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When News Breaks

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

December 2, 2018
Luke 21:25-36

A Reading from the Gospel of Luke

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

It is Tuesday night, April 15, 2014. Perhaps you are home reading a book. Perhaps you out on the town. Perhaps you are up finishing your taxes. Or perhaps you were checking the news before bed. I have no idea what was running on MSNBC or Fox. But CNN on April 15 2014 was running one of my favorite segments ever, an underwater journey to wreck long since abandoned to the sea floor, and while they were showing footage from the submersible they had a few different talking heads on the screen walking us through what modern explorers had managed to dredge up, and the headline at the bottom of the screen read: Breaking News: Titanic Sunk 102 Years Ago Tonight. And of course it’s possible that somebody out there was learning about it for the first time, but nonetheless. Breaking news seems like an overstatement.

But of course it’s a pretty common one. These days Breaking News seems to be the only kind that there is. This week, it was Breaking News that American border patrol agents fired tear gas into a migrant caravan in Tijuana, and this week it was Breaking News that riots have broken out in Paris over fuel taxes meant to combat climate change, and this week it was Breaking News about a dozen times over with new revelations in the long-unwinding investigation of the Special Counsel, and this week it Breaking News that former President George H. W. Bush died after a long life. And those are just the big ones. Among the various news alerts that popped up on my phone this weekend was also Breaking News: here at the movies set to leave Netflix this December. And I’d love to be able to roughly tell you what percentage of the breaking news alerts I got were tied to what seems like legitimately breaking news but the truth is that I’m not confident in my ability to count that high. At some point you lose track.

Of course we need the news. We need to know the truth about the communities we live in. We need to know the facts about what’s happening in the world. News matters. Good reporting matters. And it matters that we stay informed. In some ways our scripture this morning, this piece from Luke’s Gospel, this piece from Jesus’s prophesy of the days yet to come, in some ways this text is precisely about our obligation to the news. Our obligation to have our eyes open to the world. A couple of weeks ago I preached from Mark’s Gospel, the account of the woman giving her last few coins to the temple, and Mark’s story ends a few verses before ours today begins, with prophetic words about the collapse of the temple itself, where no stone will be left on top of another. Understandably, the disciples quickly want to know the timeline — when will this happen, what is the sign that means this will happen, how can we prepare ourselves, how can we gird ourselves, how can we make the plans we need to make for this future you promise.

It’s an even more urgent question for Luke’s readers than it is for Jesus’s first disciples, in part because the collapse of the temple carries with it an association with the judgment of God that would come alongside the second coming of Jesus Christ himself. And so the early church reads these verses they’re not just thinking about a building; they’re thinking about Jesus himself whose timeline was equally mysterious. What makes it even more complicated is that by the time Luke writes his Gospel the Jerusalem temple itself has already fallen, at the hands of Roman occupiers. Which means that the chain of events presumably leading to Jesus’s return has, in the eyes of Luke’s readers, already begun, and if you really want know the schedule, if you want to be able to keep track of God’s progress as Jesus prepares the way to return, then what Jesus tells his disciples, and what Luke tells his readers is, you just read the news.

First the temple falls. Wars and Insurrections. Arrests and persecutions. Invasion and exiles. All of that before our text begins, and then, as you heard, as the events unfold, then it gets cosmic, then “there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves… now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your hands, because your redemption is coming near. So be alert at all times.” Constant vigilance, Jesus counsels his disciples. Read the news. Stay informed. Turn on notifications. Be alert at all times. You do not know the day or the hour but you can read the signs of the heavens and the earth and all you have to do is open your eyes and read the headlines and all you have to do is keep your phone with you at all times and all you have to do is make sure that you have the CNN app installed just in case you get Breaking News. The Son of Man, Coming in a Cloud.

As we come into Advent, two millennia later, of course at least here at UPC we allow ourselves this expectation at at least one level of symbolic remove. We’re going to spend the next few weeks in anticipation of the coming of the Christ child but I don’t properly think any of us fully expects the second coming of Jesus Christ to happen this Christmas Eve (though in many ways, I would not complain). But just because our anticipation is not perhaps as concrete at that of Luke’s first readers doesn’t mean that we don’t share in this obligation to reading the news of the world.
We stay alert. We keep watch. I don’t think I really need to convince you all of this but if following Christ means following Christ into the world then it matters what happens in the world and it matters that we stay informed and it is worth holding onto that maybe-apocryphal old Karl Barth line where he advises young preachers to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Because even in a timeline so vast that we can’t perceive it, the newspaper nonetheless is the chronicle of the slow unfolding of the kingdom of God. So we keep watch. Stay alert.

But there’s a problem. The problem, of course, is that keeping watch is killing us. Late last year the American Psychological Association released a survey in which 63% of Americans said that the future of the nation was a very significant source of stress, more so, for the first time, than the perennial leaders like money or work, the news is the leading cause of stress in America. “Adults also indicated that they feel conflicted between their desire to stay informed about the news and their view of the media … While most adults (95 percent) say they follow the news regularly,
56 percent say that doing so causes them stress.” Does that sound like anybody you know? It does to me. It sounds real familiar. It sounds like me, up in the middle of the night, worried about what kind of climate or what kind of country I am leaving to my child and the children that follow, and the only company up with me are all the Breaking News Alerts on my phone, so it sounds real familiar. I can keep watch just fine, thank you very much. That’s not the hard part. The hard part is staying sane while you do it.

