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Luke 21


It’s an odd thing to begin a story at its climax.

It’s not the end of the world.

But it’s an odd thing.

Every writer worth their salt knows that any narrative that worth paying attention to doesn’t give things away from the beginning without a good reason. It’s like delivering the punchline without the setup. The answer without any sense of the question. Why wouldn’t you point out the problem before announcing its resolution, or that a solution was needed at all?

And yet for some reason, the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary seem to have done just that. We begin advent in Luke, Chapter 21 of 24. We’re 7/8 of the way through the story before we’ve even gotten started.

What is this, the Time Traveller’s Wife?

Today we mark the first week of Advent, the beginning of the church’s year. And last week, as we gathered here at St. George & St. Mark’s for the second last time – we did so as you might for any good New Years’ Eve Party – with a glut of food, wine, and conversation.

Like any good party, there was a chance to catch up with folks we’ve known for a long time, those we haven’t seen in awhile, and to meet a few new folks too. We told stories of what’s brought us together, what keeps us going, and what we’re hungry for.

Maybe this is how we do New Years Resolutions at St. Brigids. Maybe we’ll even stick to some of them. With God’s help, we will.

It’s an odd thing to begin a story at its climax, and yet it would seem that the compilers of the lectionary have done this for some reason – even if that reason is to confuse the hell out of us. I thought this was the season of the Little Drummer Boy, and Tinsel, and Red Cups. And yet today we find ourselves eavesdropping on Jesus as he puts the crowning touches on his version of the Kingdom story.[1]

To modern ears, the images are almost too stark to bear:

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.

It’s hard to hear these words and not turn our mind to the world we live in. Warplanes being shot out of the sky, tensions escalating in the Middle East and around the world. Sea levels continue to rise and coastal communities are daily being displaced. Other areas of the world are experiencing unprecedented drought, forcing lifelong farmers into already crowded cities where tensions rise higher and higher and higher.

“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” Luke reminds us, “for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

In the midst of it all, fear. Fear amplified by technology, and politics sold as spectacle pitting ideology against ideology as we await the announcement of our next scapegoat or sacrificial lamb. Just as the ALLCAPS screaming match heats up, fear boils over, rises to hatred, and translates to real world violence.

And whether it’s the craziness in Colorado, the skies over Turkey, or on the streets of our very own city, I’ve got to admit that I feel a bit shaken. There are days – and there were days in the midst of this week that I felt completely overwhelmed by the state of the world.

Where on earth is the hope? Have the powers of the heavens indeed been shaken? Where is God in the midst of all of this?

And though it’s not obvious at first, that’s exactly what Luke is trying to tell us.

There’s a battle going on, the author of this gospel is trying to tell us. A battle for your heart and soul, mind and strength. You would be right to fear. But the exploitative powers of this world, the principalities and powers that govern and dominate and scapegoat – they’re shaken too.

It may be right to fear. But fear, Luke seems to be saying, does not have the final word. You may be frightened. But there is hope even in the shadows.

And this hope is to be found in one person and one kingdom alone: Jesus, and the upside down kingdom where the last will be made first, and those who deludedly think they are on top will be made low.

When Luke tells us about the signs in the heavens, he’s telling us what we know to be true: “things are really messed up right now,” he’s saying. And the events he’s pointing to – the Roman Occupation, the ever-increasing conflicts, and the predicted destruction of the Jerusalem temple – are cosmic, earth-shattering events to which Jesus points. And when they all take place, as Jesus predicted, they will vindicate him, and the prophetic, messianic message he brings.

As I was reading the words of renowned biblical scholar NT Wright this week, I was reminded that the dark, ominous words that begin our gospel reading tonight are not about an end to the space time universe.

Rather, this is “regular Jewish imagery for events that bring the story of Israel to its appointed climax.” This isn’t how we usually talk around here, but it’s the kind of language that would have been well known in that time and place. Wright goes on to say:

“The days of Jerusalem’s destruction would be looked upon as days of cosmic catastrophe. The known world would go into convulsions: power struggles and coups d’etat would be the order of the day; the pax Romana , the presupposition of ‘civilized’ life throughout the then Mediterranean world, would collapse into chaos. In the midst of that chaos Jerusalem would fall.” [2]

So what’s up with the Lectionary Dudes plopping us into the middle of this crazy scene at the end of Luke’s Gospel? I don’t really know, but what I do know is this:

That the kind of hope that Jesus brought and embodied, the kind of hope-filled message he proclaimed was lived in a world of great struggle and strife. It’s the kind of world that Joni Mitchell contours in her song “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,”

Hoping and hoping
As if by my weak faith
The spirit of this world
Would heal and rise
Vast are the shadows
That straddle and strafe
And struggle in the darkness
Troubling my eyes

Our hope filled expectation is not dictated by the powers of the world that would have us settle for less. Our hope-filled expectation is not limited by the stuff and the experiences we’re being sold each and every day, especially in these dark days we’re being asked to help global corporations edge back into the black.

Our hope is in the one who is yet to be born. And our faith, as weak and meagre as it might be, is

The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. (Hebrews 11:1-3)

For what it’s worth, it’s the title of Mitchell’s song that speaks to me more than the lyrics that have been rolling through my head these days.

I think they speak to the place I find myself in. In the midst of global strife and catastrophe, in the midst of my inability to move or to act on my own, I am grateful to be part of a community that finds itself at times striding, at times slouching toward Bethlehem.

This is a community where we too, in our words, and in our actions can bear witness to the one who reveals the world for what it is, and who shines a light on us, revealing us for who we are – beloved, if betimes broken children of God.


[1] NT Wright Jesus and the Victory of God 364

[2] NT Wright Jesus and the Victory of God 362