“On Alert!” – Sermon for November 29, 2015

Categories: Sermons

“The Tempest”, painting by Max Beckmann, 1947-49

“The Tempest”, painting by Max Beckmann, 1947-49

“On Alert!”

A Sermon on Luke 21:25-36 for the 1st Sunday of Advent, Year C; preached November 29, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister


“Russia Beefs Up Its Forces.” “Chicago Protesters eye Black Friday Hotspot.” “Strike on Clinic was ‘tragic but avoidable’.” “2 massacres in 12 hours leave 15 dead in Honduras.”

If amidst the family, the feasting, and the football this past Thursday, Thanksgiving Day… if amidst all that, you happened to get around to the newspaper, and you managed to dig your way through the inch-and-a-half high stack of Black Friday sales circulars to get to the actual news section… those were some of the headlines that greeted you. ISIS and the military action against it. The tragic plight of refugees and the even-more-tragic circling of the wagons against them. The execution of Laquan McDonald by the hand of a Chicago police officer, and the rightful and righteous outrage it stirs up. White American-born Christian men becoming terrorists as they go shooting at clinics and mosques and protest rallies. Innocents dying at the hands of both the “bad guys” and the supposed “good guys” alike.

If recent newspaper headlines were all you had to go on this Thanksgiving Day, you’d be excused for thinking there didn’t seem much to be giving thanks for.

For that matter, many of us may not have even needed the newspapers to feel a bit weary of the world. The empty chair at the Thanksgiving table, the impending medical appointment, frustrations at work or school or even church… any of these are enough to dampen the holiday cheer. Some of them, even, might point to a sense that the sea and the waves are roaring away in your life. The heavens themselves might seem a bit shaken to some of us, as the world shifts around us, and what used to work doesn’t, and what you used to be able to count on—in society, in others, in yourself—just isn’t the same anymore.

There have been some popular internet postings in the last couple of years—the humorous kind you pass along to friends or share on your Facebook profile—that in their own subtle ways pull back the curtain on this pervasive sense of fear or foreboding or dismay that revolves around our world these days. I imagine many of you have seen at some point the videos on YouTube starring the mostly-black tuxedo cat named ‘Henri, le Chat Noir’. In dark French narration over moody music, Henri chronicles his ennui, his listless dismay with his seemingly lifeless existence in which nothing gives either pleasure or pain. “The fifteen hours a day I sleep have no effect,” Henri says. “I wake to the same tedium.”[1]

Not quite as popular as the videos from Henri, there was an article on the website of the magazine Mental Floss a little over a year ago in which linguist Arika Okrent helps readers identify whether they’re suffering from angst, ennui (what Henri says he suffers), or weltschmertz.[2] Angst—from the German, Dutch, and Danish words for fear—is something that, thanks to the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, has come to encompass a sort of existential dread, “a type of anxiety that arises in response to nothing in particular, or the sense of nothingness itself.” Ennui, from the French word for boredom, captures more of a “lethargic disappointment, a preoccupation with the fundamental emptiness of existence.” “Are you tired, so tired of everything about the world and the way it is [and] do you proclaim this, with a long, slow sigh, to everyone around you?”   Then you’ve got ennui, says this essay. Weltschmertz, on the other hand—literally “world pain” in German—would be what you have when you’re feeling pain and sadness from the “mismatch between the ideal image of how the world should be with how it really is,” along with perhaps some yearning for what could and should be.

Jesus himself names this feeling, this mood, this awareness as he speaks to his disciples just a couple of days before his crucifixion. Fear and foreboding, he says, along with “aporia”. Aporia, like angst and ennui and weltschmertz… it’s a Greek philosophical term that “refers to a state of mind,” says Church of England priest John Pridmore, “ every train of thought hits the buffers.”[3] It’s a word popular with post-modernist philosophers these days, the ones who would say that “we can no longer trust any ‘grand narrative’, any system or story which claims to give an all-encompassing account of things.”[4] And, you see, that’s the thing… Jesus himself says that as the Son of Man comes and when the kingdom of God is near, we too shall experience aporia. “We shall no longer feel sure about all that once had seemed so certain.”[5]

All of which must mean, my friends—if Jesus is indeed to be trusted—that something is afoot. Or, rather, not just “something”, but everything is afoot… the turning of the world, the coming of Christ among us, the very kingdom of God being opened up in our midst. For indeed, signs in the skies and distress among the nations and people fainting from fear and foreboding… we’ve got all that! And I don’t imagine I have to convince you of it.

The question is, sisters and brothers, can we accept Jesus’ invitation to be a counter-witness, an alternative voice, a people empowered by what is to come rather than what has already been. “Now when these things begin to take place,” he says, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

It is counter-intuitive, I know. When the sky is falling, why would we raise our heads? When all seems shaken, why would we stand tall and rejoice and look with eager anticipation? But if we cant, my friends… if we who trust in God… we who believe in Christ who died, and rose, and promised to come again… we who daily dwell in the power of the Spirit… if we can’t bear witness to the ultimate truth that, in fact, not only is the world not how it should be, but that the world is not how it will be—that God has still yet more light and truth to break forth into this world—then who can? Will we be the ones to deny our neighbors the gift of the witness God has given us to gift the world with?

