Willow Creek Friends Church
December 2, 2018
Luke 21:25–36 (NRSV)
The Coming of the Son of Man
(Mt 24:29–31; Mk 13:24–27)
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.”
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
(Mt 24:32–35; Mk 13:28–31)
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.
Exhortation to Watch
(Mt 24:36–44; Mk 13:32–37)
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 does not 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.”
Today we begin the season of Advent. To many people advent is simply a fancy word that speaks about the time leading up to Christmas, but it is much more than that. Advent is a time of waiting, a time of anticipation. In many ways the season of advent is the collective gathering of the universal church in Holy Expectancy, waiting to see, feel, and hear from our long-awaited Christ. But what is it we wait for?
There are really a couple of focuses of advent, the first and the second coming of Christ. It is the season we join with the Old Testament prophets and saint in a similar divine anxiety where we both wait for the coming of the king. Previously they waited for the appearance and the later wait for the return. Both wait. Both wait anxiously and with excitement.
As we approach today’s passage, we need to understand this holy anxiety. It is not the clinical anxiety that interrupt your television shows with prescription advertisements but the type of anxiety that keeps children awake the night before Christmas, or brides and grooms the night before their wedding. The positive energy of anticipation as we hope long for the one thing, we have set our desires on. The entire nation of Israel was in a state of anxiety. For some it was filled with the excited anticipation of hope and for others it was filled with the clinical dread of hopelessness.
Why were they anxious? There was a teacher traveling throughout the land. There was a teacher who taught like no one they had heard before. A teacher was roaming their country with power to heal the sick, open the eyes of the blind, allow the lame to walk, and even cleansed the lepers of their unclean state of being. This teacher even fed a multitude… twice. Could this be the promised king?
Imagine if you were there. Imagine what it would be like if you were living in that transitionary time. Imagine what you might feel, what you might do, how you might act. It might be difficult to imagine because we have centuries of shared experience, we know what will happen. It is difficult for us to imagine that anxiety because we have knowledge.
It is interesting how at times knowledge can be our greatest ally or our worst enemy. Often as people grow in knowledge and wisdom, they lose something important, the ability to live in a state of wonder. As we learn about things like the water cycle the wonder of rain can at times diminish, or the romantic tug of snow might wain. We know what is happening, we know that as the molecules of water cool, they come together and as they come together, they form drops that eventually cannot be held within the air any longer and they fall to the ground. Or as a snow flake forms the water not only cools but it forms ice crystals around microscopic particles in the air and they float down from the sky like a feather. The knowledge can at times, lead us away from wonder to a place of mechanics. It loses the magic or mystery and it becomes a system.
Knowledge does not always cause us to lose wonder though. At times the gaining of knowledge can inspire even greater wonder. Which drives science to discover and adventurers to explore. The gaining of knowledges inspired the Norsemen to brave the unknown seas, because they developed a system of navigation that would allow them to return home even when they lost sight of land. And if you were to believe the stories of Albert Einstein you would find that he held a boyish sense of wonder even as he developed his greatest theories of relativity, which basically stemmed from him imagining what it might be like if he were to travel beside a ray of light.
Knowledge, an ally and a foe. This moment of time we read about as Jesus speaks to his disciples is filled with all kinds of knowledge. The scholars had been studying scripture and their world since basically the beginning. Many thought they knew all that could be known about the subject of life, and the kingdom. When the magi from the east came to worship the king of the Jews, Herod asked where this child was to be born and the gospel writers do not indicate that they had to diligently search for an answer, but they readily said Bethlehem. They had knowledge, but their knowledge was such that it caused them to lose sight of the wonder. When Jesus’s time had come, they did not see what they expected to see, and instead of adjusting their theories to incorporate new data, they rejected the very one they anticipated. Their knowledge filled them with dread.
The disciples were not the religious scholars. They were common people. They were fishermen, tax collectors, rebels, and some indicate zealots. They had not spent years studying scripture in depth, but they did know the basics. When it came to interpretation they relied on the testimony of others, yet they were all devoted to their faith. When Jesus did the unexpected, they did not ask questions, but they accepted their ignorance as being why they did not understand. What they did know was that Jesus filled them with hope, and he asked them to join him in this ministry.
But today even the disciples are caught in anxiety. They know something is about to happen, but they do not know what it is. They can feel the tension in the air that something big is about to happen and they cannot wait to see how it plays out. They know their king is about to emerge. The scholars feel it too. But Jesus does not announce the coming kingdom, instead he speaks in apocalyptic riddles, that to them sounds like he is prophetically declaring the end.
We join the disciples in this anxiety. We do not know what will happen, but we feel that the wind is changing. The religious and political climate was changing around Jerusalem too. The temple of God was at its greatest point. The entire Roman Empire knew about the temple of God. Jews and Gentiles from across the vast empire were making their way to participate in the festivities that occurred around this massive religious structure. The success of the temple had been a source of pride to the nation. Those involved in this system, were efficient and effective. They were seemingly an unstoppable force of spirituality, that even drew people outside their race to desire to join. Yet the nationalistic pride also placed them in political peril. The nation of Israel was on a course of destruction, and the instigators of that was nationalistic and religious pride.
