Jesus said, "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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
Really? Jesus might as well have said, “That's great, it starts with an earthquake, Birds and snakes, an aeroplane, Lenny Bruce is not afraid, Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn, World serves its own needs, Regardless of your own needs...It's the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.” (REM-It’s the End of the World lyrics)
For those of you who have no idea what I just said, it’s ok. Those are the lyrics from REM’s “It’s the End of the World” which was released in November 1987. Like Jesus’ apocalyptic and cryptic message in Luke this morning, it seems more like a stream of consciousness from an anxious person that anything truly meaningful.
But for me, a child of the 80s, this song has it’s place in my cultural awareness. Ask anyone in their late 30s to about mid-50s, about this song, and they can sing the chorus...it has meaning. They probably even remember the music video and watching it on MTV (before MTV stopped showing videos).
Similarly, for Luke’s audience, Jesus’ message about the end of times would have had meaning...apocalyptic messages were “a genre of prophetical writing that developed in post-Exilic Jewish culture.” According to scholars, “The object of this literature in general was to solve the difficulties connected with the righteousness of God and the suffering condition of His righteous servants on earth.” (wikipedia article on apocalyptic literature)
So what does all this mean? Should we be looking for signs in nature to tell us that the rapture is about to happen? I hope not. Otherwise, we should all be getting ready based on this summer’s past drought and the cataclysmic storms that raged across the globe. Should we be looking at the events in Paris, the shootings happening in our schools and neighborhoods, and the fleeing of refugees from Syria as signs that the end is near? I hope not.
When I was in my third year of seminary, a pastor in Oakland, CA predicted that the end of the world was coming. He was so convinced that he paid to have billboards put along the freeway, he held lectures at his church, and he bought ads on the radio. He had interpreted the events of the world as a sign that the end was near. And you know what? That day came and went.
I could make a list of all the things that SHOULD be signs of the end times. I could write a song that “it’s the end of the world” as we know it. I could spend hours being anxious about what comes next. But somehow I don’t think Jesus really meant for us to look for signs. I don’t think the message that we’re reading today in Luke was meant to be taken literally. Remember...Luke’s audience would have been familiar with this kind of literature. They were trying to make sense of the world around them.
So what do we do with this? Where is the good news in our gospel this morning?
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I FINALLY started reading Nadia Bolz-Weber’s new book “Accidental Saints”. It’s been on my bedside table since earlier this fall when I got the chance to hear her speak in Portland at Trinity Cathedral. Nadia is unlike any other Lutheran pastor I’ve ever encountered. She’s covered in tattoos and deeply professes the love of God in Christ. She is the embodiment of contradictions and flaws and totally honest about it. In many ways, she’s my hero because she’s incredibly honest and thoughtful, and in other ways, she scares me to death because she’s incredibly honest and thoughtful. But y’all didn’t come here today to hear a sermon on Nadia, so let’s move on.
In her book, she has a chapter about the first Sunday of Advent. Now the passage she refers to is from Matthew, but I think it applies to our passage from Luke as well. Nadia writes about the in-breaking of God and that no matter how hard we try, we can’t be totally prepared; we can’t predict, determine or forsee what God is going to do...we just have to wait because “There was and is and will be a [breaking in] because God is…[interested] in saving us from ourselves and saving us from our culture and saving us even from our certainties….That’s how God works sometimes. Not through the things we are prepared for but through the things we don’t expect” (58-59).
Jesus tells us not to let our hearts be weighed down with the worries of this life, even amidst the heavens and the earth being shaken. Jesus tells us not to be pre-occupied with ourselves, and not to be worried about calculating the exact day of the end of the world because through all this, his “words will not pass away”. And what are his words? To love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourselves. And we see this throughout our lessons today...God is full of compassion and love, God guides us in paths of love and faithfulness, God is preparing us for a time of justice and righteousness...and there’s nothing we can do except wait and pray.
So as we enter into this season of Advent, a season of hope, joy, love, and expectation, the new year of the church’s calendar, and a time of beginning afresh “in individual hearts, in relationships, ...and in our yearning for a promise worth living for” (Wesley D. Avram in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Advent 1) all we can do is actively wait for the in-breaking of God “because your redemption is drawing near.”
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.