"And All Shall Be Well"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
December 2, 2018
Jeremiah 33:1-16; Luke 21:25-36
It is my pastoral responsivity and our collective responsibility as followers of Jesus to reflect theologically on the tear-gassing of women and children asylum seekers at our southern border – especially as we await the coming of the Christ, who was made manifest to us in the child of an immigrant couple who sought asylum from a political tyrant in a neighboring land. Imagine how formative those early years were for Jesus. Imagine the stories his parents told of escaping the violent wrath of a man who feared any contender for the hearts of the people – whose reign was propped up by the manipulation of fear. A study[i] from Yale released this week highlights the role of fear in political affiliation. Fear is a deep motivator for reactionary and repressive perspectives and policies. Persons whose underlying relationship to the world is not motivated by fear tend to have more open and compassionate attitudes.
Now, I’m not saying we all need to be liberals. In fact, I’m missing many of the conservatives’ values these days. And the current administration is not the first to utilize violence at the border. But I must point out that again and again, the prophets and messengers of God, and Jesus in particular, introduced themselves with the admonition to “Fear not!” Do not be motivated by fear.
Jesus, who as we noted experienced from a young age quite a lot of calamity and crisis – after all, he was an undocumented immigrant – has been teaching in the temple. Jesus’ apocalyptic warnings come just moments after leaving the temple after having observed the widow giving sacrificially of herself. Mark and Luke agree on this timeline and many of the details – including an indictment of the easy giving of the rich from their abundance. Then as they leave the temple, the disciples comment on its splendor, and Jesus counters with a reminder of the vulnerability of the works of our hands. In fact, he says, it’s all about to come down. Certainly, it’s a cataclysmic prophecy. It’s hard for the disciples to imagine life without the centerpiece of their culture – the temple. Though corrupt, the temple represents safety, security, and a symbol of memorable and meaningful identity in a world in which the covenant and the lifestyle it demands seem increasingly irrelevant, impractical, and impotent. Just to think about its destruction is like contemplating the end of the world. Indeed, says Jesus, the world as the disciples knew it was about to explode. It will be, like they say in the comics, all hell breaking loose, especially for those who have luxuriated until now.
In the previous verses, Luke’s Jesus paints a picture of military occupation, martial law, and the prosecution of war crimes. Then in the text for today, the signs of change become global – nearly cosmic. “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.”
The signs of change could not be missed. Jesus is saying that the signs of change that herald the coming of the Son of Man will be as unmistakable and powerful. But this also should be unmistakably good news – though we often miss that part of the message. Mark’s Gospel seems to anticipate our rush to get the low-down from Jesus on when this will all occur, with Jesus concluding the passage saying, “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.” Luke has moved that disclaimer to an earlier chapter about anxieties over earthly things and riches in heaven. I wonder, could a significant change in our practices of celebrating Christmas seem as cataclysmic as the destruction of the Temple?
The apocalyptic imagery in Luke’s Gospel is reminiscent of recently escalating so-called natural disasters: meteorological omens, distress in nations small and great, the roaring of earth and sea and waves. People fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. We don’t even know yet what change will be wrought in the aftermath of the fires in California or the earthquakes in Alaska. We seem to be bracketed between calamities here in the Pacific Northwest.
But the apocalyptic message is not about weather at all. The language of cataclysm is about expressing something so significant, so overwhelming, so real, that it cannot be described as normal experience. There have always been bad storms, and there always will be. No, the apocalyptic language is trying to describe the depth and exhilaration of the experience of living the realm of God, which will break in upon us like an earthquake or firestorm, uprooting what we thought was reliable, rendering the powerful and mighty as insignificant, and raising up the lowly.
Luke is clear about what’s wrong with us. We get “bloated with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life,” and we overlook the signs of God’s presence. We may even interpret some of those signs as the end of the world…. But we ought to remain engaged with the world, saying, “How is God at work in this moment in history?” and seek God’s will not according to our own comfort or benefit, but rather on the flourishing and vitality of all who are created in God’s image. This can be a pretty frightening thing when the status quo ensures power and control for those who already wield power and control. It can be very subtle, but very real. And it really is the end of their world for those who may have to relinquish even a tiny bit of power or control. This is a theme of Luke that we will revisit time and again over the coming “Luke” year of the lectionary cycle. Luke turns expectations and rewards upside down.
Luke gives us two indications that despite the cataclysmic proportions of the changes to come, that we should not fear. First, the signs are like the new leaves on the fig tree – miraculous if you stop and think about it – signaling the summer, the most auspicious and fertile time of the year, a time of labor, yes, but also of rejoicing and plenty. The fig tree is a sign of both fruitfulness and faithfulness. It can be counted upon to provide luscious fruit and ample shade. And it can be counted upon year after year. Anyone who has had the experience of picking a ripe fig, warm from the sun, knows the power of this metaphor of God’s promise of unconditional love. The fig tree is also employed frequently by the prophets as a metaphor for distributive justice. God is known to be in the land when everyone has access to their own fig tree – the one they have planted and tended with God giving the growth. In the face of natural and man-made calamity, what is a fig tree? And yet it portends what is to come.
The other indicator that the cataclysmic change to come is not to be feared is the advice to stand up. Scholars say the first part of this chapter is about the devastation of the state and the cult, which by the time of Luke’s audience was old news. Luke’s Jesus says, “Before any of this, they’ll arrest you and persecute you…; bringing you before rulers and governors. And it will all be because of my name. This will be your opportunity to witness.” That does not really seem like good news for anyone but a zealot. So, in this latter part of the chapter, Jesus starts a pep-talk for those who have lost hope, for those who may feel that their only response is to let their “spirits become bloated with indulgence and drunkenness and worldly cares.” He says, “When these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near at hand.” Redemption in the tradition of Jewish apocalyptic is not so much about the salvation of the individual, but about taking those who have suffered and those who have been oppressed and restoring them to full living according to their Creator.
The Redeemer is the one who has released the captives from their slavery in Egypt – it’s about the restoration of abundant life and community to the whole people. And the root of the New Testament word we know as “redeem” means to loose, to unbind, to set free for the purpose for which it was intended. As Jesus returns to our lives, which I believe is an ongoing day by day process – it will feel like an earthquake or a firestorm at times, at other times like the unfurling of new leaves and the slow ripening of delicious fruit. What comes next will be surprising and new.
The end is always coming. Sometimes it seems far off. Sometimes it fills the entire frame of vision. In a couple of weeks, we will again hear Mary’s song, in which she magnifies “the Lord who has scattered the proud…,” who like a storm “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; who has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” The coming of Christ is not to be feared by those who are on guard – who are vigilant against both disregard and despair. So, in this threshold time of year, of endings and beginnings, be vigilant and ready. Be risky and radically generous. Be fruitful and faithful. Stand up, be bold, and fear not.