“The Adventure Begins: Jerusalem”

“The Adventure Begins: Jerusalem”
Meditation by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
December 2, 2012

Luke 21: (20) 25-36

Our passage this morning is the gospel text assigned for the First Sunday of Advent. It comes from the 21st chapter of Luke’s gospel. Each of the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain a section in which Jesus, standing in the Temple in Jerusalem, just a few short days before his crucifixion, predicts earthshaking events, including the destruction of the city of Jerusalem – and that the son of man will come in the clouds. It’s unsettling material, frankly. We pick up now with Jesus’ words after he says that Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies and trampled on by Gentiles.

‘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.’

Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

‘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, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 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.’

It is always a challenge for a pastor to preach on the First Sunday of Advent. That’s why I like to have to have Dan do it! Every year, without fail, the assigned Gospel reading for the day, (whether it is from Matthew, Mark or Luke) contains this weird apocalyptic material. In it, Jesus talks about Jerusalem being overtaken, and about earthquakes, famine, wars and rumors of war and signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars and distress on the earth as the nations are confused by the roaring of the sea… And then he says the Son of Man will come on a cloud… It would take thirty minutes at least to begin to unpack all of that.

There are whole theologies that have been crafted around predicting and describing the end of the world based on texts like this. My aunt who lives in Tulsa asked me back when I was in seminary, “Are you a premillennialist, a postmillennialist, or a pammillenialist?” When I looked confused, she said, “Well the millennium, the 1000 year reign of Christ, do you think that’s already happened or that it hasn’t happened yet? Are you premillenial, or postmillennial? Or do you think that it doesn’t matter because it will all pan out in the end? That’s panmillenial!” “Well,” I told her, “I guess, Judy, that I’m panmillenial in the end.”

Why does Advent always have to start with a scripture reading that looks and sounds like a trailer for an action-adventure thriller? One that seems drawn from footage of natural disasters we’ve seen on T.V., from Super storm Sandy, to Katrina, the tsunamis, to the falling of the Twin Towers? Why does Advent have to start with apocalyptic? Because, I think somebody somewhere (inspired by God) doesn’t want us to get complacent, so settled in to a routine, in church or elsewhere, that we miss out in all of our busyness on the real task of the Advent season, which is not really so much about getting ready for Christmas as it is about getting ready for Christ… And that is an adventure.

You know how it goes to get so wrapped up in preparation and activities that you miss the point of the season. You can pull out the tree, put up the wreaths, buy the gifts, take part in the cantata, the pageant, the parties and the swirl of all of that, and then you get to the end of the season and you think, “What the heck just happened? Where did the season go?” You lose the sense that not just Advent – but life with God can be and should be an adventure and not just a humdrum checking off of a list. Even more than that, you can lose the sense that this adventure gets carried out in the real world of real human problems and issues, not in some kind of fantasy land where nothing untoward ever happens to us or to people we love and everything goes according to our best-laid plans.

We live in a world where human beings do wonderful things, yes, but also terrible things: a world of warfare and terrorism, a world of ecological disasters and economic realities, a world of illness and stress, where judges are not always merciful and the Earth is fragile. We don’t get to take December off from those things. Indeed, it is in the adventure of facing and responding to those realities that God is, or at least can be revealed in a love that challenges us insistently and comforts us eternally.

It is interesting to me that our Advent adventure always begins in Jerusalem. In Israelite history Jerusalem is the place which became the seat of the Temple: the center of Israel’s worship life and in their imagination, God’s dwelling place. It was also the political capital of the Southern Kingdom of Judah: King David’s royal home base, the site of the palace.

Jerusalem remains significant today as a holy site for more than half of the world’s population. Christians, Muslims and Jews all have special ties to the place. It has been the site of intense interreligious conflict over the centuries. Oh, Jerusalem is a real, geographical place, as people who have visited there can tell you, as people who have spilled blood over it will tell you. But I think it can serve as a metaphor as well. As a metaphor, Jerusalem stands for the times we think that everything is settled and wrapped up: that the big stones we have used to piece together our lives and theologies, our political ideologies (left and right), and our other stances can’t ever be pulled down. Jerusalem stands for the established places and views that we think can never be moved or changed, the current realities of our lives that we would like to think will never, ever, be different, and the physical bodies we inhabit which will indeed for all of us wear out. Jerusalem stands for all that seems settled and secure.

wbsnThe Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, a portion of the retaining wall of the Temple which was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans. 

What our text from Luke says, here at the gateway to Advent, is that our Jerusalems will not last forever. The Earth you dwell on is fragile and needs care, and without that, hardship will come. The body in which you live may last you a lifetime, but it will eventually give out. The relationships you form and which form you may last in eternity, but they too will go through hard times and at some point will involve goodbyes as loved ones die, or move on…. The political certainties you thought you could count on forever will end. In the middle of all of that there is one reality that will last – God. God, whose word stands over, above, within and beyond it all, whose expectations are high, and whose love is embodied in human beings like Jesus.

So Luke says one thing more. Luke says that when all of this begins to take place, when the Jerusalem you counted on is crumbling, when it feels like the world is falling apart – stand up and raise your heads, because redemption is drawing near. Maybe redemption draws near when we remember what is really important in life.

I wonder what does it mean to stand up and raise our heads? I think it may mean to look for help when we need it, and as much as possible to “be help” when we are needed.

It is first of all to pray, “Hey, I can’t do this on my own. I need your help, God.”

It is to say to friends and family, “Hey, the challenges of life are getting to be too much for me. I need you, I need your help.”

But sometimes standing up and raising our heads involves recognizing that with God’s help we can be part of the solution to other people’s need.

Later this month, the first installment of The Hobbit, Peter Jackson’s cinematic take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic book of the same name, will be released. Hobbits, as you may know, are short little human-like creatures, who are distinguished by their small stature, their furry feet, and their love for the simple good things in life – like food and ale. They are, above all, homebodies.

Early in Tolkien’s book the wizard Gandalf shows up at the dwelling of the main character, Bilbo Baggins. After some initial pleasantries, Gandalf gets right to the point. “I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.” To which Bilbo replies, “I should think so – in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”(1)

What you figure out when you go back and reread the story of the Hobbit is that it is at the moment of Gandalf’s visit that redemption begins. Because that is when this little hobbit stands up, raises his head and sets off on the adventure.

fmp-the-hobbit

So we have an Advent adventure before us.  Jerusalems may crumble. We may be late for dinner but we have a sustaining meal to nourish us on our way.

One more thought, before I close. This one is from Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf. She said, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”(2)

In Jesus’ name.
Amen.

Aaron D. Fulp-Eickstaedt

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit or There and Back Again  (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1937).

[2] Helen Keller, The Open Door (New York: Doubleday, 1957).

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