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. 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."
Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 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."
2 December 2012, as prepared for delivery.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Last Sunday we celebrated Christ the King Sunday, the last day of our church year. This Sunday we begin again with Advent, and our preparations for a very different Christ, the baby Jesus, the God with us, the Emmanuel. It's a stark contrast, the King and the Baby, the God in the heavens and the God who lives here with us. One of the mysteries of our God is that both of these are true.
This new church year also means we're entering Year C in our Lectionary cycle, and many of the Gospel readings in this coming year will be from Luke. Luke is a wonderful Gospel for Christmas time. It is the Gospel we hear in the Christmas specials. But, in spite of what the commercials and sales fliers and store displays might tell you, it's not Christmas yet, so we're not reading Christmas Gospel readings yet. We're reading about preparation. And today's Gospel reading is a doozy. Jesus is telling his disciples that the Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory. When I picture Jesus returning to earth at the end times, I see him just slightly larger than life, maybe 20 feet tall and wearing seven-league boots, taking great strides across the earth, laying waste to all that is before him, like the story of the money changers in the temple but on a much larger scale. That's Christ the King behavior, that is not Emmanuel behavior. Our God is both.
Before I started writing this sermon, I did some research on the signs of the end times that Jesus lists in today's Gospel reading. First there are signs in the sun, moon and stars. So I checked with NASA. There is not any especially dramatic stellar activity happening now, nor is there any expected in the next few years, so we seem to be safe on that count. Next, Jesus lists distress among the nations. So I checked with National Public Radio. It turns out there is a lot of distress among the nations. I had to turn off the radio and turn on the live feed of some frolicking kittens for a while to recover from all of that distress. But I've also taken a few history classes, and I don't think the distress among nations is really that much worse now than it's ever been. So whatever Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel, I don't think it has anything to do with the end of the Mayan calendar or any of the other end of the world predictions you've heard recently, either on television or from the man wearing the sandwich board in front of the White House.
Jesus also says “Truly I tell you, this generation shall not pass away until all things have taken place.” Luke took much of this story from the Gospel of Mark, which was written about 15 years earlier. In Mark's version of the tale Jesus is with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, looking down at the Temple in Jerusalem. Mark was writing around the time of the destruction of the Temple, so Jesus' words would have been especially poignant when spoken in that place.
But Luke was writing in a time when a generation had passed away after Jesus' death and resurrection. Luke was also writing after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It would have been clear to him and to his readers that Jesus' second coming was not going to happen to first generation Christians. And now, nearly 2000 years later, many generations have passed away. Many buds have appeared on many fig trees. And still the scene that Jesus described has not come to pass.
That is not to say that Jesus won't come again in some other form at some other time. We have about 5 billion years before the sun becomes a Red Giant and swallows the earth. Jesus has plenty of time to strap on those seven-league boots and come to earth in power and great glory. But that's Christ the King behavior. This is Advent, and we are preparing for the Emmanuel.
So why are we reading this Gospel story at all, when literal interpretation of it is so patently false? What is the good news today?
Just as Jesus is Christ the King and the Emmanuel, the apocalypse is both the end times and something far smaller, more personal. The word apocalypse literally means to take the lid off. The Gospel says “For it will come upon who live on the face of the whole earth.” All of us.
When has the lid been taken off of your life? When were you moving along with your life and suddenly everything changed? Divorce. Infertility. Diagnosis. Flood. Fire. One minute you think you know who you are and what you're doing and the next everything changes.
The apocalypse is not just a future event. The chaos is now. It is all the time. If not in our own lives in those of our neighbors. The apocalypse is both Christ the King coming in glory at the end of days and it is the personal events that take the lid off our lives and leave us knocked down, fainting with fear and foreboding, our world shaken.
It is in those moments that we most need the thing we're waiting for this Advent, the God with us, the Emmanuel.
This passage isn't in Luke's Gospel or the lectionary to tell us what the end times will look like. We don't need the Bible to tell us about destruction. We have the world for that. This passage is here to tell us what to do about the destruction. The Kingdom of God is in the future, but it is also here, now.
That day, whether it's the small, personal day or the End of Days will be known by its fruitfulness as much as by its destruction. It's not the apocalypse that defines us, it's what we do when it happens.
And what does our Emmanuel say in the face of our distress? He tells us to stand up, and not just drag ourselves to our feet, no, the Greek word translated as “stand” in this passage is “anakupto”, to rise up with elation after great sorrow. Just getting up isn't enough for Jesus, we have to jump up, filled with the Holy Spirit. That's a tall order. It's a tall order on an ordinary Monday morning, but it can seem impossible when the lid has been taken off of your life.
We may not, on the first morning after the apocalypse, be able to rise up with elation. But we can lift our heads. Then we can survey the damage, and pick up the pieces we know we can handle. That is why Jesus tells us to get ready. Not because the apocalypse isn't going to knock us down, but because if we are prepared then we will be able to get up again.
How do we get ready? The Gospel tells us two things. First, it tells us to avoid drunkenness, dissipation, and the worries of this life. Don't get distracted by the things that aren't real. Drunkenness isn't just about alcohol. We get drunk on television, smart phones, shoe shopping, bad relationships.
If you've ever sat down in front of the television with a bag of your favorite snack food, only to find yourself, an hour or so later, still in front of the television with an empty bag and no clear memory of eating so much, then you've been drunk.
If you've ever promised someone to give them your attention in “just a minute” without taking your eyes off the computer screen or pausing to notice the time, you've been drunk.
We all do it. We all have our distractions, and it's the distractions, not the pleasures that are the problem. It's not the glass of wine that Jesus tells us to avoid, it's the one glass too many. It's not the television or the smart phone or the bag of cookies, it's the one too many, it's the “just a minute” that keeps us separated from God, and from that which is of God in the people around us.
If we can clear out that “one too many”, then when things fall apart we will know which pieces are important, and which pieces we can handle. If we can lift our heads then we can see God's plan for us. It is the preparation that gives us the strength to stand, to hope in the time of despair. And when we encounter the suffering of others it is that same preparation, that same lack of distraction that allows us to walk into their pain, to lift up their heads, and pick up their pieces, and be the face of God to them.
The second way that Jesus tells us to get ready is to pray. We are to pray for the strength to stand before God. If rising up with elation after a time of great distress sounds impossible, standing before God at the end seems no more possible, especially a God who is 20 feet tall, wearing seven-league boots and laying waste to all that is before him.
How do you stand before Christ the King? The answer is there in the original Greek, because the word that we translate as “stand” is not just “get up off the ground”, nor is it the “anakupto” the “rise up rejoicing” from earlier in the reading. This “stand” comes from the word “stathenai”, which is a passive verb. That means we are not the actors, but the acted upon. We don't have to stand by ourselves. We will be lifted up and put on our feet by our our advocate, by our God with us, by our Emmanuel.
That is the story that Jesus is telling in this Gospel, not a story of destruction, but the story of a new beginning, our new beginning, a beginning which comes to us again and again, like the turning of the calendar at the beginning of the new year. Now we are in Advent, and we have to get ready, ready to be clear headed, un-distracted, and held in the hands of a God who is with us all the days until the end of days, our God with us, our Emmanuel.