Thursday, December 13, 2012

Advent 1: Apocalypse is Not the End of the World

Sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  Luke 21:24-36

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

            My suspicion is that most of us are wired to hear passages such as this one and feel anxious or threatened or turned off.  Apocalyptic writing is not our favorite.  It is language that is difficult to hear, more difficult to figure out, and why bother anyway, because in the end it's just about the Day of Judgment by an angry God.

            What if we are wrong about all of this?  What if it is not the intention of a passage like this Gospel reading to increase our anxiety or threaten us or turn us off?  What if this text does not mean to be difficult and mysterious, but in fact quite plain and realistic?  And what if the purpose of a text like this is not to prepare us for the Day of Judgment by an angry God, but the Day of Mercy by a loving God?

            I do not know if Jesus was speaking here of an event at the end of the world as we know it or not.  I do not know if he thought such a thing was going to happen soon, that he would, in essence, "be right back."  What I do know is this:  we live life on the edge of apocalypse, which means these texts can be helpful to us regarding our ordinary life, not some future extraordinary event.

            Not a day goes by when it is impossible for our world to come unglued.  It is not healthy to dwell on that possibility, to be constantly aware of it or afraid of it, but it is simply the truth that it is the truth.  We are not in control.  This is what Jesus means when he says

There will be signs in the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused at the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding at what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

            I know those words sound mysterious and cosmic, but I think they are also quite plain and ordinary.  I hear in those words also this:

You will experience your world being turned upside down and inside out, so you do not know which end is up.  What is perfectly normal will not seem normal to you.  You will be anxious and afraid.  Your faith will be shaken to its core.

            Does that sound familiar?  We live on the edge of apocalypse.  But part of the good news Jesus has to offer us is that while living on the edge of apocalypse and experiencing the upheaval that periodically comes to all of us is difficult, it is not impossible.  Apocalypse, paradoxically, is not the end of the world.

            So what is Jesus' advice when apocalypse is upon us?

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

            Stand up and lift up your heads.  Think of what he does not say. He does not say:

  • Fall on your knees and hang your head in shame.
  • Run for the hills in order to save your life.
  • Be afraid, be very afraid.

            No, he says, "Stand up and raise your heads."  Why? "Because your redemption is drawing near." Again, it is important what he does not say. He does not say:

  • Your judgment is drawing near.
  • The wrath of God is coming upon you.
  • You are going to get what you deserve.

            No. He says, "Your redemption is drawing near."  Redemption.  What does he mean by that?  "Redemption" is one of the words used in the Bible to describe what God fundamentally wants for us and what Jesus' life, death, and resurrection does for us.  There are many words you could insert there:  salvation, rescue, healing, liberation, etc.  The point is that the time of apocalypse is also the time if redemption, which is why I could say with all confidence a moment ago the rather silly sounding thing, that apocalypse does not mean the end of the world.

            Christian people learn that when trial or crisis comes, we should look not for signs of ending, but rather for  signs of new life because they will surely come.  That does not mean that anger at what has happened, or grief, or any other emotion is not appropriate for Christians. It simply means that we live by those amazing words we say together when someone has died:

Yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

            These strange words of Jesus this morning are not about threat, unless, perhaps, you are an enemy of the redemption, the liberation, of the people of God.  They are purely and simply about hope.  When the world is coming unglued, be it on the scale of the cosmos or the scale of my own little life, I have my orders of hope.  "Stand tall, keep your head up.  It is going to be Ok. It is Ok."

No comments: