Homily for Soup & Bread, December 1, 2018,
First Service in Advent
I have to admit I was a little terrified when I realized I would be preaching on this passage from Luke 21. That is the beauty of following the lectionary: we have to deal with passages we might rather avoid!
I’m terrified because I found faith amid a tumult of preaching about passages like this—preaching that announced that Jesus had to return by certain dates. The Fig Tree Parable was linked to Israel’s 1948 founding, and the “this generation” language was interpreted as a quantifiable number of years… first thirty years, yielding Christ’s return by 1978, and then, when that didn’t happen, the number became forty and the date 1988. Dates passed, and we waited, and we’re still waiting.
Waiting is part of normal life for those in relationship with God. And waiting tests us.
Anticipation of the fulfillment of dreams is invigorating—but as the timeframe increases and hopes remain unfulfilled, vigor turns to confusion, then malaise.
Today is the first service in Advent: and Advent embraces the tension between waiting and fulfillment. Christians live their lives between incarnation—The Christ-child in Bethlehem—and Jesus’s coming in power to establish new heaven and earth where all will live in the immediate presence of our Creator. We live in hope, in the pause between fulfilled promise and promise yet unfulfilled.
And waiting isn’t just a static experience. It involves patience, but usually also pain. Waiting on God, we encounter things like divorce, betrayal, job-loss, business failure, and loss of homes. Children have life-altering illnesses, and loved ones die untimely deaths. Bad choices get us into trouble—or trouble just comes. Families are strained as the people we love grapple with identity and sexuality. And sometimes, it’s just the normal things of life that take so long!
I have experienced almost everything on that list—and, probably, you have, too.
Waiting is normal. We life our lives between hope and fulfillment. And, if scripture is believed, we can thrive there.
Proverbs teaches that “hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
The prophet promises that “but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
The Psalmist asserts, “I am confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
Is it possible that, in the midst of waiting, we can transcend weariness, and find what we need to live joyful lives? Scripture as a whole doesn’t allow a “Don’t worry be happy” message. The trials of life are horribly, well, trying. That’s why they’re called trials! And thriving in the midst of them involves embracing that we live in the gap and easy solutions do not exist.
A friend of mine recently posted a quote on Facebook from a woman named Lysa Terkeurst. Terkeurst says, “Sometimes to get your life back, you have to face the death of what you thought your life would look like.” Profound words as we address the concept of waiting and Advent.
Our text from Luke announces that all sorts of terrible things will happen in history: wars, famine, genocides, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, even extreme shifts in our climate that obscure and distort what we see in the heavens. And all these things bring great human cost.
It has been traditional to interpret Luke 21 as referring to history’s culmination—and that is certainly one dimension of these “little apocalypses” in the gospels. As an immediate referent, however, the author of Luke has in the crisis of AD 70 when the temple in Jerusalem was flattened by Rome. The people had suffered a great loss, and he comforted them by recalling these words from Jesus.
Fuller Seminary’s Joel Green wrote a profound commentary on Luke. Regarding the oft- misinterpreted term “this generation,” he points out, “In the Third Gospel, ‘this generation’ has regularly signified a category of people who are resistant to the purpose of God…. ‘This generation’ refers… not to a set number of decades or to people living at such-and-such a time, but to people who stubbornly turn their backs on the divine purpose.”
The main point of this passage is not to predict a near-term end of history, but to remind its first hearers that suffering—even on a cataclysmic scale—is normal human experience.
Waiting is a normal. It was true then, and it’s true now. As we wait, we should tend to our hearts in certain ways.
First, Luke highlights that “the kingdom of God is near.”
Again, this need not be interpreted as an announcement of an imminent end. Instead, it is a proclamation of the immanence of God in the midst of the turmoil of today. The central message Jesus’s preaching and that of his disciples is, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” It is repeated by John, by Jesus, and by the earliest disciples. In this proclamation, the word “near” means “in your midst” or “within reach.”
God is present in the midst of our waiting—and we need to alter our perspectives (that’s what “repent” means), paying attention to the fact that God’s kingdom is present right in the middle of everything we suffer. Indeed, God suffers with the suffering. God “turns mourning into dancing” not just by eliminating the cause of mourning, but by infusing our very suffering with God’s divine presence.
Second, “when we see these things begin to take place,” we are to “stand up and lift up our heads because our redemption is drawing near.” Rather than letting shoulders slump in a defeated posture, we are to assume, in the midst of waiting and suffering, postures of strength, dignity, and victory. Throw your shoulders back and lift your head because God is your rescuer! Draw strength from God—from God’s attentiveness to you, and God’s powerful saving work on your behalf.
Third, “be careful that your hearts our not weighed down by dissipation, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life.” When we encounter deep losses—and as we wait—it is common to turn for comfort to over-consumption of alcohol, prescription or non-prescription drugs, unhealthy sexual expression, and just plain abandonment to our anxieties. These seem initially to soften suffering, but they disconnect us from reality and diminish ability to find the real God in our real suffering. The result of giving in to these things? “That day will close on you like a trap.”
Lastly, Jesus (yes, this is Jesus) closes with an admonition to pray two ways: first, that God will take suffering away. That’s honest prayer! Second, that we will be able to “stand before the Son of Man”—that we will have lived lives of sufficient integrity of faith that we will not be embarrassed at final judgment.
It is a normal part of the Christian life.
Know that God is present in the midst of it.
Lift up your heads.
Throw your shoulders back.
God is your deliverer.
Strength. Dignity. Victory.
No false comforts.
That God will relent and that suffering will end.
And that, at final judgment, you will have walked out your life in dignity and spiritual integrity before God.
“Sometimes to get your life back, you have to face the death of what you thought your life would look like.”