Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
November 29, 2015, 1st Sunday of Advent, Year C
Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 21:25-36
“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up
and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Sometimes it seems we’re living in a world gone mad.
You’ve only to look at the headlines to see what I mean.
Under a black banner, a terror group has made parts of the middle east a depopulated wasteland, their brutality driving people from towns and villages their families have lived in for centuries.
Millions of refugees of all ages take to leaky boats, risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean. Parents are so worried for their children’s future, they take them into the boats with them. The risk of drowning, they figure, is lower than the risk of staying at home.
In parts of central Africa, children as young as nine or ten are drugged, abused and brainwashed. Their handlers put AK-47s in their hands and send them into the jungle to fight their wars.
Parents in Central America spend their life’s savings to put their children on trains through Mexico, heading for the U.S. border. They know their kids may very well be robbed and abused by bandits along the way, and they also know the U.S. Border Patrol may catch them at the end of their journey, sending them back home. Still, it seems a more reasonable plan than keeping their kids at home, where paramilitaries terrorize their villages.
In Colorado Springs, a gunman enters a Planned Parenthood clinic and starts shooting people at random: the latest in a never-ending string of mass shootings by terrorists born and bred in the U.S.A.
Some say we’re finally emerging from the recession, but the younger generation begs to differ. Their jobs outlook is still so bleak, and their student-loan debt so crushing, the recession has never ended for them. They’re a lost generation who have never in their lifetimes known prosperity.
As for our political leaders, they’re so preoccupied with fighting each other, they barely talk. Compromise is a lost art on Capitol Hill. It doesn’t matter how good an idea is; if the other side favors it, then we’re against it.
Not a pretty picture, is it? And I haven’t said a thing yet about climate change…
It’s in times like these that Luke chapter 21 begins to make sense. It’s a pretty dire list Jesus lays out there. Wars and insurrections; natural disasters; famines and plagues. There used to be a time when I thought we’d never have to worry about such things. Now, I’m not so sure.
It’s a type of biblical literature known as “apocalyptic.” It comes from the Greek word apocalupsis, or revelation. Most of the apocalyptic imagery in the Bible does come from the book of that title — Revelation — but here in these paragraphs from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus himself is sounding the alarm.
Now, in order to understand what’s going on here, you have to keep one important fact always in the front of your mind. The fact is the date when the Gospel of Luke was written.
Most scholars date the book to about 75 A.D. That’s just a few short years after an event that was so cataclysmic for the Jewish people, it ranks in the same league with the Babylonian Exile and the Nazi Holocaust of the 20th century (although, today, few remember it).
The event was the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D. by the soldiers of the Roman Emperor Titus. The Arch of Titus still stands in the city of Rome, to this day. Inside the victory arch is a famous bas-relief carving known as The Spoils of Jerusalem. It depicts a group of Roman men, crowned with the olive wreath of victory, carrying war booty back into Rome. Prominent among that treasure is a giant golden menorah that once stood in the Temple. At the front of the procession are Jewish captives, their arms bound behind their backs.
These are the leaders of the rebellion. Their lives were spared, for the moment, and they were carried back to Rome in chains. They featured prominently in General Titus’ victory parade. At the terminus of the march, they were cut to pieces with swords, in front of the cheering crowds of the Eternal City. It was a spectacle every bit as gruesome as the beheadings perpetrated by ISIS in our own day. They didn’t have propaganda films back then. Instead, the Emperor directed that the scene be carved into stone.
But that was only the aftermath. Back in Jerusalem, a few months earlier, the Jewish people had suffered unspeakable horrors. The Roman invaders sacked the city and burned the magnificent Temple that had been renovated just a few years before by King Herod, a wonder of the world. Then, Titus’ army went on a genocidal rampage such as the world had seldom seen.
The Jewish historian Josephus had changed sides, defecting to the Romans just before the final battle. That put him in an ideal position to witness the atrocities. Here’s how he describes it in his history:
“Men and women, old and young, insurgents and priests, those who fought and those who entreated mercy, were hewn down in indiscriminate carnage. The number of the slain exceeded that of the slayers. The legionnaires had to clamber over heaps of dead to carry on the work of extermination.”
