This week\’s blog is an essay Dr. Hood wrote for Lectionary Homiletics, a professional journal for preachers. The essay was prepared to assist subscribers on this journal in thinking creatively about their own sermon development of the lectionary text for November 29, 2015.
November 29, 2015
Preaching Luke 21:25-36
When Abraham Lincoln stood to deliver the Gettysburg Address he added two words which were not in the address as originally written. Written on the pages before him were the words, “That this nation shall have a new birth of freedom…” However, when Lincoln actually delivered that line what he spoke was, “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…” Those two words have now become a rich part of our national vocabulary. But when Lincoln added those two words, unplanned and freely, it was unusual. What Lincoln sought to do was declare his deep and abiding conviction that the destinies of all people and their governments, including this one, are not beyond the reach and activity of God. It is precisely this conviction that is declared in this lectionary text. When the unusual appears in the sky and upon the earth it will not be a phenomenon apart from God. It will be an intentional act of God, God “coming on a cloud with power and great splendor.” (v. 27)
This text offers a rich opportunity for preachers to speak to the fascination with speculation and observation of signs that the end of the world is drawing near. Contemplation of the end is not criticized here – the text itself engages in such contemplation. But such contemplation is not for the sake of marking a date on the calendar. Its purpose is for sanctifying the present moment. This text is less about the end times and more about discipleship; what it means to follow Christ both in our behavior and in relationship to others. The “Human One” is returning to the earth. Life will not go on forever, day after day, year after year, without some conclusion. All of history is moving toward an end. That knowledge is given to positively impact the decisions made today; decisions of the manner in which we will live.
In considering the homiletical flow of the sermon, the preacher may begin by reminding the congregation of particular attempts to identify when the world will end. Many times the result would be people giving away all that they possessed, leaving jobs and looking to the sky for the consummation of history. Yet each would be proven inaccurate. Material resources for living day to day would then need to be acquired once more, jobs sought and the ordinary rhythm of life assumed again, many feeling a bit foolish. Rather than ridicule, the preacher may point to these people as models of a faith taken seriously. Where they missed the teaching of this text in Luke’s Gospel is that they prepared incorrectly; they fixed their eyes on the wrong object. Rather than looking to the sky for clues of a fixed date on the calendar, Jesus calls us to a vital and faithful conduct in how we live now in the ordinary rhythm of life.
The focus of this text shifts in verse 28 from the various signs that will occur to a declaration of the hope that awaits those disciples who have been unwavering in their faith. What appears to be destruction is in fact the promised restoration and redemption of all creation. The world as we know it, with its brokenness and suffering, will come to an end, declares this text. But this will not be the end of life with God. What was lost in the Garden of Eden – an unashamed relationship with God and one another – is once again recovered. As a preacher, I would try to help the congregation claim the promise located here in this text that the end of the world is not something to anticipate with dread; it is the consummation of all God’s promises. What is required until then is that disciples adopt a consistent quality and style of living that reflects that new creation which is coming.
I would then direct the congregation to the next major shift in the text, verse 36, “Stay alert at all times.” What does that look like in the lives of disciples today? What spiritual practices or disciplines are available that will keep our eyes focused upon God’s presence and work today? This is a call to intentional activity, not a passive waiting for the end. Here is a summons that we live purposefully, deriving our strength for living faithfully from the exercise of prayer. In my own congregation I have offered five faith practices that may be useful for such a journey of faith: Worship Regularly, Pray Daily, Learn and Apply God’s Word, Participate in a Ministry and Give Financially to the Work of the Church. I caution the congregation that such disciplines are not the manner in which we earn God’s favor. That is freely given in the cross of Christ. Rather, spiritual disciplines as these have long been acknowledged by the church as a means by which we begin to imitate Jesus. They are a means by which we give ourselves over to the work of the Holy Spirit in such a manner that we see the image of God increase in our heart. Simply, these spiritual disciplines are how we take responsibility for our own growth; how we honor Christ’s call in this text to “Stay alert.”
Richard Gribble tells a helpful story of a woman who made a discovery quite accidentally in her basement. One day she noticed some forgotten potatoes had sprouted in the darkest corner of the room. At first, she could not figure out how they had received any light to grow. Then she noticed that she had hung a cooper kettle from a rafter near the cellar window. She kept the kettle so brightly polished that it reflected the rays of the sun from the small window onto the potatoes. She would later say to a friend that when she saw that reflection, and the growth that it nurtured, she realized that she can be a “cooper kettle Christian” – she can catch the rays of the Son of God and reflect his light to some dark corner of life. This text announces that in that last day, each of us will “stand before the Human One.” Perhaps there is no better preparation for that future day than learning to reflect his light in the present.