How to “Be” in days like these

Sermon for 1st Advent Year C, on Luke 21:25-36, Dec. 2, 2012

Luke 21:25-36

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29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven 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 catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 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.”

How to Be

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People in our times talk about a “fiscal cliff” as though they think the end of the world is coming.  Well, let’s compare notes:  My father was born in 1930.  He was too young to understand what the terms “Great Depression” or “Dust Bowl” meant, while they were happening, but understand them or not, he grew up in the world defined by their effects.

I’m sure that as a child, he heard stories about the First World War that his father fought in.  He was 9 years old when the Second World War began, eleven when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and fifteen when the war ended. There folks here who lived through those days too.

The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and two World Wars in living memory.  Times were bad, and to make it worse, you couldn’t even watch all the bad news in an air conditioned home on a flat screen TV.  It does give one a bit of perspective.

Then and Now

I don’t mean to minimize the real suffering that so many people are experiencing today.  Many people have lost their jobs, lost homes, lost pensions and retirement savings, and there are many reasons to worry about the future.  But we are not in a world-wide war, there are not bread lines down the street, and even if your bank fails, you will not be wiped out along with it anymore.

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I think that the catastrophic language that people use about cliffs, as if we were Thelma and Louise with a foot on the gas pedal, may serve someone’s interest – fear mongering always serves someone’s interest – but we are not all facing imminent death.

Nevertheless, our stress levels are high these days.  We worry.   This is the season of Advent, in which we should be waiting in expectation of the celebration of Christmas, the birth of Messiah, but instead we seem to wait for more bad news.   We are surrounded by bad news and dire predictions all the time.  I don’t know how many times in an average day you hear or watch basically the same news reports, but I’ll bet it’s more than once or twice.  This steady diet of gloom has its effects on us.

The Gospels in Bad Times

So whether or not our days are as bad as the past, nevertheless, we experience them as threatening.  In this way, we are psychologically ready to hear the gospel text we read from Luke.  The gist of the message is that bad times are going to get a lot worse, and very soon.  It was to people in stress and anxiety that Jesus spoke that day.

Now, the language that he used sounds to us as catastrophic as the language of fiscal cliffs:

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. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

What was the point of that kind of language? Jesus used the available metaphors of his day to describe events in the real world.  The Old Testament book of Daniel and a lot of other lesser known texts used language about the sun, moon and stars to speak of political realities: empires, wars, and exile (that style or genre of literature is often called apocalyptic).

Was Jesus talking about the literal end of the world?  No, not here; he says quite clearly that people in his day will experience the coming storm:

31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”

Most likely he was talking about the days to come when an ill-conceived Jewish revolt would be crushed by the Romans in their predictable fashion.

Titus destroys the temple
Titus destroys the temple

Jesus was proven correct within one generation, when, in 70 AD the Roman general Titus led his troops into Jerusalem where they sacked the temple, leaving it desecrated and in ruins.  That, was a catastrophe.

On 9-11 the hijacked plane that was apparently headed for the capitol never made it to its target, but had it succeeded, it would have made that terrible day far worse.  But even the destruction of the capitol building along with the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon together, would not have been as earth-shaking for us as the demise of the temple was for the people of Jesus’ day.  It’s quite hard for us to imagine the significance Jewish people attached to the temple, and so also to its destruction.  As they would see it, it practically meant God’s utter abandonment of them.

How Should We Be?

It was to people who were trying to imagine the horror of that future, to people in that kind of stress and anxiety that Jesus spoke.  Are these words not relevant to people like us, in our stressed-out anxious times?  If we ever needed to hear how to be, in this context, we do now.  So what does he say?  How are we to be?

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 catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap.”

Not Self-Medicating

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First, “be on guard” or be alert to the clear and present danger of self-medication as a stress-solution attempt. That’s what “dissipation and drunkenness” is all about.  Inappropriate self-soothing. This is a serious danger to all of us.  Alcohol is not a solution.  Neither is any illicit drug.

Depression is real, and brain chemistry is involved, and there are appropriate drugs that are good, helpful, and important, under the direction of wise medical professionals.  There is nothing at all wrong or shameful about making good use of modern scientific medicine.

But self-medication or prescription abuse is both dangerous and unhelpful. It does more than just “weigh down your heart.” It can ruin your relationships and your life. Our generation needs to hear this message even more than Jesus’ generation did.  If you are self-medicating now, you need to stop.  You may need help to stop. Help exists, but you have to seek it out.  Nobody can make the decision for you.  Be on guard.  The more stressful the times are, the more “on guard” we must be.

Neurologically Helpful Prayer

How are we to be?  Not just on guard against the temptation to self-medicate, but even more important is this next word from Jesus:

36 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.”

Prayer is utterly essential in stressful times.  This is not about praying that the bad times will magically disappear.  In fact Jesus predicted that the bad times would get worse – and they did.  But God has given us the gift of prayer as an enormous help to the stress and anxiety of difficult times like these.

Prayer and the Brain

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I have just read an amazing book called “How God Changes Your Brain.”  The book is filled with researched scientific evidence that it is possible to effect changes in your brain, and that prayer changes the brain in incredibly helpful ways.  Studies of people who pray, using fMRI scans of the brain have shown that prayer produces all kinds of positive neurological effects.

Now, understand that the kind of prayer we are talking about is not the kind that presents God with a laundry list of wishes.  Rather we are talking about meditative prayer, or contemplative prayer.  This kind of prayer involves sitting quietly in the presence of God, becoming centered and fully present in the moment, aware of God’s goodness and God’s loving presence.

The Facts are In

Here is what research has shown.  Meditative or contemplative prayer of twenty minutes or more a day for eight weeks is all that is required to begin to improve memory and cognition.  Meditative or contemplative prayer relieves stress and reduces the production of the destructive stress hormone, cortisol.  Meditative or contemplative prayer decreases depression and anxiety.  It boosts the immune system and actually decreases some effects of aging.

Prayerful meditation, focused on God’s love, God’s goodness, God’s gracious presence, also helps us deal with our worst neurological enemy: anger.  We become more peaceful, more kind, and more gentle with each other.  It is even effective in pain management.

In addition to my customary practices of prayer requests and scripture reading, I have been putting into practice meditative prayer on a daily basis for over a month now.  My wife will tell you that I have not magically become a saint.  But she will also tell you that she has seen some small changes in me that she likes.

The God who made our brains gave us the amazing gift of contemplative prayer.  I want to encourage you all to learn more about this and to put Jesus’ words into operation.

“36 Be alert at all times, praying…”

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This winter I plan to offer a course in which we will learn more about how to practice meditative or contemplative prayer.  We will practice this silent form of  prayer together, and learn from each other.  Let me encourage you to come.

How are we to be in times of stress?  People who are confident in hope;  not the false hope that the world will get better, but the Christian hope that we are in God’s good hands; children of God through Jesus Christ.

We are not to self-medicate, but to be prayerful people of genuine faith.  And what is faith, after all, but trust?  The confidence that we can let go of our anxiety and catastrophic fear-based thinking, and fall back into the loving arms of our Heavenly Father, certain that we will be caught, loved, and cared for.

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