1st Advent November 29, 2015 Luke 21: 25-36
Rev. Catherine Purves
Andrew and I just finished binge watching a new series on Amazon. Perhaps you’ve heard of it: The Man in the High Castle. I was hooked almost immediately, because the premise of the series was so intriguing. The setting for the story is post -World War II America in the early 1960’s. But this is an America that is totally different, because in this ‘historical’ drama, Germany and Japan won the war. An atomic bomb was dropped on Washington, D.C., not on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When our government collapsed, Germany invaded and annexed the East Coast and the Midwest. Japan claimed the West Coast. In between there was a no man’s land called the Neutral Zone.
As a result of this devastating defeat and occupation, the culture of America is completely changed, because the trajectory of history has been drastically altered. Americans are a frightened and subdued people. Some no longer even question the ways of the Nazis with their imported crematoria and glorified military. Others grumble quietly, but keep their heads down. The twin powers of Germany and Japan are just too strong and too brutal. On both coasts the imposed cultures are oppressive, and the Neutral Zone looks like the Wild West with no sense of law and order. Minorities who faced extermination have fled there along with a small band of brave souls who hope to start a resistance movement. Against overwhelming odds, they have decided to take a stand against the combined forces of Germany and Japan. They will not dip their heads in submission. They will stand up and risk everything so that a different future, a hopeful future, might be envisioned.
When I read the Gospel text for this first Sunday of Advent, I immediately thought of that series, The Man in the High Castle. I think it was because it portrayed a completely re-envisioned world, a world that was suddenly changed, unpredictable, and unreliable. When things start to change in radical ways, it is disarming and frightening. This kind of cosmic shift is what is described in the Gospel of Luke. He quotes what Jesus said about signs in the heavens – the sun, the moon and the stars. And, on earth, we are told that there will be distress among nations. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”
Fear and foreboding are our enemies. They were potentially corrosive to the early church, eating away at faith, diminishing resolve, undermining trust and community. And we too, when we see great powers moving, powers that have the ability to change the world, we too can become fearful. We are easily unnerved by the uncertainty of our times and the threat posed by forces we barely understand and cannot control. Fear and foreboding are our enemies. They make us want to keep our heads down, stay anonymous, and even tolerate injustice if it makes us feel safe. We assume that we are powerless, and so we do nothing. We do not speak out. These were certainly the temptations and threats which the early church faced. And we find ourselves in that same situation, in a suddenly transformed America in which to be a Christian, to stand up and raise our heads, as Jesus called us to do, is not easy, or comfortable, or even, perhaps, safe.
What are these powers that have the ability to tempt us to fall back into fear and foreboding? They are legion. We live in unpredictable economic times. The cost of living keeps going up while the job market is shrinking, social security is anything but secure, the big banks and multi-national corporations are not to be trusted, and everything seems to be running on borrowed money. The environment is changing, the weather is becoming more extreme, ice caps are melting, species are becoming extinct. Jesus spoke of signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and the roaring of the sea. Certainly, today we see our own environmental signs that have the power to make us fear for the future. Among the nations we see war and rumors of war. Terrorism is now global. And those who are fleeing terrorism are sweeping across borders. Fear of the immigrant, the refugee, the outsider, is gripping Europe and America. Even things that we cannot see pose a threat which fills us with foreboding: viruses, bacteria, everything from E. coli to Ebola. We are witnessing outbreaks of disease that we cannot control. And we face the added threat of germ agents that may be used as weapons.
As Christians, what can, what must we do in the face of such threats? As we see the world changing in these frightening ways, how can we keep from fainting in fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world? Jesus calls us to envision another future. He tells us to look for the signs of these ominous changes, but to have faith that the future belongs to God. Jesus tells us to be alert and to be on guard so that our hearts are not weighed down with worry, but we are not to hide, or live in denial, or remain silent in the face of the onslaught of the powers of evil. That is because we know that those powers have already been defeated. We must not be sucked into the webs of evil that feed on fear and foreboding. On the contrary, Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
We must bravely proclaim the truth in word and deed. Jesus is Lord. The way of Jesus is the way of truth. If we are to live by the truth that he taught and lived, then we cannot give in to fear and foreboding. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and he died for that neighbor. So too, we must stand up and raise our heads and love our neighbor, even if our neighbor is of a different race, or a different faith, or a refugee, or if he might take your job, or if she is sick and even contagious. Fear wins when we hide, when we don’t speak out against evils like racism, corporate greed, the destruction of the environment, and the proliferation of violence. Evil wins when we do not have the strength of faith to resist it.
But the power of evil that inspires such fear and foreboding is based on a lie. The lie is that anything can happen, that we are not safe, and that what we do – the risks we take, the sacrifices we make – these don’t matter because we can’t stand up to evil. That is a lie. It is true that we alone cannot defeat the power of sin and evil. But we don’t have to. Jesus has already done that.
Still, this is a lie that is terribly effective: that what we do can’t make a difference. This lie tempts us to keep our heads down and bow before the threats we see, or even participate in the lie by giving in to sin. We cannot do that as Christians. We are part of the resistance which must fight against evil and the forces of destruction. We will not win the war, because the war is already won, but we must stand up and raise our heads and live bravely as Jesus taught us. We must love the Lord our God and love our neighbors as ourselves. This is how we deny the lie and live in the truth.
When I was watching that TV series, The Man in the High Castle, that portrayed a completely different America in which oppressive and violent powers had pulled the country apart, I couldn’t help but wonder – where were all the Christians? They were not in evidence. The members of the resistance movement fought for family or freedom, not for God or Christ. They hoped for a different future, but that hope was not rooted in faith. Surely, we who have faith should be strengthened even more to stand up and raise our heads, to speak out and unmask the lie and affirm the truth.
During World War II, the real one, we know that Christians did stand up and raise their heads, certainly not all, but some. One who was particularly outspoken was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Perhaps his most famous book was entitled, The Cost of Discipleship. Some of you no doubt know his story. By standing up, raising his head, and speaking out against Hitler he was risking his life. In 1939 American friends managed to get him out of Germany and he lived in America for a time. But he felt he must go back to stand with the Christian resistance. This was the cost of discipleship. Bonhoeffer was eventually arrested and placed in prison and then sent to a concentration camp. He was executed on April 9th, 1945, just a few days before the Allied invasion would have rescued him.
Bonhoeffer’s story certainly reminds us that there is a cost to discipleship. That was true for Christians in wartime Germany and it is true for Christians today. Nonetheless, this is the discipleship to which we are called. We must be alert. We must be on guard. The world is changing very quickly. There are many threats that will inspire fear and foreboding. We face the same challenges that the early Christians faced and that Christians like Bonhoeffer faced.
But Scripture tells us: “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” and “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3: 14-15). To do that, we must stand up and raise our heads and speak out and live our faith. This is the cost of discipleship. In the face of evil and in spite of the lie, we must respond to the call of Jesus: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”