"Stand up and raise your heads"-A Sermon for Advent 1, Luke 21:25-36
Jesus said, "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.” These dire and anxiety inducing words and images, which come from our gospel lesson on this first Sunday in Advent, are a part of a larger section of apocalyptic teaching by Jesus in Luke. And, I think it is worth noting, that he shares these foreboding words of warning with his friends and followers within the 5 days or so between his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday and his crucifixion on the first Good Friday…the day Jesus’ earthly life will come to its dramatic and violent end on the hard wood of the cross. So, indeed, we enter into Jesus’s story today and into this difficult teaching…at the end of Jesus’ physical life among us. Thus, his dark and ominous sounding words surely, in part, point us to the cross…to the violence and loss that is soon coming…soon and very soon.
Further, as Jesus shares these foreboding words, Jerusalem, the city and the people living in it, is deeply unsettled. Peace between the people of Israel and Rome hangs in a tenuous balance…violence and revolt hang in the air…the future is entirely uncertain. It is a troubled time in first century Palestine. War, in just a few decades, is coming to Israel…resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and God’s temple at its center. Many Jewish people will die and many more will enter into a two millennia long exile…what we call the Jewish diaspora. Thus, Jesus’ words…that both paint a harrowing picture of a world entirely unmoored and that prefigure his own violent crucifixion…seem to me to not be remotely alarmist…not hyperbolic or overstated. The world in which Jesus lived and violently died…in first century Palestine…under, what was a times, a brutal Roman occupation…was indeed a hot mess…facing…what history proved to be…a future of more violence, grief, suffering and displacement…that comes about 40 years later, around 70 AD, when war with Rome enters into open conflict…resulting in the aforementioned death, destruction, and diaspora. I don’t mean to be so dark…but I think it is important to understand the historical and political context behind what we call, again, Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching. For in doing so, these challenging words may not seem so wild or wacky or out of place. In many ways, Jesus is, albeit symbolically, just describing the world as it actually is.
Further, Jesus also says in today’s gospel lesson, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” And, indeed, his words have not and will not ever pass away. For, if we are willing to take an honest look at the world in which we now live some two thousand years later, it could at least be argued that we find ourselves in just as hot a mess. In other words, Jesus’ words, his apocalyptic teaching, is just as descriptive and relevant a depiction of the world today, the world in which we live and move and have our being, as it was of his own first century world.
Now before we all just dissolve into tears…it is important, because it is true, to say that much has changed in two thousand years…and much of that is to the good. Just to bring a little humor into the conversation, I heard an interview on NPR with a university professor who specializes in medieval European disease and hygiene…and during the interview she said that people often wander the great palaces and cathedrals of 17th and 18th century Europe and think how wonderful it must have been to live and work and party in such grand and beautiful places. But, she continued, that is only because when we walk through them today the hallways are no longer used as open toilets…affectively sewage systems…full of all manner of unspeakable waste…whose smell permeated pretty much everything. The world has indeed progressed in many ways and thankfully so. But, of course…just as in Jesus’ day, humans remain in charge of the world’s affairs…thus…there remains violence of all sorts…from wars, to terror, to gun violence in schools and places of worship. Poverty and division thrive. Racism and bigotry remain a steady part of our national diet. Fires and hurricanes rage, as the world warms…and I will stop there but could, of course, go on. And my point is, again, that Jesus’ apocalyptic words indeed remain…they have not passed away… they remain profoundly descriptive of the world in which we live…not alarmist…just reality.
Further, I think it is incumbent upon us, those who continue to listen to, value and embody Jesus words in and for the world today, to not dismiss them…to not, as I do in scary movies, stick our fingers in our ears, close our eyes, while quietly humming our favorite tune. In fact, Jesus says, “When these things begin to take place…stand up and raise your heads.” Which may reasonably engender the question, why in the world would I do that? Why should I open myself entirely up to the world if it is so profoundly troubled and full of pain? There is after all always another hallmark movie that will directly follow the one I am currently enjoying…24 hours a day. Well, as much as I may wish it to be different, Jesus continues to lay the image of the world as it is before us…the real world described in his apocalyptic teaching…not for us to ignore…but for us to stand up, raise our heads and take it entirely into ourselves. We cannot ignore his words and the troubling images they paint. For, if we do, surely nothing can or will change…nothing in the world…nothing in ourselves…everything will stay just as it is…and that is indeed troubling and a very painful thought.
You see, we should think of Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching as a mirror rather than a crystal ball. It does not predict the future…but it does, again, clearly reflect back to us the present state of affairs in our world and in our own lives…and, if it we will allow it to enter us, shake us up, and move us, it provides the chance, the grace, the opportunity to participate in the creation of something altogether new and wonderful that is yet to be revealed…that remains in the undiscovered future…for us and for the world. This is, after all, what apocalypse originally meant. The ancient Greek word from which our word apocalypse is derived didn’t include in its definition zombies or epidemics or wars or natural disasters…instead it simply meant to reveal or uncover. For when we really see the world for what it is, and we really see ourselves for who we are and how we are really living in this world…we see reflected back at us both death and life…both stagnation and growth…both suffering and joy…both cross and empty tomb…both a stable full of sheep manure with dirt floors and a teenage girl in agony and the God of love birthed into the world. We see both the world as it really is…and a revelation of what it can be. Jesus shares his apocalypse with us not to bring us down…but to lift us up…to lift our eyes up to witness the world as it is and as it can be…and thus all stirred up and convicted by what we see…the pain and the promise…we are moved to participate…to participate with God, who comes to us…even me, even you…in power and with great glory…to make a new reality…on earth as it is in heaven…and nothing will ever be the same.
Thus, Advent, a Holy Advent, is an invitation to look into the mirror that Jesus holds before each of us and see the world for what it is and to take stock of where we really are in terms of our own health and growth…and in the truth their discovered, if we are courageous enough to really look and see what needs work and what needs change around us and in us, we, also, see revealed to us the world as it should be and ourselves as we can be. Therefore, we say Advent is a season of expectation and preparation. As we peer deeply into the mirror that Jesus holds before us, we should expect God to face us with the truth of the matter…that the world is a hot mess and we, at times, are too…not in judgement…but in love…for change can only begin when the truth is acknowledged. And, we expect God, also, to show us the sort of wonder and hope that Mary herself had when she first looked lovingly into the eyes of her new born child…wonder and hope for what glory God intends for the world through Jesus…wonder and hope for what the light of God’s love might do to defeat the darkness that surrounds us. And, we prepare ourselves by prayer and worship and self-less acts of kindness and generosity…by replacing bad habits with good…by connecting deeply with those we love and spending time with those who are hurting or lonely. For all of this good, spiritual work, gives us courage to look and see the world for what it is and what it can be, and it readies us to stand with heads lifted, strong and alert, to join with God in the creation of a new vision for the world…a new sort of apocalypse…hearts and minds transformed for good and for God…everyone loved and valued and cared for…a whole new world uncovered. Amen.