By Ellen Sims
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-33
Today’s sermon begins with a quiz called Holy Bible or Headline. Your job? Decide if the phrase I’m reading is excerpted from scripture or a recent news headline. Ready?
1. “. . . Signs on the Earth [of] Distress Among Nations.” Holy Bible or Headline? Is this a scripture warning about the end of the world? Or a headline about ISIS terrorists? (Answer = Luke 21:25).
2. “People Faint from Fear and Foreboding of What is Coming upon the World.” Holy Bible or Headline? Is this a scripture predicting world-wide panic at the end of time? Or a headline describing reaction to the recent mass shootings? ”(Answer = Luke 21:26).
3. “Man . . . Coming . . . With Power and Glory” Holy Bible or Headline? Do these words come from scripture promising Christ’s return? Or is this a headline about a bombastic 2016 presidential candidate? (Answer = Luke 21: 27).
All three phrases came from today’s Gospel reading. But recent epidemics of uncontrolled rage, greed, religious extremism, and political exceptionalism have some people speaking apocalyptically. Although preachers might use prophetic words like today’s Gospel lection to paint an ominous future, our text today is really a message of hope that “redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). Although doomsayers may use this passage to frighten people into religious compliance, it should actually help us “question [our] most elemental theological certitudes” and empower us with hope (Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks 5).
Instead of succumbing to a sense of inevitability that we must, for instance, continue to rape our planet and meet violence with more violence in order to survive, we can imagine new ways. We can enact hope. Hope is not a Disney-ish way of wishing upon a star. Hope requires hard spiritual and communal work to resist despair, imagine what has never been, and begin again. That process may first require us, counterintuitively, to put ourselves spiritually and literally in vulnerable positions.
In Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, Dr. Walter Brueggemann explains the prophet’s role is to expose the reality of our human situation and lament the loss of a former way of life before we can move hopefully into God’s ever newness. I hope this Christmas we’ll celebrate something beyond the new life of a baby born 2000 years ago. I hope we can live into a new way of life that baby came to reveal.
During Advent we hear dark sayings of the Hebrew prophets—and the prophetic words of an apocalyptic Jew named Jesus—that indicted an unjust social order. In the tradition of prophets like Jeremiah, Jesus looked into the darkness and named the distress. We hear foreboding words—and we feel our own nation and our own individual lives exposed. Advent is not a sentimental season for retelling quaint stories. Advent takes us into the raw reality of this world and its failed and failing systems—and into the deepening darkness of our own individual hearts. Facing that reality allows something new to be born in our world and in us. What can happen this Christmas Eve is not merely the retelling of a sweet story of a baby’s birth. It’s the possibility, the hope, that we can serve as midwife to God’s ways.
The baby whose birth we celebrate at Christmas later preached about despair that can make way for hope. He prophesied that when the world as we know it seems to be ending, that’s the very time to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21: 28). After the dead of winter, a new way is ready to “sprout” like new leaves in summer (Luke 21:30). God’s realm is near, he insists. But first we have to give up the old ways.
Modern prophet Walter Brueggemann writes about post-9/11 America: “Not unlike the society of ancient Jerusalem . . . , our contemporary U.S. society is at the brink of despair. . . . I do not think we have yet reached the point of complete despair—and this because, I suggest, we have managed to sustain our ideology-induced denial. Where denial flourishes, there may not be complete despair. And yet there are important indications of despair among us, not the least an amorphous anxiety that recognizes in inchoate ways that the old world in which we have felt comfortable, safe and in control is slipping through our fingers. That anxiety is variously directed against Muslims, immigrants, or gays, as though any of these populations were the cause of agent of our world loss” (113).
He goes on to decry a despair-generating anxiety at work in 1) “unrestrained greed” and “self-serving wealth, 2) excessive individualism that encourages an “every man for himself” credo, 3) “willing violence” illustrated by the success of the gun lobby, 4) a nostalgia for the good old days, and finally and perhaps ironically, 5) a preoccupation that we’re in the end times which “plays readily into the hands of religious apocalypticism. But in this near-despair, the real prophetic task “is to articulate hope.”
