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Witness to Hope

A sermon on Luke 21:25-38

[An audio version of this sermon can be accessed here]

A few hours from now, many of us will be back in this sanctuary for another service, a service installing me as the regularly called pastor of this congregation. Which is wonderful, and dream-fulfilling… and also a little weird, right? Because, I’ve been serving as the pastoral leader in this community for more than 2 years. The service feels a little bit like a “beginning” that starts in the middle of the story.

Which makes it highly appropriate for a service on the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the beginning of the church year… it is the season where the cycle starts over again, the telling of the great story that shapes our faith and our lives together as Christ’s church. But the gospel reading assigned for this Sunday comes from the middle of the story, from the 21st chapter of the gospel of Luke.

And it’s a chapter that is definitely describing the middle of the story…. The very messy middle. With disturbing and disruptive imagery about everything being shaken! And about what we are to do in the middle of the mess.

Advent – the beginning of the church year - starts in the middle, because the story of the church is about living in the middle. Living in the meantime between Christ’s first coming and his coming back. And it’s about calling the church to active waiting. To looking at the realities of a world that needs Jesus to come back and recognizing that even though we can’t fix all the problems, we have some work to do.

So, as we anticipate celebrating the ministry of this congregation this afternoon, I believe this gospel has some important lessons about the reality in which that ministry is operating, and what our task is.

The first lesson is about the messiness.

Or maybe it’s not so much a lesson as just an acknowledgement. In our Advent reality of waiting for the realization of God’s will on earth, things can be a bit of a mess. In our gospel reading Jesus warns of distress, confusion, fear, and foreboding. He describes roaring seas and the shaking of the powers of the heavens.

It’s frightening language, but it doesn’t really sound all that far from what is happening in our world.

Just in the past month we have seen the chaos and fear of mass shootings and race-based killings, devastating fires and mudslides, children starving in war-torn Yemen, and a new government climate report that paints a bleak picture for the future of our environment and our economy.

Just this past week brought damaging and terrifying earthquakes in Anchorage Alaska, a house literally exploding in Warren County, and tear gas in the lungs of refugee men, women, and children on our border.

And it’s not just out there. People in this congregation are facing mess in their lives as well. Folks in this room may be facing unemployment, or frightening health conditions, or difficult relationships, or the pain of loved ones battling addiction, or all kinds of different fears for the present and the future.

In other words, Jesus is describing a reality we recognize. The world is messy and broken. We don’t have to wait for the end times to see people “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” People are scared and overwhelmed now… this is the reality in which the church waits.

So… what does this gospel teach us about what we are to do in the midst of the mess and the waiting?

Well, the first thing we have to do is to face the truth about the mess; to “stand up and raise your heads” (Luke 21:28); to keep our eyes open and alert. This reading, like our reading from John’s gospel two weeks ago, is an example of apocalyptic writing. And, as we learned two weeks ago, apocalyptic doesn’t means doomsday… it means “uncovering.” It means pulling back the veil of polite conversation, or comforting illusions, and admitting that real life doesn’t look like Hallmark Christmas movies.

But – and this is important - apocalypse tells the truth WITHOUT fear-mongering. Jesus is telling his disciples to be looking for signs of distress precisely so that they will NOT be afraid.

“People will faint from fear…” (Luke 21:26)… but not you.

YOU must “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28);

You know that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:31);

You “be on guard so that your hearts are not weighted down…” (Luke 21:34).

Jesus teaches us in this gospel the importance of facing the truth without fear.

Because there will be plenty of people telling us to be afraid. This week I finished listening to the book Rising Out of Hatred, about the ideological transformation of Derrick Black away from his heritage as the heir apparent of the white nationalist movement. The book tells the story of Black’s personal awakening, but it also pulls back the veil on the strategies used by the white nationalist movement in the last decade. It unpacks the way that the leaders of the movement have intentionally sanitized their language to gain broader appeal but have maintained the core strategy of leveraging fear to promote social division.

It is a strategy that has been disturbingly effective because fear, even when backed-up by lies, is such a powerful tool. When people are controlled by fear they focus on self-protection and they are willing for others to be hurt or dehumanized as long as they themselves stay safe.

But in the midst of all the frightening language of this gospel, Jesus is calling us away from fear. Notice the analogy he uses for the signs we should look for that the apocalyptic moment is near: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves that summer is already near” (Luke 21:29).

Summer – not winter – is coming. Jesus is not calling us to be on guard against an external threat. Rather, he is calling us to be on guard against our own behaviors and patterns that can blind us to the good of God’s kingdom.

Which brings us to the final lesson of this gospel for the church in Advent – in the messy middle time of active waiting: it’s a lesson of HOPE.

“Your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). Jesus is telling his disciples to be alert for the kingdom of God. And just as all the images of fear describe the messy middle (and not just some distant end-times), so too the coming of the kingdom happens in the meantime (and not just with the second coming of Jesus).

The kingdom of God is already present in God’s church when we stand up and raise our heads; when we turn our backs on fear, and on the distractions of worries or self-gratifying dissipations; when we look for the signs of what God is doing in the world so that we can join in.

That’s why, in our second reading, the apostle Paul thanks God for the people of the church and prays that “the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thess. 3:12). Paul was writing to a church that understood: we don’t have to wait to be part of the kingdom work. We are waiting for the final fulfillment, but the knowledge of what is coming is meant to give us the hope we need to be active now.

Active in Love.

There are limitless specific actions that love can take. We do a lot of them here. Feeding the hungry, supporting victims of disaster, giving each other rides to the doctor, comforting the grieving, reaching out to interfaith neighbors, the list goes on.

During the season of Advent we are going to be focusing on one more act of love in the face of a world held in fear, an act that is maybe a little less comfortable for this community: witness.

As we explored last Sunday when we read through the entire gospel of Luke, a central theme of this gospel, which shapes its whole narrative structure, is the call for the church to mirror Christ’s journey. To take the story out into the world – the story that God’s kingdom has come near… and that this is good news!

I am very aware that saying the words “witness” and “Lutheran” in the same breath sounds like an oxymoron. “We aren’t that kind of pushy Christians!”

But I don’t think the gospel is calling us to be pushy. I think it’s calling us to tell our story. To explain why we can hold up our heads in the face of disasters and fear and hold on to hope. Because summer is coming. Our redemption is drawing near. We have this hope.

And so, at the end of service today, you will each get a little blue Advent journal that has four reflection questions in it – questions to help you start thinking about your story, about ways that God has showed up in your life and brought you hope.

I ask you each to take this journal and to use it. Think about the story that you can bear witness to, because it’s your story. I have faith that every person in this room has a story. God has already come near to you. That’s why you are here.

And in the midst of the messy middle, we can bring hope to this world by telling our stories. Thanks be to God.

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