s148g00 Somerton Park 3/12/2000 Advent 1 c
"Be alert at all times ..." Luke 21.36
Sometimes when one reads words like these in the gospel it seems as if Jesus makes cardinal virtues of teetotalism and insomnia :-) This can lead to some anxiety - particularly among those who like an occasional red wine, and our beds after a long day :-) I suppose everyone has had the experience of speeding through a small town in the country, and as one says, "if you blink you would miss it". Jesus' words can affect us like that too. Christianity can become an eternal looking outside of ourselves for God to finally act. If we let down our guard, even for a second, it might pass us by. And, of course, knowing my luck ...
Actually I wouldn't worship any "god" that operated like this. This is a demon about as far removed from the Jesus who sat down and ate with sinners as one could get. A "god" that operated like this could hardly be described as loving. And it leads me to ask, is this the same Jesus as the one some criticized saying: "the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'"? (Luke 7:34). How do we make sense of all this?
I am no expert when it comes to apocalyptic literature of which our gospel reading today is an example. However it was born out of the conflicts between the ancient people of God and their various conquerers. The Jewish nation was repeatedly overrun by the megalomaniacs of the particular time, as the Holy Land was an important and strategic land route between the various centres of real political power - Egypt to the south, Mesopotamia to the north east, and Greece and Rome to the north west. Each new conquerer set up their own particular gods and repressed the gods of those they conquered. It was so often religion which formed the nucleus of resistance and opposition to their rule. The apocalyptic literature stemmed from coded messages of resistance, rebellion and the hope of final vindication. It was basically veiled propaganda. One could well imagine words in a similar vein being bandied around to this day. The literature was written to encourage the people to fight on, and to be confident that God would act.
In the words of Morton S Enslin (The Interpreter's One Volume Commentary of the Bible ed Charles M Layman p1106) - they "were not written ... as puzzles for the curious to afford glimpses of history still far in the future. Rather they were intended as sources of strength and confidence for contemporaries of the author who were in a period of crisis and needed encouragement to stand firm in the testing days immediately at hand. Their message is that despite the machinations of wicked men and nations shameless in their opposition to God and his ... people - and each author seems convinced that the last and superlative act of outrage has just then been perpetrated - God's purpose cannot be stayed or thwarted. Now at this very instant, after so long a time of misery and degradation, the final glorious victory is to be achieved. In this time of crisis - one might better say of 'destiny' - (people) are to stand firm, to gird up their loins and meet the final onslaught ..."
We feel uncomfortable hearing these words on Jesus' lips, I suspect because we do not appreciate the spiritual warfare in which Jesus was engaged. However conflict there was - but this conflict was not against the pagan nations occupying Jerusalem, it was with the very religious authorities themselves, whose religion was to the exclusion of the ordinary people. We do not in fact ever read Matthew 23:13-39 on Sunday mornings in Church, where repeatedly Jesus thoroughly lambastes the scribes and the Pharisees - 'hypocrites!' Luke certainly tones these words down to a simple criticism of the scribes with their long robes (Lk 20:45f). But it is straight after these words that Jesus utters these words about the destruction of the Temple and about signs and persecutions and the end times.
Indeed one has only to see the progression from the cleansing of the Temple, the withering of the fig tree, and the parable about the wicked tenants, to begin to appreciate the reality of the conflict going on.
So the purpose of the words is the same as the purpose for all apocalyptic literature - stand firm, keep the faith, right and God will prevail. And Jesus uses the veiled language of the genre, to highlight the conflict, and to reassure all for whom he died that still their salvation is assured.
When the words are uttered against the religious authorities they become a solemn curse, just as Jesus cursed the fig tree, for it is a spiritual warfare in which he was engaged and that warfare is on our behalf. The religious authorities have become the illegal aliens occupying the Temple and setting up alien gods to the exclusion of the common people. All religion which is at the expense of the uninitiated, the uninformed, the poor, the widow and the alien had no place in God's Temple. These are the marks of every idolatrous religion, not pictures and statues.
And just as the Jewish people used apocalyptic literature to encourage one another in the depths of despair in which they found themselves - so too Jesus spoke these words to protect the disciples, knowing their coming despair and aloneness, when on the Cross he could not aid them.
The words of today's gospel are the other side of the agony in the garden of Gethsemane. In our words of today they are an acceptance of the intransigence of the religious authorities. In the garden of Gethsemane, they are a prayer that the authorities might not be intransigent, that the pain may not have to be experienced.
And the actions of Jesus were on our behalf. The fight that he fought was against the religious authorities who denied ordinary people access to God.
And their remains still religious authorities who want still to deny ordinary people, the uninitiated, the uninformed, the poor the widow and the alien, access to God, and so the warfare continues.
And so Jesus tells us to be careful that our hearts are not weighed down with ... the worries of this life ... Whatever happens, no one will be able to separate us from the love of God ... While the original apocalyptic writers may well have been encouraging the people of God to take up arms and fight to the death for the cause of God, Jesus called his disciples simply to stand firm. The conflict in which he was engaged was his alone, fought for them, and never the other way around.
The victory has been won, Jesus will never die again, we do have access to the Father, each and every one of us, all people, except of course those who want to be there alone, to the exclusion of others.
However the trials and tribulations that Jesus' describes actually turn out to occur, we are bidden not to fear but to: "stand up and raise (our) heads" in confidence. Trials and tribulations come to us all, some perhaps more than others. But we have nothing to fear.
In this and in many other senses Jesus warns us not to miss out on life.
I was very grateful to be reminded by someone of the correct form of the saying: "life is what happens when you're busy making other plans". And there are people who live "if only" sort of lives. They would be happy "if only" they had more money, "if only" we sang the right sort of music in church, "if only" everyone tithed, "if only" no one sinned, "if only" the government or the diocese fixed this or that problem ... I mean the list is endless ...
The reality is that to live an "if only" sort of life, means putting one's happiness on hold - essentially blaming others for our own unhappiness. It means that we miss out on an awful lot of happiness that is already around us, and that is indeed sad.
So there is need for caution in this life, for while we can indeed depend on the love of God, we can be sure that others are not so generous. It is easy to become trapped following this or that bandwagon. It is easy to begin to doubt that God can save me or indeed anyone else.
I am grateful to one of my students for SFE who made the astute remark that there is something quite odd about the saved community to be so frequently worried about its own self preservation :-)
While none of us have to fear for our salvation, except if we expect to do it alone, we do have to be alert to being "sucked in" by those who want to make "a good showing in the flesh" (Gal 6.12) "excluding" others, if that was actually possible.
Sometimes I have thought that the crucifixion of Jesus was rather a tragic mistake; perhaps one of those classic misunderstandings, which a skilled mediator might well have resolved. As I read my own words, I see that the clash of Jesus against the hierarchy was not any misunderstanding to be mediated away. Jesus died because he said in no uncertain terms, in the words of the apocalyptic, which they could not fail to understand, that they, the religious authorities were essentially impostors, who were proclaiming an alien religion of salvation for the initiated, the rich, and the powerful; to the exclusion of the poor, the widow and the alien.
And we are bidden to take heart, to live life to the full provided ever it is not at the expense of someone else. We will indeed make mistakes, but we can be confident and know that when we come to worship God, there is a place for everyone here, because Jesus died that everyone might have a place.
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