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. 27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." 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 does not 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."
Courage to Hope not Fear
I love all of the preparations for Christmas – the cookie baking, Christmas concerts, Christmas shopping, decorating the tree and the house, the Christmas cards – well… I never write mine until well after the season Christmas is passed. But… I love it all.
But today’s Gospel not about any of that. Instead, the message sounds ominous: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars and on the earth distress... and the roaring of the seas and the waves.” And not only signs – but warnings: “Be alert” ; “watch”;” be ready”. Jesus’ words are enough to strike fear into our hearts.
Fear is a powerful force. And it is meant to be. Fear gets the adrenaline pumping allowing people to flee from danger – like the Campfire in California. And fear can cause people to stand their ground and fight when attacked, for example, by a bear in the wilderness. Or fear can cause someone who is strong to freeze in place. But in each of these cases - fear elicits a reaction.
Fear is exactly the right response when one is facing a grizzly bear or a wildfire. Brain scientists say that fear is a primordial survival tactic that operates out of the brain stem. Fear focuses our attention. Peter Steink, a congregational systems consultant and ELCA pastor, says this is the work of the part of the brain called the “amygdala, ” which acts as our body’s anxiety alarm system, or “Fear button.” It shuts down our thinking and makes us makes us want certainty. It eliminates our imagination and limits our vision. This is very helpful when you are facing something that is life threatening. You need to be full of adrenaline and focus.
However, when you are afraid, you cannot reason, you cannot think. You can only react. When we are afraid, we cannot use any of the gifts God gave us of reason or compassion, curiosity or imagination.
This is why Dr. David Lose, a pastor and theologian, makes the claim that “the greatest challenge we face today is not war, or economic inequity, or community unrest, or prejudice, or division, but fear.”1
This isn’t a new problem. Pharaoh was afraid of the growing number of strong Israelites – so what did he do?. He declared them “other”. He turned them into an enemy that he could exploit and enslave. Not too different than today’s despots. Fear also causes us to horde, like one of the characters in Jesus’ parables, assuming that we will never have enough. But Jesus said that the one who hoarded lost it all that night. Fear makes us make bad choices. Fear also drives wedges of distrust instead of compassion into our relationships. Fear causes us to look for differences – instead of our common ground. And, as Lose says, fear “drives us inward, hardens our hearts, darkens our vision, and stunts our imagination.”1
But that is not what God wants for us. When God sends a messenger, often the first words are: “Do not be afraid!” Granted, that may be because to see an angel of the Lord is a frightening thing, but God’s intention is not to instill fear in us.
God gave us more than just a reactionary brain. Our left frontal cortex allows us to be reflective; and to put things in story narrative. This allows us to make sense of the situation and our lives not only from our own knee jerk self interest but also from a different light and from someone else’s perspective.2
Jesus warns his followers of the signs and wonders that will happen. But he does this not so that they will fight or flee or freeze. Instead, Jesus says, “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
That takes courage.
It takes courage to stand up when others are fearful. It takes courage to appeal to reason rather than join in the fray of insults. It takes courage – and imagination – to consider another way than the two competing alternatives.
It takes courage to dare to hope and believe in the promises of Jesus. But Jesus also tells his disciples – and us – that while heaven and earth will come to an end, his Words will remain.
Jesus’ words will remain. So what are these words?
Our Gospel reading for today comes right before Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. Listen to Jesus’ words: “This is my body, given for you; this is my blood, shed for you.” Jesus offers himself as real presence. After they crucify him, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And Jesus gives his disciples then and now a new role, saying, “You are my witnesses”.
Jesus’ empowers us to be witnesses, to offer hope and imaginative possibilities to the world rather than fear. God gives us the courage to believe in the promises of Jesus, knowing that there is “nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
We are still in the midst of God’s story here on earth. So we will continue to watch and pray and act with hope and imagination so that we can be a part of God’s kingdom here on earth. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Pastor Pam Stalheim Lane
Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran Church, December 2, 2018
2. Peter Steinke at Workshop at Westwood Lutheran church 2009