Scripture: Jeremiah 33: 14-16, Luke 21: 25-37 ~
This text from the gospel of Luke is one of those passages that is difficult to interpret; it is also one open to many different interpretations.
Fig Tree, King’s College, Bonham Road, Hong Kong
Over the centuries there have been people who attempt to predict the end of the earth, the end of time as we know it through events occurring in their lifetime: earthquakes and volcanoes, human pandemics, wars, and other calamities.
We see this, too. You can find any number of television evangelists, public speakers, and books filled with such predictions and “proofs.”
This is not to say that none of these things will never trigger a cataclysmic event, but the point of Jesus’ response here is that no-one can know the future; no being but God can answer this question about the end of time, and it is a useless waste of the time we now do have, and the life that we do have, to worry about it.
We have better things to do while we and the world are here: to quote a favorite passage from Hebrews: “to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:11-14)
The late feminist theologian, Letty Russell, advocated what she termed an “adventology” in which followers of Christ are to be watchful for the in-breaking of God’s reign on earth. This watchfulness involves looking for and being attentive to the places in which we, who are called by God and have been gathered by God’s grace, may also be agents who participate and help in God’s dismantling and reconstruction of the world.
I find Dr. Russell’s words particularly hopeful this year when there are so many things we could point to as “signs” of the end.
It helps to be reminded that others before us observed the same erratic natural catastrophes and brutal human behaviors and still raised their heads in hope.
Give Thanks for These Things
The Old Testament passage from Jeremiah 33 emphasizes and reminds us of God’s promise to gather and reconcile humanity and creation.
As followers of Jesus we believe this promise is already in the process of being fulfilled, and that we are part of this redemption.
This is the hope of Advent; it is why we wait, watch, act, and live as people with a hopeful future despite the current circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Sometimes in the midst of our contemporary social angst it is difficult to remember to live with our heads lifted in hope, even as Advent beings and we are caught up in holiday festivities.
Airport security and airline travel is one example of a mix of celebration and anxiety.
Making it through airport security can be a challenge on both a physical and emotional level.
We understand that it is all for the sake of safety, which we are all concerned about given recent acts of terrorism.
But as if you aren’t stressed out enough by the whole process, now some experts are looking at ways to measure your anxiety as you stand de-belted, disheveled and shoeless in the security line.
The idea is to determine whether you are exhibiting the stress of a would-be terrorist or merely the anxiety of a parent who just dragged three screaming kids past the terminal gift shop.
While we now walk through metal detectors and bomb sniffers, the next thing we may have to face is what some are calling an “anxiety machine.”
This machine uses “FAST” (Future Attribute Screening Technology) that works on the same principle as a polygraph. That is, it looks for sharp changes in body temperature, pulse and breathing.
The difference is that in a polygraph, the subject answers questions, while this machine simply tests people as they walk through. In practice, people whom the machine identifies as suspiciously stressed would then be taken to another area and interviewed in front of a camera that measures minute facial movements to determine if the subject is lying.
All of that makes removing your shoes, belt, and pocket change sound hassle-free by comparison.
Even though the machine is years from possibly being fielded, it already has critics. Some people do not believe the machine will work because it will subject innocent travelers to what amounts to a medical exam, bringing up a whole host of privacy issues.
Others doubt the reliability of the technology itself. “What determines your heart rate is a whole bunch of reasons besides hostile intent,” says Timothy Levine, a Michigan State University expert on deceptive behavior. Reasons such as being late for a flight, for example. “This is the whole reason behavioral profiles don’t work.”
Think about it. If this thing were waiting to scan us at the airport today, there’s a pretty good chance most of us would wind up setting it off.
Just last week there were more shootings in our country — protestors at a Black Lives Matter rally in Minneapolis, and a violent automatic weapon attack at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado; many continue to face major economic downturns with jobs, Paris remains in a state of emergency … and that’s just as of this writing. We’re stressed about our personal lives and stressed about the world, let alone about whether or not our toothpaste got packed in that little baggie.
Chances are that most of us would be in for some questioning about what’s making us so anxious.
Jesus Told Us to Expect This
But we have to remember that Jesus warned us there’d be days like this.
Read this apocalyptic passage in Luke 21 again, and you’ll notice there is anxiety all over the place — and not just the kind that comes from missing a flight. Jesus is talking about the kind of anxiety that would cause people to miss the signs of God’s presence in our lives and world.
First, you have natural signs — the whole cosmos in an anxious uproar, along with the “nations” who will be “confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” (v. 25). This would seem to be describing the kinds of natural disasters we’ve seen in recent years, such as the “roaring of the sea and the waves” of the 2004 Asian tsunami. But we have to remember that apocalyptic language is more often symbolic than literal. The reference to the “sea,” for example, is used throughout the Bible to refer to the primordial chaos that was present at the dawn of creation (Genesis 1:2).
