Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Days Are Surely Coming

The Days Are Surely Coming
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 29, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 21: 25-36

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

Out of the skillet and into the fire, that is what it is like this morning. After an entire year of going through the Gospel of John, wrestling with it, trying to get at its teachings, its secrets, the depth of its context, being challenged every step of the way, I was thinking that with the beginning of Advent I could get a little break, a little leeway, some happy hopeful Christmas flavored morsel of Thanksgiving fun, but no, I decided that I wanted to take a walk through Advent this year with a little tradition, and try to stick to the Lectionary. How bad can it be? Well you tell me, here is the gospel lesson prescribed for today in the Lectionary.
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 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.” [1]

So yeah, there is a little bit of out of the skillet and into the fire. We often forget what Advent is really about, especially this first week. . . it is about hope, and hope is about the future, hope is about promises, hope is about something that is coming. . . and Advent means coming, that the Lord is to come, so here we open up the prophets and we see many promises about a different world from the world that we see around us. . . and we often wonder when, we ask ourselves when, we ask God when? And then we read passages like this, that sound like it should be in Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel, but instead it is right there in the Gospel of Luke in the red words, straight out of Jesus' own mouth, and we forget about our hope and our asking God when? and we read, "There will be signs. . . sun, and moon, and stars. . . distress among nations. . . roaring seas. . . people fainting from fear and foreboding." And we think it sounds like Isaiah, it sounds like Revelation, heck, it sounds like Facebook.
Is this world we live in? A world where the second coming is at hand. You can turn on the TV pretty easy and find people who would say yes. There is an entire industry of books being written every day that say yes, that go through the codes, the signs, and say the times are now, and there is a lot of money to be made in such modern prophesying, there is money in it because there is power in it, and there is power in it because there is fear associated with it,. . . because like this passage speaks of they are judging the world that is this fig tree and seeing the new buds popping out all the time, and all of the new buds on the fig tree are terrifying things to be afraid of. . . war, and terrorism, and global warming, and crazy active shooters, and rising seas, financial crisis, debt crisis, the end of the dollar, the global economic system collapse eminent, protests in the cities, protests on campus, just absolute insanity. . . it is all frightening. . .  and Jesus says right here that people will faint with fear and foreboding. . .
It must be the end times right, Armageddon, the Second Coming. I could join the chorus of fear mongering and claims of the end this morning, and I'm sure that in many pulpits around the world people are reading this passage because it is the lectionary reading for this morning and making that easy claim, making those simple connections. . . claiming that Jesus says to be ready, and that readiness is really about some combination of these four basic ideas, and here they are: 1. don't by any green bananas, because you won't get to eat them before they get ripe. . . in other words don't make any plans. . . 2. Call your mother or your grandkids one more time, because when the end comes you'll wish you did. 3. Buy a helmet and put it on. . . 4. Get on  your knees and pray pray pray, pray for yourself that you might just make it through. . . .
Look at the Prayer of Preparation that I chose for the bulletin. . . a few weeks ago I introduced you to Yeats as my favorite poet, and here he is again. This is his poem "Second Coming"
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand. . .

