s Gospel, Luke’s Jesus, having entered Jerusalem in triumph, teaches in the Temple, his own fate looming as all of Palestine buzzes with whether or not he is The One; the Messiah that they have awaited for so long.
In the verses before the ones we’ve just heard, Jesus tells of the coming fall of Jerusalem: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” Luke’s Gospel was actually written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70, so Jesus didn’t actually predict the future; what Luke did was a literary setup to Jesus’ sweeping declaration about the Son of Man from Daniel’s Apocalypse. The images are disturbing—they reflect what people fear—the violent, the unknown. “People will faint with fear and foreboding.” There is a risk of focusing exclusively on these images—breath held, expecting only the worst. But a little advice here: If we ever come away from scripture in a state of fear, we need to go back and read again. (Are we disturbed? Maybe. Challenged, absolutely. Fearful? Nope, go back.) The God who loved Creation into being does not call us to fear.
So how to press on? Know that Luke’s Jesus speaks of the difficult reality in which he lives in a language and style that people would recognize—in this case the apocalyptic texts of Daniel. He uses the language of the past to address the difficulties of the present and to point toward the future. It’s not about becoming fearful—it’s about facing those fears with courage.
But what does Jesus say? Buy a survival bunker and head for the hills? No. He says to stand up and raise our heads. Look up, look around, pay attention. Wait. Hope. Live faithfully—don’t hide, and don’t panic. God is God, and we are not.
Look at the fig tree. Look at any tree. Every time a leaf falls it leaves a bud behind—new life ready to spring out before the old growth hits the ground. Look up! Look around! Yes, the world is going nuts. It has done it before and it will do it again. But Jesus knew, and Daniel before him knew, that even when the world goes bananas buds of life abound. Look for them—look for the joy. For people falling in love, and getting married and having babies. Look for roses to smell, music to make, exploring to do. Look for laughing until our sides hurt. For planting trees. For caring for each other. The buds are everywhere. Hope is built into Creation.
Advent begins today. We wait. How?
We remember what God has called us to from the very beginning: Love. Generosity. Compassion. Justice. Hope.
Stand up and raise your heads! Look around you—see the buds of new life, perhaps hidden, but there if you look closely.
In the second chapter of Luke’s book of Acts he describes what the earliest Christians did as they awaited what they thought was Christ’s imminent return. They didn’t hide, they didn’t hoard; they didn’t scheme and turn on one another. They prayed. They shared. They sang. They loved. They lived with courage, not fear, in face of persecution and a world going bananas.
We are called to carry on with their waiting, because only God knows God’s time.
The infant will soon be in his cradle, and begin his journey to the Cross. The Christ Child will show us the way, through everything the world can throw at us–through our fear, our despair, and anxiety; the Christ will show us the way of love, right up until Kingdom Come.