12/2/2018 Sermon

J. Mark Barnes
December 2, 2018
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church


            “Keep Watch at All Times”

            Luke 21. 25-36

            Jesus makes a warning in our Luke text: “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, and…..the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  There’s a bass solo in Handel’s Messiah called “Thus Saith the Lord”. It uses this same image of God’s shaking of the world at the Last Judgement.  The soloist sings,  “And I will shake” over and over, shaking the “a” vowel   “And I will sha-a-a-ke.” “And I will sha-a-a-ke!”  The piece gets faster and more intense, the singer shaking the “a” vowel 24 times with each breath until the air vibrates in the concert hall and you feel the shaking it in your bones!  It’s awesome, thrilling, and… a bit scary! It goes on for about a minute and half and, as the composer will knew, that’s plenty long enough!

In our Gospel lesson Luke writes to a church that was frightened by the shaking of their world.  In 70 AD, only ten years before, the Roman army had crushed the Temple in Jerusalem.  The falling of this great symbol of God’s presence, along with the persecution that followed it, and certain natural disasters and signs in the heavens at that time convinced believers that God had begun to shake the creation and the End was very near!  It was a scary time!  And the Judgement Day scriptures spoke to this.

Many centuries later the text still resonates because our world is being shaken.  There is fighting in so many places. The TV news this week showed heart-rending pictures of starving children in Yemen.  85,000 children have died there in the last 3 1/2 years in the civil war.  Every week, it seems, there is another mass shooting in a public place. Innocent people targeted for their race or religion or mowed down for no reason at all.  And what about this mean-spirited, anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping across the US and Europe?  Adding razor wire to the border wall and calling in the troops!  Separating young children from their parents!  Who are we as a people?  Our very identity is being shaken!  What’s more, there’s a new threat in our time:  climate change!  The hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes and firestorms escalating in response to warming temperatures are symptoms of disaster coming.  Thomas Friedman writes, “We have reached a stage where the effects of our way of life on the earth’s climate and biodiversity cannot longer be ‘externalized” or ignored or confined. Our environmental savings account is empty. It’s not pay now or pay later.  It’s pay now or there will be no later.”[1]

“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”

             We feel the shaking of the world closer to home, too. 120,000 Louisvillians are still food insecure even though there is enough food to go around.  Opioid addiction is out of control in Kentucky.  And there are too many guns, too much violence.  Our personal worlds get shaken, too.  Our dearest loved ones die.  We have scary bouts with illness or accidents.  There are difficult times of transitions in families and, in congregations, and stressful conflict.   Life gets pretty shaky sometimes.

And when we get anxious we’re tempted to try escape from the anxiety by over-indulging…in food or drink, or drugs, or work. We may bury ourselves in our screens or buy things that promise distraction or comfort.  Black Friday! In a frantic outburst the day after Thanksgiving, Americans spent 23 billion dollars! It’s projected that holiday spending this year will reach $721 billion. The shopping cure!

Luke counsels his listeners not to let our hearts get weighed down “with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” His first listeners were discouraged. Their world was shaking and Jesus hadn’t come back right away like they expected and they were ready to give up on God ever coming to change things.  I mean who isn’t tempted to give up sometimes?! Too much suffering goes unanswered.  For too long.

Fear and foreboding about what is coming upon the world.

             But the shaking of the world is not the only word in this Last Judgement text. There is a more important word. During the shaking, something else is happening says Jesus, “They will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great glory.  So, when these things take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  Let’s take a breath and remember the Good News:  The world is shaking but Christ comes to meet us in the power of love and there will be a way through.  Good news!

God’s power is love.  We proclaim it every Sunday. God’s power is love.  The Last Day texts though remind us to also put it like this:  God’s love is power.  God’s love does not settle over the creation like a fine, fragrant mist that feels good but changes nothing!  No…God’s love shakes the creation so that what is evil and false will fall. Everything that stifles hope, everything that kills love will fall at the end under the mighty shaking of the love of God.  But what God desires in God’s heart will stand. Love will stand, and truth, peace and justice will stand.  And, we will stand….together with the whole creation in the great and joyful communion of love!  God has spoken it!