Surely, the Second Coming is at hand. . . yes it must be and don't call me Shirley. . . look at what he is describing. . . Things falling apart, the center not being able to hold, the falcon isn't listening to his master, anarchy is loosed on the world, blood tide, innocence drowned. . . and then my favorite line for today. . . the best lack all conviction. . . right the best people can't seem to lead, can't seem to get it all together, can't seem to make decisions. . . but the worst are full of passionate intensity. Do you ever watch the news and wonder who are these idiots talking? What are these questions they are asking? Who are these politicians too? Is this the best we can get, but they are loud and certainly intense. . . Yeats captures our problems really good doesn't he. . . he gets our situation cold. . . but the thing is, he wrote this in 1919. . . . in the midst of the First World War, which I'm sure felt like the end times, too, and throughout human history people have claimed that their time was "the end times." Think about the times of the Bubonic plague in Europe. In 1348 in Florence, Italy 3/4 people died of the plague. Florence was a major city and 3 out of four died, so in a city of 400 people 300 were dead, in a city of 4000 people 3000 were dead, in a city of 40,000 people 30, 000 were dead, and Florence which probably had a population of 80,000 that means 60,000 people were dead, just like that. . . alive one day, dead the next. Do you think people were making claims about the end of the world then. . . of course they were, but like World War I, then there was World War II, and here and now we seem like we are on the brink of World War 3, why are we so sure that this one is Armageddon? Is it just because that is what ISIS is trying so hard to create? People are afraid, but people are often afraid. . .
Jesus says People are Fainting over Fear and Foreboding,  and foreboding is an interesting word in this context, because it means reading the signs, it means there is boding happening before something. . . and boding is bad. Interesting in a passage where Jesus talks about the need for getting ready and the fact that there are signs everywhere, he seems to disparage the idea of foreboding, linking it with fear. . . There is a clue there. The Greek word for it literally means "looking ahead." Fear associated with looking ahead. . . also if you look closer, although it links a bunch of negative images together, it doesn't say they are all signs of the end. . . like it says that there is going to be roaring seas, and it says that there is going to be confusion. . . and at first glance you could think that both are some kind of sign, but in actuality it says that the confusion is over the rising seas. . . so there seems to be some confusion and fear and misplaced foreboding about the signs of the second coming. . . or perhaps fear is the misplaced issue, the confusion. . . it would fit the profile of Jesus' messages. . . probably his most repeated phrase throughout the gospels is, "Do not be afraid." It would also fit this message. Jesus says in these times, your redemption is near.
I gave earlier the 4 typical responses that people who teach fear about the second coming tend to say, their 4 take aways, their 4 teachings about what people should do to get ready. . . remember them. 1. Green bananas, don't make any long term plans. . . 2. Call your family and say good bye. . . 3. Buy a helmet, get yourself some protection, and finally 4. Get on your knees and pray. . . but look what Jesus says  readiness looks like. It is quite the opposite. He says, not to fall on your knees, but to stand, not to bow your head, but to raise it up. . . stand up and raise your head. . . not to fall down and bow your head, not to find some protected covering for your head, but instead to stand up and raise your head. That is bold. . .and how about heading toward redemption with boldness, heading into the new day, whatever it may bring with boldness, head held high, that is faith, and that seems to me to be a picture of the opposite of fear certainly. He also says to be on guard so that you are not weighed down, that your heart is not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and worries. . . again not escapism but boldness in the face of it all. . . it is a picture of faith. . . and it is a picture of hope.
Many may say to me, Pete you are just evading the signs, you are playing down the prophecy of the end times, you are afraid yourself of reading the truth of scripture that is right in front of you. . . really, I say, look at the context of this passage, look at what Jesus is referring to. It all starts with the poor widow who gives of her very last money, and Jesus praises her, and then talks about the temple falling to the ground and being destroyed. That is what leads us to this point. . . Jesus is talking about the coming of a world where that woman is raised up, praise, held in honor and esteem. . . that is an upside down world based in most standards, one where things have changed, change has come. . .
Interesting that in the beginning of this sermon I was talking about hope and Advent, how we look at the world around us and we do not see a world that lives up to the promises of God, and we ask when Lord when? Why is it then when there seems to be signs of the coming redemption that we pale away in fear? What is it that we hope for in Advent? That is the real question of this week. . . is it avoidance. .  . or redemption. . . is it escape. . . or is it bold readiness. . . is it the status quo. . . or is it Thy Kingdom come. God has promised us that it will, Jesus has said the kingdom is near, he has said that our redemption is at hand. . . let us not falter with the fainting spells of the fearful. . . but instead let us hope with our heads held up in humble boldness, the audacity of humility, that is simple Christian hope. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 21:25-36). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.