By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 28, 2021
Luke 21:25–36 (ESV)
25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And 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, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” 29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the 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 say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
We are told that this is the most wonderful time of the year. It has been playing on the radio for a month now and will be for the next month. But what do we really know about this time of the year?
The holiday season is one of the most stress filled times of the year. There are year end deadlines, there is holiday shopping, and for many mandatory overtime. The stress of the season is only increased because the human body is naturally predisposed to be less active during these darkest days of the year. Our human development has had thousands of years where this is the season to chill. Crops are not actively growing, its dark longer than it is light, and there really is not a reason to go out unless you happen to be the parent of a hockey player. Only in the most recent generations has the fourth quarter of the year become something so active.
This festive season is filled with anxiety. This affects us all differently. Some of us have the benefit of having family near by so even though the stress of this season increases they have healthy relationships that allow them to cope with the season. But what about those that live away from home? What about those whose families might live across the state or worse, on the other side of an ocean?
This is what I hope we consider this holiday season, this advent. Advent is the time of year I like to call holy anxiety. I do not know if I like to call it this but I think it is fitting. It is a time of stress and hope. It is a time where many wonder how things will ever work, and a time where we realize that it does. It is necessary for us to consider this season. This season of longing and anticipation, so that we are able to recognize the hope that is available to us all.
The first thing we need to realize is that we live in a world of struggle. I want each of us to look around this room today. What do you see? For those that are only watching online you see me, and maybe those that sit close to the front of our meetinghouse. But for those of us in this room we see several people that look like they are glad to be here. I am certain they are glad to be here, otherwise they would be somewhere else. But why do we come to this place? Why do we come to meet to worship every Sunday? Have we ever really thought about it?
I have been a part of the church my entire life. And there have been times where I do not want to attend. I do not always feel like singing songs of praise. There are times where I do not even want to hear the scripture read or listen to what God is speaking through the people that gather to worship. I do not always want to be here. I say this even as a pastor. Yet it is rare for me to miss worship on a Sunday morning. Even when I am on vacation I am usually worshiping on Sunday.
The reason I am here is not because I have something profound to say. It is not because I am filled with joy all the time. I am here most of the time because I am a mess. I am here because my life is not in order. I am here because I need help.
“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
These are not exactly the words most of us think of as we enter the most wonderful time of the year. Yet this is often what we feel. That is what this season is all about. Jesus spoke these words near the end of his ministry. And I think it is important for us to consider the literary and cultural landscape before we move forward.
Israel was in a unique place. Politically they were being ruled by others, yet religiously they were probably functioning better than they had ever functioned in their entire history. Their temple was profound. It was a wonder within the entire Empire. They were relatively free yet at any moment all that they knew could be laid to waste. Today’s passage was Jesus’s comments about that precarious situation they were in.
We live in a place like this. All across Facebook we are beginning to see memes about the war on Christmas. We get upset about the term happy holidays. And we begin to feel as if there is a something going on. But do we really know what Jesus is speaking about here?
When Jesus says that there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress. What is he saying? These apocalyptic passages are scarry. They are the stuff of nightmares. Movies are filmed and books are published using these story lines. Yet they are meant to be words of encouragement. How encouraged do you feel?
These words insight fear because it speaks of where and in what our faith is in. Sun, moon, and stars are the things that we perceive to be endless. Things that will never fail. What happens when the things we trust do not meet our expectations?
Jerusalem in Jesus’s day was thought by the religious as an everlasting place. If they continued to zealously follow God, God would protect them. They trusted their faith, and they had every right to do so. The feast of dedication that is recorded in scriptures is the feast we know as Hanukkah or the festival of lights. It is a celebration that was dedicated to the faithfulness of God, who preserved the oil in the lamps, keeping them burning within the temple while they priests worked to rededicate it to God after the abomination that caused desecration. God provided for them, so God had returned and honored them. They had spent generations in exile, they had suffered and they persevered. They believed that God would continue to honor them as long as they honored God in their worship. Yet Jesus is saying these words to the people within the city.
They were putting their faith in the temple, not in the God whose footstool stood within that temple.
We can get distracted at times. We can get comfortable in life as we have known it. Then seemingly all at once something changes. Someone kneels at a football game instead of standing for the national anthem and we go nuts. Suddenly our world begins to shake.
I took an Art History class when I was in school. I love art. I cannot make art myself, but I love watching art being created. I like talking with artist about what they have done, and I enjoy watching people as they look at art. When I took this class, my teacher loved the art of ancient Egypt. And he said something interesting about Egypt when I was in this class, according to the art there was never a bad pharaoh of Egypt. Even when the rest of history might say something contrary to what is depicted in those ancient tombs, every pharaoh was great. These artists knew that some pharaohs were not great, some of these pharaohs had not even lived long enough to even have a chance to be bad let alone great, yet their art said they were great. Why, because they wanted it to be true. If the artists were to tell the truth, then their entire society would come crumbling down around them. Their faith was in their pharaoh. And their society would not allow the artists to speak the truth because they did not know what might happen if they did not believe that their pharaoh was perfect.
Our world shakes at times. Truth does not change that. The truth is that companies fail when poor decisions are made. The truth is that governments at times make poor decisions and their people suffer because of it. The truth is even religious organizations can get distracted from what is most important, and we sense a shaking in the foundation of who we thought we were. Our world seems to shake because we have put our trust in things that should not bear that weight.
