And That’s the Good News — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Luke 21:1-36

My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

My world has been coming apart at the seams and from the center since long before I was born. “Things fall apart,” William Butler Yeats wrote in 1919, in ‘The Second Coming,’ “the centre cannot hold.” Yeats wrote his twentieth century apocalyptic verse in the aftermath of the First World War, the Spanish flu pandemic, the near-fatal illness of his wife, and at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. Disintegration was in the air around the globe.

Secular prophets had predicted and pointed to the dissolution of modernity even earlier. “God is dead,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Also Sprach Zarathustra, “and we killed him!” The collaboration of Enlightenment modernity and liberal Protestantism had produced a sterile and empty consensus which equated Christianity with high European culture. That empty consensus was the soil out of which National Socialism arose as the old world continued to fly apart.

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I didn’t know about these things in my young life. The world seemed put together well-enough for my tastes. I was born while the myth of American innocence and the ideology of American exceptionalism still seemed to make sense. There was that odd little police action on the Korean peninsula that threatened to unmoor us a bit, but we recovered from that. Joe McCarthy rattled the chains of authoritarianism, but he was too stupid to make that stick.

My world – the world of White, Male, European, Moderate, Capitalism continued to turn, apparently undisturbed. But under that serene surface, my world was disintegrating.

Thurgood Marshall moved the Supreme Court into only its second spate of morally defensible rulings on race. But the world that produced me pushed back – some schools resisting until nearly the end of the millennium. Sputnik threw us Americans into a beep-beeping panic as we wondered if we really were the best and the brightest this cosmos had to offer. But Jack Kennedy, poster boy for these best and brightest, promised that we would land on the moon before the end of the decade.

President Kennedy nearly got us blown out of the cosmos before the first space capsule could be launched with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. We survived by a hairsbreadth. Then Lee Harvey Oswald ripped the façade off our invincibility from the School Depository window. The center began to wobble. The foundations started to shake.

I learned to speak, to write, to read, and to think while Civil Rights and Vietnam filled the newspapers. The nightly news carried the body counts, the bombings (both foreign and domestic), and the cities on fire. Malcolm died, although I didn’t hear about it until later. Then Martin. Then Bobby. The wobble became a shaking. The foundations were crumbling.

I lost a school bus driver, a friend, and a cousin to the body bags. I came of political age in the era of Watergate. I cast my first vote for Carter, but the tide was already running to Reagan. Law and order, family values – White, Male, European, Moderate, Capitalism pushed back hard. My world was held together with myths and lies, with enemy lists and Iran Contra, with law and order that was hardly lawful and anything but orderly.

My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

I got to seminary and learned to watch my language. I wasn’t swearing in class, well, not much. But I heard about inclusive talk, something my conservative little church college had kept safely in the shadows. I knew the critique was correct and started to wonder what else I assumed that was wrong. The list was and is so very long.

I hadn’t gotten out of seminary yet when I heard that everything I had learned, all the training I had received, was obsolete. I had been trained as a pastor in “Christendom” (whatever the hell that was), and the time of Christendom was now over. I had to be contemporary, seeker-sensitive, visitor-friendly, and driven by attendance numbers rather than membership statistics.

I learned about the homogeneous unit principle of church growth, although I never learned to love it. And I went to conferences in places that looked like gyms and warehouses rather than basilicas and cathedrals. Megachurch pastors were like rockstars. I didn’t want to be one, but it didn’t hurt to imitate them.

Well, that had a short shelf-life, decreased in part by the misconduct of giant egos and in part by the classism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and narcissism of the models employed. That wasn’t the answer. But my world kept spinning into wider chaos, deeper despair, murkier visions of the future.

So, I’ve spent a lifetime chasing a dying world because that’s what I was given.

Our personal worlds have a tendency to fly apart as well. I thought I could see the path from the all-consuming parish to a quiet retirement with my spouse. But the denomination and the congregation had other plans. The denomination made the right decision on homosexuality, and some of those closest to me in the parish made the wrong kind of response. It was time to go, and to let go of that part of my world.