At St. Meinrad Archabbey in Ferdinand, IN., the Benedictine brothers have a beautiful, big church where the monks who live there gather every three hours, throughout the day and night, to pray and sing.  On the front wall of the sanctuary above where they worship is a mural of Christ. It was painted by an artist who was a refugee from Nazi Germany.  Coming from that horror, he painted a response:  his Christ stands 70 feet tall. You have to look up to see it.  In one hand, Christ holds a victory laurel wreath and in the other hand a book on which is written, “I Am the Life”.  And down at the bottom under Christ’s feet, is the double-ringed, winged insignia of the fallen Third Reich.

It’s a fitting picture of Christ for this first Sunday in Advent.  When the world and our own lives are shaken, we may stand, as Jesus said, raise our heads, and be of good courage.  Sometimes the way will get long and discouraging. Sometimes our hope will run empty and we’ll have to lean on brothers and sisters who for the time being will carry hope for us.  But know this:  whatever harms the creation and blocks the love of God will fall in the end. What is good, and beautiful and true will stand.  God has spoken it.  Take a breath and remember the Good News.

Jesus tells a little parable at the end of the Last Day scripture. He says, “You know how when you see the trees beginning to show leaves you know that summer is on the way?  Likewise, when you see these things happening, you know that the reign of God is coming!” It seems a bit odd…this parable coming where it does in the text. A real shift in gears. From cataclysm to gardening?!  But Jesus wants us to notice that there are signs of love’s triumph all around us now.  And they are confirmations of what is coming.

He tells us to watch for the “green leaves sprouting.”

Are you watching?  We have seen the power of love working in our families and in our church community.  People surround others with generous love that eases suffering. People work through differences with respect and caring. On the national scene, A powerful Black Lives Matter movement is standing up strong against racism.  The Poor Peoples’ Campaign is gathering momentum. .  Green leaves are sprouting!  In the “me too!” movement women’s stories of abuse are being heard and, at last, many abusers, even powerful ones, are losing their jobs if not their freedom.  Green are leaves sprouting!  We worry about people using the internet to hurt others and we should but there is a great river of compassion flowing there, too!  “Go Fund Me” efforts that respond immediately to meet needs that otherwise would fall between the cracks.  Creation justice groups coordinating their efforts to stand up for clean energy and against the fossil fuel industry.  Compassion is flowing. I read about one entrepreneur, from India, Prem Kalra, who after he made a lot of money in internet business, decided to give back.  He is mass producing a $30 laptop which combined with cheap government-subsidized internet service and open source English and Math software provides a significant new ticket out of poverty in India’s most marginal communities.[2] This kind of story is being repeated many thousands of times over. The power of love is making a way, flowing around locked-in bureaucracies and governments in ways and at a scale not possible before.

Keep watch! Just last week, 13 Federal agencies teamed up to issue a “dire warning” about the dangers of climate change.  The President doesn’t believe it yet.  But climate scientists are getting assertive. Mainline economists are warning about the enormous costs of not acting.  The global warming threat is beginning to be taken seriously in this country.  So, who knows?

When you see the tree leaves sprouting you know summer is coming.  When love makes headway, when peace rises up, it confirms what faith tells us:  a New Day is coming!”

So, watch during Advent, sisters and brothers.  And pray.  Trust in the promises of God and stand for those things that will last. Make your own stand, in your own way.  And because God is with us, you will help Christ to be born among us now. You will!  And for you, for your being here….the angels in the heavens will sing Gloria in Excelsis Deo! Glory to God in the Highest!   AMEN.

[1] Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, 2008, 171.

[2] Thomas Friedman, Thank You for Being Late, 2016, p.133-4