Anxiety Machine

November 29, 2009



Luke 21:29-36

29  Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 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.’


If you have had to catch a flight recently, you are no doubt aware of the increasing hassle it has become to get from the long-term parking lot to the departure gate, let alone the possible flight delays or cancellation once you finally do get into the airport.

You start the whole process by wedging yourself and your bags, along with other weary travelers, into a shuttle, which takes you from your car to the terminal. Inside, you no longer can talk directly to a person at check-in but have to use an infernal computer kiosk. I say “infernal,” because the kiosk inevitably does not recognize you or your flight, causing you to have to flag down an agent anyway.

Then you get to security, where you are asked to take out your baggie of embarrassing personal-hygiene items, pull out all your electronics and do a little public striptease before going through the metal detector. The detector goes off because you forgot the 75 cents in your pocket, causing the security guy to put you in a special area where you get to spread eagle while he pats and wands you down like some shoeless criminal on a TV cop show.

This is all for the sake of safety, which we are all concerned about these days, what with terrorism and such things, but, as if you are not stressed out enough by that whole process, now some experts are looking at ways to measure your anxiety as you stand de-belted, disheveled and shoeless in the security line. They are doing this to determine whether you are exhibiting the stress of a would-be terrorist or merely the stress of a parent who just dragged three screaming kids past the terminal gift shop.

While we now have to walk through metal detectors and bomb sniffers, the next thing we may have to face is what some people call an “anxiety machine.” It uses “FAST” (Future Attribute Screening Technology) that works on the same principle as a polygraph. That is, it looks for sharp changes in body temperature, pulse, and breathing. The difference is that in a polygraph, the subject answers questions, while this machine simply tests people as they walk through. The idea is that people whom the machine identifies as suspiciously stressed would then be taken to another area and interviewed in front of a camera that measures minute facial movements to determine if the subject is lying. [Frank, Thomas. “Anxiety-detecting machines could spot terrorists.” USA Today, September 18, 2008.]

All of that makes the rest of the shoe-shucking, belt-removing process sound hassle-free by comparison. But this is frontier technology. Such a machine is years in future.

It already has its critics. Some say the anxiety machine will subject innocent travelers to what amounts to a medical exam, without their permission. Others doubt the reliability of the technology. Timothy Levine, a Michigan State University expert on deceptive behavior, says, “What determines your heart rate is a whole bunch of reasons besides hostile intent.” You may be stressed, for example, because you were late for the flight. Levine says, “This is the whole reason behavioral profiles don’t work.”

There is a good chance most of us would set off this anxiety machine. Just this year, we have had a major economic downturn with jobs and homes lost, a swine flu scare, crazy foreign dictators some maybe with nuclear weapons, more terrorist threats--and that is just the national news. We are more likely to be stressed about little personal stuff. Did I forget to pack my toothbrush in that little baggie? Did I leave the coffeepot on? A businessperson might be asking, Did I bring that contract with me? With all that, you can see that most of us would be in for some questioning about what is freaking us out.

But we have to remember that Jesus warned us there would be days like this. As we read this apocalyptic passage in Luke 21, we see anxiety all over the place. We see panic attacks so serious that they may cause us to miss the signs of the most important event in history.

First, you have natural signs — the whole cosmos in an anxious uproar, along with the “nations” who will be “confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” (v. 25). This appears to be describing the kinds of natural disasters we have seen in recent years, such as the “roaring of the sea and the waves” of the 2004 Asian tsunami, but we have to remember that apocalyptic language is symbolic language. The reference to the “sea,” for example, is used throughout the Bible to refer to the primordial chaos that was present at the dawn of creation (Genesis 1:2). In the Bible’s most famous apocalyptic book, Revelation, in the vision of the new heaven and new earth, we hear that there will be no more sea (21:1)—that is, no more chaos.

However, we are not yet in the new heaven and new earth. Jesus is using stark imagery to describe the world-shaking, chaotic events that will precede his coming. These events will cause no small amount of anxiety.

In v26, Jesus says, “People will faint from fear and from foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (21:26). People will be freaking out in scary times.

It is at this point that Jesus says he will be seen “coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (v. 27). Again, the idea is not so much to be looking up for a cloud-surfing Savior but to recognize that the ultimate sign of the kingdom of God will be the exaltation of Jesus as Lord of all. Luke is probably thinking about a vision from the book of Daniel. “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Daniel 7:13). Luke uses Daniel’s cloud image to link Jesus’ ascension, which he talks about in Acts 1:9, with his return, which he talks about here. Just as the sea represents chaos, clouds represent glorification. Despite the chaos in the world and all the anxiety it produces, the resurrected and glorified Jesus promises to use his lordship to set the world to rights once and for all.

