Sunday, December 2, 2018

Phil Kniss: How to keep your head up in the apocalypse

Advent 1: “HOPE: Watching & Waiting”
Psalm 25:1-10; Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36

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A little bit crazy, and a whole lot inspiring.

That’s how I would describe Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet,
and Wendell Berry, the American writer, activist, farmer,
and cultural critic.

First, Jeremiah.
We just had a short, and very hopeful, quote of his
as one of our lectionary texts this morning.
“The days are surely coming
when the Lord will fulfill all promises made.
A righteous Branch will spring up for David;
and execute justice and righteousness in the land.
Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”

What you may not have thought about
while you were hearing that scripture reading this morning,
is the part of Jeremiah that preceded it,
wherein things in the land of Judah are in a nosedive,
and all hell is breaking loose.

Jeremiah and all the people of Jerusalem,
were inside the city walls
under siege by the great armies of the Babylonian Empire.

Babylon had siege ramps built against the city walls.
They had heavy weapons aimed at the gates.
Not a soul could walk into or out of the city.
The Israelites had just enough military strength
to hold the gates . . . for the moment,
and keep the Babylonians from charging in,
but winning this battle was out of the question.
If they could hold on two more weeks, they would be lucky.
In fact, they had started tearing down their own houses,
so they’d have the stones they needed
to reinforce the crumbling city walls.
All Babylon had to do, was keep up the pressure . . . and wait.
Soon the people inside would run out of food.
After enough people starved to death,
they would weaken
and Babylon could break through the gates.
It was just a matter of time.
And Babylon had all the time in the world.

Then in the middle of this horror, Jeremiah does something crazy—
and inspiring—I guess.
He buys some land just outside the city walls.
God told him to, and he did.
Jeremiah goes downtown to the Jerusalem land office,
hands over 17 shekels of silver for this field,
and in front of a crowd of witnesses,
signs and seals the deed of purchase.
Creative, but not very bright.
In a few weeks, Jerusalem as they know it will be history.
Their own government will collapse,
and King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon will be in charge.
That property deed will not be worth the paper it’s written on.
And Jeremiah knew it.
But this was not the act of an entrepreneur.
Jeremiah was a prophet.
This was a speech act.
He was speaking hope to a hopeless people.
He was keeping his head up during an apocalypse.

In the middle of all the hell that was breaking loose,
Jeremiah saw signs of hope that no one else saw.
With upturned eyes, he looked, and saw a branch.
A branch—now that’s an odd metaphor, for these circumstances.
Jeremiah said the coming Messiah, who will set things right,
is like a branch.
A branch doesn’t burst on the scene and turn things upside down.
A branch emerges.
So slowly, you hardly see it when it first appears.
A tender shoot, when it first emerges from the trunk,
is both fragile, and hard to notice unless you’re looking.

Jeremiah was looking.
He saw the tiny bud of a righteous branch.
“The day is surely coming,” he said,
“when a new branch will come forth
and completely change the landscape.”

I think you all recognize that we live in a world
where the landscape badly needs to be changed.

It’s not the first time for us.
Some of you can remember back to days of the Vietnam War,
when our country,
and yes, even our church,
was deeply divided over the right course of action for our country.
Everywhere was unrest,
outbreaks of violence,
hateful acts and hateful speech,
a reactive and defensive government,
who didn’t know what to do with the resistance to the war.

Here is where I point out Wendell Berry,
who in the early 1970s wrote an often-quoted poem, called,
“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

He started out by naming all the things we could do,
to go along with the powers that be. And I quote:
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made.
Be afraid to know your neighbors . . .
[Be afraid] to die.

But then he shifts gears, and speaks to those inclined
to resist those powers, and be a “Mad Farmer” like he was.
To those he advises, and I quote:
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium.
Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Expect the end of the world.
Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable.
Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.
Practice resurrection.

Now, do you imagine that either Jeremiah or Wendell Berry
were oblivious to the reality around them?
Were they living in denial, and suggesting we should, too?
Or were they trying to sell some psychological hooey—
the “power of positive thinking,”
trying to convince us that if we can imagine it,
it will happen?

No, it was neither one of those things.
It was neither denial, nor psychological manipulation of reality.

They were in touch with the same truth Jesus was in touch with,
when he taught his disciples how to live in the coming apocalypse.

Jesus said, in Luke 21, “Things will be bad.”
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on the earth distress among nations.
People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming.”
That sounds vaguely familiar, like some op-ed pages I’ve read recently.
But Jesus goes on.
“Then,” he said, “you will see me coming.”
“When these things begin to take place,
stand up and raise your heads—raise your heads—
because your redemption is drawing near.”

When you see these things,
choose hope over despair.
Don’t crouch, stand up.
Don’t look down at the ground, lift your gaze.
Look up, not down.
Keep your head up in the apocalypse.

No, things are not the way they should be,
and it’s okay to name it.
It’s bad.
This is not the way God wants it, or the way we want it.

