Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pastor Marc's sermon on the First Sunday of Advent (November 29, 2015) on Luke 21:25-36. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
This line from our gospel reading today is downright scary. When I hear it, my mind immediately imagines dusty fields, people wearing punk rock inspired fashion with giant spikes on shoulders, and lots of cars, trucks, and broken semi-trucks painted in black. Jesus’ words seem to point us to a Mad Max reality - a reality where the end of the world is upon us and no one is feeling fine. Today’s text is a text that imagines a future that, on first glance, frighten us more that we would like to admit.
Jesus, today, is in the Temple with his disciples doing what he does. He’s preaching, teaching, watching poor widows give everything they have, and he’s busy arguing with religious leaders who don’t believe that Jesus knows God like they do. It’s in the middle of his time on the Temple, right before the Last Supper, when Jesus starts talking about the end of the world. In chapter 21, Jesus describes the Temple being destroyed. He talks about wars, famines, plagues, and outbreaks. Jesus says that the disciples will be persecuted in the days to come and that fake messiahs claiming to be him will lead people astray. The world will be in turmoil, empires will rise and fall, and Jerusalem, God’s holy city, will be surrounded by armies. Even the sun, moon, and stars will give some kind of warning that weirdness is happening. And for us on the ground, the world as we know it will be unraveled, to the point where we can’t tell if nature itself is behaving like it should. Anxiety, rather than stability, will be our new normal. And in this future, everyone will be afraid.
What a spooky way to start this Advent season. On this weekend after Thanksgiving, this text sure doesn’t sound like Christmas to me. Now, I know that many of us, myself included, are still enjoying pie for breakfast and will shortly be eating our 9th turkey sandwich since Friday. We’re going to spend this afternoon watching football, rushing outside during commercial breaks to finalize our outdoor light displays. This is a season for baking Christmas cookies, visiting the families we are born into or the families that we’ve chose, and a season for spending way too much time looking for a parking spot at the mall. We’re in the long march to December 25. The church calls this season Advent but our sights are on Christmas morning. We’re looking forward to singing songs about the start of something new, about a cute baby boy who, unlike every baby before and after him, never cried and slept soundly through that first night. Our eyes are on Christmas and we’re not particularly interested in the end of the world.
But the end is exactly where we are today. The disciples heard Jesus’ words and they want to know when all of this will happen. They want to know a date and a time when armies will come, when people will run out of food to eat, and when the sun will start to wig out. Now, the text doesn’t tell us why they wanted to know a date and a time. But it’s not hard to imagine the reasons behind their whys since we want to know when the end will come too. Now, our reasons for this why might be pretty varied. Maybe we want to know when the end will come so we can know if we really need to rake leaves today after church. Maybe we want to know when the end will come so we can finally get off our butt and finish that bucket list by visiting all those places we’ve only seen in magazines and in movies. Or maybe we want to know when the end will come so we can finally know if this whole loving our neighbor thing is something we really should be doing. Whatever our reason might be, there’s something about knowing when the next chapter in our stories will be written that is appealing. If I knew that the end of the world was going to happen tomorrow, I might take some time today to try and fix a few of my broken relationships. But if I knew that the end of the world wasn’t going to happen for another two thousand years, well, I might not be in so much of a rush.
Yet, Jesus, in his words today and throughout scripture is never as specific as we’d like him to be. He never gives a date. He never tells us a time. There’s no GPS coordinates for where exactly he’ll land once he descends from the clouds. Instead, we just get these words about wars and violence, destruction and famine, climate change and fear. Jesus’ vagueness entices us to try and answer that “when” question on our own. And it’s not hard to turn on the news and think that maybe, today is a good answer to this when. A NATO ally shoot down a Russian plane. The fear of another ISIS attack shutting down Brussels. A terrorist attacking a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado springs. When we don’t know if going to school, or rocking out at a concert, or even if just having our annual checkup at the doctor’s office will result in our being shot or not, well, that sounds pretty scary to me. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world as a day when the nuclear bombs start to fall. But it’s harder to imagine an end to our world where our lives are slowly drained and debilitated by fear. But both of these scenarios are an attractive answer when we try to answer just what the final chapter of our story might be.
But Jesus, in our text today, isn’t interested in the question of “when.” He’s not being vague. He’s just not interested in giving us a date for when the end will come. Because “when,” isn’t his question. It’s the question of the disciples. They think that the next chapter of their story is still unwritten. They still imagine that the end of their story is something that still needs to be experienced, seen, and prepared for. They still believe that God experiences the world like they do, in some linear straight line, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. We know our past. We are living in our present. And the future - well - is full of what-ifs and unknowns. The disciples can’t imagine that God might already know the end to their story.
But God knows that end. Jesus, as he spoke these words in the Temple, knew that the expected end to his story wasn’t the end that was going to come. Jesus was going to be betrayed. He was going to be arrested. Roe would kill him. But when it looked like the darkness would win, that God’s light would be snuffed out by the violence, greed, and sin that devours our world, that wasn’t Jesus’ end. Fear. Pain. Terror and Death. The ends that consume us didn’t consume him. The darkness that overcomes us didn’t overcome him. God’s story doesn’t end in the middle of the night. God’s story ends with the breaking of the dawn.
Easter morning. That’s the end of God’s story. That’s the end of God’s unfolding future. That’s a future that we can’t write for ourselves. It’s a future that must be written for us by a God who claims us, loves us, and walks with us even when our world shakes in terror. Jesus isn’t telling his disciples when the world will end. Jesus is telling his disciples that the end is already written. Death and fear, these endings to our story that we know so well will not be the end to God’s story. And even though we don’t know when this future will come, we trust that God’s future will. We trust that there is more to this world than fear, terror, pain, and death. We trust that there is more to this world than just endings. The disciples wanted to know how they should live now so that they could prepare for the end that will come. Jesus, instead, is telling the disciples how they can live now, knowing that the end is already written.
And that’s what Jesus is telling us too. God’s future is happening. There’s nothing we can do to cause it to come and there’s nothing we can do to stop it from happening. The next chapter in our story and in God’s story is already written. There’s no fear or terror on earth that can bury the light that Christ shines in the world. So, what would our lives look like if we trusted that God’s future will actually come? What would loving ourselves and our neighbors look like? When terror strikes, homegrown or from abroad, can God’s future teach us how to respond to those who want to keep us rooted in fear? Can we imagine our present like God imagines our future? And can we, in the face of fear, stand up, raise our heads, knowing that God’s future will come? Jesus words to his disciples, his words to us is simply this: can we, young and old, assured that God loves us and is with us no matter what - can we go out into God’s world, and just love?
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