Josephus puts the death toll at 1.1 million. Let that number sink in for a moment. Think of how vast a number that is. Hitler is said to have murdered six million Jews during World War 2. If Josephus is to be believed, the soldiers of Titus systematically killed one-sixth of that number in the course of a few days. They did it without the benefit of railway lines, gas chambers or cremation ovens. Men, women and children alike were butchered, ISIS-style, one by one, with swords and spears. The phrase, “the streets ran red with blood,” is no metaphor. It’s actually what happened.
After murdering most of the city’s inhabitants, Titus turned to Herod’s Temple itself, that contained so much gold it was the Fort Knox of its day. His original goal had not been to burn the place down. He’d planned to sack it of all its treasures, then convert it into a temple to the Roman gods — but one of his overzealous soldiers foiled that plan by throwing a torch inside the place. Faced with the smoking wreckage, the General decided to utterly destroy it. Not only did his men pull down what was left of the wooden walls; over the course of the next few months, they systematically demolished the massive stone foundation as well, including some of the largest building blocks ever quarried. Only one wall of the foundation he left standing: the one that survives to this day as the center of Jewish devotion, the Wailing Wall.
Listen, now, to some of Jesus’ predictions from today’s passage. Remember, Luke is writing them down about 40 years after Jesus said, them, but just a few years after the sack of Jerusalem. Standing in front of Herod’s magnificent Temple, newly constructed, Jesus says:
“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first…”
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…”
“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written.”
“…they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
You know, there are certain students of the Bible who love nothing better than rummaging around passages like these, mining them for predictions they can apply to our own time. It seems pretty clear to me, though, that Jesus isn’t talking about dire events that will happen in the far-off twenty-first century, or some century beyond. He’s talking about something that’s going to take place in the lifetime of some of his listeners. The real kicker is this line that comes up towards the end of today’s passage:
“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”
So, having heard these predictions, what do you think? Is the Lord predicting certain things that have yet to take place in our future, or is he speaking of events that — from our vantage-point — have already taken place?
I’d vote for “have already taken place,” were it not for this one prediction:
“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.”
Here, finally, is something that hasn’t yet taken place: “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” Everything else Jesus predicts, here, has already happened, in the siege of Jerusalem — except for his own return.
Notice, also, what our Lord says about how disciples are to respond in times of terrifying trouble and distress: “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Don’t hunker down, Jesus is saying. That’s the natural reaction, but he urges his disciples not to give in to it. He urges us, instead, to stand up and raise our heads in times of trouble, to look for his coming.
So, what’s that all about?
What it’s about is the chief focus of our devotion during this season of Advent. Advent, of course, literally means “coming” — traditionally it’s the time when the church not only celebrates the imminent arrival of the Christmas holiday, but also reflects on its future, and the future of the world.
Advent, we often say, is a season of expectation. I’m not so happy about using that word “expectation,” though, because it carries with it some other baggage that’s not especially helpful.
When you or I say we have expectations about something, we’re saying we have a pretty clear idea of what’s about to happen. Whatever it is, we’ve got it all worked out in our minds, and if should not come to pass, we’re going to be disappointed.
Let’s say a couple welcomes a baby boy into the world, and the dad decides he’s going to work with his son to make him a football star. Dad signs him up for the peewee team, goes to all the practices, eventually volunteers to be coach. If, by the time his son gets to high school, he tells his dad he hates football, he’s always hated football, and wants to join the drama club instead, Dad’s likely to have a hard time with that. Dad had certain expectations of his son. He’s just had those expectations dashed.
Or, let’s say a couple has decided to start a small mom-and-pop business. They get a bank loan, rent a building, order their equipment and merchandise, then open their doors. They do pretty well for the first few months, until news comes that a big chain store is about to open across the street. Of course the couple’s going to feel devastated. Their expectations of quick and lasting success have been overturned.
Lots of us have expectations, in the weeks before Christmas, of what sort of holiday we’re going to have. But holidays, you know, have a way of dashing our expectations! There are way too many human factors — having to do with ourselves and others — that make the holiday experience less than predictable.