I’m going to suggest throughout the four Sundays in Advent that each of our traditional Advent virtues—hope, peace, joy, and love—requires a spiritual disposition toward vulnerability. In anxious times, vulnerability is NOT what we think will save us. In times of change, we do not look to leaders who exhibit vulnerability. It’s counterintuitive to see vulnerability as a strength. Not a single presidential candidate has ever campaigned on the slogan, “Vote for ___ for a More Vulnerable America.”
But Jesus’s life and teachings demonstrate that if we do not become as vulnerable as a baby, we cannot attain peace, find joy, or experience love. From naked infant to naked man dying on a cross, Jesus lived his life exposed to all that could harm him. That’s the hopeful way we purport to follow.
I suggest we try this advent season to reflect on ways vulnerability makes peace and joy and love possible in our individual lives and in our larger culture.
Of course, we shouldn’t take this point to silly extremes. Wear your seatbelt, folks. Stay away from poisonous snakes and poisonous people. But without vulnerability, you will never experience any deep version of peace, love, or joy.
We begin this year’s Advent sermon series with the idea that hope makes vulnerability possible. Without hope, we could never step outside the safe boundaries about “the good old days” and “my own life” to venture into new ways and others’ lives. Think about a time when you took the risk to be vulnerable. What courage that required—to speak up in defense of the right, to admit when you were wrong, to try a new venture, to share your heart even though you might be wounded in the process. How did you find the courage to take that risk and make yourself vulnerable to criticism or embarrassment or hurt? I think you had at least some glimmer of hope. You had no guarantee that this extension of yourself would work. But you thought it might. You at least hoped it had a chance. And because you had hope, you left yourself open—to what might lead to peace or love or joy.
Dear friends, the baby we’ll meet manger-side is the image of vulnerability. Naked. Ignoble. Homeless. Poor. In the dead of winter. Can he even survive? And if he survives infancy, what are his chances in the cruel world thereafter? Luke’s Gospel, after all, follows today’s apocalyptic words with a chapter about Jesus’s betrayal by his own trusted disciple, Judas, after intimate table fellowship. One chapter after Jesus’s final prediction about the end of times, he’s predicting the end of his life—and just that quickly he’s betrayed, arrested. One more chapter after that, he is crucified, naked to the world again, supremely vulnerable. We see how much we risk when we make ourselves vulnerable.
Yet Jesus followers to this day continue to risk it all with bold vulnerability.
I think this vulnerability can be cultivated. Through the gift of hope, we can be vulnerable to one another. But you can’t give up your defensiveness, security, superiority, exceptionalism, self-absorption, retaliation, and trust in wealth—unless you have hope that there are gifts greater than these.
This Christmas we might consider a new kind of gift exchange. We might be willing to swap defensiveness for the gift of deeper relationships. We might exchange our self-importance for the gift of humility. We might return anger for kindness. All because we have at least a faint hope that there’s something better than anxiety and selfishness.
I invite you now into a time of self-examination. Being gentle but honest with yourself, ask yourself:
Where are the strongholds in your life—the parts you wall off so others won’t see? What makes you defensive? Why? What would it look like if you let down your defenses? Often we defend places in our lives where we’ve been wounded. What topics or questions or kinds of interactions push your buttons and make you retreat, lash out, wince with pain? What would it take for you to heal from these wounds? A first step might be to acknowledge the wounds and grieve them.
Now ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen if you live in a way that is more open to others? What do you hope could happen if you could relate to others from a position of vulnerability rather than defense?
What might happen if our church, our city, our nation engaged with others from a position of vulnerability? This is certainly not what the world teaches us. But who can deny that hopeful trust in God’s ways of peace, joy, and love allowed Jesus to live in the strength of vulnerability? Which means he lived fully as himself, fully for God.
PRAYER: God of Paradox, teach us through Jesus the strength of vulnerability that comes from facing grim reality with honesty and hope. Amen.
* * *
Here are two accessible online resources related to the themes in Walter Brueggemann’s book Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman, 2014).
See also Brene Brown’s famous TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerabilty.”