controlling the message

Luke 21:25-36

“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. 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.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Sermon

Good morning. Happy New Year! What? Don’t you know that this is the beginning of the church year? This is when the new liturgical calendar starts. I know some of you know this, but maybe you’re still in a state of shock from that gospel lesson. I sure have a knack for finding the happy readings, don’t I?

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.

Happy New Year, indeed! What a fun way to start the Christmas season! Except, it’s NOT the Christmas season! This is Advent! It is the season of watching and waiting. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable, like our gospel lesson. But we don’t want that. We want comfort. We want joy. We want a neat, orderly experience. We want something we can predict, like the annual appearance of a baby in a manger.

As I say this, I’m reminded of a scene in the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Now, for those of you who have no clue what I’m talking about, Talladega Nights is a spoof about auto racing. It stars the comedian Will Ferrell as Ricky Bobby, the greatest driver in stock car racing. I have to stress that this is a really dumb movie—it’s not for everyone—and if you’ve seen Talladega Nights, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this.

There’s a scene in which Ricky Bobby and his family are gathered around the dining room table. Every bit of food and drink is provided by Ricky Bobby’s sponsors: Kentucky Fried Chicken, Domino’s Pizza, Taco Bell, Wonder Bread, Mountain Dew, etc. Before eating, Ricky Bobby blesses the meal by saying, “Dear Lord, Baby Jesus.” I probably don’t need to tell you that Ricky Bobby isn’t very bright—or theologically astute. In fact, in the middle of this blessing, Ricky Bobby’s wife suggests that Jesus did grow up and that Ricky Bobby can offer prayers to that Jesus, too. Ricky Bobby replies, “I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m saying grace.” When his father-in-law insists that Jesus grew up and it’s more appropriate to pray to the grownup Jesus, Ricky Bobby puts the argument to rest by saying: “Look, I like the baby version the best. Do you hear me? I win the races and I get the money!”

Of course, none of them seem to understand that we pray to the risen Christ, but it’s a comedy, and the characters are the butt of the jokes: they’re dumb and they lack self-awareness. We all understand that Ricky Bobby is a self-absorbed idiot. That’s why it’s funny. And maybe there’s a little bit of Ricky Bobby in us.

I find that scene interesting—and theologically relevant—because Ricky Bobby chose to pray to a very specific version of Jesus, the baby in the manger. This is the version of Jesus that Ricky Bobby liked best. Too often, I think, we try to control Jesus and the message, we ignore what is uncomfortable. We want the baby in the blanket, not the labor pains, nor the wet, screaming infant. We want the Norman Rockwell picture of a happy Thanksgiving feast, not the arguments over the menu or politics.

We don’t want the Jesus who calls us to self-sacrifice. We don’t want the Jesus who tells us to welcome the stranger, the foreigner, or the refugee. We don’t want the Jesus who tells us to sell everything we own and follow him. Yes, we want a different world, where people live better lives, but we want to hold on to the things that are comfortable and familiar to us, too. We want the familiar story of the couple who can’t find a room at the inn, so they take refuge in a stable.

Our reading from the Gospel of Luke isn’t a comfortable story. We want to hear the happy story, but Jesus reminds us that we are NOT in control. This is why there will be fear and fainting and foreboding. For us, too, there is no room at the inn. And certainly, it is tempting to look at all of the troubles in the world as evidence that Jesus’ words are about to be fulfilled. But here’s the thing: if this piece of Scripture is true now, then it’s always been true and it will always be true. Jesus says: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Jesus’ words are eternal—all of them. They apply when times are good and when times are difficult. The kingdom of God is always near.

Perhaps we want to believe that we’re immune to the fear and foreboding, that our faith makes us exempt from this reality. Folks, this is not the case; each one of us will experience the birth pangs of what is coming upon the world—just as every generation before us has experienced this. As Jesus says, “it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.”

That may be the best bit of news in this uncomfortable story: our pain and discomfort is not unique to us. Luke wrote this gospel for an early Christian community, perhaps 40 or 50 years after Jesus was crucified. At that point, Judaism and Christianity were barely distinguishable as different religions.

In the year 66, not long before Luke wrote this gospel, there was a revolt against Roman rule. The revolt began among a Jewish faction known as the Zealots. Within a year, the Zealots and some other factions had defeated most of the Roman troops that were garrisoned in Judea. Eventually, several legions were sent from across the Roman Empire. Over the next several years, the revolt was crushed. In the year 70, the Temple at Jerusalem was destroyed. The last of the rebels perished in 73 or 74. Tens of thousands of Jews were killed.

Luke wrote this gospel for a Christian community that was acutely aware of the results of that revolt. It was in the living memory of that community. It must have haunted them and captured their imagination. I would guess it was like the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the Kennedy assassination, or the attacks on 9/11. At those moments, the world seemed like it was about to come to an end.

Now think, again, what it must have been like in that fledgling Christian community, waiting for the day of the Lord.[1] Patience must have been in short supply. In verse 32 Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” Yet it doesn’t seem that Christ returned in that generation; neither had he returned by the time that Luke wrote this gospel. So, Luke reminds this “fledgling community” to be patient and endure, even when things look hopeless.[2]

Jesus’ instructions are to watch and wait, and look for the signs of his return. Again, this has to be true for everyone and for all times. Yet we are not to approach this with fear or hide from our problems. Jesus says: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” Do not hide from this; do not let your fears rule your lives!

Yes, we must be patient as we watch and wait, but we can’t build bunkers! If we’re too busy building those bunkers or huddling together in fear, we might miss the kingdom of God! The kingdom of God is the world as it should be; the world as God would have it and have us.

A few years ago, in response to a public tragedy, Anne Lamott wrote: “we are basically powerless, but we are not helpless.”[3] I think that also applies to the kingdom of God. We are powerless to bring it about or to slow its coming. But we are not helpless. And if we are not helpless, then we should not be hopeless.

So be hopeful in this time of uncertainty! Live into the hope and the love of Christ! Do the work of the Christ! Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Feed those who are hungry, give water to those who are thirsty, clothe those who are naked, visit the prisoners, and welcome the stranger, the foreigner, the refugee. You don’t have to do all of these things at once, but pick one, and then do it. Remember: we are baptized into the life, the work, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen!

Benediction

Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that God never turns away from us. Remember that in these uncertain times, we are called to watch and wait. Remember, too, that we are baptized into the life, the work, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Karl Jacobson, “Commentary on Luke 21:25-36,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1497


[2] Karl Jacobson.


[3] Anne Lamott, from a Facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/AnneLamott/posts/756415041154808


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First Presbyterian Church of Freehold

732-462-0234

fpcsecretary2@gmail.com

118 West Main Street

Freehold, NJ 07728

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