A few months later, I was no longer married, and my first wife was buried. Only now did I really experience what it was like to have a world disintegrate, to have the future run through my hands like so much sand. There was no going back to the way things were. There was no recovery. There was only being pushed forward into a newness that I had not sought and for which I was not prepared.

My world has been disintegrating my whole life, and most of the time I didn’t even know it. Yet, that disintegration is the good news.

It’s the good news because large parts of that world need to die in order for God’s love to live fully among us. A world constructed for the sake of White Supremacy does not deserve to continue. A world built to preserve Male dominance is not worth saving. A world that makes northern European the definition of normal and cultured is too limited for the grandeur of Human being. A world that seeks moderation in all things always ends up underwriting the status quo of those with the power. Unfettered capitalism will destroy us and our environment on its own unless we find another way.

We know from the Hebrew scriptures that there is nothing new under the sun. Those who claim to be the only ones who can save us – those charlatans are a dime a dozen in human history. Nonetheless, we are often still seduced by their siren songs. Wars and insurrections are everyday realities now and have been for millennia. Conflict between nations, empires, kingdoms, and tribes is ubiquitous. Natural disasters arrive like clockwork, plagues (and pandemics) don’t care about scientific progress, and famine is a perennial feature of human greed.

“Now,” Jesus tells his followers, “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

We who follow Jesus proclaim that we are not destined to face the disintegration alone. The Son of Man is the Coming One – not just once or twice, but always. This is the very heart of the one we call Jesus. He is Immanuel, God with us. That’s why we can lift up our heads in hope as the world is falling apart. Heaven and earth will come apart, he tells us, but his words – his promise of hope and salvation – will never desert us.

“This coming of God into the place of disordering violence is crucial to our understanding of the events around us,” Serene Jones writes, “as clergy, could it be that our call is primarily to announce God’s already-enacted advent, the divine coming? If so, then we need to remember that as we seek to minister in a world too full of violence, we do not need to make God appear, for God is here already. Our task is to proclaim God’s presence” (page 39).

It is that presence which makes the proclaiming possible. White Christian Nationalism must be dismantled if humans are once again to flourish as part of the American project. White Male Supremacy must be abandoned if all people are to live out their identities in hope and love. An economic system that places the majority of the world’s wealth in the hands of a group small enough to fit in a conference room is a system that cannot be allowed to continue. A world political order that declares democracy obsolete and human rights impractical is an order that must fall.

You see, I have just described my world – the world I inherited, the world I accepted uncritically, the world that has given me more power, position, privilege, and property than I could ever deserve. That’s the world that has been disintegrating for longer than I’ve been alive. That process of dissolution will continue long after I’m gone. Perhaps my great-grandchildren will look back in disgust at the world they have left behind.

I’m no utopian. The world as we know it, on our own terms, is always coming to an end. And that’s the good news. But there is something about our time which has a particular stench of death and decay about it. And the dim outlines of a different way are beginning to rise up out of the debris.

So, we hear the call of Advent to be awake, to be alert, to stay sharp, and to do it all with prayer and courage. And that’s the good news.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context. Fortress Press, 2003.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Lalkhen, Abdul-Ghaaliq. An Anatomy of Pain: How the Body and the Mind Experience and Endure Physical Suffering. NewYork: Scribner, 2021.

Sleeth, Natalie. “Hymn of Promise.” http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/h/y/m/n/hymnprom.htm.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

West, Audrey. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-2125-36-5.

Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming.

Text Study for Luke 21:1-36 (Pt. 6); November 28, 2021

Pain Management

How do we deal with the pain that is an inevitable part of life? Pain is a signal from our body that something is wrong and requires attention. But pain is also an experience that can be managed to some degree. “Pain is a warning system,” writes Dr. Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen in his book, An Anatomy of Pain, “informing us that there is a threat to the safety of our body or even that damage has already occurred, bit if experiencing pain and receiving this information is not immediately beneficial, then the message relaying this information will be de-prioritized and sometimes ignored by the brain” (page 10).

