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.
According to some recent news reports, the worst year to be alive was the year 536.
Not 1349, when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe. Not 1918, when the flu killed 50 ... to 100 million people, mostly young adults. But 536. ... A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months.
"For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year," wrote Byzantine historian Procopius.
Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record "a failure of bread from the years 536–539."
Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse...
[Following the analysis of ice cores from glaciers, a] team of scientists [has] reported that a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland spewed ash across the Northern Hemisphere early in 536. Two other massive eruptions followed, in 540 and 547. (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/why-536-was-worst-year-be-alive I have edited this, especially in the layout.)
But of course the worst year to be alive is the year everything goes wrong for us. In Luke's time, signs in the sun, moon, and stars were matched by all the other worries of this life: sickness and dying, wars, persecution, betrayal by family, poverty and starvation under the empire...
Perhaps Luke is telling us that the year 536, or the year 1939, or the year 1962 when we missed a nuclear war simply because Vasili Arkhipov refused to allow the launch of nuclear weapons from Russian a submarine attacked in international waters by the Americans, and saved the world from thermonuclear war— we could say each and any of these years were simply the normality for human life on this turbulent planet.
And Jesus says "when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
Don't be afraid— don't be ruled by your fear. Your redemption is drawing near. God is bringing all things to fruition. You are loved. You will not be abandoned. You will never be forgotten.
This is said also to us. Tomorrow always comes. All these things are merely signs that God is bringing the world into being, and into its fullness.
How did Luke's people read those words? What did they hear?
We might see what Luke intended them to hear by looking at where Jesus' words come in the gospel. These words are placed just before the death of Jesus. Jesus says to the disciples "when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near"— and he says it in the worst year of his life, immediately before his death. He's dead within a couple of days.
And in three days he is raised again to new life.
That is why when trouble comes, and it's the worst year in our lives, we can "stand up and raise [our] heads— [it's] because [our] redemption is drawing near." We are coming closer to that time when God will bring all things to fulfilment and we can relax and rejoice in the peace made whole.
It's that outrageous, that simple, and that profound. Even when we die, tomorrow still comes. So why worry?
I can't speak for you, but when I put it as baldly as that, my inner atheist gets all upset. And I find the gospel a bit... incredible— it's a lot safer to talk about the original Greek, or the meaning of some obscure phrase in the New Testament, than it is to say Jesus is
dead within a couple of days. And in three days he is raised again to new life. It's that outrageous, that simple, and that profound. Even when we die, tomorrow still comes. So why worry?
In fact, his death and resurrection means something more: It's not that God will do something to save us. It's already been done. James Alison says in his book Undergoing God that
True Worship, by which he means the life of faith, our lives as Christians— ... our lives are based upon
the understanding that there is nothing left to achieve. It has already been achieved, once and for all. The struggle is over; the kingdom has been inaugurated and obtained. [He says,] I can't get over how difficult it is for us to pause and sit in this for long enough. We are not building ourselves up for something which is going to happen; we are beginning to be swept up into the rejoicing that is emanating out from something which has already happened. (Undergoing God pp38, 40. Or see here.)
We have been saved. That is why there is always a tomorrow. So why worry— lift up your heads!
But how can we trust that claim? How can that incredible, unbelievable thing, possibly be true? Can we trust it...?
I used to say to my minister that "I wished the penny would drop." I wished that I could see how all the stuff about God worked, so I could believe in it. And, of course, I had it wrong. I had it back to front. I thought I could work it all out and then I could believe, then I could trust.
It's the other way around. If we will begin to trust, then we will begin to see. Slowly, gently, faintly, full of doubts at times, disbelieving at other times...
We will see... not when we say some set of words... although we can start there— I did— we will see when we act on our words. When we live out the gospel. That changes us. That heals us. That lets us see the same turbulent planet1, with all its dangers, with new eyes... and from a completely different perspective.
Last Thursday, the workers on the luxury skyscraper being built behind Rundle Mall were having a giant BBQ in the back alley— Austen Street; everyone was standing around with sausages in bread— no onions of course, because it's a safe work site2. And amidst the dozens of tradies in hi-viz, I saw a little old bag lady, shorter than Audrey, frail and thin, weather beaten, pulling her shopping trolley behind her. Her other hand clutched two slices of bread containing four or five sausages.
Some builders on Thursday morning saw a different world, and trusted it. Giving a poor old lady some sausages healed them far more than they fed her. Indeed, they fed the Christ. But everything I have learned says to me that when, for them, it is the worst year of their life, those sausages will help them see something other than disaster.
And the ones who give up their own meal at some other time, when there's not a surplus of sausages, the ones who stick up for the poor person when it's not popular, the ones who are honest when it would be easier to lie... are the ones who will see more easily, more clearly... that there is still a tomorrow... even in the worst year of their life.
Lift up your heads. Trust the word of Christ, and give and love. Include the one who is different. Hold close the one you could drive away. Make a space for the one who is missing out— even if you don't get as much, stay close to the one who discomforts you— because then
not only is our redemption drawing near
but even in the worst year
we will see, and fear
will lose its hold on us.
1. I owe the phrase the turbulent planet to my amazing and wonderful colleague, Rev Gwyn Williams.
2. An Australian joke about the perpetual BBQ held outside every Bunnings in the country. Someone could write a thesis on the sacramental nature of the Bunnings sausage sizzle.
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