Today marks the beginning of a new year on the church calendar.
We start with Advent. And each year we shift our focus to a new gospel. Advent 2016 began Matthew’s turn. 2017 took us to Mark. Today, we move to Luke. If you are wondering when John gets to speak,
his voice is interspersed in each of the three years.
But we do not begin at the beginning of Luke’s account.
We begin almost at the end. As today’s text opens, Judas is just about to betray his Lord. Before that betrayal takes place, Jesus draws on a collage of Old Testament images to describe a time of cosmic unrest and upheaval that is yet to come. Listen for God’s word to you this day.
“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. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on 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, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Tuesday a-week-ago, we in the church office were in the midday lull between the end of staff meetings and the beginning of assistance appointments, when texts began to arrive on our phones. The first text I received was from Nancy, who was out-of-town, but had gotten word of a potential shooter at Carrboro Elementary and Carrboro United Methodist Church. It turned out to be a false alarm, but not before considerable anxiety was raised in lots of hearts, especially among those who have or care for children.
In the wake of that alarm, a mother whose first child was born in 2001 told me that her children have grown up with a constant state of vigilance about such threats. She noted that before they choose a seat in a classroom they locate the possible exits; they run scenarios in their heads; they silently prepare.
In such an environment, something in me resists reading today’s text from Luke. I’d rather preach a word of comfort. I want the baby in the cradle. I want to soothe the worried mind. Instead, Luke offers a vision of cosmic distress and confusion: an unsettled sea, shaking in the heavens, people fainting from fear.
I could have chosen another text, of course, but it is a slippery slope to start editing out texts that make us uncomfortable. As Justo Gonzalez says, “Were we to take the…Gospel of Luke…and tear out every page that speaks of the promise of the kingdom or of the day of the return of the absent Master, very little would be left!”
And, as much as I would like to stick my head in the sand, we do live in a world in which the seas and skies are troubled, by warming temperatures and depleting ozone, by mountains of waste and suspended ash. So I considered drawing the dotted lines between this text and our newsfeeds—but the more I thought about it, the less that direction seemed to suit Luke’s design.
Most scholars believe that by the time Luke wrote, Jerusalem had been destroyed. The temple was gone. So when Luke reminds his listeners that Jesus prophesied that destruction, his audience remembers that Jesus’ word is trustworthy. When Luke then goes on to describe a troubled creation awaiting Christ’s promised return, Luke wants them to trust that word, too. But he seems uninterested in predicting timetables. He’s more focused on how that promise might affect us.
Luke’s Jesus says that we have a choice. We can join the people who faint from fear and foreboding. We can let our lives become circumscribed by worry, or anesthetized by addiction, or we can stand up and raise our heads. In the words of David Lose: “The antidote to uncertainty, it turns out, isn’t certainty, but courage.”
Have you found that to be true? When you look at your own life, do you see evidence of increasing courage? —of a growing capacity to confront what must be faced and named? —to take a risk for the sake of others? —to work for goals that won’t be achieved in your lifetime? It seems to me that increasing courage is a sure sign that God is liberating a person from the inside out. If you watch for it, you’ll find examples everywhere.
I don’t spend a lot of time browsing the internet, but over the last couple of years I have become a regular visitor to the site Humans of New York. Many of you know the story of Brandon Stanton, a bond trader who lost his job in 2010. In the wake of that loss, he began to photograph strangers in New York and, eventually, to share their stories.
Though still based in the city, he now travels the globe. More than 20 million viewers, worldwide, see his postings. He offers glimpses into lives that, otherwise, we would not see. One of this week’s stories was accompanied by a photograph that depicted only the hands of the subject, in order to preserve the man’s anonymity.
His is a difficult story to hear, and it begins abruptly:
“There was a permanent dark cloud in the house. It was abuse in every way. Mental. Physical. Sexual. It was permanent fear. Whenever my father was home, I just locked myself in my room and tried to be as quiet as possible. My mother and I finally escaped when I was six, but the abuse stayed with me. I didn’t make any friends at school. I couldn’t trust anyone. It was an open wound. But when I was fourteen, my mom told me that we could do something about it. She asked me if I’d be willing to testify. And I agreed.
The trial happened two years later at my father’s military base. I hadn’t seen him in ten years. The lawyers told me I didn’t have to be in the courtroom when I testified, but I felt like I needed to face him. Just to show that I wasn’t afraid anymore. He was already seated when I walked in the room. I put my hand on the Bible and looked right at him. For a moment, I felt a stroke of fear wash over me. Like I was a kid again. But I set it aside and gave my testimony. It felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. He was sentenced to ten years in prison.
I’ve moved on with my life. I don’t think about him. I’ve grown to look like him, but I’m not him. Even if someone tells me I’m him, I’m not him. I’m me. I’ve lived my entire life to not be him.”
Courage is everywhere.
I didn’t want this text for today. So much of life is not our plan. But apocalyptic literature was popular in the time of Christ. It offered comfort to a people mired in difficulty, a promise that God would bring the good design of creation to fruition. In Luke’s hand, though, the disturbing images have additional resonance, because Luke is the gospel writer who most insists that the kingdom of God is not just some far away vision, but a foment disrupting our lives right now. In Luke’s hand, we can hear Jesus’s comment: “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near” not only as a sign of things to come, but also an assurance that God is closest to us in the times of our greatest distress. If that’s true, then this text is an invitation—an invitation to raise our heads, to trust God’s nearness, to do our part.
Our culture teaches us to respond to crisis with a mix of fear and blame and suspicion: to put our heads down, protect ourselves first, worry about others later. Jesus says that there is a more holy way.
Back on the 20th, as messages began to come in about a possible shooter, I found myself standing in the hallway scanning my phone, looking for information. As I did so, Beth quietly walked by. A few minutes later she was back. Beth’s first impulse was to go outside, to walk around the building, to be sure that the doors were all locked. She thought first of the children in our preschool and her co-workers, other people who might be in the building. Beth went outside and did what she could think of to do.
Jesus doesn’t want for us to be afraid.
He looks around and reminds his friends that the fig tree, when it loses its leaves—it looks like death—but it is only awaiting its time of renewal. Life courses through its branches, even when we see no evidence. And the images he shares of confused waters and quaking skies are not unlike the picture sketched for us at the very beginning of our story—in Genesis 1, before God speaks and creation’s design emerges. Before God declares all of this good.
Beloved of God, the one who is Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, says we do not need to be afraid. His coming makes all things new.
Raise your heads.
 Justo L González, Luke, Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 239.
 Claudia Highbaugh, Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, Volume 2, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, p. 244.