Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Advent 1

Luke 21:25-36
25 "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. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see "the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34 "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
So, here’s the thing: it is really difficult to hear these words as good news.  This sort of literature, apocalyptic as the professionals call it, has been all sorts of hijacked by Hollywood types and religious goofballs alike.  Passages like this, or the one that we had from Mark’s Gospel a few weeks back, conjure up images of recent billboards proclaiming the end of the world or of Tom Cruise or Will Smith or Bruce Willis saving us all from some horrendous, cosmic event. And while the entertainment industry has supplied some of the way we think about these things, there has been no shortage of those from within the church’s own ranks who have used passages like this one to less than helpful ends.  The Christian tradition is riddled with attempts to pinpoint the world’s ending date and time, and, well, let’s just say that no one has come up with the correct formula, though that doesn’t keep people from trying.  Should you be interested, you can go to the rapture index, a website that uses everything from the current unemployment rate to activities in Russia in their calculations about the world’s end.  And the point here is not to take a cheap shot at such beliefs, as silly and utterly misguided as I believe them to be, but because thinking about these sorts of things gets us to the fundamental point.  What websites like the rapture index and movies like Armageddon have in common is this basic reality of fear.  According to this way of thinking, the sum total of these sort of passages is fear and fear alone. Meaning that, if you have been sufficiently frightened, the work has been accomplished.   
And here’s the thing, you don’t have to be a Bible-belt fundamentalist or a guy who buys thousands of billboards across the country to announce the world’s ending to get lost in this maze of fearful prediction.  This, I think, is something that we all do, because we all encounter events that shake us to the core.  That challenge the very ground on which we stand.  It could be a month long health scare, or a major financial meltdown.  I mean, it is no surprise that a lot of the religious music from the Great Depression era draws on the symbolism of passages like the one that stands before us.  Whose mind didn’t go to a bit of an apocalyptic type place during the stock market downturn in 2008? Or who can fail to hear the apocalyptic tone in the discussions of the fiscal cliff?  Certainly, the one thing that democrats and republicans can agree on is that, when the other side wins, the world must surely be coming to its end.  We all get in on this fear business, and certainly there is plenty of which to be afraid.  The world changes more quickly than we would like, violence at home and abroad, storms ripping apart the East Coast, droughts that lead to a summer of fires, divorce and long-standing illness threaten the stabilities of our families, yes this is fearful stuff.  And even in this passage from Luke, Jesus notes that fear is part of the gig.  Part of what it means to be human in world that we just do not control. 
And while fear is undeniably part of life, it is not the goal of passages like this.  Not by a country mile.  Because look at what else Jesus says, “stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption draws near.”   That sounds like good news, does it not?  News to be greeted with the deepest joy and happiness?  That the one who can make us whole, the one who can forgive us and give the stability and security we so desperately desire, that one is drawing near?  And this gets us to the heart of the matter.  You see, that word that I mentioned a short time ago, that word apocalypse, in Greek, it means something like “unveiling” or “uncovering.”  And the unveiling that is staring Jesus in the face is that of the cross, he is about a week out from that event.  And so this is how the unveiling of God will occur: the Christ will give his own flesh and blood to the disciples in that first Eucharist.  Then he will go to a farce of a trial and suffer for all humanity’s sin and fear.   Yes, he will forgive until the end, promising paradise to thieves and begging the Father’s forgiveness on those who would put him to death.  And, then, in three days time, he will be raised from the dead and continue to be known in the bread broken and the wine poured out, his mercy and forgiveness cascading from age to age.  This is how the divine will be unveiled, uncovered.  Not through human efforts to wrestle the kingdom down from heaven, nor in our attempts to pull the curtain off God in history.  But there, at the cross, in the words of forgiveness that soothe our troubled souls, in the care and consolation that you extend to one another and to all whom you meet, this is the where the fullness, hear me, dear people of God, the fullness of God’s will is made known.  The curtain has been torn.  The divine will has been revealed.
And because of that revelation, because God has been unveiled in the flesh that is Christ, stand up.  Raise your heads and lift your hopeful, expectant hearts.  Your redemption continues to draw near to you.  So near, in fact, that you will soon eat and drink of it. No doubt, uncertainty and fear remain.  We are subject to forces beyond our control, things like health and aging, political maneuvering, interest rate increases, all the rest of it.  There is no way to avoid any of that.  God’s world is a place of great beauty and great instability, and this side of heaven we will continue to experience this uncertainty, and not even the faith will protect us from these things.  But here’s the thing, because God has been unveiled in Christ, we need not fear where God is in the midst of all this.  Yes, in, with and under all the moments and events that make up your life and mine, from history book worthy happenings to the smallness of a Tuesday morning, yes, in all of that, your redemption in Christ is secure, is certain.  Politicians will come and go, the stock market will rise and fall, and as I was recently reminded, your health is not guaranteed, even if you should be preaching on a Sunday morning.  Yes, all of this is fleeting and unstable, but not this: not these words of the Lord that will endure forever: You are mine. You are forgiven.  You are free.  These words are the sure and certain ground on which you may make your stand, for they are the words of Jesus Christ.    And out of that certainty, please do feel free to disregard the nonsense and the hysteria that would again subject you to a spirit of fear and further deepen the divide between you and your neighbor, no matter if that nonsense is based on a Mayan calendar or the shrill voices of talk radio.   Yes, feel free to now see the mercy and generosity of God present in all things and in all circumstances, and that that may befall you will only bring you closer to the mercy of God.  For you have seen the divine will, have drunk of divine glory.  And in it, you are free.  The tree is ripe.  Your head is raised.  Your redemption near enough to taste.  In Jesus’ name, amen.