“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.”
Okay, we get this. Maybe this Advent we get it a little too clearly. Signs in the Sun, moon, stars,… and on the earth distress among the nations. We got it. The world is in a world of hurt, domestically and internationally.
And if we don’t get the first part of the picture of a world in distress, we surely get the next part. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”
That is the line that really jumps out at me this year because I’m watching it happen.
I’m watching it happen in my Facebook and twitter feeds.
I’m watching people talk about being fearful, and fainting into silence in my conversations with friends and family members. As we reflect together and talk, people simply trail off speechless at the events unfolding.
I’m watching fear and fainting play itself out in the news media, on the campaign trail, and at every large gathering of people in what used to be joyous events. There were armored vehicles and police in body armor on the sidelines of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, which of course was a really festive addition!
“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” Yes, we get this. We live it!
But we miss an important distinction if we think that the Gospel writer is just warning us about the “end of the world” in calamity and peril at the hands of others.
It is not the signs in the heavens that we should be concerned about.
It’s not the “usual” distress amongst the nations that should cause our concern. Wars and battles over kingdoms are par for the course in this world, and no one knew that better than little Israel who had been the stomping ground for every other major player in world history for the past 700 years.
No, the Gospel writer is talking about people fainting in fear and foreboding not because this world is out of control from forces at play within it, but rather because the fundamental powers of this world that are about to be shaken because something new is about to be exerted. A new order is about to be ushered in, that of the promised Kingdom of God.
“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”
This is what should cause fear and fainting, the return of Christ in glory.
God is about to stride in and do the work of redeeming this world, and when that happens, the old forces at play should begin to shake and quake because they know they cannot survive. “Business as usual” for this world is about to end.
Powers and kings and princes who have built their kingdoms with blood and extortion and playing upon the fears of humankind are about to be shown the door.
Those who have been a part of playing to fears and preying upon the weak and the fearful should be shaking in their boots, because when the Son of Man comes he will have scores to settle with those who trafficked in or succumbed to the use of fear and intimidation to meet their goals.
So this is part one of this Gospel for Advent and what it has to say to us. When God sets about the work of redemption, there will be plenty to be afraid of if you’ve been wrapped up in using the tools of this world to make your way through it. Bullying and imposition of will, even in the course of noble causes, is not the way the Kingdom works.
But there is in this Gospel some really good news that I don’t want you to miss; because it has power to transform your life right now.
“Now when these things begin to take place (Jesus says), stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Do you catch that shift?
If you’ve been complicit with the “business as usual” of this world, you’ve got plenty to be afraid of when Jesus comes in Glory. You ought to be afraid to the point of fainting!
But, if you have been among those who have rejected the world’s mode of operation, then all this apocalyptic stuff becomes incredibly good news! You can stand up, raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near! Things are about to change in ways that you have been looking for, hoping for, longing for!
This, oh people of God is the part of the Gospel that we so easily miss because the allure of this world is so powerful!
We are ever tempted to believe that in order to make a difference in this world, we must adopt the methods of it.
We end up trying to use power and influence for what we think is the “greater good.”
We are told by this world that we should be afraid of the stranger, the sojourner, the foreigner, and so we are! We join right in with the “business as usual” of this world. We are told that it will keep us safe.
But then we wonder why the promised Kingdom seems further and further out of reach the more we try to protect ourselves.
We reason that we should keep ourselves safe, or keep our community free of threats, or at very least minimize the threats that are legitimate out there for the sake of order and common good. We can afford to be more trusting when Jesus comes back, not now.
Then we wonder why it is that Jesus’ return seems farther and farther away.
We forget the command of God found throughout the scriptures of how you are to welcome and care for the stranger, the sojourner, and the foreigner in your midst.
We are told by this world that we should be afraid of the other, that you cannot trust them, that you cannot know for sure if you will be safe, if they will be peaceful, … whoever the “they” might be that we happen to put in there.
We forget how much scary stuff Jesus pushed his disciples into doing.
We forget how he sent them out as refugees themselves, moving from town to town to proclaim the good news, with nothing to call their own.
We forget how Jesus took his disciples to Jerusalem, to the regions of Tyre and Sidon, across the sea to Genessaret into Gentile territory. We forget how the Apostles were sent to Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the world.
We forget how many times the apostle Paul was stoned, jailed, run out of town.
We forget the heritage we have of being the ones who will go for the sake of the Gospel to the ends of the earth, to tell others about a God who does not work as this world works.
We succumb to the temptation to be of this world, and hunker down and keep our eyes on the things of this world telling ourselves that when Jesus comes, then we can live up to the call to be disciple. Then we can love our neighbor, or our enemy, when it’s safer, easier. Then we can afford to let our fears go, when Jesus makes things “safe” for us.
But Advent reminds us that it was not a safe world that Jesus entered, and a safe world was not his interest.
No, Jesus was interested in a transformed world.
Jesus was interested in bringing in a Kingdom where the old powers that terrorize would be put to rest at last and the new life free of fear would emerge. The Kingdom is offered here and now to those who are willing to risk living into it and bringing it in.
It is not safe, it is daring!
The Kingdom is not about seeking your own safety, for that will only weigh you down and bring about all kinds of worries in this life. Seeking your own safety ends up being like a form of drunkenness, it dulls you to the needs of others, and makes your heart heavy. Can you not feel it?
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down… “ Jesus warns. He warns, but then offers a promise. As sure as life returns to the trees, you can see the Kingdom coming. When the trees green up, you know that summer is near.
When people begin to act in ways that threaten the powers of this world, the Kingdom comes near. The sign of its coming will be hope in the midst of this very threat filled world. The sign that it is near will be looking to Jesus in the midst of the fear that seeks to have you succumb to it, and choosing another way.
Now, (when the world is screaming “cower in fear!”) is the hour for those who long for the Kingdom to look up.
Now, when the world says “live in fear of the other and protect yourself,” is the hour for you to do what Jesus showed you how to do. Love your enemy and pray for your persecutor.
Now is the time to open your heart to the enemy, to the one the world would have you live in fear, and in so embracing that “other” begin to bring the Kingdom you seek a little closer.
Now is the hour, when fear and foreboding seems everywhere, to instead show that you will trust and have faith, faith in a promised Kingdom, and the Lord who promised that he would bring it about through your actions of following where he has led the way.
I don’t know about you, but I am tired of living in fear.
I am tired of playing the games of this world, in life, in the church, thinking that by exerting my influence or protecting my own interests the world will get better.
It will not.
Only the Kingdom of God has the power to transform this sin-sick world. To be a part of that transforming work I will need to stop ducking and covering and instead begin to stand up for others, and to lift up my head in love and trust.
Trust in God.
Trust in my neighbor.
Trust that by caring for others, they will in turn care for me.
And if they do not? What if those whom I meet in this world disappoint and plunge after the ways of this world? Well, then I will die with the Kingdom’s promise on my heart, but I will die with head lifted high and my stand for the Gospel taken.
This is Advent. Christ is coming, and I will cower in fear and fainting no more.