This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/2/18, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, & Luke 21:25-36. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
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The weather has been strange this year. Out where we live in Washington, DC, last winter was much warmer than normal. This summer was extremely hot, and fall has been unusually warm and wet.
In the mid-Atlantic, trees normally start to change colors in October, and by this time of years they are usually bare of leaves as we approach wintertime. That’s not how things are this time around. It’s the beginning of December, and most trees still have their leaves. Some have begun to change colors, but others are still green. The weather has turned cold now – we’re getting lows in the 20s some nights – but the trees haven’t caught up to the reality of the season we’re in.
I don’t think the trees are alone. These are strange times we’re living in. The weather is all wrong. Our social, political, and cultural environment is changing in unpredictable ways. And, for many of us, our leaves haven’t changed to fit the season. We’re still green, even as winter is coming on fast.
Jesus spoke a lot about trees – fig trees, in particular. He used them to teach his disciples at various points in his ministry. Earlier on in the gospel according to Luke, Jesus tells us a parable involving a fig tree that failed to bear fruit. Thanks to the intervention of the gardener, this tree got one last chance – one more year – to bear fruit. But if it didn’t, it would be cut down to make way for trees that would bear fruit.
In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus points to the way that trees are a sign to us. They tell us what season we are in. When trees sprout green leaves, we know that it will soon be summertime. When the leaves begin to change colors and fall to the ground, it is time to prepare for winter.
The kingdom of God is like this. Just as we know that summer is near when the trees put forth their leaves, there are changes in the season that alert us to the arrival of God’s reign.
In Luke 21, Jesus has warned the disciples that a big change in seasons is coming. The reign of God is has come near. “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” The temple is going to be destroyed and a whole new order is about to be established.
Understandably, the disciples want more details about what’s going to happen and how to prepare. According to Jesus, their entire society is about to be thrown into chaos. The temple is the center of everything – the holiest place in the holiest land – for it to be destroyed is almost inconceivable. How could anyone see this sort of thing coming?
The disciples ask Jesus, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” Jesus warns the disciples not to get overly excited or afraid. With the great changes coming, there will be those who will claim to have quick fixes to get us out of this mess. Jesus says: Don’t believe them. There is no easy way out, no painless revolution. The way forward is going to be hard, so don’t try to flee it.
Jesus speaks about the tumult that is to come. Nations rising against nation and wars on the horizon. Earthquakes, famines, plagues, and “dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” – maybe even including fires that destroy vast areas and cover the nation in smoke.
But before all that happens, the struggle is going to get personal. Jesus warns the disciples that they will be arrested and persecuted. “You will be brought before kings and governors because of my name,” Jesus says. But, as scary as this process will be, it’s a good thing. It will provide an opportunity to bear witness. Jesus promises the disciples that he will provide them with “words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Out of the chaos, truth will shine.
Still, it’s going to be hard. Some of them are going to die in the process. Yet in spite of all of the persecutions and betrayals that the disciples will experience, Jesus calls on them to hold fast to their faith – to trust in God as sovereign of the universe. God is in control, and even death can be redeemed.
The faith that Jesus talks about isn’t a matter of merely believing certain statements about who God is. Real faith is a matter of visceral trust, placing our lives in the hands of God – trusting that he loves us and will deliver us from evil – even when it seems that evil has the upper hand and God is nowhere to be found.
This kind of faith isn’t easy. In fact, it’s impossible. It’s impossible to practice this kind of trust in God as long as we are enmeshed in the kingdoms of this world. Jesus warns that those who are enmeshed in the System’s ways of thinking and operating will be utterly rocked and dismayed by the changes that are coming.
“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.”
We’ve talked about trees this morning, and how their leafy activities help us to track the seasons. But, of course, the real source of the seasons is found in the heavens. The best way to track what season we are in is to watch the celestial bodies – sun, moon, and stars. As their positions change over the course of the year, we know exactly what time it is.
People have known this for a very long time. For the ancients of the Greco-Roman world, the heavenly realms were a symbol of order, power, and authority. The gods of the ancient world represented these reliable, unshakable heavenly powers.
And yet, Jesus says that when the reign of God arrives, the “powers of the heavens will be shaken.” What kind of power can shake the heavenly realm? Only the one who created them in the first place.
