There is always the fear, when swimming off the beach, that a Great White may lurk just beyond the blue line. This is the risk of living. As we swam, waist deep, in the clear water of Thuruna Bay, we saw a disturbance, a purposeful shimmer coming towards us. And we stood with sudden fear, wondering what we were seeing. It was a huge ray, larger than us, slowly flapping, yet faster than we could hope to be if we even had time to turn and flee to the beach. It swam a smooth curve around us and continued up the coast. Dismay is the moment, or the months, when you realise that what you have feared is not going to swim around you but today will gather you up into something unknown.
Gospel: Luke 21:25-38
25 ‘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. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees;30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be 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.’
37 Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. 38And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.
The Glorious Spaces in Between
There is fear
but there are also the things which dismay us.
These are the things which remove
all the distance between far off fear
They bring the fear home.
They are the trap which closes upon us
and which brings us to realise
it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.
All of us...
Dismay is the fear which has found its mark in our heart.
Dismay is fear taken shape
and rushing at... us.
In his opening prayer on Sunday, my colleague said
Love is greater even than the things which dismay us.
This is the gospel in a sentence.
In the first week of Advent in 2012, I said
I was puzzled to find that we were beginning the Year of Luke by choosing a reading from near the end of the book. But there is a certain logic to this. The times are out of joint. The times are beyond our fixing. (If this were not so, there would be no Luke, and no Jesus!) However we imagine our origins, only the naive do not recognise that we are a people out of our depth, dangerously clever animals which are not yet fully human, and not really aware of the fire with which we play.
A project to make sense of life that does not acknowledge all this at the very beginning, is.... well, naive.
So let us begin with our fear.
In the narrative of Luke, by Chapter 21, dismay is about to crash down upon the hearts of the disciples as Jesus is crucified. In the theology of Luke, we are told again that the love which takes Jesus to the cross, which will not turn away from the cup, (22:41) is the love which is greater than dismay. The human fear of apocalypse, the nagging, sickening background radiation of wars and insurrection, the loss of the way things always were, our growing consciousness of a hostile climate, are all placed before us again in Chapter 21, if we pause long enough to feel its emotion.
The people of Luke knew too well the truth of Jesus' words by the time they read him. Jerusalem was destroyed, and what greater disasters might come, were too easily imagined. Luke lays that all before us, reawakens our fears, invites us to remember again our dismay, and then rehearses with us the answer, which is: Love. Love which goes to a cross. Love which is a power which seems upside down and ridiculous, but which runs far deeper than the shallow solutions of violence that always only lead to more fear; solutions which dismay us all over again.
As I introduce the text to our congregation this week, I think I shall invite them to think of Scripture as the journal of a person who long ago felt the presence of God, for it is the journal of a people. A people who, over the years as they have grown, have reconsidered, learned, rewritten, and appreciated the naivety of some of their past understandings. A people who now,
rereading the long book on a dismayed day in winter
discover again their own witness to that Love
which fills all the uncertain spaces
and empty places of existence
they begin a re-reading
which finds what a friend called
the glorious spaces in between
My friend was making a sly joke
about escaping the definitions
others seek to place upon us to control us
but the words are also exactly true
for this week's lectionary: They speak
to a people whose city has been destroyed
and whose future is under threat
and who are dismayed
to discover that their every certainty
is being questioned
Some folk will need us to fit their definition of being Christian
and wish for us to affirm their imagined story of the end of things
seeking to rapture us with foolish notions of
signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on the earth distress among nations
from which we can be lifted to safety
if only we will privilege their imagination
and shore up the stories they tell
to stave off their dismay and despair
Others imagine that their black and white
clearly drawn notions of gender and love
will make them holy
especially if we would only agree with them
but God calls us to live in the glorious spaces in between
to lift up our heads
because Love will not fail
has not failed
and our redemption draws near
Other folk wonder if they should
give in to the raw forces of unredeemed power
sit in the shelter of the powerful if they must
and go along with the crowd at the shops
or if they can
grasp power and control their destiny
but Luke wrote that we should be on guard
so that our hearts are not weighed down
with dissipation and drunkenness
and the worries of this life
that the day does not catch us unexpectedly
like a trap
And on this rereading
we realise that power
has always been the alcohol of our drunkenness
the pretence of our pre-eminence
and the foolishness of our pride
it dissipates us
blinds us to glory
and is the fence we build around ourselves
it is our trap
So what are we to do
how is one to be alert
and to be strong in the all the things that will take place
how do we wait
The answer is to live in the glorious spaces in between
these are the unglamorous
patient places of uncertainty
and unclear boundary
which let go of the need to win
love and serve
rejoice in the joy of others
and find that in these places
emptied of the safety of knowing
there is the glory of God
even as dismay bears down upon us
we find we are not alone
and that even though it be night
the Messiah is still upon
the Mount of Olives as it is called
There will be an end
even to dismay
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Luke 21:25-36 - Apocalypse When? (2016)
Luke 21:25-35 – Do you really believe this? (2016)
What I want for Christmas... is a little apocalyptic sensibility (2013)
Luke 21:25-36 - Lift up your heads (2013)
Wars and Rumours (2010)
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