An Ear to the Ground: A Sermon Based on Luke 21:25-37 Preached by Mark Harper at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Athens, Georgia December 2, 2018 – The First Sunday of Advent
The Presbyterian Planning calendar got it wrong this week. When I was looking up the suggested Bible readings for this Sunday, the gospel selection was listed as Luke 21:35-36. That had us starting the reading in the middle of a verse with the words “… like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once” — which didn’t seem like the best place to begin. I knew the passage was about the return of Jesus to this world – his second Advent, his second coming into our lives. It just seemed like our reading should have at least started with verse 34: “But be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping.” Now there’s a text for our times! Or at least for the day after the moveable feast that is Covenant’s annual progressive dinner, not to mention the stress-generating addiction of late-afternoon football watching.
I realized soon enough that the lectionary planners had meant to say that our gospel reading from Luke 21 should begin with verse 25, not 35. It was a simple typo. Anyone who has ever submitted anything for publication knows what that’s like. It happens. But even after I figured that out, I started to wonder if they had gone far enough. Usually the lectionary ends this passage with verse 36, while completely omitting verse 37. That’s the one that reads: “(Jesus) spent his days in the Temple teaching, but his nights out on the mountain called Olives.” And I get why that gets left out; it seems like an inconsequential statement, an after-thought, a simple way to wrap up this part of the story.
But what if it’s not? What if it’s more than that? What if that one little verse speaks volumes about who Jesus was and how he understood the truth of this world? I think Luke just might be trying to tell us something essential about perspective, about point of view.
I’m reminded of a college history professor I had who liked to say, “What you see depends on where you sit.” He wasn’t talking about your seats at the stadium or the Elton John concert. He was talking about social location, and suggesting that our understanding of how the world works depends largely on our place in it. History is mostly written by the winners – which means that a lot of important voices get left out. That is, you see things differently if you’re the slaveholder than if you’re the slave. You see things differently if you work in a well-funded think-tank than you do if you work in a chicken processing plant. You see things differently if you wake up in a penthouse suite than you do if you wake up huddled in the dark corner of a parking garage.
According to Luke, during the last days of Jesus’ life he was not waking up in a comfortable bed with the convenience of a well-stocked kitchen. He was spending his nights on the Mount of Olives, sleeping outdoors in the darkness on the edge of town. If he had lived in Atlanta or some other big American city he might have been arrested for violating urban camping laws. The robe he wore that would soon be gambled away by the soldiers who executed him was very likely what he wrapped himself in to stay warm during his not so silent nights.
In a way, none of this should be that surprising. It fits a pattern in Jesus’ life. A few pages back in this story, in chapter 9, Jesus told someone who was applying for discipleship that it wasn’t going to be easy: “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Humanity has nowhere to lay his head.” Or as Eugene Peterson of blessed memory translates that, “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know” (Luke 9:58). Earlier in life, Jesus had known what it was like to live on the run as a refugee in Egypt. And in his core teaching he always identified with the poor and the strangers, those who slept outdoors and in parking garages: “As you showed love and compassion and hospitality for the least among you, you have done those things for me” (Matthew 25:31f).
So yes, it speaks to who Jesus was and what kind of Savior he is to know that he slept out on the Mount of Olives. He slept with his ear to the ground — literally — and from there was able to hear the rumblings of his world as it groaned and cringed under the oppressive weight of empire. I’m not sure he would have heard the same things if he had been the guest of the high priest, or if he had not spend most of his time with hungry and hurting people. Jesus was tuned in to just how precarious life was precisely because he refused to insulate and isolate himself from the real damage being done to real, vulnerable people by the powers that be. I think of the lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow who lived and practiced law in the 1950s and 60s in Harlem – which was not the typical career tract for a bright, white Harvard Law School graduate. It was in working with clients living on the daily edge of financial disaster that Stringfellow began to hear and perceive the predatory nature of power companies and slum landlords and the judicial system and the military industrial complex that was devouring a whole generation of young men to serve in Vietnam, especially those who weren’t going to get a college deferment. With his ear to the ground he began to understand the real nature of what the Bible calls “the powers and principalities.” And he began to hear why it was so hard to break out of the cycle of poverty or to see a candle of hope at the end of the tunnel.
And yet it was precisely in this context that Stringfellow for the first time also began to hear the hopeful, life-giving message of the One who not only preached sermons on a mount but slept on one as well. And the message of Jesus was this: the dominant powers are not the ultimate power. The dominant powers – those who for good reason appear to be in charge and immoveable and unbeatable – these are real and formidable. But they are not ultimate. They do not reign supreme. Like the Temple itself, they will come down and the power of love that is God will rise up, lifting all who have been beaten down and crushed by the presumptuous rulers of this world. The dominant powers are not the ultimate power.
I think that’s what we hear Jesus saying in our text today. It’s not an easy message; its’ not a promise that if you simply believe in me I will rescue you from all harm and get you out of here. He doesn’t say, There, there, why don’t you look at these pretty lights for a while or get mesmerized by this big game or your nice fat investment returns while I straighten out this mess we’re in, while I work out your salvation? No. Jesus pulls no punches. He tells it like it is. Throughout the early verses of this chapter he lays out in brutal detail the symptoms of an old world coming to an end: nation fighting against nation, the earth convulsing and becoming uninhabitable, family members at each other’s throats. He’s saying look at all this, look it in the eye, see it for what it really is. The poor and everyone else who’s been living at the bottom of the mountain and never at the top has known this for a long time. But now is the time for everyone to understand that the dominant forces in this world, as appealing as they might be, are not the forces that will finally bring all people life and hope. And with that understanding there may come for the first time for many of us the sense that we are not in control, not in charge, that we are dependent on something or someone who is bigger and far more gracious than we are. We might begin to see for the first time that we are in need of God. And the good news is that the God who has loved us into being from the beginning is still in love with us and coming to lift us up into a Beloved Community grounded not in forceful domination but in mercy and forgiveness, guided by justice and joy and a thirst for lasting peace. And so, says Jesus, stay alert and keep your ear to the ground and hear the footsteps of the One who comes in peace. And when you do, “Stand tall with your heads high. Because help is on the way!” (21:28, the Message).
It’s so easy to get discouraged, to get worn down. To believe that the dominant powers are the ultimate powers. To believe that cancer will always win. That fires and earthquakes and human-induced climate change will make this world unlivable for our children. It’s so easy to get sucked into believing that reality will always look like swastikas painted on the office walls of Jewish professors or like spent bullet casings in the streets outside synagogues. It’s so easy to believe that reality will always sound like little children being tear-gassed on the Mexican border, or political office seekers proclaiming that they would be on the front row of a public lynching in 2018. But in the midst of all that, let us listen carefully for the voice of Jesus who contests that reality with his own life of compassion and his vision of a world without fear or tears. Let us listen as he tells us that the dominant powers are not the ultimate power. Let us listen, let us be hopeful, and let us live with the freedom that comes from knowing that the God who liberated us from Egypt, the God who commands us to welcome the stranger, the God who became flesh in a homeless rabbi who unconditionally loves even those who don’t seem to deserve it (including us), that God has the last word. Thanks be to God. Amen.