Now when these things begin to take place, stand up, raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. (Luke 21:28)
Our space agency, NASA, is at pains to reassure us – if we happen to consult with them – that the world will not end in three years’ time, as several strains of popular thinking assert. NASA has produced lengthy articles and fact sheets to refute the various theories that set the date for cataclysm on the earth to December 21, 2012, when a particularly long page of an ancient Mayan calendar will be turned. The Internet has provided a warm incubator for the kinds of minds that learn a little about an ancient culture’s time-keeping, pair it with ill-informed astronomy, and conjure up visions of the end of the world.
NASA doesn’t come right out and say that anyone who believes these predictions is a fool, or that those who make them are kooks. But that is clearly the underlying message the agency is out to convey.
Many things will happen in 2012. There will be a total solar eclipse, visible from Australia. The summer Olympics will be held in London. Portugal will switch to digital television broadcasting in High Definition. Queen Elizabeth II will celebrate her Diamond Jubilee. But no planet or asteroid will collide with the earth. Nor will the earth begin to rotate on a different axis than it currently does. A black hole is not likely to devour our solar system that year, or ever, so far as we can predict.
But, as if Jesus doesn’t already strike much of the world as something of a kook, today, on the Sunday we begin the new church year, we hear him making the kinds of predictions that would cause NASA to classify him as such. Perhaps we would too: There will be signs in the sun and the moon and the stars, he says. There will be distress among the nations, who will be confused by the roaring of the waves of the sea. The powers of heaven will be shaken. And the Son of Man will be coming on a cloud.
Is this helpful? So often, Jesus has good things to say: the Beatitudes, those are nice; and the Summary of the Law, that you should love God and your neighbor; the parable of the Good Samaritan was a good one. And today it feels like he ruins all that good stuff with this kookiness about signs and the stars, and the Son of man coming on a cloud, which I would venture to say hardly a single person in this church this morning believes.
So why does Jesus say it? And why do we keep reading it, if it is just a bunch of kookiness that NASA would refute if only it wouldn’t cause trouble with the religious right?
I think we read it because of this: Now, when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. And because Jesus has more wisdom than we often give him credit for.
Kooky predictions aside, our world and our individual lives are full of calamity, horror and pain. We may or may not faint from it, but there is plenty of fear and foreboding available to us all, and some of us are more susceptible to it than others.
Jesus knows that in life, pain and calamity and horror are coming – thus has it always been. Pain and calamity and horror are part of his life, too. He knows. He knows not only about the widows and the orphans, but also the refugees, and those who languish in prisons. He knows about everyone who is losing a house to foreclosure; everyone who is out of work and looking for a job; and everyone who is being buried alive by their own personal debt. He knows about the child soldiers in Africa, and child prostitutes on too many continents. He knows about the soldier returning from Afghanistan with a missing limb; the veteran struggling with PTSD, and the parent who has nothing left of her child but the flag that draped his casket. Jesus hears every difficult conversation when the results of the biopsy are finally in; he knows the face of every child who has been beaten or abused, and he must surely know the name of every child molested by a priest. He knows of broken marriages, and those that hang on by the barest of threads. He knows the slow-motion grief of Alzheimer’s, and the split-second horror of gunfire in a school or on the streets. He knows the families in New Orleans who are still trying to rebuild their homes and their city. He alone knows the complex isolation of an autistic child; the lopsided survival after a stroke; and the secret suffering that leads to suicide.
What need have we of cosmic calamity? There is already enough calamity, pain, and horror in the world to go around! And what need have we of signs? Another war – what more could it possibly tell us? For what could we then be prepared that our current wars have ill-prepared us for?
But Jesus’ message is not a message of warning that calamity is about to befall us. He knows that we have calamity enough. And most likely, every one of Jesus’ predictions about wars and disasters could be shown to have come true already and will come true again. Jesus’ predictions are not really predictions about things that may or may not happen in the world; his prediction is about us and what we are destined for, in a world that cannot escape calamity. Jesus’ message is this: stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
Your redemption. Had you been counted as worthless by the world, or those you thought you needed, or by your own self? Had you been left for dead, or at best for dying? Had you been written off, or written your own self off? Did you look out and see only darkness in your life or in the world? Has hope become little more than a Hallmark slogan? Love reduced to the sales-pitch of Subaru? Is your head bowed down, and can you only see the dirt at your feet? Be on guard! For the kingdom of God is at hand!
Yes, we have been sick, foolish, beaten, ruined, lost, given up, left for dead. Yes, the signs of bleakness are about, as they have been all these centuries. Yes, calamity is very likely on the horizon, one way or another, pain is inevitable, and horror is reported in the news every day. But even here, even now, the kingdom of God is at hand!
Stand up! Raise your heads! Your redemption is drawing near!
We live in a world that seems unable to look forward to anything other than its next paycheck, to aspire to nothing more than the Wall Street year-end bonus, a McMansion, or winning the lottery.
Have we given up hoping that there might be something stronger than the dollar? Have we forgotten that we might be redeemed?! Have we forgotten that we might be delivered from all that fills us with fear and foreboding? Have we forgotten that there might be a new kingdom established right here in the midst of this subtle reign of often low-grade calamity, pain, and horror?
These days the church is often thought of as either a refuge for kooks or a place where you can find hours of uninterrupted silence in an empty, old building, because nothing else much is happening there. But as the church begins a new year, we are reminded that there is more to being the people who follow Jesus than providing a quiet, dark, empty space. There is this message to a downcast world; a world bowed down with the weight of so much calamity, pain and horror. There is this word spoken to those who have been beaten, cheated, denied their dignity, given up hope, left for dead – which means it is a word for anyone at all: Now that these things have begun taking place, stand up! Raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near!
The Son of Man is coming. And if he is not yet riding a cloud with power and great glory, then he is at least coming to us again in a manger: a child, susceptible to every horror and pain and calamity the world can dish out…
…which makes him a perfect Savior for a world that has largely lost interest in being saved.
And we believe this is true because we have felt or seen or known – if only once or twice – the transformation of God’s love that comes from allowing his Son to ride into our hearts. We have known the grace of forgiveness; the strength of holy food given for holy people; the solace at the grave; the hope at the font. We have seen that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not, cannot, will not overcome it. We have known what it is like to live life with our eyes cast down, with the dirt and the grime and the grave our only prospect; the dump our only horizon. And then we heard his call: Stand up! Raise your heads! Your redemption is drawing near!
…and we looked up, and he was there, his arms outstretched like an infant’s or a king’s, and he welcomed us, and redeemed us, and everything was made new!
I do not believe for one moment that disaster awaits us in 2012. But I do believe that Jesus’ warnings of calamity and horror and pain await us almost every day, and somewhere they are fulfilled every day.
And I believe that there is only one hope for deliverance from living our lives imprisoned by such predictions that are bound to come true one way or another.
I believe it because I know, I think, what it is like to live bowed down by fear, anxiety, and sin. But in the church I have heard the voice of the Son of Man, who calls out at our lowest moments, when the world and all its ills seems certain to prevail:
Stand up! Raise your heads! Your redemption is drawing near!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
29 November 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia