Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 28, 2021
Luke 21:25-36 Commentary
Diana Butler Bass says it well when she reflects on the way we get right into it. “Advent 1 slaps us with the uncertainty and violence of human history.” From the get go, we’re told that there will be natural signs of turmoil, political distress, and chaos will hover over the earth, seemingly inescapable. Fear and dread will lead people to faint and some will feel as though the very foundations of heaven have been shaken by these world events.
It strikes me that it doesn’t take world affairs to make us feel this way. In fact, facing significant hardship and loss, like a loved one’s death or a traumatic experience or violation, can make us feel like the world itself has fallen apart—even though it’s just our own little world that’s been shattered. In these times of acute anxiety and survival, nothing seems secure or safe and our trust in “things above” and all we lean on in our faith, feels shaken.
In these moments, we truly know that things are not the way they are supposed to be and we know the helplessness that comes with waiting for something—someone to not just say it will get better, but to prove it. But, according to our passage this week, Jesus doesn’t quite do that. As quickly as we are told that we will feel this helplessness, Jesus gives us directions, commands even. (See the Textual Point below for a quick snapshot of all of the commands in this passage.) So, Jesus’ first step for when the chaos and gloom and doom feels thick all around us, we are to stand up for some “fresh air” and perspective; we raise our heads so that we can see his promise in motion.
Having raised our eyes up from the chaos, Jesus then tells us to look around and see what else is true and trustworthy. He uses the parable of the fig tree to describe how real, and almost natural, these bad events will be in human history and in our lives: with each season, a different stage of existence and experience happens to the tree and these changes help us understand how time moves forward as well as cyclically, building on growth through the seasons and experiences. And at every step of the way, we will be able to know that the kingdom is near. When we see the signs of things changing, Jesus says, we can take comfort in knowing that the Kingdom of God is near even if everything else we built our life upon—including our ideas about God—passes away. This move of placing chaos as part of a larger framework of understanding and knowledge is essential for hope—let alone survival!
Let’s review: following Jesus’ commands, we’ve lifted our heads to consider more than the chaos that overwhelms us and we’ve looked at the lessons the world has to remind us of how things go. As we have done both of these things, we’ve been given glimpses of good: of eternity breaking into the present. This is the work of gaining perspective and different viewpoints on our situations. It affords us the opportunity to see them more clearly and more completely. This is important work, necessary for dealing with our anxiety and dysfunctional situations in healthy ways.
Now, (verse 34) Jesus gives us even more specific instructions on how we can be in difficult, dangerous, and scary times. We are to guard our hearts against the traps and ruts we can easily get stuck in when we try to cope and survive on our own. We might have new perspective, but we’re still living in the chaotic situations, and there are other dangers around us as well as within us.
What Jesus offers us is a way of being that will protect us from ourselves. Most of us don’t start out drinking with the plan to become an alcoholic. Nor do we really enjoy the sleepless nights and stomach ulcers that constant worry turns into until medical intervention has to be used. But if we are aware of what our tendencies are, what our besetting sins and temptations are, we can cope in better ways. Added to this guarding, Jesus tells us to be alert, praying for the strength to withstand all of these challenges so that, in the end, we will escape them.
And all of a sudden, instead of looking for God coming near, we will realize that we are standing right there in front of, nay with, our Saviour, the Son of Man. Is it too much to hope that Jesus doesn’t just mean when he comes again to usher in the new heaven and earth, but he also means now? In the midst of the chaos and danger?
As Neal Plantinga has pointed out, being overwhelmed causes a number of different responses within ourselves and among us—especially as we wait for things to change. Some people succumb to sloth, others to cynicism, some try to control the narrative (i.e., make prophecies about the end times), while others numb out the pain in whatever way they can. Jesus’ words here in Luke 21 are, Plantinga describes, an “antidote” to all of these. The one who is, who was, and who is to come is our redemption drawing near, the kingdom of God that is near already, and the Son of Man whom we will stand before. We are not left to the chaos and our own devices. God already came, is coming again, and is here right now! There is nothing truer, more sure or real than that. Each set of commands is integrally tied to the promising description of a God on the move.
This is the Advent hope. This is the way of stewarding advent’s expectant waiting—a waiting that extends beyond these four weeks leading up to Christmas.
There is another way that we need to be aware of what Jesus is describing. Some people may dread Christ’s return because life is pretty great for them right now. Does it really get better than this? Woe to us if we are the ones who need our lives disrupted and turned into chaos. In his commentary on this text, John Nolland writes, “The turmoil and upheaval through which the kingdom of God is ushered in will inevitably dislodge all the assumptions and securities of ordinary life.” Because the sad truth is, our comforts may be coming at the cost of havoc and chaos for others. The Kingdom of God comes as a great reversal, and turns powers upside down. As we wait, we are meant to be part of this work.
This too is a sign that the Kingdom of God is near. All of these various applications are why this text, according to theologian Justo González, is essentially a stewardship text: we are being taught how to steward our very selves until Christ comes again.
With his commands, Jesus is teaching us how to steward our very selves, from our hearts, to our thoughts and actions. We can trace this movement through the commands that Jesus gives (commands in italics):
- Verse 28: Stand up, raise your head when the chaos and scary stuff looms all around; redemption, in the form of the Son of Man coming in the clouds, is drawing near.
- Verses 29 & 31: Look at the fig tree (i.e., take stock of what you know is true and what we have learned) and know (with trust) that the Kingdom of God is near.
- Verses 34 & 36: Be on guard and alert through prayer in order to avoid the traps of despair and fear so that you will stand in the presence of God.
The movie “Palm Springs” (2020) is the story about Nyles and Sarah meeting at a wedding reception. They separately get trapped in the same time loop where they end up living the wedding day over and over. (It’s like a modern “Groundhog Day.”) When Sarah accidently follows Nyles into the loop, he has already been there for a while and has decided to deal with the hopelessness with predictable coping strategies—booze, drugs, crazy adventures, sex, making scenes in public, you get the idea. Sarah enters the time loop dealing with guilt about an awful thing she did the night before the wedding—she’s essentially stuck in a loop of the most guilt-ridden day of her life. At first, she gives in and joins Nyles in the “distraction from worry” approach, but eventually, she decides she wants to get out. While Nyles tries to continue to distract himself, Sarah uses her daily loop with purpose: learning quantum physics, developing experiments for the epicenter of the time distortion. She has decided to be alert, to be watchful, to stand up and resist the pull of the coping mechanisms. Sarah realizes, and helps Nyles see for himself, that there is always reason to hope, and that there’s a part for us to play in seeing what we hope for come to be.
In his commentary on this passage, Justo González talks about how Jesus’ commands teach us how to steward hope so that it is believable to others. He gives a simple but supremely helpful example to make the point, describing how while he was writing the commentary on the book of Luke he did so because he trusted that people would read it and that it would be useful to the world. On the other hand, if he believed that his book would be useful to others but he never actually got around to writing it, people would question that belief. Our actions speak loudly.
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