But in the meantime, in the here and now, what do we do? Do we need to queue up for the anxiety machine—worry about when Jesus is going to come back, worry about what is going to happen?

No. Jesus calls us to prepare ourselves. For Jesus, that means approaching life with faith rather than fear. Jesus urges us to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (v. 28). Then he tells us the fig tree parable. This parable reminds us to look up for the kingdom of God instead of constantly focusing on the daily stress-producing news of calamity and disaster (vv. 29-33).

Now look at the next verses, verses 34-35: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.”

There is a role reversal here. When we go to the airport, we are searched by the Transportation Security Administration guards, and they look suspiciously on our anxiety. Jesus reverses that, and says, you are the guards, and there are some things you should be looking for. You should be helping to weed out the “dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life” that will come upon “all who live on the face of the whole earth” (vv. 34-35). He says that everyone faces “the worries of this life,” and part of our business as Christians is to help them deal with those worries, and to deal with them ourselves.

The religion of Buddhism speaks of the five remembrances. Here is Thich Nhat Hanh’s Version.


I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.


Now no matter what we believe about Buddhism, the five remembrances are obviously true. We grow old, we lose our health, we die, our loved ones die, and we constantly face choices for which we are responsible, and these are things people really worry about. These are “the worries of this life.”

So what are we going to do about them? “Be alert.” That is what Jesus says. Be alert, focus on the real problem, and pray. Jesus encourages his disciples to pray for the strength to “escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (v. 36).

Most biblical scholars see Jesus’ warnings in this passage as a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which would take place within the lifetimes of those listening to him. Thus, he says “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place” (v. 32). That generation of Jews Jesus was speaking to there in the first century faced catastrophe. Jesus urged them to keep their heads up and their knees down. Be alert. Use your brain, and use your prayer power.

Those of us who grew up in fifties remember a drill in school called “duck and cover.” It was training for nuclear war with the Soviet Union. If the air-raid sirens ever went off, we were told to immediately duck down under our desks, pull our knees up to our chins and cover our heads with our hands. It was a useless drill. A school desk is scant protection against radiation. That is why the duck and cover drills were abandoned. They were pointless, and they increased everyone’s anxiety level.

Jesus’ advice to his disciples is just the opposite of duck and cover. He instructs them to “Stand up and raise your heads.” That seems to be against all common sense. Who would even think of raising their heads when the fury of Judgment Day is raging all around?

A Christian, that’s who. A Christian who believes God’s promises and knows them to be true. This life has things to be feared, no doubt about that. If we did not fear the worst-case scenarios — illness, poverty, pain, suffering— we would be foolish. Yet, Jesus is sharing good news here. He is telling us that all our fears are ultimately as nothing when laid up against the great plans God has for this world and for us.

So what about our anxiety whatever it might be? The expert I quoted earlier, Timothy Levine, said that our stress levels can increase for any number of reasons. So whatever your reason, if your worry meter is pegged and you are setting off anxiety alarms, it is time to step back, take a deep breath and pray. There is no better way to lower your heart rate, to lower your blood pressure, to calm your anxious spirit. There is no better way to do all that than to slow down and commune with Christ. Jesus reminds us that ultimately he is in charge. Our life’s journey may be tough sometimes, but it will end well, because it will end with Jesus.

So, if you are at the airport going through the usual dump-and-dance routine, or if you are out shopping on Black Friday—like I was yesterday--think of it as an opportunity to demonstrate the opposite of anxiety to all those stressed-out folks around you. A kind word to that TSA guard who’s patting you down. Or, if you are shopping, you might pause to let that mom with two kids go by, if you bump into someone, you might say, pardon me. Make them wonder if you know something that they don’t.

Because, after all, you do! You know about Jesus. Back in chapter 8, Luke tells a story about Jesus. He went down to the sea, and got on a boat and said, “Let us go over to the other side.” He said, “let us.” He assured them that he would be with them through the whole trip and the trip would end successfully. They would get to the other side.

Now if you remember the story, Jesus went to sleep and a storm came up and the disciples were afraid of drowning. In a panic, they woke up Jesus and said, Don’t you care about us Lord? Jesus replied, in effect, why don’t you listen? I said we were going to the other side, and he calmed the storm.

Life is often a storm. But Jesus promised to be with us now, and to be with us to the end. Our part is to trust Jesus. Just that. Trust Jesus.




If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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