We have some measure of choice in how we respond the experience of pain once it passes the gateway of our nervous system and is processed by our brain. We may choose, at least for a while, to ignore the pain and hope it goes away. We may look for the cause of the pain to see if we can stop it at the source. We may recruit others to help in that effort (they are called physicians). We may seek to dull or suppress the pain through chemicals or distractions. Or (and this is the exceptional response), we may seek to understand the pain and deal with it as part of our larger reality of being human.

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The readers of the Lukan account are experiencing some measure of pain as a community. We can speculate about the specific sources of that pain, but it should be obvious from our reading that the result is a deep disruption of their lives and threats to their continued existence. The inventory of persecutions in Luke 21:12-18 makes the nature of this pain clear and specific.

It seems that they are tempted to deal with the pain by denying, dulling, and suppressing it. “Pay close attention,” we read in verses 34 and 35, “lest your hearts are burdened in dissipation and drunkenness and the anxieties of this everyday life, and that day lands upon you unexpectedly as a trap.” The language used here refers not only to emotional avoidance but also to the use of substances to dull the senses and to make one simply not care about the pain experience.

These days opioids are the primary chemical agents in use by physicians (and by any number of informal users) to dull and suppress the pain. No, that’s not quite right, as Dr. Lalkhen points out. “We use opiate medications postoperatively because they affect the way you interpret the sensations from your body,” he writes, “they make you care less. Opiates have been called the perfect ‘whatever’ medication,” Lalkhen continues, “because they allow you to ignore the messages that are coming from your body” (page 39).

I found that description surprising. I was under the impression that all pain medications interfered in some way with the actual transmission of the injury or illness information from the location in the body to the processing centers in the brain. Opiates, however, work on our assessment of the pain experience rather than the mechanism of pain itself. Since pain is an experience rather than merely a sensation, how much I care about that experience makes all the difference in what I feel.

The words in our text describe a response to the pain of life for the Lukan readers that is very much about caring less about the pain. That response to pain makes a great deal of sense. We can only be alert to pain and threat for so long before we lose attention and resilience. We can become habituated to a certain level of pain in our bodies and in our communities. We can ignore a certain amount of pain as well. The American response to the Pandemic makes it clear that given a certain amount of time and emotional distance, we can accommodate far more social suffering than we would care to admit.

If, on the other hand, we remain alert and vigilant for an extended period of time, we can develop stress disorders. PTSD, for example, keeps a person’s systems on high alert even when the pain or the threat has been treated or dissipated. The PTSD sufferer remains in the pain experience and is hearing psychological and physiological alarm bells all the time, even in response to unrelated stimuli. That sort of hypervigilance is debilitating and not what the Lukan author intends here.

I want to suggest that our text is not about maintaining hypervigilance but rather is about developing the faithful stamina necessary for the long haul. Perhaps that is the best translation of hupomene in verse 19. The translation, “patient endurance,” is certainly adequate, but it is perhaps too passive to fully communicate the Lukan intention. Faithful stamina is something that we can develop, maintain, and then rely upon in the face of pain and distress.

This leads me to reflect on the counsel and challenge Robin DiAngelo offers to White people in responding to and “treating” our deeply rooted White Supremacy. She urges us to be active in confronting our participation in the Domination system. Acknowledging our place in that system can be painful, and we can seek to escape that pain. “But rather than retreat in the face of that discomfort,” DiAngelo writes, “we can practice building our stamina for the critical examination of white identity—a necessary antidote to white fragility” (page xiv).

This particular variety of faithful stamina is about looking closely at myself as White and as living and benefitting from a web of White dominance and privilege. “Given how seldom we experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate,” DiAngelo observes, “we haven’t had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves,” she continues, “we become highly fragile in conversations about race” (page 1-2).

