by Michael Danner
Gospel Reading: Luke 21:25 – 36
For Sunday, December 2, 2012; Year C—Advent 1
This passage begins with apocalyptic thunder, as Jesus overwhelms his hearers with the unspeakable doom they are about to experience. The heavenly bodies will be shaken. People will freak out and faint with terror. They will be filled with anxiety about the future. The End is here!
I’ve never pictured Jesus as a sandwich-board wearing street preacher with a message of doom before, but it seems like “that guy” and Jesus have similar messages. And, let’s be honest, while we (or at least I) dismiss “sandwich-board guy who warns of impending doom,” that is the message that fuels the 24/7 cable news cycle—albeit in a more nuanced and sophisticated way.
I say that, not to belittle the real suffering that happens in the midst of storms like Sandy that hit the East Coast of the United States, or other forms of calamity, like the most recent drought (the effects of which we haven’t fully felt yet).
I say it because many of the people I pastor and encounter in my community make this very connection when calamity strikes. Is this (the most recent calamity) that (what Jesus was talking about in Luke 21:25-36)?
Redemption Comes Home
That response is so common that is seems like human nature. In the midst of uncertainty and a lack of control over our circumstances, we are unsettled and grab hold of anything we can. But Jesus points the way to a different response to the end! Jesus points to a redemption of what comes naturally to us humans. Redeemed human nature doesn’t give way to fear, faints of terror or anxiety. It also avoids the pitfalls of escapism (i.e. Jesus, get us out of here before anything bad happens).
Jesus is so stoically matter-of-fact in today’s text one has to wonder if he’s being driven by faith or fatalism. When the end comes, Jesus says, stand up, lift up your arms and I will grab you and pull you up and out of that mess. Wait…that’s not what Jesus said, is it? He actually said, “Stand up and lift up your heads because your redemption is drawing near!”
In the midst of the “calamity that signals the end”, the redemption that is wrought through the power and glory of the Son of Man comes home. Jesus reinforces this point with a parable about the fig tree. The message remains the same, “…when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
Living Before, Up To, and In the Midst of The End
In the face of calamity, fallen human nature asks, “Is this that?” In the light of Jesus’ teaching, another question seems more important, “How should we live before, up to and in the calamity that signals end?” If calamity and “unusual and perplexing distress” is/can be/could be the end and the end in question is the consummation of the kingdom of God, how are the attitudes and actions of the redeemed affected by said calamity? What does it really mean to “hasten” the arrival of this teleological moment?
Jesus says, “Be careful.” It is possible to lose it. It is possible to respond out of your fallen human nature. If you are not careful you will live your life riddled in anxiety, weighed down by the stuff of real life, such that you seek to avoid reality through things like drinking a lot. That is not the life that God has for you. That is not purpose for which Jesus came and is coming again. That is not redemption. That does diddily-squat to hasten the arrival of the kingdom of God.
Many have concluded that what Jesus was referring to in this passage was the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. Given the historical accounts of those events, I think it is a good fit, too (yet I’m not ready to fully commit everything to that moment, consummation-wise).
I still believe in a final consummation of the kingdom at a future date. That means that even if Jesus had the destruction of the temple in AD 70 in mind, we still experience calamity and humans at some future date will experience the consummation of the kingdom at the return of Jesus (which is bound to be a bit “out of the ordinary” if you will). That means, for me, that what Jesus teaches here IS relevant to our age.
The Hardest Question
I witness regularly the connection that many people make between any and every calamity in our times and the end or the final consummation of the kingdom. The natural response of people to these calamities requires a redemptive response by pastors to their hardest question…
Is this that?
Michael Danner is an ordained pastor of the Mennonite Church USA. He serves as Lead Pastor at Metamora Mennonite Church, a rural community on the outskirts of the empire (easy to miss unless you live nearby). When he is not actively engaged in husbanding, fathering, pastoring and blogging he confesses to spending far too much time trying to move objects with his mind…a practice he picked up at church as a kid. To date, it has not worked…but he isn’t giving up. His blog can be found at http://provokelove.net and he can be followed on Twitter @michaeldanner