Jeremiah 33:14-16

Luke 21:25-36

Jesus said, “You will see strange things happening to the sun, moon, and stars. People will faint in fear. This will be the end of heaven and earth as we know them.” So, um, “Happy Advent”? We often have trouble with apocalyptic passages like this, ideas that sound so frightening in the comfortable, stable world we usually inhabit. Even if we understand these cosmic terms as referring to Rome and Jerusalem, the political and religious powers) – and that is what Jesus means here – it’s still scary for us. Jesus talks about our day as much as his, and his message is dangerous. It’s a threat to our way of life. And yet, Jesus says that when this happens, that’s the time to lift up our heads, because our salvation is near. The world reads these things as signs of distress, but God sees them as a sign of new life coming. It’s all about how you measure.

How you measure is important. Take the newspaper articles yesterday about “Black Friday,” that busy shopping day. As they do every year, the articles ask whether this year was an “improvement” over last year. In dollars, maybe it was. There were more people shopping, at least. It will take some time to add up the numbers to find out how much was spent, if that’s how to measure that day. But how about that no one to my knowledge was trampled to death by 3am shoppers? Is that an “improvement”? I guess it depends on what you were hoping for. How else might we measure this Christmas shopping season? By how well people were paid to produce our gifts? By how much joy we added to the world? “Black Friday” means different things for different people, because we’re measuring it in different ways. Just like that, the “good news” can be measured many different ways.

If Jesus’ apocalyptic views are hard for us, maybe we need to try changing yardsticks. Maybe the measure needs to be, “For whom is this good news?” That’s where we’ll find our call to walk with those for whom this is good news, who need life to be turned upside down. We’re called to ask who in our community would benefit most from upending the world of power and connections in which we live. Our call is to hope with them, to measure life’s improvement according to the standard the least of us would prefer. That’s the same standard we’d prefer in our lowest moments, when darkness surrounds us and everything must change.

We know that hope shows up at the darkest moments, when we have nowhere to go but up. That’s when hope came from Jeremiah’s mouth. Jeremiah was in prison because the king was tired of hearing him prophesy death and destruction to Judah. Now the Babylonian army was at the gates of Jerusalem, and now Jeremiah starts to talk about hope, about a time when God’s promise will be fulfilled. Jeremiah saw the good news coming, even though the king didn’t. The end of Zedekiah’s reign was not the end of God’s promise. Jeremiah said that God’s promised reign would begin again, that David’s house would come back. For us, it did come back in Jesus, a peasant-teacher from Nazareth. Jeremiah was not being silly there in prison, he was being realistic. He saw God’s work in history, and he knew that what goes down will come up again.

Throughout Advent, Luke talks about turning the world upside down. As much as this birth narrative is about restoration, it’s also about inversion. It’s about life being turned upside down, the world that is not as it should be, becoming what God wants for it. Life is always moving that direction, if we can see it. The world moves that way over and over again. Jesus speaks in the present tense here, saying that “this generation won’t pass away before things have changed,” and he’s just as well talking about your generation and mine. What comes into being is always ending, and what ends will always come around again. God plants the seeds of new life in the ashes and ruins of what once was. What falls to pieces can be preparation for new growth.

I was asked recently about pastoring here during this economic downturn. I answered that the church has been teaching me about getting through a recession. Whatever has come, you’ve been confident that this bad time will pass, just as you know that good times won’t last forever. I sometimes worry that we’ve fallen into a survival mode, but then again, that’s not always a bad thing. Survival is important in it’s own way. But what really matters is why we survive. We have to get through the recession with an eye to future, to see what’s coming next.

What’s coming next is what’s always been coming. Everything will be just like it is now, only turned on its head. Jesus – the one for whom we wait – will come and tell us about the last being first, the first being last, and so the world goes around. I’m not convinced Jesus is talking about changing things once and for all. I suspect it repeats, and the world turns over constantly. Those roots keep putting up new branches nations still despair, and the powers of heaven still shake out of control. The world is still passing away, and that’s our cue to lift our heads, because salvation – restoration – is near.

The world is constantly being turned upside down, and we’re called into that turning. We’re called to walk with God’s people through it. Living in this topsy-turvy world is a little like surfing. You can ride one wave, but another is coming, so you keep working. But it’s not exactly like surfing. We don’t get on the top of the wave and ride down, we get on the bottom and ride back up.

Maybe it’s more like an eagle soaring over a ridge. You find one updraft and ride it, then you find another. Of course, the updrafts come from the bottom, so our job is to work our way down. Our call is to put our resources and hopes with those at the bottom, to serve and invest in the least powerful among us. That sounds like a crazy idea when we’re not sure how our resources will hold out, when we only know that they won’t last forever. But it turns out that it’s a great institutional plan to get with the people on the bottom so we can be with God in helping them up. We can soar a long time on those updrafts, as long as we would want this institution to survive. But we can only do that by going down first.

The people we soar with, the people we serve, are at the bottom. Those who make our Christmas gifts and those who sell them to us. The people who grow our coffee, who live downstream of where our food comes from or next door to our oil wells. Our flight plan is to seek those at the bottom, like those people on the Range and elsewhere without food and affordable shelter. Jesus came into the world to lift them up, to turn things over. That’s our calling too. This Advent, let’s become that incarnation.