The challenge is to sit with the discomfort – the pain – long enough that we can begin to name it for ourselves with honesty and hope. The temptation is to flee to immediate solutions, and there are many who seek to profit off that desire for quick fixes. That’s not a new game, by any means, as we can see in Luke 21:7-8. But we can be just as easily taken in by the spiritual, political, and ideological snake-oil peddlers as could the first readers of the Lukan text.

DiAngelo argues that “a critical component of cross-racial skill building is the ability to sit with the discomfort of being seen racially, of having to proceed as if our race matters (which it does). Being seen racially is a common trigger of white fragility,” she observes from long experience, practice, and self-examination, “and thus, to build our stamina, white people must face the first challenge: naming our race’ (page 7).

One of the marks of privilege is the ability to insulate ourselves from such discomfort and pain. Perhaps this is also a problem for the Lukan community as they settle a bit more into the culture — that they will become oblivious to the real pain of the world. But insulating ourselves is the moral and spiritual equivalent of using opioids to deal with long-term pain issues. The pain doesn’t go away. We simply care much less about it. The more insulated we are, the less practice we have in sitting with the pain, and the lower our stamina is. “An antidote to white fragility is to build up our stamina to bear witness to the pain of racism that we cause,” DiAngelo writes, “not to impose conditions that require people of color to continually validate our denial” (page 128).

One of the marks of my own privilege is the simple temptation to keep all the pain of Reality at a distance. I can isolate myself physically and emotionally from the hard edges of contemporary life. I can unfriend, unfollow, and uncare. I can withdraw my attention and withhold my support. I can pretend that “everything is awesome” and that I can stop worrying and be happy. In short, I can use social and informational means to “opioid” my existence without investing in the chemicals.

So, I am personally convicted by this text and led to look for the marks of faithful stamina included here. It is clear that truth produces faithful stamina and self-deception reduces it. It is clear that informed discernment produces faithful stamina and superficial panic reduces it. It is clear that authentic community produces faithful stamina, and personal isolation reduces it. After all, the “you’s” addressed in this text are indeed plural.

I depend, for example, on my Antiracism book study group with which I meet weekly for conversation and accountability. We have been meeting for more than a year at this point. If it were not for that group, I would be far less motivated to continue growing and studying, practicing and advocating for my own Antiracist growth and changes in my world. That group continues to connect me as well to the larger community of Antiracist thinking and action through the resources we discuss.

Alert attention produces faithful stamina, and sullen slumber reduces it. This is not an exhortation to ongoing hypervigilance. Luke 21 is not an invitation to faith-based PTSD. Instead, this is about willing, patient, and prayerful mindfulness. When the physical threats are real, it may be necessary to flee to the mountains. The Gentiles of our own time may well triumph for a season, and that season may need to ripen to fulfillment. But alert attention – nourished by humble prayer – is the stance of Jesus followers for the long haul.

Just as holistic pain management is still a hard sell in the larger medical community (especially when pills are so much easier and so much more popular with us as consumers), so sitting with the pain of the world and exercising faithful stamina is not the response of choice for some “Christians” in the United States at this point. It is no wonder that we fall into the traps of polarization and prejudice that ensnare us.

This collision of worldviews takes place in the headlines on a daily basis and will be focused to a hard point around holiday tables this week. I’m not at all good at acknowledging either physical or social pain, so this is a gritty text for me. It’s good that we begin our Advent journey with this call to faithful stamina. So, I pray that I might lift up my head in the face of the pain and trust that my/our redemption is at hand.


References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context. Fortress Press, 2003.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Lalkhen, Abdul-Ghaaliq. An Anatomy of Pain: How the Body and the Mind Experience and Endure Physical Suffering. NewYork: Scribner, 2021.

Sleeth, Natalie. “Hymn of Promise.” http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/h/y/m/n/hymnprom.htm.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

West, Audrey. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-2125-36-5.

