It’s been quiet here. However, it may start getting louder soon. I’m intending to start posting my sermons online, so there’s no better time to start than the beginning of the new year (for the church, that is!)
Expectation, or, the End of the World as We Know It
I’ve never been a fan of talk about the end of the world – what many refer to as the apocalypse. I’ve never seen the movie Apocalypse Now. I always thought those bumper stickers I saw down South that said, “In case of rapture, this vehicle will be unoccupied” were stupid. I made it through one of the Left Behind books only because I had to read it for a class in seminary on fundamentalism. All those charts that presumably predict what the course of the history of the world looks like – and try to show exactly when the world will end based on the election of some world leader – just make me angry and frustrated. Every time someone asks me about 2012, I don’t think of the new hit movie or the prediction that the world will end when the Mayan calendar runs out of days two years from now, so I have to pause for a minute or two to figure out exactly what they’re talking about! And to top it all off, I’ve never been a big fan of the book of Revelation in the Bible – it is confusing, easy to misinterpret, and difficult to apply to everyday life in the twenty-first century.
But today, as we embark on the journey of Advent and begin a new liturgical year, our gospel reading from Luke puts the idea of the apocalypse before us, like it or not. It’s a strange choice, really – in that time when conventional wisdom would suggest that we should be singing Christmas carols and talking about the birth of a little child, our readings jump to the end of Jesus’ life and insist that we not yet think about the coming of Jesus at Christmas but instead think about “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with glory and power to make all things new in the kingdom of God. When we begin what one of my friends from seminary calls the “month-long baby shower we call Advent,” it would seem that we should start with the baby and his story. Instead, we look today at the end times as the season begins, remembering first and foremost that the coming of Jesus at Christmas was only his first coming – and so we should be expecting another one!
Rather than jumping right into the story of the first coming of Jesus, our readings for this season begin with one of Jesus’ teachings near the end of his life, just before his arrest, a passage often referred to as the “little apocalypse” where Jesus talks about the days beyond his life on earth with his disciples. Expectation seems to be the key word here – Jesus speaks of signs and fears and forebodings that should not be a surprise but rather should be expected along the way. And then at an unexpected time, when the powers of the earth and the heavens are shaken, he promises that “‘the Son of Man [will come] in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” Surprisingly, though, Jesus insists that these things are not to be feared – instead, he suggests, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Just because these signs are not feared does not mean that they should be ignored – just like it is clear that summer is near when the fig tree sprouts its leaves, so it will be clear that the kingdom of God is near when all these signs and portents and shaking take place. But just keeping our eyes open in expectation is not enough – Jesus insists that there is more for us to do to get ourselves ready for this day ahead. “Be on guard,” he says. Don’t let the worries of the world get you down so that you aren’t ready for the day that is sure to come. Keep your eyes and ears and hearts open for what God is doing, ready to avoid the pitfalls sure to come along the way so that you won’t have to worry when the time for the kingdom of God is upon us.
Jesus’ message here is not quite as harsh as some of the apocalyptic messages in other places in the Bible that tend to bring us fear and uncertainty, but he still gets at the core of them: we need to expect that the world as we know it will come to an end. From Jesus’ perspective, there seems to be little for us to fear – judgment is not the main point of all this that he is describing. The reality is that the apocalypse is not so much to be feared as it is to be welcomed. In it, Jesus insists that our “redemption is drawing near” and things will finally change. These days ahead are not primarily about how the world gets split into “us” and “them” – “us” who are “saved” and “them” who are not – but rather about the coming of salvation for all. These days ahead are not about the destruction of all the world but rather about the end of all the things that distort God’s goodness and disrupt God’s intentions for our world. These days ahead are not about things that matter only when the end comes but rather about the revelation of what God is doing now to make all things new once again.