In the Bible’s most famous apocalyptic book, Revelation, it’s interesting to note that in the vision of the new heaven and new earth there would be no more sea (Revelation 21:1) — no more chaos. For now, though, Jesus is using stark imagery to describe world-shaking, chaotic events that many will interpret as the end: these events will cause no small amount of anxiety.
“People will faint from fear and from foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:26).
It’s at this point, Jesus says, that he will be seen “coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (v. 27). Again, the idea isn’t so much to be looking up to anticipate a cloud-surfing Savior but to recognize that the ultimate sign of the kingdom coming will be the full manifestation of Christ the bearer of righteousness and the Prince of Peace.
Jesus borrows the cloud imagery from Daniel 7:13, another apocalyptic vision, and Luke uses the image to link Jesus’ ascension with his return (Acts 1:9). Just as the sea represents chaos, clouds represent glorification. Despite the chaos in the world and all the anxiety it produces, Jesus promises that God will set the world right once and for all in some future, unknown time.
Faith, Not Fear
In the meantime, however, followers of Jesus are not to be queuing up for a run through an earthly anxiety machine.
Instead, we are to be observant and seeking the signs of God’s presence where it is already within the world initiating reconciliation and redemption.
Jesus says that means paying attention and approaching life with faith rather than fear. Jesus urges us to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (v. 28). The fig tree parable reminded the disciples to vigilantly look around for the signs of the kingdom and Jesus’ own eternal “words” instead of constantly focusing on the daily stress-producing news of calamity and disaster (vv. 29-33).
When we identify and name the fears, anxieties and distractions of the people around us, we can begin to offer them hope and help them through toward a journey with Christ. “Be alert,” says Jesus, and help others do the same.
Pray for Strength
Beyond alertness Jesus also encourages disciples to pray for the strength to “escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (v. 36).
Some biblical scholars see Jesus’ warnings here as a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which would take place within the lifetimes of those listening to him — thus the reference that “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place” (v. 32).
But whether Jesus is referring specifically to the impending destruction of the Temple or not, the greater point is that amid impending disaster and anxiety, Jesus urges us, like them, to keep our heads up, praying for the strength to weather the storms of life with hope, standing firm in the future Christ signifies.
If our anxiety is setting off alarms everywhere we go, it might be time for us to step back, take a deep breath and pray.
There is no better way to lower your heart rate, your blood pressure and your body temperature, as well as your anxious spirit, than slowing down and communing with God. Jesus reminds us of this.
The journey, though tough, will end well, and everything will be as good in the end as it was in the beginning of creation.
In a recent Leadership Wired newsletter article, “Be the One: Serve” John Maxwell said:
“In life, it’s not what happens to you, but what happens in you and through you that counts. When adversity visits your life, you have two choices: to be a victim or a victor. Victims allow life circumstances to get them down, and they spend their lives asking others to redress the grievances life has dealt them.
Victims are needy and demand to be served. Victors, on the other hand, rise above the challenges they encounter. They rebound from life’s hardships with newfound strength and they use their strength in service of those around them.”
So, in the words of Rev. Dr. Letty Russell, let us be adventologists- watchful followers of Christ, victors not victims of the circumstances of life, living with heads uplifted in hope.
Hidden God, wherever you are in your own kind of space,
We watch and wait for you to startle us to wakeful newness in this Advent season.
Come and thrust into us the spirit of daring and courage to make flesh on earth a bit of the kingdom of heaven.
Come to open the inns of our minds and hearts to the miracles of your compassion and purpose as Jesus demonstrated them.
Come and make your own transforming way in the desert of our confusion and wilderness of me and mine,
So we may walk with Jesus the hard way of justice, mercy, and peace among the people of earth.
Come and lift up the valleys of our discouragement, doubt, and denial,
And make level the mountains of our greed and pride,
So we may see your glory revealed once more in us and in all our brothers and sisters, from the shepherd to the magi lofty.
Come and fulfill through us Mary’s vision of mercy stretching to all generations,
Of the proud scattered, and the powerful punctured, of the rich emptied and the poor filled, and our lives magnifying your grace.
Come lace our songs, our shopping, our celebrations with your mystery and strange magnificence,
And let us sense it in the small, strange stirrings of the earth and of our hearts, now and always. Amen.
~ Ted Loder, “My Heart in My Mouth”
Originally delivered November 29, 2015, by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.
- Fig Tree by Froiaresumra (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
- Pray Codex, see page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons