Stay Alert! Luke 21:25-36
First United Methodist Church, December 2, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
I know. We were looking forward to moving out of the series we've been working through and doing something different. The season of Advent seemed to be just the right thing! Preparing for the coming of Jesus…scriptural texts that calm our minds and soothe our souls. We can't help but think of Christmas (the stores have been pointing the way to Christmas since October at least?). At least as we read this text this morning we can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that the children will be "Bringing in Christmas" this morning. Ah, yes, that's something that makes sense! That will feel good and right.
But this morning's text directs our attention to the end times. We're not reading prophetic scripture out of the Old Testament that leads us to the manger in Bethlehem. Instead, we're listening to the adult Jesus teaching the disciples and others in the temple of Jerusalem. Before long, he'll share that final meal with his disciples. Before long, his disciple Judas will be betray him. And then he'll be hung on the cross.
This isn't exactly what we want to hear or talk about on this first Sunday of Advent…with the empty manger before us…as we anticipate that Silent Night, Holy Night when we give thanks for our Savior's birth.
Look at the fir tree and all the evergreens. As soon as they sprout ornaments, you can see for yourselves and know that Christmas is already near. The scripture kind of says that, doesn’t it?
And yet, we know that Christmas is so much more than this. Even as we enjoy our holiday rituals, plan for our get-togethers and try to figure out how we'll get everything done on time, we know that there is so much more than this.
As United Methodist's we're not always so good at talking about end times. I remember Scott and I going to a church in Denver where he was serving as youth pastor. We watched a movie along with the rest of the congregation that laid out somebody’s interpretation of the end times pretty graphically for us, about what could happen to us in the final days. It's been a long time ago and I still remember the end of that movie, and I can tell you, that if you hadn't already decided you wanted Christ to be your Savior, you were scared into making that decision right then and there.
But I’m not sure that Jesus is really trying to scare us.
To those gathered around him in the temple that day, Jesus says this: 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 waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken (Luke 21:25-26).
There will be bad times ahead, Jesus tells his listeners, and there were/there are. Not only will his own earthly life end, but by the time the gospel of Luke is written, the temple will have been destroyed by the Romans. Later, the persecution of Christians will begin in earnest. You and I can name terrible events from that day on to ours, where interpreters of the times might conclude—see? This is it, this is what Jesus was talking about. And yet, in his very next breath, Jesus says, "then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near” (v. 27-28).
Your REDEMPTION is drawing near. Don't run and hide, don't be afraid, don't cower under the bed or hide in your closet! These things aren't happening to destroy you—the Son of Man is coming to redeem you, to restore you, to deliver you, to save you! So, stand up and raise your hands, because your redemption is drawing near.
As we begin this season of Advent and as we read this text that we perhaps would prefer not to read today, I want us to consider some things Jesus has to say that are important for us to know and to remember in this time of preparation.
First, this scripture reminds us that God's work of redeeming the world was begun in the birth of Jesus, but that work wasn't finished with his birth and it isn't finished yet.
The coming of Jesus was long anticipated as God's people had hoped for, prayed for, pleaded for a Savior/for the Messiah who would come and save them…redeem them…restore them. But everything didn't fall into place when Jesus was born. His birth didn’t mark the end of the story.
That doesn’t diminish the importance of his birth: instead, his entry into human history marks the inauguration of God’s kingdom on earth. And yet we can see that there is still sickness, injustice, poverty and violence. It’s all around. We read it in the news every day.
I think of the caravan of people heading north and I wonder what’s going to happen to them as they arrive at our borders. They want to come to this place where my ancestors once came in order to live a better life. That makes sense to me.
I read they’re fleeing gangs, violence, drugs. They want a safe place to raise their children. I understand what it feels like to worry for the life and safety of a child. Scott and I made the decision to move one of our children in with a grandparent in another city to get him into a different school, a different group of peers. We didn’t know what else to do. Eventually he and Scott moved into an apartment in that town for a year…we were willing to do whatever was necessary to save our child. We could make that choice, even though it was a difficult one, but not everyone has the same choices that I have/that you have.
So I understand wanting to leave a bad place and move my family to a better place.
And I know that creates all kinds of problems, that we don’t know how to fix.
Jesus came into the world and pretty immediately turned it upside down. He turned the structures of his day on their ear/challenged the religious leaders to see things in a different way.
As Christians today, we still struggle with justice…with injustice…with how to make things right. This text prompts us to holy restlessness…to not settle for the way the world is right now, but to consider how it can be, how it will be, what Jesus calls us to do and how to live.
Second, this passage warns us against becoming preoccupied with the timing of God’s deliverance.
I haven’t heard of anything recently, but it seems that every few years someone comes up with a date and time of when Jesus is coming back. Our scripture says, don’t do that.
Jesus goes on, talking about the blossoming of a fig tree. The tree is unusual in that the fruit buds appear before the leaves. When the leaves begin to appear, you know that summer isn’t far away. You can’t know when summer will arrive in its fullness, but you can get ready for it. (And even though google tells us that summer officially begins June 21st next year, that doesn’t mean we’ll be ready for it).
But the analogy of the fig tree goes deeper than that. Jewish people in antiquity used figs to talk about judgment and restoration. We know God is at work when we see the collapse of movements that work against God’s will for love and justice. We know God is at work when we see signs that the world is being restored to God’s purposes.