I dunno, perhaps like one of my favorite preachers and teachers-of-preachers, David Lose, perhaps we should with him admit that this all sounds like “sheer fantasy.”[6]

After all, have we seen what Jesus describes? Or for that matter anything remotely like it? Oh sure, as I’ve said, trials and tribulation, the roaring of sea and wave. But the coming on clouds in power and glory? Probably not. “Except,” Lose points out, “maybe in a movie, or a comic book, or a fairy tale, or a science fiction novel, … or the Bible.”

Which is why he describes it as fantasy.

Notice, however, that this is not saying it’s not true, but rather that it’s fantasy—as in fantastical, beyond our experience, extraordinary, not of this world. But you see, precisely because it is not of this world, because it is beyond our physical and material existence and experience, it has the power to redeem us.

That is, we believe the Bible not because it tells us of things we have seen and know for ourselves but precisely because it describes a reality that stretches beyond the confines of our finite, mortal existences and therefore has the capacity to redeem me… and you… and this life and world we share.

Near the beginning of his lengthy Christmas poem, For the Time Being, W.H. Auden pens the following confession: “Nothing can save us that is possible: We who must die demand a miracle.”

And there it is: when you are on the brink of death—from illness or failure or disappointment or heartbreak or calamity or oppression or depression or burnout or whatever—when you are on the brink of death you are keenly aware that you are insufficient, that this world and reality is temporary, and that you stand in desperate need of the miraculous, of salvation… for that which is merely possible cannot save. And that is what the gospel offers—an impossible possibility, a reality that transcends the everyday real, a Truth deeper than all else we have been told is true, a story that stretches beyond and encompasses all our stories so as to give them meaning, integrity, and purpose.

Now, to tell you the truth, we don’t always seem to get that—especially us here in the “respectable” mainline Christian traditions. Or maybe we’ve just forgotten it—just how audacious, even ridiculous the gospel is. How contrary it is to all our reason and experience. No wonder Paul calls it foolishness—for it isn’t simply good news, but rather news that is too good to be true.

I mean, think about it. Week in and week out, we proclaim a gospel story that asserts not only that there is a God who has created and still sustains the vast cosmos, but that this God not only knows that you exist, but gives a damn, actually cares, deeply and passionately about you and your hopes and dreams, successes and failures, cares enough to come into the world to be with us and to die with us and to rise for us, all that we might have life.

I mean, my goodness, but that message is, quite literally, in-credible, that is, not believable, because in the face of all those newspaper headlines and angst-ridden moments, this news is simply too good to be true.

Or, maybe, just maybe it’s so good that it must be true.

And it’s not just this passage from Luke, of course. For while Luke claims in this passage that Jesus will come again to redeem and to save, Genesis claims that God the father of Jesus created heaven and earth in the first place and placed humanity at the center of this world to tend and care for it and each other, and both of these confessions are simultaneously incredible… and true.

And it doesn’t stop there:

After all, Exodus announces that God cares deeply about the way we treat each other… ridiculous! But true.

And the prophets promise God’s comfort and mercy, even for those who have fled from God… unlikely! But true.

In Mary’s song that we’ll listen to in a few weeks we hear that the day will come when the world is turned so that all who are hungry and poor and in need will be satisfied… beyond our experience, but true.

And Galatians proclaims that in Christ there is no distinction between slave or free, male or female, that all are one in the unity of Christ… extraordinary! But true.

And Colossians declares that we are more than the sum of our past failures and shortcomings, that God has in fact nailed the record that stands against us to the cross… Highly doubtful! But true.

And at the end of all this Revelation promises that God will wipe every tear from our eyes and create a new heaven and earth and dwell with all of us in peace… sheer fantasy… but true!

From beginning to end the whole Bible makes extraordinary, otherworldly claims and promises about God that are simultaneously too good to be true… and so good that when we hear them we just can’t help but believe they’re true… even know they’re true and live our life accordingly.[7]

And so, as we journey into this season of Advent, as we journey to this table where we proclaim ordinary bread and an ordinary cup to be filled somehow with the presence of Jesus himself, as we journey toward Christmas when we proclaim that a little baby born in a barn to parents who were refugees is, in fact, God Almighty and the King of All Creation… as we journey, I like Jesus invite you to stand up and raise your heads, and be on alert, for—despite the evidence of the newspapers, or in fact perhaps because of the evidence of the newspapers—we know the truth of the fantastical news that the kingdom of God is near.



[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q34z5dCmC4M

[2] Arika Okrent, “How to Tell Whether You’ve Got Angst, Ennui, or Weltschmerz”, MentalFloss.com, 6 August 2014; accessed 29 November 2015 at http://mentalfloss.com/article/58230/how-tell-whether-youve-got-angst-ennui-or-weltschmerz

[3] John Pridmore, The Word is Very Near You – Sundays: Reflections on the Lectionary Readings – Years A, B & C (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2009), 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] David Lose, “A Promise Big Enough to Save Us,” WorkingPreacher.org, 26 November 2012; https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=1499. The following paragraphs are taken, largely verbatim with cuts and adaptations ad lib., from Lose’s article.

[7] The material from David Lose ends here.


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