text: Luke 21: 25-36
Christians and Jews have never been able to help talking about the future…
And they do so for a particular reason and in a particular way… The particular reason is that the world is God’s world, history is God’s not ours, even if we have enormous space to make a mess of it, to hate, to destroy, to kill and to centre it on ourselves. Even if we do all of that, it remains God’s world. And one thing we know about the future is that God will gather the world back in again.
We talk about the future in a particular way because of our situation. … Israel a tiny country living in the cross roads of empire, between Egypt to the south and Assyria and Babylonia to the North… Their relation to what we call history is as underdogs, by and large, they were constantly invaded, dominated, dragged away into captivity and oppressed by various empires.
So if you put these two facts together, you find that the peculiarly Jewish way of thinking about the future is HOPE…
And so in the midst of a history of suffering the faith of Israel emerged, a faith that believed that God was on the side of the underdogs and that their oppression would not last forever…
And Jesus picks up on this faith and in particular he picked up on the strands that began to understand God as compassionate rather than a vengeful warrior. Jesus lived while the Jewish faith was under the iron fist of Rome… he lived in the midst of a debate as to how to respond to that situation. His response is crystalised in his death.
But part of his response was to talk of the future. Jews and Christians can’t help talking about the future. No matter how hard to imagine the future is. Hope is fundamental.
I should say that for Jewish and later for Christians their prophets had visions of how God would bring an end to this imperial evil and bring justice… They called these visions apocalypses. And it’s from these apocalypses we get terms like “the Son of Man” which really just means the Human Being or the True Human but in that context means the human who brings Gods justice to the world in the end
Jesus is an apocalyptic teacher, he has his own contribution to make and he uses the language of these visions. He talks about the future as the day of The Son of Man and of divine justice, in other words he uses all the standard terms that the people understood… but he really only has two basic points
- Hope requires a major shake up
- His followers who look forward to this future will need to be prepared.
It’s the latter of these points which becomes his focus today. In other words Jesus is not speculating in the exact nature of God’s future. He has no timeline. He is not offering fascinating details for those who might like to write books or plan their lives from the comfort of the middle classes. He is interested in pastoral care for the underdogs. The issue is simply: How do we live in hope? How do slaves in the southern states live in hope? How do gays in Nigeria live in hope?
For Jesus as for all apocalyptic tradition the future is not a gradual improvement… It represents a shake up of the world. To see history from below from the point of view of the underdog is not to hope for a continuation of the same, for a kind of progress, it is to look towards a shake up from God.
For 300 years the church followed Jesus and refused the sword, they were the underdogs, they were martyred. In the time of Constantine they took the opportunity afforded by power. Christendom began and they started to think differently about the future. They started to rule the world… they built enormous churches, like this one.
When I look at big churches like this one that are falling down… I often think of the Coldplay song “Viva la Vida” which has the words “I used to rule the world / seas would rise when I gave the word / now in the morning I sleep alone / sweep the streets I used to own…” wonderful song, you should google the rest of the lyrics… once in power, now underdogs
I was listening to the radio the other day and a guy was reporting on research he had done into people’s lives… Most of the details I have forgotten, but he commented that people in their twenties invest themselves in their relationships, people in their 30 s tend to invest themselves in their families. People in their 40s and 50s invest themselves in their jobs and their career, and then he got to people in their 60s and 70s (any guess what he said they invest their lives in?) I was expecting “the past”, but instead he said they invest themselves in the future… The future that they can pass on to the younger generation, so to that end they often start looking back, they join genealogical societies and write autobiographies etc, not because they become interested in the past primarily but because of their concern for the future. They want to pass on their past to future generations.
It struck me however that this is a particular kind of future that we are talking about here. In Latin there are two words for future. There is the future which flows from the past in a kind of continuum or a progressive outworking of the past. The word is futurum. But there is this other word adventus, from which we get Advent – this is the future that Jesus talks about, the future that interrupts the world from outside, from God (adventus).
So in the light of adventus, what does Jesus say to his endangered followers… 4 simple practical things
- 1. Expect Suffering! Expect Persecution!
Jesus is clear. His followers will be persecuted. They will be put in prison. He saw it as inevitable for himself. He saw it as inevitable for his followers. The famous British political commentator, Terry Eagleton, puts it even more bluntly (if you’ll excuse his language)
“The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do they’ll kill you.”
Don’t be surprised if you are in trouble or the church is in trouble. It’s part of the central doctrine of our faith to expect it
- 2. Don’t panic! Stay alert!
Brain scientists tell us that in a crisis the amygdala (the early warning system of the brain) triggers a process which bypasses the rational part of the brain (cerebral cortex) floods the brain with a cascade of stress chemicals like adrenalin, we go into hyperarousal, heart rates increases, our sense of time changes, we operate out of the limbic system with its automatic fight or flight response. We all know the experience of panicking.
Jesus knows that his followers are in danger of losing their heads, losing their focus, simply reacting, responding in kind, having no creativity in our response to our world that is falling to pieces. So he tells his followers, hold on to your hats… these things are not the end. Don’t confuse the final justice of God with the chaos of the old order collapsing.
- 3. Don’t escape into depression!
v34 “Be on your 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”.
I wonder if you sometimes feel depressed about the state of the world? … or about the state of the church? Does the church drive you to drink? Do you feel powerless to respond in any way, so simply try and drive it out of your mind… and it weighs you down?
- 4. Pray!
Jesus has a very simple response really: Pray! Prayer is therapy for a persecuted underdog community in a stressful situation. Prayer turns our attention from the chaos to the coming kingdom of God. Bring us before the God who will bring justice and peace. Prayer is the alternative to panic and escaping into depression. Prayer frees our cerebral cortex to find creative, Christ-like responses, to keep our heads when all around are losing theirs.
Basically Jesus is saying that it will be very easy to be distracted by what appears significant and terrible, the news of the day and so on. Be alert, see these things, but don’t be shaped and driven by them. Pray! So that you will keep the advent of God in your sights.