At the core, that’s what all this apocalypse business is about – the Greek word that gives us “apocalypse” is best translated “uncover” or “reveal,” and so the days ahead promise to be the revelation of something new, God’s work of revealing what God is up to. That’s what Advent is all about – waiting for the new things God is revealing even now in the world, watching for reminders of God’s presence every day, expecting that God will reveal Godself once again at Christmas and beyond, and preparing for the fulfillment of all these things in the kingdom of God that is being revealed even now. But in the midst of our waiting, watching, expectation, and preparation for Christmas, we must not forget that there is an even greater revelation ahead, and our eyes, ears, and hearts must be open to perceive it as it is revealed in our world. As Jan Richardson, an artist, blogger, and United Methodist minister, puts it:
“In the rhythm of our daily lives here on earth, Christ bids us to practice the apocalypse. He calls us in each day and moment to do the things that will stir up our courage and keep us grounded in God, not only that we may perceive Christ when he comes, but also that we may recognize him even now. There is a sense, after all, in which we as Christians live the apocalypse on a daily basis. Amid the destruction and devastation that are ever taking place in the world, Christ beckons us to perceive and to participate in the ways that he is already seeking to bring redemption and healing for the whole of creation.”
Practicing the apocalypse is hard anytime, but in the buildup to Christmas in our culture it is nearly impossible. It’s nothing about a shift to saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” – the reality is that Christmas was taken over by our culture a long time ago. In all the trappings of the season – in all the decorations, carols, and the like – there’s almost nothing left of this radical message of revolutionary redemption and healing for the whole of creation. But God’s new thing still beckons us to join in. We must stop just going through the motions of the holiday season and start paying attention to the wildly transformative message of these days. We must stand up to our world’s insistence that Christmas begins the day after Halloween or Thanksgiving and ends on December 24 and instead continue it to Epiphany on January 6 and beyond. We must turn away from the preparations for all those parties and other celebrations and instead prepare the way for the incredible, transformative gift of God coming into our midst in Christmas – and the day of the kingdom of God that is still yet to come but beginning to come about even now.
My friends, it is time to start waiting, watching, expecting, and preparing for the end of the world as we know it – not in 2012 or any other particular date, but when the fullness of time has come, and maybe even in our midst. You see, in these days, if we expect to see only what we have seen before, then we will see exactly that, but if in this Advent season we open our eyes to the possibilities of what God can and will be doing in the days to come, then we might just see God revealing something new before our very eyes.
These are hard things for us to do in these days. Even if we choose to buck the major pressures of the world, there are some obligations it would seem we must still keep. We just can’t skip some of those Christmas parties. We still have to get and give gifts for some people. And so often we feel that we cannot deprive our youngest friends of the joys of this season.
Even when we can’t give up everything about the world’s Christmas we can do a few things to change our own. One online movement known as the Advent Conspiracy suggests four steps that I’ll repeat here. First, worship fully. Don’t miss out on the opportunities in our life together to focus on the real reason for these days. A great way to step into this is to join us on Thursday nights this Advent for our Advent prayer services in the style of the Taizé Community in France, where we spend the better part of an hour in quiet music and prayer, stepping away from the pressures of the busy season to recenter ourselves in the life of the one whose first revelation we celebrate in these days. Then, the Advent Conspiracy suggests that we spend less. Americans spend an average of $450 billion each Christmas. Yes, a little push of spending might help our economy this year, but is that what this season is really about? What if we bought just one less gift this Christmas, or perhaps looking for other ways to give that might be even more meaningful than that high-priced gadget or that beautiful new sweater that will get worn only once? If that wasn’t enough, the Advent Conspiracy points us to give more, to give time to family and friends in the midst of a busy season or talent to an organization in need. A group of my friends on Twitter and Facebook took up this cause on Friday and gave over $2200 to organizations and causes we care about. And in all these things, the Advent Conspiracy suggests that we love all. In worshiping more fully, in spending less, and in giving more, we embody God’s love in Jesus Christ that comes among us at Christmas, reaching out to those who are most in need and living in the way of love that Jesus began in his own life so that that love might be revealed all the more in our midst until the kingdom of God comes.
As we journey together in this Advent season, may we be filled with expectation like the children of God – expecting the things that God is preparing for us in the same way that we once looked forward with great excitement and joy to opening those gifts on Christmas morning so that we might be ready to receive the incredible gift of God in Jesus Christ this Christmas but also be ready to recognize the coming kingdom of God – the end of the world as we know it! – when it comes in our midst so that we might join in what God is doing even now to make all things new.
Lord, come quickly, and make all things new!