Jesus is telling the people of Jerusalem in this section of the gospel that their city will fall. He is telling them that the very temple you have put so much cultic devotion into and towards will fall. Everything they trust, everything they believe, everything they hold as important to who they are, will only last a short time. History shows us this time and time again. Jerusalem did fall within a generation of Jesus’s ministry. Many of the people that listened to these words being spoken were alive to see its demise, and many were probably within the walls of Masada during their last stand. But there is something that remains even after the dust of war settles, people.
“Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus tells them the absolute worst story to be told and then he tells them to lift their heads up. It sounds ridiculous. And he would have received the exact same response by us in this room today as he received in Jerusalem then. When Jesus told Peter that he was going to be killed in Jerusalem Peter told him to shut up. He did not believe a word Jesus was saying. In his mind it would never happen. Jesus told Peter that day, get behind me Satan. The people of Jerusalem had the same feelings. Our city would never fall, we will prevent it. We will do whatever we can to defend the honor of our people. And yet Jerusalem fell.
Jesus tells them exactly what to do. He does not tell them to take up arms against Rome. He does not tell them to withdraw into the wilderness or to burn the fields. He tells them to straighten up and raise their heads. He tells them this because our faith should not be in the works of men, but in God. Our faith should be in the God that created the entire world out of his great love. Our faith should be in the God that did not give up even when his creation, both spiritual and physical, rebelled against him. The God who preserved humanity through one family when the entire rest of the world chased after other gods. The God that continued to love humanity enough to call Abraham out of Ur, to bring about a nation for himself. God never gave up. Even when this nation, his nation, rebelled against him, he preserved a remnant so that through them He could redeem all humanity, and all of creation. Jesus tells them to lift up your heads and stand up straight because our hope is not in the things of men.
He continues, “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
Growing up on a farm, I know the signs of spring. It is a rhythm of life for us. We slow down as the days shorten, but we do not stop. During those dark days we are still at work making repairs on the equipment that we will need in the future. Every day there is work to do so that when that day comes, we are ready. When I first moved here to Kansas City, I worked for a lawn care company. We would start early in the morning and would often work till the sun went down. Making sure that the grass would be green in our city. But when winter came, 2/3rds of my coworkers were laid off. The other third spent the winter repairing all the trucks. We tore every truck apart completely; we tore down every pump and replaced every part we could. We did this because soon spring would come. For those that were laid off it was a dark time. For those that continued to work it was an anxious time. The entire year’s wages depended on the ability to get back out there when the sun shined again.
So much of the religious community is focused on the distractions of the world. We are focused on the things of politics instead of what is most important. Does it really matter if people say happy holidays or Merry Christmas? No. We should instead be focused on something greater. Spring is coming. The Kingdom is near. And what does Jesus say about the kingdom? It is not of this world.
What remains after the war? What remains after the stock market crash? What remains when a company closes? People; your friends and coworkers. The neighbor down the street. The teacher in you child’s classroom, and the children on your daughter’s soccer team. The people that do not have the means to move remain even when the world crashes down around them. This is what Jesus wants us to focus on. These are the ones that Jesus called blessed in his sermons.
The kingdom of God is not of this world even though it works within this world. The kingdom of God is all around us because it resides within the people who believe. We so often think of kingdoms as nations with borders, but kingdoms are a scope of influence. God’s kingdom expands not by might of armies, but by the lives lived with others.
We live in anxious times. The things we once revered as unshakeable show signs of weakness and we fear. People we once regarded as great have their humanity revealed, and we are afraid that our world is about to collapse. The news reports earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, pandemic variants, and civil unrest and we think that the end is near. Jesus is looking at us and telling us to stand up straight, raise our heads, and roll up our sleeves because we have work to do.
Our ancestors might not have done things right in the past, that is the truth and we cannot change it by denying it or covering it up. What matters is how we live now. The things men have placed their trust in are shaking and they are looking at us, will we show them where our hope comes from? There are marginalized portions of our population that have been systematically pushed out of participation in society, will we offer them hope? The darkness closes in and we might not feel like singing, but we are here. We are here because our hope is not in the things of men. Our hope is in God, and we know that when we come together as a community we are renewed. When we gather, we tell the world that our hope is not in the governments. Our hope is not in the economies driven by consumption. But our hope is in God. Our God left his throne in heaven and was born of the virgin. Our God lived within a family, grew, and worked alongside them in their business. Our God grew in the knowledge and wisdom of God and men and taught us how to live within that wisdom daily. Our incarnate God was unjustly tried and executed, suffering the very worst humanity could offer. He was buried and on the third day our God rose from the grave. After forty day our God ascended back to his throne and the spirit of God came to dwell in us. We are the temple of God. We are His kingdom. And when the powers of the world fail, we remain.
This season can be filled with hope and despair. It can be filled with joy and depression. Some within our community might be struggling, and others might be having the best days of their lives. We come together so that we can share. We come together so that those that struggle will know that this is only for a season, spring will come. For those that rejoice we rejoice with you, and we remind you that this too is only a season. We come because we need each other. We come because we are all a mess in our own way, and together we cry out to the lord for our redemption. And Jesus tells us, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” When the dust settles around us, we will rebuild with what we have. When the world trembles look at the fig tree, and all the trees and let us be found preparing for the spring. The beginning is near and we have work to do.
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