This language of “heavenly powers” isn’t merely a poetic flourish; it’s pointing to something tangible and real. It’s language that Jesus uses to describe a tectonic shift in power dynamics and social relationships. Cities overthrown and empires toppled. A dramatic change in human civilization.
For people living in the kingdoms of this world – the Matrix, the System, the Market, whatever you want to call it – the powers of the heavens represent everything that allow us to make sense of reality. The temple was a power of the heavens. The throne of Caesar and the imperial legions were powers of the heavens. The White House and Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and Wall Street, NPR and TED Talks are powers of the heavens.
These “powers” are the touchstones of our society’s power structure that we can’t imagine living without. They’re givens, a stable point of reference that we can steer our ships by. They tell us the season that we are in. And they’ve become a substitute for God.
“When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Jesus tells his disciples to expect the whole system to fall apart. This is part of the game plan. This is the season that we have entered into. For those who are enmeshed in the kingdoms of this world, this process will be terrifying. When the powers of the heavens are shaken, those who have placed these powers at the center of their lives will be completely disoriented. The roar of the waves will overwhelm them.
For those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus, there will be a different experience. For those of us who have done the hard work of de-centering the powers of the heavens, this time of disruption and tumult will come not as a shock but as a cry of relief. For those of us who have grounded our life in the words of Jesus and the living presence of God’s spirit, the world’s days of grief will be our days of joy.
“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Stand up. Raise your heads. Your redemption is drawing near. Because we “will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”
As followers of Jesus, we are people of peace. Like our Lord Jesus, we are called to die rather than kill. Yet it is also true that we are in a spiritual battle. We’re called to fight with the spiritual weapons of love against the powers of hatred, confusion, and fear.
So when Jesus says, “stand up, raise your heads,” I can’t help but thinking of the French resistance, or any other resistance movement, coming up from underground. When the Pentagon and Wall Street were in control, it was hard to raise our heads. It was scary to stand up. We were in enemy-controlled territory, and we had to be careful. But with the arrival of God’s kingdom, we can lift up our heads and show ourselves. The Allies have arrived. We can take the fight to the enemy. That enemy is selfishness, hatred, death, and fear.
We don’t have to be afraid anymore. Because the powers of the heavens have been shaken. The new life of the kingdom has come near.
For a Christian, for a follower of Jesus, the world’s time of crisis is our moment of greatest hope. We see the Human One coming in a cloud with power and great glory. We can stand up and raise our voices, pointing the world to the truth. We have been blinded for so long by the powers of the heavens, but now we can see again. The kingdom of God has drawn near, and we can become its citizens. The age of love and peace has arrived; we can lay down our arms, take up our plowshares, and study war no more. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but [Jesus’] words will not pass away.”
The powers of the heavens are being shaken. It’s happening right before our eyes. Recognize the season. The fig tree is putting forth its leaves, and soon summer will be here. Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
Our redemptions is near. But we can still miss it. We can get so caught up in the stress and worry of our daily lives that we don’t pay attention to the signs of the times. We can fail to notice the changing of the leaves. We can be so blinded by the powers of the heavens that we are astonished and terrified along with the rest of the world when they are shaken.
Jesus warns us against this pitfall. He says, “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, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.”
Are you weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness? Do you retreat into distraction, entertainment, despair? Is the living presence of God the center of your whole life? When you make decisions, do you look to Jesus and wait on the Holy Spirit to direct you? Are your job, your family, your money, your political commitments, closer to the center of your life than Jesus is?
Wake up! See things as they really are, not as you wish they were. See things as Jesus sees them, as he will reveal them to you. “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.”
Because we can stand. We don’t have to be afraid. We can lift our heads. We don’t have to be bowed down by the weight of our anxiety and disappointments. We don’t have to carry the world on our shoulders. That’s God’s job.
We know that God has shaken the powers of heavens. God’s kingdom has drawn near. The world is about to turn, yet again, and we can be part of it. Even though it’s scary. Even though many around us will be horrified and disoriented. We can be salt and light in the midst of confusion and darkness. We can be a force for healing in the midst of so much pain. We can invite others into the way of Jesus, so that they too can lift their heads and see that the powers are shaken – and that our redemption is drawing near.