And it does not seem to matter what the medium is. Earlier this year, a gym chain called Life Time decided to respond to what it deemed “Significant member feedback” by removing all cable news channels from the TVs mounted in its 130 locations, because giving their members the opportunity to watch cable news was out of line with the gym’s “healthy way of life philosophy.” Sign me up for that gym! We already know that journalists who get exposed to regular graphic and violent images are more susceptible to anxiety, depression, even PTSD, which sounds real close to why I get real jittery if someone’s got cable news on while I’m trying to get an oil change. My poison pill of choice is Twitter, which is surely of course no better. We know plenty already about the ways in which social media also causes anxiety, depression, all the same stuff, and what becomes convenient about Twitter or Facebook or whatever your constant fire-hydrant of news happens to be, the convenience of having all of the world’s ills available to you and injected into you with such constancy, that convenience has a steep price. Because we also know enough about anxiety and depression to know the stakes. We’re talking about real medical and physiological consequences. The problem isn’t keeping watch. The problem is that keeping watch is killing us.

So we’ve got to talk about some self-care. And yes, in a sense, I’m talking to myself. But really and truly, I hope that what we are doing is listening to Jesus talk. Because Jesus is offering up some self-care. The trick I think to breaking open this passage is to realize that if there are really signs in the sun and the moon and the stars then the disciples probably don’t have to keep watching all the time. The signs that Jesus promises aren’t going to be subtle, they’re not going to be hidden away. It’s big, cosmic, everybody call your brother and sister and make sure they’re watching sort of stuff. So when Jesus says keep watch, he’s talking about the disciples watching out for themselves. He’s talking about self-care. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live upon the face of the earth.”  It’s going to happen for everybody. You can’t miss it. So, guard your hearts. You need to watch yourselves. You need to be good to yourselves.

It’s actually a profound declaration of grace. Jesus is talking about the day of the coming of the son of man, and in particular, he wants to make sure that the disciples are gonna be there. They’re part of the story. They’re necessary. Just like you are. That’s what this story says, that you are needed. That you are necessary. That part of this long unfolding of the kingdom involves you and not just today but through this long game that runs on a timeline measured by the sun and the moon and the stars. This unfolding kingdom needs you, not just today but tomorrow and the day after that, which means: be on guard that your hearts are not weighed down. There’s no sense driving yourselves mad in the meantime. You’re not going to miss anything if every once in a while you tune out to get some sleep, Jesus says. God loves you dearly and needs you to stick around. So for God’s sake, don’t let the breaking news break you.

So we’ve got to do two things at the same time: the Bible and the newspaper. This isn’t putting our heads in the sand. The same Jesus who tells the disciples here not to fret the worries of this life also sends them a few chapters later out in to the dangers of Jerusalem with naught but the Holy Spirit on their side. So, there’s no hiding. But maybe at the very least there’s some centering. Maybe at the very least there’s some healing. Maybe at the very least there’s some recognition that the hand that holds the newspaper gets very tired. Really tired. It gets tired, and anxious, and afraid. And it can’t hold on by itself. So we are going to do an Advent discipline, you and I, if you will join me, if we can stand it. More and more I hear about folks fasting from Social Media during Lent but this isn’t Lent and this isn’t that, nor am I going to make you take your phones out of your pockets and turn them off. You don’t have to turn off the TV, and you don’t have to delete Twitter, and please don’t cancel your subscriptions to the newspapers and magazines that are doing critical work. We’re not hiding. Instead, we’re centering.

The discipline is this. For Advent. While we keep watch. Before you open the newspaper in the morning. Before you turn on CNN. Before you check Twitter. Before you lazily thumb past whatever part of the news firehose empties into your direction. Whatever your intake mechanism is, this Advent, while we keep watch, before you open it, before you read the news, every time, every time, I want you to say a prayer. I am entirely serious, I don’t know if we can do it, I don’t know if I can do it, but I want us to try this together, every time you read the news, just before you open it up, just before you step up to the watch, say a prayer. It can be as long as you need it to be. There are a whole variety of Advent devotionals on the hallway table and maybe one of those can work. Or it can be as short as you need it to be. Dear God. I need all the help I can get. Amen. If I could program a little pop-up window that would jump on your screen every time you went to the Times or the Post or whatever your spot is, I would do it in a heartbeat, I am entirely serious about this. It wouldn’t have to say much. It hardly has to say anything. It needs to remind you that God loves you. And that God needs you stick around. It just needs to remind you who you are, and whose you are, and for whose purposes you are, no matter the signs in the sun and the moon and the stars. And if you need some catchier words, you’ve already heard them this morning.

Christ, be our light. Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness.

Christ, be our light. Shine in our church. Gathered today.