I grew up here in the Bible Belt…well, all over it, really, and when I was in middle school (junior high), I remember riding the bus through the mountains of East Tennessee…which you might call “the buckle”…with my baby sister Elisabeth and my best friend Shannon. The three of us often shared a seat, or Shannon would sit with her little brother in the seat just next to ours. It was a time for the important conversations of middle school: which teacher was being “nice” this week (this usually meant who had decided against giving us homework), what we were hoping to get our parents to let us do over the weekend (which usually meant trying to persuade them to let us spend all waking hours and most sleeping ones together), and, of course, who liked who (this was junior high, after all. Jesus says not to judge us).
But I remember one particular morning as we drove along, past drop-off shoulders down sides of small mountains (hills in East Tennessee…mountains to those of us who call Montgomery home) and around the curve by the cemetery at the top of the hill, some other kids on the bus told us that ketchup was declared a vegetable and the world was going to end that very afternoon. They had heard it on the radio over breakfast, and so they knew it was true. Jesus was coming back, and the world would end in a blaze of fire and fury. Just. Like. That.
I was a little concerned that Elisabeth might hear this particular conversation and be unduly worried. After all, she is 6 ½ years younger than me, and it was my JOB to protect her from unreasonable worry (unless I was the one administering it, of course). So my friend Shannon and I, being the intelligent, reasonable, older siblings, began to refute this world-ending prophesy as a possibility. I pulled out some conversation I had had with my dad about the matter, citing my confirmation curriculum and the particular wisdom which comes from being a Lutheran in the Bible Belt. “Of course, Jesus isn’t coming this afternoon! The Bible clearly says that Jesus will come like a thief in the night! If you can say the hour or the day, it just can’t be true!! 2 Peter.” And I don’t know about Shannon, but I felt pretty smart that morning…teaching those born-again Christians what the Bible really says.
And as we argued, voices getting louder and louder, my little sister, whom I had nearly forgotten in my righteous fervor, piped up: “But if Jesus is coming,” she said, “what do we do in the meantime?”
In the meantime…
The gospel lesson today takes me right back to that scene on the bus in the hills of Morristown, the smell of hot vinyl seats and rubber erasers and bodies not washed nearly recently enough.
“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."”
Can you smell the vinyl and the brimstone?
I really wish that Luke had added a “but then” in the middle there.
Because then, we might read it like this, “It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking. And [But] then—then!—they’ll see the Son of Man welcomed in grand style—a glorious welcome! When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!”
Help is on the way! Jesus is coming! Not as a matter of alarm, but as a matter of alleluia!! The listeners of Luke in that day would have understood this passage to mean that Christians should be alert, should be paying attention, for the coming of Christ. That is, not so caught up in the expectations of the world or of the season…parties, drinking, shopping, maybe even the worrying that comes with daily living…not be so caught up in all of that that they forget to remain confident, even eager, as they look for signs that signal the coming of the Son of Man.
The listeners of Luke in the time of the gospel writing were all too familiar with war, famine, and destruction. They looked with hopeful anticipation toward the day that Jesus would return to end the Roman Empire once-and-for-all, to end the oppression for those who followed Christ.
Luke was sensitive to that, of course. And he pushed his listeners to stand in the in-between space. In other words, Luke changes the question from “when is Jesus coming?” to “what do we do in the meantime?” It is that in-between time, that in-the-meantime, which opens space for the mission of God and our participation in it. So that no matter what rumors are heard, the church is to remain committed to ministry in the world.
Now in this time and place, we know, thank you, science, that the world will not end this afternoon. But AT THE SAME TIME, we are well acquainted with the challenges that come while waiting for an event that seems slow to transpire.
What are you waiting for?
The end of childhood hunger both here and abroad.
Reconciliation with a loved one.
A welcome for refugees.
Civil rights and acceptance for LGBTQ folks.
The cessation of violence in this country against Black and Brown bodies.
And how do we feel in that waiting time? Are we fraught with tension? With anxiety or anticipation? Maybe so. But Luke would remind us that we are also to be leaning toward hope. Hope that comes because we know the rest of the story.
And that hope is where we draw strength for our participation in God’s mission in the world.
We await the coming of Christ, but we do not do so idly.
My professor David Lose says, “From Moses to Martin Luther King, Jr., history is full of examples of those who, because they had been to the mountaintop, had peered into the promised land, and had heard and believed the promise of a better future, found the challenges of the present not only endurable, but hopeful. We, too, amid the very real setbacks, disappointments, or worries of this life, can "stand up and raise [our] heads" because we have heard Jesus' promise that our "redemption draws near."
We, too, have heard that Jesus is coming.
How will you raise your head? How will you get up on your feet? How can you prepare the way for the coming of Christ in the days to come? Can you find a new or deeper way to participate in Lunches for Learning? Can you be a voice for someone who has none? Can you be an advocate for those folks who live in the margins here in Montgomery…margins because of gender or sexuality or poverty or religion or race? Can you share your time and your resources? Or can you bear witness in your daily interactions…as I like to say to the good folks at Christ in Prattville…how can you be an ordinary radical…that is interjecting hope into dim spaces…providing a spark of extraordinary in the lives of your neighbors?
Speak up when you see little injustices. Write your representatives when you see big ones. Begin conversations which might change the lives of the ones with whom you speak…or which might just change your own life. Welcome others in to your presence and thereby welcome them in to the presence of God.
Turns out, my baby sister is a powerful schoolbus theologian.
Jesus is coming. Thanks be to God!
Now, what are we going to do in the meantime?