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Text Study for Luke 21:1-36 (Pt. 5); November 28, 2021

Working History

How does “history” work? The Lukan author is clearly interested in history and in the answer(s) to this question. The author is careful to date the events in this “orderly account.” The birth of John the Baptist in chapter one is dated to the reign of King Herod “the Great.” The Roman registration in chapter two is pegged to the administration of Quirinius as governor of the province of Syria.

The public ministry of John the Baptist in chapter 3 is dated to the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ imperial rule, the tenure of Pontius Pilate as prefect, Herod Antipas as puppet king of Galilee, Philip and Lysanias overseeing the balance of Jewish lands, and Annas and Caiaphas somehow sharing the office of high priest. We learn that Jesus is about thirty years old at this time, and that his pedigree extends from Joseph to Adam and thus to God.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com

The Lukan account sticks a fairly firm pin in the ancient timeline, no matter how many complications and inconsistencies the various dates might produce in hindsight. But how does history actually work? Does history run in ever repeating cycles, just as the days and the months and the seasons run through the same paces over and over? Or did it begin with a “golden age,” and it’s been downhill ever since? Or is there a direction, a goal, a purpose, an end to it all at some point?

The ancient Greeks proposed and elaborated the cyclical view of history. Plato thought that human governments devolved from aristocracy through democracy and into tyranny. Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero elaborated on this view. None of them regarded this model as a good thing and theorized how a society might “break” the cycle and sustain the best form of government. There was some difference in opinion about what that “best” form would be.

In the modern world, we have our ideas about cyclical, determined paths for history. Hegel was certain that history was moving toward the perfection of the human spirit as the perfect Idea. The dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis was moving inexorably toward the fulfillment of History (as opposed to “history”). Marx took this dialectic out of the spiritual realm and argued that scientific materialism mandated the triumph of the proletariat and the formation of a workers’ paradise. Of course, we’re still waiting.

The Romans had cyclical sympathies, but they were more taken with the Golden Age view of how history works. The founders of Rome were larger than life and produced glory and greatness. But as the Romans looked at themselves and their contemporary rulers, they could see fallible and frail humans who were anything but heroic. Therefore, history was the story of decline. This decline, however, was not inevitable. Rather, nearly every emperor promised a return to the “Golden Age.” Caesar Augustus declared that he had fulfilled such a promise in the Pax Romana.

Many people these days are living with some sort of “Golden Age” theory of the working of History. Vladimir Putin is quite certain that liberal democracy is an obsolete model that should be replaced with an enlightened autocracy (meaning one with him at the top). Right-wing politicians in the United States and a number of other countries agree with this assessment. In the United States that “Golden Age” also means the supremacy and domination of White Men, a regime which some hope to reassert and sustain with violence, if “necessary.”

I should pause to say that this conversation is framed largely in Western European terms. The question has been asked mostly by European men who have sought to justify their hegemonic colonialization of the world by a theory and/or theology of History. The question is framed in somewhat different ways in the global East and South. But the Lukan account has not had as much traction in those settings. So, the conversation now is admittedly parochial and privileged.

Enlightenment thinkers developed the theory and doctrine of progress. The Roman arrow of history was reversed. The Dark Ages were in the past. History was illuminated by the lamp of Reason, and the result was inevitable “progress.” While Hegel, Marx, and company described cyclical processes within History, the arrow of History as a whole was always “up” toward the fulfillment of human potential. Things were simply designed and destined to get “better.”

That bias toward “progress” is still the default view of history for the majority of people in the West. We know, if we take a moment, that the Enlightenment project came to a crashing halt in the trenches and under the machine guns of World War I. But our expectation of “progress” is dying a slow death. For example, one of the four-alarm emergencies in our American culture is that the next (White) generation may have a lower standard of living than previous generations. That decline takes our understanding of history and pulls the stuffing out of it.