But the phrase, “Wait for the Lord,”
is not just a form of spiritual escapism.
Waiting is a normal, and good, part of the spiritual life.
If we desire a life in God, waiting comes with the territory.
Timelines belong to God.
Because God is patient, so must we be patient.
Because God refuses to take away free will,
and destroy all evil by sudden and divine fiat,
so must we wait things out.
Knowing how the story will end,
even while we are caught in the darkness of the present,
is a sensible way to live.
It’s not psychological denial.
It’s called spiritual patience;
it’s called faith-filled realism.

And it’s what Jeremiah, and Jesus, and Wendell Berry,
all had in mind.

Also the psalmist.
This morning we heard Psalm 25.
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame.
For you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.

And listen—in the psalms,
waiting and patience is entirely consistent with
crying out to God, even in anger and desperation.

Don’t make the unfortunate mistake
of thinking that living in hope, and waiting on the Lord,
means that we need to be quiet and sit down,
and not make any waves.
Lament and protest and activism
can also be modes of faithfulness,
if they are done in faith.
The psalmist certainly exercised his right of protest.

He boldly registered his complaint against God,
tried to hold God accountable.
Yes, the Bible is full of faithful people
who held God accountable for God’s actions.
That is, they demanded of God an account
for what God was doing or not doing.

In today’s psalm we have,
“Remember your mercy, from of old . . .
“for your goodness’ sake,” remember and do something!

I love that spirit of prayer which the psalms do so well,
but which comes a little harder for me.
But no question. It’s biblical to ask God to give account.

I always thought it was cussing, to use the interjection,
“O, for God’s sake!”
And it could be, if you use it in a way that’s mindless or trivial.

But that’s exactly what the psalmist said, and what we can also say,
and it won’t be the least bit sacrilegious,
if we say it with intention and with respect.

It can be our righteous plea—
“Remember, God, you are good and upright.
So, for your own sake,
for the sake of your goodness,
for God’s sake,
undo this wrong,
make this world right!

That’s heads-up eyes-opened kind of prayer.
A prayer with which God is pleased.

So . . . if we want to know how to keep our heads up in the apocalypse,
here are some practical suggestions.

Speak the truth about what is, the way things are.
It does no one any good, and undermines our wellbeing,
if we pretend that evil is not staring us in the face.
It helps the evil lose its power over us
when we name it for what it is.

Speak your longing.
Give voice to your yearnings.
Articulate a vision for the way things ought to be.
Again, no one gains anything
if our strategy is just to play nice and quietly by ourselves,
and not push back against the present reality
with an alternative vision.

Be willing to wait.
The psalmist said to God, “For you, I wait all day long.”
And in God’s timeline, you know what “all day” means.
It’s not the sunup to sundown that happens daily.
It’s the sunup to sundown of our lives.
“Waiting all day” is holding on in hope
to something we may never see.
In Jeremiah’s world,
it’s buying and paying for a field he will never step foot on.
In Wendell Berry’s world,
it’s investing in the millennium, planting sequoias,
saying your crop is a forest
you will not live to harvest.

While you wait, expect visible signs.
Keep your eyes open and hold your head upright,
so you don’t miss anything.
The author Anne Lamott,
in her latest book, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope,
she insists that even when life is at its bleakest—
when we are, as she describes it,
“doomed, stunned, exhausted, and over-caffeinated”—
even then the seeds of renewal are at hand.
She tells of her own failed attempt to deal with the evil,
by keeping her head down.

Here are her words:
“Hate weighed me down and muddled my thinking.
It isolated me and caused my shoulders to hunch,
the opposite of sticking together
and lifting our hands and eyes to the sky.
The hunch changes our posture, because our shoulders slump,
and it changes our vision as we scowl and paw the ground.
So as a radical act we give up the hate and the hunch
the best we can.
We square our shoulders and lift our gaze.

Those are Anne Lamott’s words,
but they echo, precisely, the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel,
“When these things begin to take place,
stand up and raise your heads,
because your redemption is drawing near.
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.”

Too often when we read Jesus’ words about the apocalypse,
we get sucked into a debate
of when and how and where and to whom
this terrible day will come.
But the spirit of these words is not that of dread and foreboding.
It is Jesus encouraging us to live with our eyes open and heads up,
in a posture of expectancy and hope.
Because it is not terrifying doom that’s on its way.
It is our redemption.
God’s salvation.
God’s righteousness.
God’s end purposes. God’s telos.
It is coming. Be ready. Be patient.

Keep your head up. And of course, sing!
Let’s turn to #54 in Sing the Journey.
What an apt hymnal title for today!
We sing the journey, as long as it takes, even all day long.

Longing for light, we wait in darkness.
Longing for truth, we turn to you.
Make us your own, your holy people,
light for the world to see.

Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts.
Shine through the darkness.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in your church gathered today.

—Phil Kniss, December 2, 2018

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