First Sunday after Advent, November 29th, 2015
Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus told the disciples: “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” What are you afraid of? What makes you faint from fear and foreboding?
Seriously, what are you afraid of? Our culture spends a lot of energy on fear: whipping it up for political purposes, covering it up with anger and hate and partying and a whole host of other things. We’re afraid of terrorists, so we close our borders to refugees, despite the fact that we’ve never had a terrorist come to this country disguised as a refugee. We’re afraid of ISIS, so we’re suspicious of Muslims, despite the fact that white Christians commit most of mass murders in our country. We’re afraid of uncertain economic times and the fact that the middle class is shrinking and college tuition is so expensive, so we pressure our children to be perfect in academics and in sports so they can get scholarships and eventually a good job. And so the percentage of youth and young adults suffering from anxiety and depression has skyrocketed in the last ten years. We’re afraid of admitting America isn’t perfect, so we demonize and attack those who point out things we need to do better at. We’re afraid of change, so we never ask ourselves if any part of the change might be a good thing. We’re afraid of mass shootings, so we blame mental illness and loose gun laws to make ourselves feel better, but we’re also afraid of what our political opponents might do so we never actually try and figure out practical ways to prevent future attacks.
We’re afraid of a lot of things, but we don’t want to face that fear, so we find all sorts of ways to avoid it. When I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety, I was shocked. It never occurred to me that I had it, because I never faced my fears, the things I was anxious about. They were always there, gnawing at my thoughts, but I didn’t want to face them. I buried them. And when my fears did come to the surface, well, I was afraid for good reasons! The things I was afraid of were very likely to happen—they did happen to me, and they were painful. So when I did manage to look at my fears, I still couldn’t see all the ways in which the fear itself was twisting me and tripping me up and trapping me. I spent so much time and energy desperately trying to pretend I was fine, that I was okay, that everything was going great and I could handle everything without help. Sometimes that meant isolating myself from the world and burying myself in stuff to keep from having to deal with the world. Some people turn to alcohol to soothe themselves, but my drug of choice has always been books. I weighed myself down with them, I used them as a distraction. Anything, so that I didn’t have to face what I was afraid of. Anything to distract me. Anything to keep my fears at bay.
People try to cope with their fears in a lot of different ways, and a lot of those ways are self-destructive, and many of them hurt those around us. We come up with distractions, bury ourselves in work or anger or drugs and alcohol or gambling or spewing hate or anything else that will keep us from having to face the darkness. In December, we turn to shopping and parties to fill that hole, as if having a perfect story-book holiday season will make everything okay, as if finding the perfect present and cooking the perfect dinner will make everything be peaceful and good and right. But if we aren’t willing to face our fears—to acknowledge that we are afraid—then we stay prisoners. We stay trapped, bound up, pretending we’re free while we run around like rats in a cage trying to pretend everything is fine and that if we just pretend hard enough, everything will be okay.
And then we try to use our faith to justify our coping mechanisms. After all, God couldn’t really mean for us to love those people, they’re dangerous! God couldn’t really mean for us to help those people, they don’t deserve it, and anyway what if we don’t have enough? God wants me to be happy, and so it’s okay to do whatever I want that I think might make me happy! It’s not like it’s really hurting anyone.
People have always been afraid. Because the world is a scary place, and always has been. Since the days of Adam and Eve, there has always been violence in the world. There has always been hatred and fear. There have always been people who lash out, taking their own problems out on those around them, creating even more problems in the world. There have always been natural disasters that devastate communities and bring suffering. Jesus talks about some of these in our Gospel lesson, in the context of the end times. He’s talking about things that were happening in his day—the civil war and Roman attack that would destroy the Temple in 70AD—but he was also speaking about the future, when this world ends and Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Scary things are happening now, and scary things will continue to happen. Even Christ’s coming—when all the evil in the world will be defeated once for all—will be scary. Our current social order will topple. All the powers of this world will be shattered. All the stuff we put our trust in will tremble and fall. This is terrifying stuff. And Jesus doesn’t try to hide or sugar-coat it. But on the other hand, he doesn’t spend much time dwelling on it. Because his focus isn’t on the scary stuff, his focus is on how we should respond.
Christ will come again. And in that coming, he will wipe away every tear from every eye. There will be peace, and justice, and righteousness. There will be no war, no violence, no abuse, no betrayal; there will be no injustice, no hardship, no natural disasters. Everyone will have enough and no one will have too much. There will be joy, and love, and peace, and we will be together with God. This is a promise that God made long before his Son was born in Bethlehem; this is a promise you can read many times in the Old Testament, including our first lesson. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” That promise is the coming of Christ. He came once already, as a child born in Bethlehem, to teach us how to live in love as God’s people, and he will come again to bring the kingdom of God, a new heaven and a new earth. That is the promise by which we live.
So what are we afraid of? Terrorists? Racial unrest? Losing our job? Losing a loved one? Being abused by a loved one? Cancer? A bad drought? The coal plant going out of business? America going to the dogs? What’s the worst thing that the world can do to us, anyway? It can kill us. And then what happens? We’re with God, and will be with God when he comes back to judge the living and the dead and re-create the world into the paradise he originally meant it to be. I don’t mean to belittle the very real suffering that we can and do face in this life—it can be horrifically bad, and some of you know that from personal experience. And our suffering in this life can really damage us, beyond the power of anything in this life to fix or heal.
But nothing can damage us beyond God’s power to fix and heal, and if that healing doesn’t come in this life, it will come in the next, when the Son of Man comes with power and great glory to shake things up and re-create them as God intends, full of goodness and love and life. That’s a promise, bedrock solid and sure, that the Christ who came once will come again, bringing God’s kingdom with him, and we will be healed and restored to the people God created us to be.
So again, the question is, what are we afraid of—and how do we respond to that fear. Because we have the promise, we know that no matter what happens in this life, whether our fears come true or not, God is going to win in the end. Nothing we are afraid of will win. The things we fear may win the game, but we already know who’s going to win the tournament. That’s not the question we face. The question is, are we going to let our fears dictate our response to the world? Are we going to let our fears control our actions and our lives? Are we going to spend our energy spewing hate and burying our heads in the sand and filling the gaps with anything that can distract us? And then try to use our faith to justify it?
When we get afraid, we tend to turtle up, hunching in on ourselves in self-protection, only emerging to fight anything that comes near. But that’s not the advice that Jesus gives. When you’re afraid, be on your guard! But not against the thing you’re afraid of. Be on your guard against the fear itself. Don’t let it weigh you down with worries and care, don’t let yourself hide get so caught up in avoiding your fears that you miss God’s presence. Because the Son of Man will be there. Stand up, raise your heads—no matter what the world does to you, you are not alone, and you will be saved.
May Christ help us stand up and face whatever comes, in the sure and certain hope that the kingdom of God is near.