In personal terms, we expect that we can somehow make things better. I think about conversations among White people discussing what to do about systemic and personal racism in this country. These days, it seems that antiracism efforts are not yielding straight-line progress toward diversity, equity, and inclusion. I hear White people who wilt under that reality. “Give me some hope!” they say. Without that hope, they might collapse into the inaction of despair.

Of course, the expectation of progress and the demand for “hope” are marks of privilege, whether we intend them to be or not. The doctrine of historical “progress” has been an article of faith only for those who have power, position, privilege, and property. This view of history is not one that makes sense for those upon whose bodies and at whose expenses the progress has been structured and accomplished. For people in that social location, progress is not an option. Resilient and patient endurance is the only reasonable response.

How, then, does “History” work? There is no natural, given, inevitable course of human history. There are no predictive “laws” of history which can be discerned and put to use. That is the fullest Enlightenment conceit, that somehow with enough charisma or calculation, we can see past the shrouded mists of the present and get a clear vision of the future. It’s no accident that two major science fiction projects, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, propose ways to commandeer the future. But, in fact, “history” itself is a construction and not a weather front or a differential equation.

The Lukan author is proposing and narrating a theology of history. And it sounds, for all the world, like another proposal for prognostication, prediction, and power. But the Lukan Apocalyptic discourse is not another human theory of how history “works.” Rather, it is a description of how Jesus followers live in a history that doesn’t “work.” It is, as Douglas John Hall puts it in The Cross in Our Context, mission as “living the story” (pages 192ff.).

Hall argues that this mission rests on a theology of faith, not sight; hope, not finality; and love, not power. We pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to discern God’s working in, with, and under the chaos of historical events. As the Church we are a community on the way (perhaps the way to Emmaus!), not an institution that has arrived somewhere. We are live as “hope in action,” not hope for results. And we are called to renounce any and every expression of institutional power, whether in congregations or denominations. Such power leads only to colonization, white supremacy, and the bodies of Native children buried on the grounds of now-defunct White schools.

Hall argues that this Jesus-centered view of history always leads us toward the world God loves. This world needs our witness, no matter how the world might penalize us for calling out falsehood and speaking God’s truth. There will be opportunities to be martyred, both in word and in deed. “We are not allowed to abandon [the reality of the Cross] in favor of some otherworldly consummation,” Hall writes, “some paradisiacal ecstasy, and certainly not by regarding this or that present personal or political estate as though it were nicely compatible with that shalom for which the Christian hope yearns” (page 216).

Yet, that is precisely the theological problem with White Christian Nationalism. More than anything else, White Christian Nationalism is a theology of history. It is a theology of history which declares that the “natural” and inevitable end and fulfillment of history is the ascendance and triumph of “Christian” Whiteness, at least in the system of American exceptionalism. Anything other than this White Christian ascendancy and supremacy is regarded as regression to a dark age (quite literally in terms of skin tone) and an abomination to the god behind this historical process.

A theology of history which demands power for its proponents and adherents always results in triumphalism. Triumphalism is both ideology and idolatry. Truth, beauty, and justice are required by a triumphalist system to conform to the pre-existing tenets of the ideology. And those tenets are constructed for the benefit of the proponents and adherents. The ideology no longer points to a god but rather becomes that god and demands ultimate obedience.

This is the import of Luke 21:8ff. Ideology equips individuals to claim the “I am” of God’s name for themselves and to claim to have their hands on the throttle of the historical process. Those in the thrall of ideology will compete with one another for domination. Truth-sayers will be persecuted and prosecuted. Bigger fish will eat smaller fish, only to be eaten by still bigger fish. People will lose their way (and their lives).

Yet, underneath it all, redemption is happening. This is not an optimistic statement. This is not a promise to the privileged of a happy ending sooner rather than later. Heaven and earth will pass away, of that there is no doubt. But that passing is not the last word of the History to come.

References and Resources

Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context. Fortress Press, 2003.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Sleeth, Natalie. “Hymn of Promise.” http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/h/y/m/n/hymnprom.htm.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

West, Audrey. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-2125-36-5.

