Sermon for Dec. 2, 2018, Advent 1C Audio will be available here for several weeks.
[Jesus said:] “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. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“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, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 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.”
I want to start with the first stanza of the poem, “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats, which I’m sure is familiar to many of us.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
That is about as apt a description as possible of how I feel about our times now. I’m sorry to be so negative, but that’s where I think we need to start. The text from Luke starts there too. Yeats used images like “blood-dimmed tied” which is an image drawn from nature. It pictures nature gone wrong.
Apocalyptic Imagery: Calamity Coming
Well, Luke did that too. He spoke of the heavenly bodies, the sun, moon, and stars giving signs. He pictured the sea roaring to such an extent that the nations are “confused,” which means to be in such perplexity that you experience anxiety. Today we say that events like 9/11 are “earth-shaking” in the same way. In other words, you have no idea what’s going on or what to do about it. That sounds about right, to me.
The custom of using nature-gone-wrong imagery is typical of a style of writing called Apocalyptic. The book of Daniel has apocalyptic images like monstrous beasts with horns, which stand for empires and kingdoms. Actually Luke draws on some of the images in Daniel.
One image that throws us off is the image of the Son of Man. It sounds like a single person, but actually, it stands for a group of people, just like Uncle Sam does. In this case, it stands for the faithful in Israel who receive the kingdom of God. In Daniel’s image, the Son of Man goes up to the Ancient of Days who provides the Son of Man with twelve thrones – one for each of the tribes of Israel — so clearly, the Son of Man stands for the faithful in the nation of Israel.
So, why all the images of nature-gone-wrong, and perplexity and anxiety? Because Luke describes Jesus as predicting the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, the palace of the king and the temple; in other words, a horrible, almost unimaginable calamity for the nation. By the time Luke wrote his gospel, it had all happened. There was a Jewish revolt, and the Romans came and utterly crushed it. When the dust settled and the blood stopped flowing, the ancient historian, Josephus said that hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Jesus predicted that it would all happen within their generation, and it did. The year was 70 of the Common Era.
Nevertheless, Jesus said, that horrible calamity would signal that the kingdom of God was truly present, because it did not need a kingdom of Israel to exist and it did not need a temple or blood sacrifices as a means of connecting with God.
Being Perplexed, Being On Guard
So, perhaps if we feel that our times are heading toward calamity in earthshaking ways, leaving us perplexed about what to do, we are on common ground with the people Jesus was addressing. So what do you do in such times in which “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”?
Let us look at what Jesus advises us to do. First, he says,
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life”
In other words, days like these are dangerous. Our hearts can get so weighed down that we turn to self-soothing, self-medicating — which of course never makes it better. Some of us here self-medicate. It’s understandable, but it’s totally unhelpful. If you are in that situation, please seek help.
There is help available, but you have to want it. Please know that the path of self-medication is not a mystery; in fact, it is so well known as to be predictable. It is all downhill and destructive of yourself, your relationships, your security. “Be on guard,” Jesus says.
Feelings as False Guides
There is more to this admonishment to be on guard against a heart weighed down. Our feelings are not necessarily good guides for us. When things are chaotic and confusing, we may go to dark places in our hearts. But don’t trust your gut. In stress, your gut may just be telling you what your primitive lizard brain is saying, which is usually a version of either fight or flight.
Fight and flight often manifests itself as denial. What is the first thing you hear people say when they see something tragic? “Oh no!” That is instant denial. “Oh no, it cannot possibly be happening!” But if it is happening, “Oh no!” does not make it go away.
So if all the honest scientists in the world agree that the climate is changing in ways that will be catastrophic if nothing is done, it does not good to say “Oh no!” Or to deny it. People are going to die because of climate change. People are already dying in hurricanes, floods, and fires as we have never seen them before. Nobody’s guts are going to solve this. So be on guard against listening to your lizard brain.
That advise was negative. What can we do constructively as we are being “on guard?” Jesus says,
“Be alert at all times, praying….”
In other words, be constructively engaged in spiritual practices. Prayer, including meditation, is crucial in times like these. But it demands alertness, as Jesus says, or discipline. It requires us to make decisions about our day: how am I going to use my time? When am I going to go to bed, when am I going to get up so that my day includes time for spiritual practices? What do I need to do to limit distractions, with the TV, and the phone?
Now, spiritual practices will not make the calamity go away. Whatever is going on with the climate, or the economy, or with Russia and Ukraine, or Saudi Arabia and Iran, or in Washington DC, or down on the border is still going to happen. But spiritual practices, especially meditation changes how we react to it all.
Spiritual practices are the way we deal with that part of ourselves that makes the calamity worse, and that is our false self, our ego self. The false, ego-self is going to react to calamity, or the threat of calamity, with fear, resentment, anger, criticism, complaining, accusing, blaming, and bitterness.
There are people to blame for the coming calamity, that is true. And there are things to be angry about and there are things to fear — as the administration’s latest report on climate change made so clear. But there is a huge difference between being upset by what is happening and at the people causing it, on the one hand, and becoming an angry, bitter, resentful person, on the other.
There is an important distinction between opposing the policies of a party or a government and hating or resenting the people behind those policies. But the ego gets a lot of pleasure out of righteous indignation. Always flag the feeling of righteous indignation for what it is: spiritual immaturity, and spiritual poison. It is nothing to be proud of. In fact, displaying it should embarrass us since it shows how far we have to grow. Jesus said, “be alert at all times.” This is a big one to be alert to.
Love, Compassion, and Now
Our goal is always to be motivated by compassion and love. This is only possible by learning to be awake and alive to the present moment. In the present moment, we can detach ourselves from our ego-driven false self and observe the thoughts we are having. When we are mindfully present in the now, as Eckhart Tolle says, we can start seeing the thoughts, the righteous indignation, the resentment, the hatred, in us, and decide instead to re-focus.
Instead of hating things that produce greenhouse gasses, we can have compassion for our planet and for our grandchildren who will live in the future we make for them. We can be peace-lovers, instead of being simply war-haters. But that takes a level of self-awareness and presence that can only be achieved through sustained spiritual practices like meditation.
In the end, the advice Jesus gives leads to a life of peace and equanimity. It is a life lived with the unshakable conviction that we are beloved by God. We are upheld in goodness and grace every moment of our lives. That was the conviction Jesus lived with.
That self-identity, which is the true self, of who we are in God is what gave Jesus the ability to face the calamity he faced at the end of his life on this earth. It did not prevent his arrest, mistreatment, nor his death, but he faced them without resentment and recrimination, but with peace and trust. That is what I want for myself. That is what I want for all of us. So, “Be alert at all times, praying….” even as you do the work of seeking justice and righteousness in this Advent season.