Jesus’s prophetic words spoke of this. There will be signs in the sun and the moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity. People will faint with terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world. He goes on and says at that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
We often read these verses and as we read them, we anticipate the second coming of Christ. I want us to take a different look today. These apocalyptic words were spoken not to insight terror in those that hear the words but to inspire hope. We often forget this when we read this passage and those like it.
What Jesus is telling them is that the world around them will change. It may even be devastating to them. His is saying that within the living generation Jerusalem will fall, and with that fall the very sources of pride will tumble with it. This did happen. Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, within the lifetime of the youngest among the disciples. When that happened every follower of God had to come to terms within their own minds. Jesus told his disciples, do not be discouraged but hold your heads up.
Life is often unexpected. In one moment, we might be living as if everything is possible, and the next all our hopes are barren. What do we do in those moments? I will be honest, at times I have felt this way during my times here at Willow Creek. One moment it seems as if things start looking up and the next a struggle. On more than one occasion I have asked during my prayers why I am even here. In each of those moments I am reminded not of what I can do but what Christ can do.
Lift your heads, Jesus says. In the darkest moments when you feel as if nothing can go right. Lift your heads. In those moments when people are speaking untruths about you, lift your heads. When we face a struggle, we do not feel we can overcome, lift your heads. This is sound advice. When we go around will bowed heads what do we see? You can only see what is beneath you. You can only see your feet. If our lives are lived in this way, we are constantly focused on ourselves and our trouble, and the answers we seek are only in our own two feet. But if the world is seeming to crumble around you, what do you have to offer? You have already invested your lives into it. You have already given everything you have, you are standing right there amid rubble, broken, tired, and condemned. Lift your head.
When we lift our head during the trials we face, we can see. With our heads bent down under the stress of life, we are trapped, but as we look up, we can see a path emerge before us. As we begin to take this path, we might see another person struggling. With your head lifted, you meet them on their path, and they lift their head and they too see a glimmer of hope. And together you walk. Lift your head.
We might not have all the answers in ourselves. We might not even have all the questions yet. The disciples and the religious leaders of that day thought that they knew it all. Yet when Jesus appeared before them, they could not fully see. This is why the testimony of Jesus before Pilate last week is so important. He said that his kingdom is not from this world. It is not built on the systems and values of man. It is something derived from a different system, and a different set of values. The Jewish community was anticipating a king, and they received on, but they were unaware. Their focus was on themselves, their values, their hands and feet, their buildings and their scope of influence. They thought king and kingdom, and all they saw was a monarch and a palace. They saw a standing army and liberation. They saw power and influence to coerce the world to their will. But in one generation every aspect of life built on those values can crumble.
Lift your head because your redemption is near. In our time of desolation, we can lift our head and see. in the darkest hours we can have hope, because of Christ. Jesus came from heaven to be born as a baby. He lived an entire life with and for us. He grew in knowledge and wisdom while he labored beside Joseph and his family. He celebrated life, and he wept. Jesus knows our humanity because he lived it with us. Jesus also knows life with God. He lived a rhythm of life, cycling through worship, prayer and ministry. He lived this life and he called others to join him in that lifestyle. And for three years they worshiped, prayed, and ministered together. Healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, loosening the tongues of the mute, and unstopping the ears of the deaf. They witnessed all of this, and Jesus said you will see even greater things.
Because humanity is bent on their own understanding and system, Jesus was opposed by leaders seeking to maintain power and influence, and they placed Jesus on trial and ultimately executed him on the cross. And Jesus died and was buried in a borrowed tomb. For the disciples who lived with him for those three years, their world fell apart. Their friend and their king laid buried in a tomb, and their hopes were dashed before they even took flight. And Jesus said lift your head.
On the third day, Mary and the other women came to anoint the body and found only an empty tomb. And they wept. And Jesus called out Mary’s name, and she looked up and saw Jesus. He overcame the grave, and death could not hold him. Our greatest fear and shame discarded in an empty tomb. In Mary’s despair she looked up and saw. She told the others and Jesus appeared to them too while they hid together in a locked room. For forty days, after that Jesus again ate and taught with them, and then he went out with his closest friends and told them he was going to prepare a place for them, and he rose into the sky and disappeared. Again, their world became dark, so they went home and waited, trying to understand what Jesus had meant, and what life was all about. They waited in their despair, and they remembered Jesus’s lifestyle. So, they prayed, they worshiped, and they prayed, looking up to God for their hope. And with dramatic fire they received their answer and began to minister to those around them.
They ministered, they worshiped, and they prayed. People followed, and people got upset. And everything that Jesus said came to pass, they were persecuted, and eventually Rome destroyed Jerusalem and the world seemed to end. But they lifted their heads because for them there was still hope. Jesus said that he would return.
In small ways his kingdom has returned, every time we lift our heads when we face trouble, he is there in a cloud guiding us through. Inspiring us to use our knowledge and encouraging us to wonder in the mystery. And every day we still sit in that holy anxiety looking up in hope and taking on his holy lifestyle as we walk the paths of life.
As we enter this time of open worship, I encourage us all to imagine. Imagine yourself lifting your head and resting in his redemption. What does that look like in your life?