Text Study for Luke 21:1-36 (Pt. 4); November 28, 2021

Living in the Tween Times

As we read the Lukan account this year, we must always remember that the Gospel According to Luke is the first part of a two-volume set. We will benefit if we read the Lukan work always with an eye toward the Acts of the Apostles. What seeds does Luke plant in the gospel soil that will bear fruit in the Jerusalem temple, in a eunuch’s chariot, on the Damascus Road, in the jails of Roman captors, in the halls of imperial administration? What foundations are laid, scaffolding erected upon which Luke will build the edifice of the Way?

The Lukan author always has an eye on the far missional horizon, the life of the Church in the six decades between Easter and the Lukan moment. We get a replay of those decades in Luke 21:7-24. After the long “peace” of Caesar Augustus and the uneven reign of Tiberius, the accumulated rage and lust for power began to work loose from its institutional constraints. Claudius was capable. Caligula went from the affection of his “Little Boots” nickname to institutional bloodlust. Nero was a neurotic narcissist.

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At first, the Jesus followers flew under the imperial radar. Their numbers simply didn’t elicit much notice. But the movement was growing. The Jesus Way was still primarily seen as another Jewish sect, at least by the Romans. So, when Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in the mid-forties, the Jewish Christians were caught up in the wash. Nero allowed them to return in the late fifties, but early in the next decade he scapegoated the Christians to cover the disaster of the Great Fire.

It was, perhaps, in this persecution that both Peter and Paul were executed, although we can’t be sure. Not long after that, the Jewish War commenced. Toward the end of this war, the Imperial regime disintegrated. It was the “Year of the Four Emperors,” filled with intrigue, coups, and assassination. In the following months, Jerusalem was sacked and leveled. Christians in Rome saw the triumphant procession of Titus (an emperor in the making) who presented the riches of the Temple to the Senate and people of Rome.

The ship of state was righted, but the world continued to reel and stagger. Emperor Vespasian died, to be succeeded by Titus. Vesuvius exploded and buried Pompeii and Herculaneum under ash and stone, not to be uncovered for 1800 years. Titus died of fever, to be succeeded by Domitian. Domitian focused some of his attention on the now noticeable Jesus movement and made the followers pay with their honor, their property, their pain, and their lives. It was of sufficient severity that the writer of the Apocalypse of John thought of Domitian as Nero reborn.

This is the world in which the Lukan author presents his “orderly account” to the “most excellent Theophilus.” This is a world where news of wars and insurrections has been a constant for two generations. Civil war and revolution have been averted by a whisker. Earthquakes, famine, and plagues have arrived with regularity. Jerusalem was surrounded by armies, and the faithful who were able fled to refuge. Jerusalem was trampled on by the Gentiles, the Temple was a few lonely stones, and the city was still in ruins.

All of this destruction was wrought by “the Gentiles” – those who were not part of the Covenant People of God, the Chosen People of Israel. Yet, these Gentiles are precisely the target of the Good News of Jesus Christ for the life of the world. The major turning point in the Book of Acts is the beginning of the mission to the Gentiles in chapters 10 and 11. We should notice that this beginning takes place in the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. There can be no clearer representative of the Imperial system of domination and violence than this man. It was men just like Cornelius who surrounded Jerusalem, starved the populace, slaughtered the babies, and desecrated the Holy of Holies.

The story of Cornelius is forty years before the debacle in Judea. He represents the progress of the gospel among the Gentiles. God tells Peter in a dream that what God has declared clean no one else should dare declare unclean. That’s true of food. And it’s true of people. The Jerusalem council, in Acts 11, ratifies this counsel and command from God and invites the Gentiles to embrace the covenant of Noah as part of our common humanity given from God the Creator.

