Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Staying Awake

Staying Awake
Luke 21:25-36[1]
I don’t have to tell you that speculations about the end of time have fueled a wide range of responses, from curiosity to fear to outright paranoia. You might think this is a recent trend, but actually it has been around almost since the beginning of the Christian faith. Throughout the ages people have tried to put two and two together to figure out exactly how or when the end will come. Unfortunately, their calculations have usually resulted in two plus two equals five. We have a notoriously flawed ability to predict the future, and I think the more scripture verses someone gathers to try to back up their theories, the more likely they are to be wrong![2]
And yet, the fact of the matter is that the Bible speaks in a number of places about “the Day of the Lord.” In the Hebrew Bible, it refers to the day when God will come to establish his rule in our world. And that will mean righting the wrongs, comforting those who suffer and discomforting those who are at ease. It’s a message with a double edge to it. Although the New Testament redirects those expectations to the return of Christ, it has no less of a dual message to it.[3] For those who are oppressed and suffering now, the coming of Christ means relief and restoration. For those who are complacent, or who have compromised their faith, it has a different tone.
We heard the scripture last week that said, “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail” (Rev. 1:7). We might like to think that the “wailing” refers to unbelievers. But if we pay close attention to the message of the Bible about the coming “Day of the Lord,” I would say the overwhelming power of that experience will leave no one unmoved. I think we will all be feeling something like the prophet Isaiah felt when he saw the Lord in all his glory filling the temple: “I am doomed, for I am a sinful man.” (Isa. 6:5). When we appear before the Lord at his coming, we will all be wailing with repentance and remorse.[4]
It may seem a strange thing to talk about on the first Sunday of Advent. After all, we’re supposed to be looking forward to a “holly, jolly Christmas,” aren’t we?  Why should the Scripture lesson for today talk about things that may make us feel uncomfortable? I think the primary reason is that the season of Advent, which precedes the season of Christmas, is intended to lead us to reflection about our lives. It’s like the season of Lent in relation to Easter. The whole point of Advent is to be a time for us to prepare ourselves to welcome the coming of the Lord at Christmas.
So it is with our Gospel lesson for today. There is definitely a note of apprehension in Jesus’ description of the day of the Lord: “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” (Lk. 21:25). I would say that the language used here is probably meant to be understood more symbolically than literally.[5] But regardless, the end result is that “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” (Lk. 21:26)! Think of it: can you imagine the shock and awe that we will all experience when we “see ‘the Son of Man coming …’ with power and great glory” (Lk. 21:27)?
Despite the fact that Jesus clearly warns us that day will be overwhelming, it is also a cause for rejoicing. In fact, Jesus said it this way: “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk. 21:28).[6] He clearly calls us to view that day as a something to celebrate. And the cause is clear: “when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near” (Lk. 21:31).[7] It may seem contradictory, but the reality is that the message of the Bible about the “Day of the Lord” makes both points: it will be a day when we will all be purged of everything that stands in the way of our relationship with God, which may be painful, but the outcome will be our salvation.[8]
So if attempts to calculate the coming of this astounding event prove to be fruitless, how are we to prepare for it? Jesus answered that question as well: watch, stay awake, and pray. The phrase “be on guard” literally means to keep watching. And the phrase “be alert at all times” means to “stay awake.” I’m not sure these are concepts we’re familiar with when it comes to our spiritual lives. We may know what it’s like to stay awake because of a sick child or a deadline, but not as a spiritual attitude. It’s just not a part of our experience. One reason for that is watching and staying awake are something we actively seek to avoid by filling our lives with things to distract us from having to pay attention.[9] And that’s really all it boils down to: paying attention. Instead of going through the motions of our lives, I think Jesus calls us to be thoughtful about where we are and what we’re doing and why.[10]
I think that’s where prayer can help us. That’s also not something that comes naturally to us. But as we learn to discipline ourselves to pray day and night, as we develop the practice of staying constantly in an attitude of prayer, we can become more thoughtful about the way we live. We can conduct our lives in a much more watchful and wakeful manner. I believe that is the whole purpose of a season like Advent. Yes, there are parties to attend and plans to make, but as we go about the “busy-ness” of this time of year, cultivating a consistent mindset of prayer can help us “stay awake” to the meaning of it all.[11]

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/29/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, Jr., “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:402, where he laments the “plague of pseudo-religious prophets claiming that the end is at hand.” He insists, to the contrary, that “The gospel offers not a way of predicting the end of the world but the spiritual resources to cope with adversity and hardship.”
