Advent 1 C: Stand Up and Raise Your Heads!

Luke 21: 25-36

Dear Partner in Preaching,

The persistent temptation in preaching apocalyptic texts like the one before us this week is to try to address the question, “When?” As in the disciples’ question earlier this chapter in response to Jesus’ words about the Temple: “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

It’s an understandable question, given that the whole passage is both future-oriented and foreboding. When we read the passage this way, we often look back, naming the destruction of the Temple or some other historical event that prompted this passage. Or we may instead look forward to our own time and note the uncanny and perhaps unwelcome resonance between the events this passage describes and recent terrorist attacks…or concerns about the environment…or wars abroad or political unrest at home.

But while I can understand the urge to raise the question of timing, I don’t think it’s necessarily all that helpful, nor what Luke intends. Interestingly, while Luke’s construction of this scene resembles Mark’s own at several points, the subtle differences are telling. While Mark seems to tie the dread signs in the heavens and earth to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Luke – writing a decade or two later – distances the promised end of history and the Temple’s destruction. In fact, Luke seems deliberately vague about when Jesus will return, refusing to offer any hint of a timetable. Instead, he asserts that just as budding fig leaves unmistakably herald the advent of summer, so also will the signs of the coming kingdom be transparent to the Christian community.

Similarly distinct from Mark is Luke’s emphasis not only on watchfulness but also on the character and behavior of the discipleship community. Jesus, in Luke’s account, urges his followers to avoid getting caught up in either the excessive pleasures or worries of the day, rejecting both the despair of the hopeless and the frivolousness of the irresponsible. Instead, they are to watch confidently for their Lord’s return…whenever it might come.

Luke has shifted the question from “when will these things happen?,” you see, to “how shall we live in the meantime?” a question that might well resonate with many in our congregations. Indeed, shifting the question from “when” to “how” invites us to perceive what is, in my opinion, the most stunning part of this passage, when Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

How can Jesus assert that ominous and foreboding events are actually signs of our redemption? Because, according to Luke and other early Christian theologians, we live and work, love and struggle between the two great poles of God’s intervention in the world: the coming of Christ in the flesh in order to triumph over death through is cross and resurrection – and in this regard we should not forget that these verses come just before Luke’s account of Jesus’ passion – and the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time and his triumph over all the powers of earth and heaven. This “in-between time,” though fraught with tension, is nevertheless also characterized by hope and courage because we know that the end of this story, while not yet here, has been written by the resurrected Christ.

To pick up on the evangelical and homiletic import of Jesus’ admonition, let’s translate it to our own circumstances: When people are afraid to be out during the holidays for fear of terrorist attack, we can remind each other to stand up and raise our heads, for our redemption has already drawn near in Jesus. When we are too afraid to admit to our country those seeking a safe home for fear they may be terrorists, we can remind each other to stand up and raise our heads, for our redemption has already drawn near in Jesus (who himself was a refugee as a child!). When the violence of our city streets push us to abandon civil rights and protections for all people regardless of their race or ethnicity, we can remind each other to stand up and raise our heads, for our redemption has already drawn near in Jesus.

It’s not, I think, violence that is the greatest threat to us today, but fear. Fear that drives us to forget who we are, to see people in need as the enemy, and to place securing our safety and comfort above meeting the basic needs of those in distress. Fear is more dangerous than violence because fear can lead us to forget our deepest identity and betray our most cherished values.

In this context, Jesus reminds us that he is the Lord of history and, because we trust that he will in time bring all things to a good end, we can in the meantime stand together in courage and compassion and treat all persons with the love of God we have known in him. This is the hope that is the hallmark of Christian community, the hope that rings throughout Scripture each time a biblical character sings that summary of the Gospel, “Do not fear.” It is a message never more needed than today, when so many of our actions and decisions seem driven by fear, a lack of confidence, and an overwhelming sense of scarcity.

In precisely this context, our communities can be places of light and hope, courage and confidence that welcome all those struggling with fear and darkness. We can remind them, in the words that come at the end of this season, that the light of Christ shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We can, in other words, when we begin to grow afraid, bid each other again and again to stand up and raise our heads, confident that our redemption draws near.

Thank you for being a herald of this hope, Dear Partner. These days were meant for words such as yours. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,

PS: If you want to develop the theme of hope in relation to pop culture, here are several previous posts that may help, one connected to the first Hunger Games movie (the fourth and final installment of which is just out), another connected to The Shawshank Redemption, and a third one tied to a recent All State commercial.