Advent 1C, November 29, 2015

November 30, 2015

Heads Up!
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 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.”

It’s not easy for me to know what to do with this apocalyptic language that the lectionary provides for us on this first Sunday of Advent. I mean – I’m a United Methodist. The most dramatic thing I tend to expect is to get reappointed every now and then. But this is the recommended gospel lesson for today, and I’m sure there’s a message within it that we need to hear. While I don’t live in constant expectation of the world coming to an end, and I’ve never known a healthy person who does – I do believe there is such a thing as healthy alertness.

Although I’m not sure how much crazier it is to be watching for the end of the world than it is to live in perpetual hope of finding the best deal on the hottest items. I was struck by the sheer volume of advertising that came in last Thursday’s newspaper. I’m not saying that a good deal doesn’t catch my eye, but I think the stack of advertisements and catalogues that we get this time of the year is a clear testament to what we think is most important. It speaks to how much more oriented we are to the transactions of this world than we are to the interaction of this world with the next.

I know I can be extra-sensitive to the value of a good deal. I was reminded of this last week. I went duck hunting with my son and his friend Max last Tuesday morning, and when we finished we weren’t that far from the Waffle House in Brinkley, so that’s where we reassembled. I ordered my usual waffle and bacon, but after I heard how much more the young guys ordered I decided to add a couple of eggs to my order. I told the waitress what I wanted, and she responded by saying I should go ahead and order the All Star Breakfast which would add toast and grits to my eggs, bacon, and waffle.

I didn’t want toast and grits, but she explained that it would be cheaper to get an All Star Breakfast than to simply add 2 eggs to my order. And it threw me in to a crisis. I don’t like to waste food, but I don’t like to waste money either, and in the heat of the moment I just told her to forget the eggs. And that threw her in to a crisis. In her attempt to save me some money she was going to deprive me of getting what I wanted. We were stuck in this moment of terrible indecision until my son quoted that famous line about a chicken salad sandwich delivered by Jack Nicholson from the movie “Five Easy Pieces”. You may not know what that’s about, and you don’t need to know what that’s about, but when he said that I knew what to do.

I said: I’ll have an All Star Breakfast but hold the toast, and hold the grits. And that made us all happy.

It’s amazing what we’ll do for a good deal. I had driven twenty miles out of my way to get to the Waffle House, but I experienced a crisis that was created by about a $1.50 difference by the way I ordered two eggs. In all honesty I don’t think I’m in any position to talk about the mental health of someone who thinks the end of the world could come at any moment.

We humans can get worked up about the oddest things. Jesus understood that about us and he wanted us to get worked up about the right things. I don’t believe Jesus wanted us to be overly concerned about when God would choose to bring an end to human history as we know it, but he did want us to pay attention to the way we spend our time on earth. I don’t believe he wanted us to live in fear of anything that might transpire on earth, but he did want us to have deep desire to live with sensitivity to how we might live in relationship to God.

Jesus was not one to gloss over the reality that there are some powerful forces in this world to be reckoned with, but he didn’t give conventional advice about how we should deal with circumstances we find distressing, confusing, and outright frightening. You might say that our natural inclination is to keep our heads low when things are not as we like for them to be, but that isn’t what Jesus advised. Jesus said that when things are falling apart all around us we are to lift up our heads because our redemption is near.

It’s safe to keep your head low, and while this does make a lot of sense in many situations it’s probably not the best posture to assume for life in general. You miss things when you’ve got your head buried for protection. There’s a lot to be said for being safe, but for people who want to live life to the fullest extent it’s more important to be conscious than to be safe.

While this passage seems to be point to the eminent culmination of history and ultimate fate of the earth and its inhabitants, the truth is it probably isn’t going to happen before life comes to an end in a more traditional manner. I mean I’m not speaking with any inside knowledge, but you can only read a warning like this for a couple of thousand years before you begin to think the end is not so near – on a cosmic level.

