You have probably seen the posters, shirts and online memes that started popping up a few years ago that have a little crown symbol, and say “Keep Calm, and…“ then told you to do something. I did a quick search of the most popular of these. They include:
- Keep Calm and Dance
- Keep Calm and Avoid Zombies
- Keep Calm and Hakuna Matata
- Keep Calm and Call Batman
- And Keep Calm and Eat Chocolate
Of course, the favorite one that I found…here, I brought it for show and tell. For those in the back, it says: “Keep Calm and Be Lutheran.”
But the origin of these posters is kind of interesting. The first of these posters said simply, “Keep Calm. Carry On.” (It’s printed on the front of your bulletins.) The poster was initially produced by the British Ministry of Information, at the beginning of the Second World War. Over 2.5 million copies were printed and hung up, all over England. They were intended to strengthen morale among the British people as they prepared for the war they knew would come.
The design of the posters had a unique and recognizable lettering, with a message from King George VI to his people. An icon of the King’s crown was chosen to head the poster, rather than a photograph of the King. Because everyone knew what the crown represented, but back then, not everyone had access to newspapers, and TV wasn’t a thing yet. So not everyone would recognize a photograph of the King! The slogan was intended to offer assurance for the dark days ahead.
Remember that the British people lived in anxious times, with war on the horizon and the well-founded fear of bombs being dropped on their cities. The King wanted the people to rely on their tradition of strength and stoicism, and to remind them that it would all be ok…to keep calm. To carry on with their daily lives.
Stress, anxiety and pressure were not a new phenomenon. Not by a long shot. The Jewish people who lived during the days when Jesus walked the earth experienced similar emotions. Especially Jesus’ followers. They too experienced fear and anxiety, that came both from within and without.
From within, as the disciples tried to figure out how this new path that Jesus had set them on could integrate into their lives and their faith. Their devotion to him created conflict within families when one person believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and another did not.
Pressure from without came from a society dominated by the Roman government and its desire to oppress, persecute, punish and even kill those who claimed loyalty to Jesus Christ.
The disciples didn’t know from one day to the next if this might be the day, they would be arrested…even executed. It was with this fear in the back of their mind, that the disciples would have heard what Jesus had to say as they walked out of the Temple that day.
They left the Temple right after Jesus had finished teaching there. When one of the disciple comments on the amazing beauty of the temple, Jesus snaps back at him that not one of these stones will remain standing…they will all come tumbling down. The disciples have to be shocked. And so, they ask when this will happen. Jesus doesn’t directly answer, but instead talks about the coming of war, when nation would fight against nation, kingdom against kingdom, and there would be earthquakes and famines.
This was not one of the warm and fuzzy, feel-good statements from the Messiah.
But then Jesus concludes with one, pretty intriguing line: he says “These are the beginnings of the birth pangs.”
Let’s come back to that in a minute. First, let’s take a step back and think about anxiety about the future. At some level, we all understand what the disciples were feeling. Today, people are still nervous about the future.
According to IBIS World, a business market research foundation, the psychic industry in the United States can be considered a good financial investment. The psychic industry has grown steadily, over 2% a year, more during years of recession. Last year psychics earned over $2 billion dollars in annual revenues. There are literally hundreds of “psychic” and “fortune telling” apps that one can download to their phone so that you can have your future read, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (They all cost money, and none of them can tell me who is going to win the Vikings Bears game tonight, so I’m out!)
But the people who develop these apps…the ones who try to read our palms or tell our fortunes, they are preying on our fear of the future.
We human beings seem to be hardwired to want to know what comes next. What will tomorrow bring? The uncertainty can leave us feeling anxious and out of control. And given the things we deal with on a day-to-day basis, who can blame us for feeling anxious?
- Will I be able to afford to send my kids to college?
- Will I be able to retire someday?
- What about my health?
- Will my kids be happy and healthy adults?
- What about terrorism?
- What about global warming? Can it be reversed?
And Jesus’ words today? At first glance, not so helpful: It’s all going to come tumbling down? Not one brick will remain standing? That’s a serious buzz-kill.
It causes nervousness…anxiety and even fear. And our completely understandable response is to hunker down and protect ourselves and our loved ones from anything that we think threatens us or our way of life. To be honest, I think that’s where a lot of the angst our nation experiences now comes from. It comes from fear and a desire to protect. And so we push away anything or anyone that is different from us.
But Jesus would tell us that when we do that, when we hunker down and try to reject anything that would change the bubbles which we’ve created for ourselves, we are reacting in the wrong way.
When Jesus is talking about the stones of the temple coming down, he is talking about the future. But even more importantly, he is making an observation on the present. Jesus is reminding us that everything that is…the buildings we see…the roads we drive on…the schools we attend…the homes in which we live…the sanctuaries in which we worship…and even our very lives…are temporary. They are finite. Jesus is reminding us that all of these things have a finite life span.
Let’s return to that strange little line that Jesus concludes with. Remember, he says: “These are the beginnings of the birth pangs.”
Jesus is reminding us that while everything is temporary, and everything that exists on this side of heaven is finite, the pain, angst and anxiety we experience when it feels like things are crumbling around us, are all a part of the creation of something new.
Jesus is not saying to ignore the birth pangs…that they aren’t real. Far from it. We know birth pains are real.
But we also know that we pretty quickly set aside the pain of birth, once we are holding the newborn child.
We don’t ignore our fear or anxiety; they are real. But we set them aside to focus on what will come when the promises of God are fulfilled. Our faith drives us…not our fears.
Dr. Matthew Skinner, a professor at Luther Seminary was talking about the fear people have as the temporary around us comes to an end; about the way the world sometimes feels like it spins out of control and our anxiety goes up. He said “The job of the church is not to retreat in the midst of chaos. But rather to bear witness in the midst of chaos.”
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the last six weeks visiting with Roy Collette at Homestead Hospice House. His funeral was on Tuesday. Many of you knew Roy. He was a great character…larger than life…full of stories. I sat with him a few days before he died, and at one point, after we’d shared communion, I asked him if he felt afraid. Roy gestured me to lean in and come close…and he whispered to me “I know where I’m going.” And he smiled. No fear. The stones were coming down around him…his body was crumbling…but Roy had set his fear aside. He knew where he was going. He knew there was something new coming. And in that moment, he was bearing witness to what God was up to.
The world can feel chaotic. The world can cause anxiety. But as people of God we acknowledge our fear and set it to the side. It does not control us. We are not anxious. Instead we bear witness…we point not to the temporary and the physical, which we know cannot last…instead we point to the spiritual, and the permanent. We don’t focus on the birth pangs…on the pain…we focus on the birth…on what God is doing that is new in the world. We don’t focus on Good Friday; we focus on Easter.
Jesus’ words speak to us today as much as they did to the disciples: “These are the beginnings of the birth pangs.” All these things around us, they are temporary. But bear witness to what God is doing…look to all things being made new. This is the promise God makes to us.
Do not be afraid. Keep calm. And carry on.
Thanks be to God!