[3] Cf. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 740, where he points out the connection between the expectation of the coming “Son of Man” (Jesus) and the “Day of the Lord” in the Hebrew Bible.
[4] It is unfortunate that commentators are eager to emphasize the confidence and reassurance Jesus brings out in this passage and ignore the connection with the fact that, according to the prophets, the “Day of the Lord” would be so overwhelming as to bring fear and foreboding on all, even (and perhaps especially) the people of God (cf. Isa. 13:6-8a: “Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty! Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will melt, and they will be dismayed”; cf. also Amos 5:18-20: “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?”). Cf. Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology II:119-125, where he recounts the theme of the Day of the Lord in the prophets, which no doubt reflects the popular notion that it would be a day of battle for the destruction of Israel’s enemies. However, as Von Rad points out (ibid., 124-125), some like Amos ask the people to consider the possibility that “this day is to bring a darkness that might also be fraught with danger for them”; in other words, they failed to consider the aspect of judgment that day would bring upon them. Cf. similarly, Christopher R. Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 133, says regarding Isaiah 13: “This ‘day of the Lord’ comes to put an end to all sin (13:9), and the evil of the whole world is to be punished (13:11). All human pride and arrogance is under assault, and even the heavens and the earth will feel the effects of God’s awesome judgment (13:10, 13).”
[5] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 246, where he rightly points out that this language is meant to indicate that the coming of God’s kingdom will affect the entire cosmos. He says, “Redemption has a cosmic dimension. … In fact, it was Paul who developed a Christology adequate to embrace all creation in the act of the cross and the resurrection (Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-20). But both Matthew and Luke tell us that heaven and earth signaled in unusual ways the birth and death of Jesus. Yet, even earlier, prophets had spoken of the day of the Lord as shaking and altering heaven and earth.” Cf. also Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2:289, where he reminds us that the biblical view of the end times is couched in symbols that should be taken seriously but cannot be taken literally “because it is not possible for finite minds to comprehend that which transcends and fulfills history. The finite mind can only use symbols and pointers of the character of the eternal.”
[6] Cf. Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX:411, where reminds us that “the end of time holds no terror for those who know God’s love because they know the one who determines the reality that lies beyond what we can know here and now.”
[7] Cf. Green, Gospel of Luke, 742, where he points out that Luke’s Gospel emphasizes both the presence of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ ministry as well as its arrival “in its fullness at the end of history.”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End, the Beginning: The Life of Hope, 143, where he describes the final judgment by saying that “Everything which is, and has been, in contradiction to God will be burnt away, so that the person who is loved by God is saved, and everything which is, and has been, in accord with God in that person’s life is preserved.”
[9] Cf. Moltmann, In the End, the Beginning, 82, says it this way: “We see only our dreams, and our wishful thinking about reality is reality itself. But this again means that we don’t live wakefully in reality; we are asleep in the agreeable dreams of our fantasy world.” By contrast, a life of wakefulness and praying means (ibid., 83) that “We perceive the sighing of creation, and hear the cries of the created victims that have fallen dumb. We also hear the song of praise of the blossoming spring, and feel the divine love for everything that lives. So prayer to God awakens all our senses and alerts our minds and spirits.”
[10] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:555, where he says that Christians are those who “those who constantly stand in need of reawakening and who depend upon the fact that they are continually reawakened. They are thus those who, it is to be hoped, continually waken up.”
[11] Cf. Green, Gospel of Luke, 743 (footnote 60), where he observes “As elsewhere in Luke-Acts, prayer here would seem to involve both discernment of the divine aim (which, in Luke, is regularly mediated through prayer) and orientation of oneself around that purpose.”