Dear Working Preacher,
I've got just two words to say about the apocalyptic passage Luke blesses us with this week: figgy pudding.
Anyone recognize where "figgy pudding" comes from? Sure you do -- the second stanza of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." You remember (feel free to hum): "Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; Oh, bring us a figgy pudding, and a cup of good cheer."
But what in the world is figgy pudding?? Turns out, it's an English Christmas pudding made with, well, figs. It was sometimes baked, sometimes boiled, and was pretty popular in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries and regularly served to carolers -- hence the lyrics. But of course most of us no longer have any idea what it means, even though we sing it a few times a year.
And that's the issue: I have a hunch that there are portions of the biblical witness that are just like that for many of our congregants -- though they may have a dim recollection of some passages, on the whole they have little to no idea of what they mean or what to do with them. And next to some of the cultic regulations in Leviticus, apocalyptic texts are surely chief among these ponderous, archaic readings that make many of us -- whether in pew or pulpit -- scratch our heads.
"When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name" (Luke 21:9-12).
Let's face it -- whatever sense these words may have made when they were first said, written, and heard, two thousand years later, when the world hasn't come to an end, they seem utterly foreign, vestiges of a distant, more religious, and more chaotic time.
Which brings me back to figgy pudding. I mean, if you wanted to revive figgy pudding as a Christmas tradition, what would you do? You might tell some of the story behind it, describing how earlier carolers enjoyed the treat. Or you might find references to it in literature or letters from the period in order to capture a sense of this old-world delight. But as much as these things might help, you'd probably be best served just by making it and then serving it to people caroling outside your house this Christmas. Once people tasted the figgy pudding -- assuming it's as yummy as our Christmas carol suggests -- they'd remember it, think about it next year, and perhaps make and share it themselves.
Well, maybe that's not a bad move to make with passages like the one in front of us. Certainly it's helpful to note the narrative placement of the text between Jesus' mounting conflict with the religious authorities of Jerusalem and the plot to put him to death. And it may well be worthwhile to give some attention to the historical situation of Luke's community and explain why an apocalyptic scene like this one would bring them comfort. But, ultimately, if you really want to move us beyond a sinking suspicion that this passage is archaic and borders on impenetrable, you'll have to find a way for us to taste it. You'll need, that is, to help us see how this passage is about more than an end of the world that hasn't happened but instead is about our lives here and now.
Toward that end, consider focusing on the couple of verses just after those referenced above where Jesus says two incredibly interesting things. First, referencing the various trials he's just described, Jesus says, "This will give you an opportunity to testify" (v. 13). Is it possible for us to see, claim, and testify to God's work amid the various set backs, challenges, and even tragedies we face? For instance, how often did survivors of the earthquake in Haiti point to those who helped them as God's agents? Or how regularly do people thrown out of work by the recession give thanks for the support they have received from their local congregation? If we look and listen, we'll find many other examples of persons who have indeed managed to perceive and witness God at work amid their sorrows.
At this point, though, let me be most clear: this isn't to assert that God is causing the calamities we endure, but rather to claim that God is active in them, always working to help, comfort, and save. And when we recognize these things we discover the opportunity not just to see and benefit from God's act but also to witness to it.
More importantly, just after this Jesus also says, "So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and wisdom..." (v. 14-15). No, we may not be dragged before kings and governors, but we will face trials and tribulations and God will not only help us to endure but also give us the courage and words with which to witness. No matter where we may go, no matter what may happen to us, no matter how often it may seem like the whole world is coming to an end, yet Jesus will be with us, protecting and providing for us that we may see God at work in our lives and give thankful testimony.
The point in all this is not to pressure people to find some "silver lining" or "hidden blessing" during the tragedies of their lives; rather, the point is to offer a perspective that may encourage our people to look for God and, because they are looking, see God at work even in the most difficult of conditions.
So perhaps the call this week, Working Preacher, is to invite us to go out into the world to look for God at work -- even and especially right now -- amid the challenges, setbacks, disappointments, and tragedies of this world we share. Perhaps, having discovered God out there ahead of us -- already acting to heal, comfort, and care for those in need -- we might be moved to join God in this work and tell others what we have seen and heard. This isn't easy stuff, to be sure, but it might just give us a taste for what the life of faith is all about -- seeing and naming God at work in the everyday and ordinary joys and sorrows of our lives. And, who knows, having tasted the goodness of the Lord, we might just want to share what we've tasted with others.
As always, Working Preacher, thank you for your faith, commitment, and - especially when faced with texts like the this one - good cheer!
Yours in Christ,