Have I mentioned how much I hate the Gospel lessons for the First Sunday in Advent? Okay. Maybe I have. It’s just that I remember those thrilling days of the early 1970’s and the publication of Hal Lindsay’s magnum opus The Late Great Planet Earth, and every time we get these Second-Coming-End-of-the World-Eschatological lessons appointed for our Gospel reading I think of a bunch of long-haired hippies sitting around in storefront churches waiting for The Rapture. I think of that awful movie Thief in the Night and the attempt to frighten everybody into a personal relationship with Jesus—as if that were possible—and I start to feel a bit queasy. I just don’t like Doomsday narratives. I don’t even like the current taste for dystopian stories in our popular culture. (No. I haven’t seen The Hunger Games, and I don’t plan to, either—fond as I am of Jennifer Lawrence!).
But I have to admit, if I were into End-Times Biblical prophecy, these days do look pretty much like the end of the world. In ISIS we face a new and insidious form of Islamic extremism, a mysterious global entity of terror which rivals anything Ian Fleming could’ve made up. Global climate change is causing “hundred year” storms to break out annually. There are wars and rumors of wars—saber-rattling in Russia and China. There is economic inequality and racial tension here in America. Today a third-grader has greater command of modern technology than I do, but has vastly weaker verbal and written communication skills—a fact ignored by those who espouse a tax policy which is perfectly content to see that third-grader languish in a public school system already reeking of rigormortis.
So are these the signs of the end of the world?
I’d have to say, “Yup! It’s the end of something, alright!”
In this week’s Gospel lesson (Luke 21:25-36), Jesus warns us that things are going to look pretty bad. There are going to be freaky signs and portents which will cause people to faint with fear and foreboding (verse 26). But yet he maintains that these changes are signs of God’s coming kingdom. Do I personally believe that these are signs of the end of all time? No. Not really. But I do believe that the things which are familiar and comfortable are going to be rocked off their foundations and we’re not going to be able to escape that. The Gospel lesson even has Jesus tell us that every generation will face change and loss and uncertainty. No generation will pass away without it.
But here’s the good news:
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (v.33)
Our spiritual walk is never about what happens—it’s about how we choose to embrace it. It’s not for us to figure out God’s intentions about the end of our little planet. It is for us to lift our heads and be open to what God is teaching us. It’s also for us, as Christians, to be excited about the new thing God is doing—even if we find it scary and uncomfortable. Old worlds pass away so that new worlds can begin. Bill Moore, a Baptist pastor from North Philly, always used to say, “Man’s desperation is God’s opportunity.” As people of faith we trust in the ongoing truth of the Word of God, and in the Holy Spirit’s ability to work through us and bring resolutions to the problems which confront this age. These resolutions will not bring us back to our past comfort zones. Rather, they will lead us forward to new and different experiences of God’s goodness.
Martin Luther’s world was also confronted with Islamic extremism as Turkish forces threatened Christian Europe. Plagues and wars destroyed populations. Social chaos (some of which was caused by Luther himself!) tore at the fabric of society. Peoples’ very cosmology was upended by the new discoveries of astronomers and explorers. Yet out of all of this craziness came the Renaissance and the Reformation.
Last Sunday I attended a retirement party for one of my colleagues. Claire Burkat, my bishop, was present. In her usually optimistic way she told me how excited she was about the new crop of young pastors and seminarians who are chomping at the proverbial bit to serve our Church. They are already adapting through the use of social media. They don’t mind being bi-vocational—taking secular jobs so as not to be dependent on congregational giving for their salaries. They want to encourage lay leaders and train volunteers for the Gospel. They have a radical vision of what Church could be which might seem odd to someone of my generation. Some old traditions may be going by the wayside, but something new is coming.
So stay awake, folks! Instead of preparing for Christmas this year, let’s all prepare for Christ. I have a feeling he’s up to something.
Happy Advent. Thanks for reading.