The Empire will not be defeated by force of arms. That sort of resistance results in utter destruction for Jerusalem and Judea. Instead, in those early years, the Empire will be subverted from within, perhaps one centurion’s household at a time. Domination and death will continue as the order of the day on the surface of things, but something else is happening underneath. The trampling Gentiles will continue their rampage until their time is fulfilled. It is not fulfilled by victory but rather by conversion.

Is this how it actually worked out? That question demands a complex answer. But the Lukan author is proposing and narrating a Christian theology of history more than a report of actual events. The Markan composition urged the Jesus followers to hang in there for a little while longer. The End was coming soon. The Lukan account encourages Jesus followers to understand the deep workings of the Holy Spirit in, with, and under the currents of human and natural history and to see that “your redemption is drawing near” no matter how long it might take.

Thus, we start our Advent journey at the end rather than the beginning. “The Gospel texts for these four weeks run in reverse narrative order,” Audrey West writes, “starting near the end of Luke’s Gospel and moving backward to the beginning.” The Lukan discourse in chapter 21 takes us beyond the Cross and Resurrection into a preview of the life of the Church. Jesus has come once and will come again. How do we live the faith in the “Tween Times”?

I had a colleague years ago who loved to remind us of what he considered always to be the most important question. That question was, “What time is it?” Of course, he was not checking to see if it was time yet for dinner, although that’s an important question. He was asking for a discernment of God’s time in the midst of the world’s time. “Jesus in Luke 21 reminds his followers that God is not constrained by the chronos time represented by calendar and clock, the sort of time that keeps everything from happening at once,” Audrey West writes, “In God’s kairos time, past and future are woven together for the sake of today.”

How do we live the faith in the Tween Times? I am the proud grandparent of a “tween” (soon to be a full-fledged teen). I observe the challenges of that liminal stage of life. Adolescence is one long dance through the maze of being neither one thing nor another, neither fish nor fowl, neither child nor adult. And yet, the Tween stands at the threshold of this confusing journey which is more “both/and” than it is “either/or.”

Our tween doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being able to negotiate the maze, so God help us all. One of the tasks for us all in this journey is to see beneath the struggles and glimpse the glorious person who is unfolding and unfurling before our very eyes. The task of discernment for living in the Tween Times is much the same.

A fig tree shoots buds and unfurls leaves, and we can be sure that summer is near. The branches are still bare, and buds don’t look like much on their own. Yet the promise can barely be contained. I hope that in many Christian congregations this Sunday we will hear and sing the words of Natalie Sleeth’s “Hymn of Promise.” It is a perfect complement to our text and to the inauguration of yet another Advent. I encourage to find the lyrics here.

The Lukan author is sure that the season of revealing is now, while the season of fulfillment is not yet. “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:31, NRSV). The bulb, the cocoon, the cold and snow are not the end or the goal. But they are signposts pointing to what is to come and evidence of what is already happening under the surface, invisible to the un-Spirited eye.

 Anne and I were part of a community honored to meet Natalie Sleeth and have dinner with her in 1981. She and her husband, Ron, joined us for that meal. He shared his creative theological research, and she described her prayerful process of composition. It was a rich and inspiring evening of conversation, one that stays in my mind forty years later.

A few years after that evening, Sleeth composed the “Hymn of Promise.”  She wrote that the hymn came about as she was “pondering the death of a friend (life and death, death and resurrection), pondering winter and spring (seeming opposites), and a T. S. Eliot poem which had the phrase, ‘In our end is our beginning.’ These seemingly contradictory pairs led to the thesis of the song and the hopeful message that out of one will come the other whenever God chooses to bring that about.”

About that time, her beloved Ron fell ill. Shortly before his death, he heard the hymn for the first time. He asked that it would be presented at his funeral. He heard the powerful promise in the words and the hope in the music. Life in the Tweens does not answer to the powers of domination and despair. This life is our answer to the call to stand up and raise our heads…

References and Resources

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Sleeth, Natalie. “Hymn of Promise.” http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/h/y/m/n/hymnprom.htm.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

West, Audrey. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-2125-36-5.

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