On a personal level that’s another story, and the truth is that the end is near for all of us. None of us know when that will be or what circumstances will surround that moment, but this world is not our eternal home.

And what I hear Jesus saying is that when we’re frightened and distressed it’s more important to perk up than to duck. It’s advice that goes against our natural inclinations, and I guess that’s why it needed to be said. If all any of us had to do was follow our reflexes there would be no need to think about what Jesus or anybody else had to say.

There are times we need to override our reflexes and actually keep our heads up when we normally would be inclined to keep our heads low. I’m sure this had some clear implications for the people who were following Jesus during the first few decades after he was crucified. They were facing some powerful persecution, and his message for them was not to cower down, but to hold their heads up. They were not to understand the difficulty of their days as a sign of abandonment, but as a time to pay attention.

This parable of the fig tree is significant in that a fig tree is said to look particularly dead during the winter months. The followers of Jesus were to understand that new growth is often masked by the appearance of death. The message for people during hard times is not to retreat into despair but to pay attention for that which is certain to come. Jesus wasn’t giving advice on how to best survive threatening situations, but how to understand perilous times.

Jesus wanted us to concern ourselves with the right things and not to live in fear of the wrong things. Jesus wanted us to be people who are clear about the nature of true life, and who are not too attached to the wrong things.

While the immediate followers of Jesus certainly lived in a time of great resistance to their chosen spiritual path, I’m not sure that we face a world that is any less resistant to Jesus’ words and ways. We don’t have the overt persecution that they faced, but our adversary is no less dangerous. In some ways our enemy is even more threatening than the Roman soldiers were to the lives of the earliest disciples. It may well be harder for us to live as Jesus taught than it was for those who faced lethal force. It’s hard for us to understand the magnitude of the threats we face. Our world isn’t out-rightly hostile to Christian faith, but we face some terrible forms of distraction from spiritual truth. It pays well to pay attention to the transactions of this world and to ignore the less visible ways of the spirit.

We are approaching Christmas, and it probably isn’t very nice of me to dwell on these things that threaten our souls during this traditionally joyful time of the year, but the truth is that I didn’t bring it up – Jesus did. The season of Advent is a time of the year that we are to prepare for something good to be born within us, and we are to nurture hope within each other, but we are to be clear about the true source of hope. We are not to live in hope of avoiding all pain and material failure – we are to live with trust in God regardless of what is going on around us.

As we seek to be people who are focused on being alert, I think we have to work at paying attention to the right things. The things that Jesus would call for us to pay attention to are probably different from the things we generally wake up thinking about. I know I get weighed down by the worries of this life, and I don’t think I’m alone. It’s a tremendous challenge for us to be followers of Jesus in a shallow, materialistic, selfish and scared society. I say this with all due love for my fellow Americans, but I don’t sense that we are living in a spiritually developed society – in spite of the number of people in our country who spend a lot of time and money on church matters.

Maybe it’s unfortunate that we don’t feel threatened by the roaring of the sea and the waves. We are probably a little bit too protected from the elements right now, and it keeps us paying attention to the silliest matters, and not being alert to the most essential matters.

The season of Advent invites us to start over. I think it’s helpful to think of Advent as a new beginning for us and a time where we become particularly focused on the true source of hope for our lives. We aren’t people who need to live with fear, but we are living in a spiritually perilous world. We need to understand the things that actually are threatening to our souls, so we can focus our energies on the things that will bring us true joy. We don’t just need to be alert to good deals – we need to be alert to the subtle promptings of the Holy Spirit to give of ourselves in ways that will be truly nurturing to our neighbors and transformative to ourselves.

Keep your head up and watch for those opportunities that lead to life and away from the death-dealing and spirit-dulling ways of this world. God does provide the opportunity for life in the midst of any situation, and thanks be to God for that.

When our worlds are shaking Jesus tells us to take heart – the time of our redemption is near. Thanks be to God. Amen.


One Response to “Advent 1C, November 29, 2015”

  1. Judy Says:

    Thank you. Timely and astute sermon.

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