The birth of Jesus is that kind of a blossom. It alerts us to the fact that a season of renewal is underway. We don’t know when it will arrive in its fullness, but we can join in its movement.
Third: This passage helps us recognize that the restoration of the world isn’t just a touch up job, it’s a fundamental regeneration: a reordering, a restructuring, a reconfiguring, restoring.
So often what we put a band aid on the problem because we aren’t sure how to deal with the root issue that is creating the problem.
I think of the hotels north of town. I’ll talk to someone going through a crisis, who is looking for money to rent a room—and we know that staying there isn’t a good thing. But at that moment, what choice does that person have? I don’t know how to fix that.
There are those who put together boxes to send to other countries with basic necessities, and we feel like we’re doing something to help. But I’ve read that we’re hurting small businesses in the communities where those are sent…those small items aren’t being purchased in that town for a period of time, and it negatively impacts the economy. We want to help, we need to do something, but sometimes what we do can make things worse.
Sometimes we don’t know what else to do, so we put on a band aid, and say everything will be okay; we truly hope that it will be. But this scripture takes us deeper than that. It tells us that because of God’s unconditional love for all people, that there will be this dismantling of the powers of this age/of what is, and God will make all things right.
We’ve already seen it happen in some ways and in some places: the wall falls in Berlin, Apartheid collapses in South Africa. I think of the changes that have happened in the United States because of the Civil Rights Movement. I think of Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan who speaks out for the education of girls and women in Pakistan and was shot by the Taliban when she was 16 years old as an example and a warning to stop doing that. She and her family are now living in asylum in England as she continues to speak out. She wants to go back to her beloved home in Pakistan one day to work to make things right there…being a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize as a teenager, I have a feeling she will be able to do what she hopes to do, with the help of God.
I read stories that are beautiful and amazing of what people can do, the changes they can help create. We can see little bits of the kingdom breaking out here and there, and that’s encouraging. In our best moments, we can do good things. But when Jesus returns, there will be a complete re-ordering. God aims for people not just to have a new house built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, but for the structures of poverty to end. For the underlying structures to change. God will make things new.
Fourth: This passage causes us to think about what we believe about the second coming.
This scripture could lead us into thinking that Jesus will come at a specific moment to interrupt history, destroy evil, and fully install the divine rule. I don’t know. Maybe that will come at one time in history for all of us at the same moment, or perhaps we’ll each experience that end moment in time for ourselves; his second coming will be experienced by each of us individually, personally. But however that happens, whenever it comes, it seems to me that God is already at work among us, working to restore the world...which brings us to the fifth and final point:
This passage guides us to a way of living that helps us participate in God’s redeeming work in the world. I know you hear me say it all the time, but we get to be a part of what God is doing. We’ve been invited to be co-creators, co-participants, co-workers in doing God’s work to make the world a better place…a place of justice and wholeness and peace and love.
But we get distracted. Jesus says, be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness or the works of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly. My understanding is that we’re not dealing here so much with alcohol consumption as with our being distracted by the “saviors” of this world…by the traps that distract us from God, that we think we can depend on instead of God. We become satisfied, complacent with the way things are. When we’re living on the “have enough” side of life, our eyes can glaze over when we talk about justice. We wonder what that kind of thing might have to do with us.
But, you and I are called to be alert and to be open to the presence and movement of God in our midst, so that we can join in and be a part of those things—and so that we are alert to that which is not of God and that work against God’s purposes, speaking against them, working against them, and living our lives against them. We need to be awake and alert, fully aware, so that we can be courageous when we need to go eyeball to eyeball with the principalities and powers of this world.
Just a couple of days ago I read a note on Facebook about an experience a friend had on the bus he rides to Purdue for classes everyday.
He just started school there this Fall, but for the past several months he's ridden that bus, and has become aware that the driver would wait for white-skinned people who weren't quite at the bus stop, but would leave behind people of other races who were almost there, but not quite. She'd say, "They can catch the next bus."
Last week, an Indian woman was just a few feet from the open door when the driver slammed the door shut and accelerated. It was surprising to my friend and the 5 people behind him, because she started so fast. They hadn't been seated yet, and there was someone "right there, ready to board."
My friend shouted to the driver, "She's right there, stop!" and held his arms out in a way that showed his expectation of a response from her. She repeated back, "She can get the next bus!" When others on the bus began protesting as well, the driver slammed on the brakes and opened the door and the young woman boarded the bus.
My friend said the driver gave him the "bad eye" as he proceeded to his own seat.
I wonder sometimes what I don't see, what I miss, what I SHOULD see, if I'm not distracted and thinking about other things than what's happening around me. I/we need to be alert to what's happening around us—the racism, the sexism and all the other kinds of people-isms that are a part of our world so that we can speak out when it's needed.
God is working in our world, and Christ is coming back—and we can be a part of what God is doing to usher the kingdom of God in, as we are a part of what God is doing, and as we speak out against what needs to change.
So, this text is a bit of a pain in the neck and it seems out of place, but I guess it reminds us of God’s purposes. That Jesus came once as that little babe in Bethlehem, but he’s coming back again to make all things right. And you and I get to be a part of all that—of creating a new world—as we live as his disciples.