When it comes to Christmas, it’s better not to have expectations. It’s better to strive to be expectant, instead.
What do I mean by that? Think of expectant parents, how they approach the news that, eight or nine months in the future, they’re going to have a baby. Naturally, those parents are going to be tempted to have expectations. Until the time of the mother’s first ultrasound, for example, they don’t know the sex of their child (some parents ask the doctor not to tell them that information at all, because they want to do it the old-fashioned way, finding out on delivery day).
What if, before they know for sure, one or both of them determines, in their own mind, what sex the baby will be. They buy baby clothes, decorate the nursery, do all those things parents do before the baby’s born — then, they have to undo much of those preparations, after learning that the son they were expecting is going to be a daughter, or vice versa.
The problem is not the fact that the parents were expecting. It’s that they had too many expectations! They fixed in their minds what they thought was going to happen, then felt let down when things turned out differently.
It’s good advice — for life in general — to try to do a lot more expecting and have fewer expectations. It’s the expectations rather than the expecting that get us into trouble.
One of the things we’ve learned in operating our Volunteer Village for the past several years is that, in relating to visiting work groups, it’s important to manage their expectations. That’s a phrase our friends at PDA — Presbyterian Disaster Assistance — gave us, early on. If a work team spends six months or a year planning their trip, raising money, recruiting volunteers, with the understanding that they’re going to be doing a particular kind of work for a particular kind of homeowner, at a certain distance from our hosting site — and things turn out differently — they’re likely to be disappointed and maybe a little angry. If, on the other hand, we inform them of all the different changes that can potentially happen at the last minute, and they’re ready for that, when it turns out that the only work site available is in Atlantic City or Union Beach, rather than Point Pleasant, they’re more likely to take the the one-hour commute in stride.
Something similar is true with this baffling theological question about the second coming of Christ. If we strive to expect his coming in a general way, and don’t have so many precise expectations about it, we’ll find it much easier to leave the specifics in the hands of God. We’ll trust that God’s purpose for the world is being worked out, in precisely the ways — and according to the timetable — God intends.
If, on the other hand, we spend all our time scanning newspaper headlines, seeking for subtle hints and clues about how current events reflect somebody else’s definition of “biblical prophecy,” it’s not going to be easy for us when expectations are dashed.
Remember Harold Camping, the elderly owner of a network of Christian radio stations, who announced that, based on his own calculations, Jesus was going to return to earth on May 21, 2011? Well, May 21st came and went. Mr. Camping crunched his numbers again, and came back with an apolog. He explained that he’d miscalculated and the real date was going to be October 21st instead. When that date came and went, with no Messiah ringing his doorbell, Mr. Camping — along with his followers — was mightily disappointed. The problem? Too many expectations, not enough expecting.
I think that’s good advice for all of us, when it comes to making sense of those dark and confusing biblical passages about Jesus’ return. Jesus himself says, in Mark chapter 13 (and again, in Matthew): “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” Jesus couldn’t be more clear about the fact that no human can know in advance the time of his return — why, he didn’t even know it himself, during his earthly life!
What makes us think we can know better? For some reason, that hasn’t stopped a slew of self-appointed “biblical prophecy experts” from trying to do exactly the opposite of what our Lord teaches — figuring out in extreme detail what exactly, is God’s plan for the ages!
The key, I think is for us to minimize our expectations and ramp up our expecting. We’re used to the phrase, “expectant parents.” I’m saying we need to be expectant children: God’s children.
It’s a lifestyle of radical openness to God’s leading, a lifestyle founded on faith in God’s wisdom and providence and on God’s loving care for us and for all creation.
My wish for you, this Advent — and always — is that you may discover the hope and the joy of living expectantly!
Let us pray.
Lord, there is so much about your ways
that we do not — and cannot — understand.
There’s something in us, something prideful, that craves certainty,
that yearns to master the details,
that wants to second-guess your love.
Help us, in this season of frenetic confusion and worries of many kinds,
to learn the secret of not knowing what is to come,
but of being still and knowing that you —
and not we – are God. Amen.
Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.