Rasputin thought it would be August 23, 2013. Isaac Newton suggested sometime in 2000. Some interpretations of the Mayan calendar led people to select December 21, 2012, while broadcaster Harold Camping staged a large publicity campaign about his chosen date of October 21, 2011, although his previous three predictions had flopped. Christians just love trying to predict the exact date of armageddon, the apocalypse, the end of the world. So far, every prediction has been wrong, but that doesn’t seem to stop people from trying.
Whipping people into an apocalyptic frenzy is big business; in the 1970s, the book The Late, Great Planet Earth garnered a great deal of attention with its comparisons between biblical descriptions of the end-times and then-current events. In the best-selling work, Lindsey concluded that the Christ would return to usher in God’s kingdom around 1988. Later, the Left Behind series imagined a world in which all the faithful Christians have been snatched up into heaven, leaving behind all of the atheists, agnostics, non-Christian religious people, and liberal Protestants like us (seriously; I wrote a paper about this in college). Seven books in the series reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and there have been four movies, graphic novels, video games, and more inspired by the books in the hopes of cashing in on Christians’ fascination with the apocalypse.
While this obsession with the end times may seem like a phenomenon exclusive to contemporary culture, and specifically to conservative Protestant American culture, predictions of the date of the eschaton - the end of days - are nothing new: as I prepared this sermon, I spent an hour enthralled, scrolling through a chart on Wikipedia of well over one hundred doomsday predictions, ranging from Jewish zealots’ predictions of the end of time in the late first century through scientists’ forecasting of the heat death of the universe about ten to the one-hundredth power years from now. (Merry Christmas, everyone!) It turns out that people from many eras and many faith traditions have played this game of reading sacred scriptures, watching for global events and astrological signs, and making their best guesses of when the world will end.
Most liberal Protestants, though, tend not to participate in the end-times guessing game. If anything, we find the whole thing a bit embarrassing and try not to talk about it too much. After all, Jesus did say that no one knows the day or the hour! But perhaps we’ve gone too far in our reluctance to talk about the apocalyptic passages in scripture and our theology about the last things. But today our calendar of readings guides us to consider some of Jesus’s apocalyptic words.
It seems a little odd to focus on the apocalypse on the first Sunday of Advent. During Advent, we prepare ourselves for the birth of Christ on Christmas day. However, while the secular world gears up for Christmas with an orgy of sugary treats, saccharine music, and consumerist frenzy, the church’s approach is a little bit different. During Advent, we turn our focus toward the practice of waiting in darkness for the coming of light into the world. We notice how far our world is from God’s dream for us, attend to our need for Christ, and try to practice hope, which is, according to Vaclav Havel, “definitely not the same thing as optimism. It's not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” And as we do these things, we remember that while Christ has come into the world, his work is not complete. For two thousand years, Christians have lived in the gap between Jesus coming into the world, and the day when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. And so, as we start our Advent journey toward the manger, we read these dark and difficult words from the Gospel according to Luke.
In today’s passage, Jesus has been teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, in the final days before his death. His teachings have gotten more challenging as he approaches the cross, and this passage’s ominous apocalyptic imagery is some of the most jarring of his words. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves,” he says. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
We tend to hear texts about the apocalypse as dark and frightening - and there are dark and frightening words here: distress among the nations, the roaring of the seas, the heavens shaking. And it is very human to fear change, to want things to stay the way they are, to hear texts about the end and say “no, thank you, I’m very comfortable right here.” But ultimately, this is not a word of doom, but of hope: “raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” As Christians, we are invited to see texts about the end of days not as a threat, but as a promise: one day, Christ will return in glory, putting an end to violence and destruction, wars and disasters. When we look at the world around us, it’s no wonder that the end-times are so often predicted: the world is already full of the pain and fear and turmoil that marks scriptural words about the apocalypse. The promise is that one day Christ will return and set it all right.
Many generations of Christians have waited for that day, though, and it has yet to come. Does this text have anything to say to us besides “keep an eye out, eventually Jesus is coming back”? Perhaps it speaks not just about the eschaton, the last things, but also about living in this everyday, in-between world. Biblical scholars such as N.T. Wright have observed that Luke’s gospel was written shortly after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple — a cataclysmic event for Jews and early Christians. Scholars have suggested that for the earliest Christians, Jesus’s descriptions of terrifying events may have spoken to this massive act of destruction by the Roman Empire, helping them to see the darkest and most terrifying events in their lives as signs of God’s presence and Christ’s imminent return.
So is this passage about the end of time, or is it about disastrous events within history? Perhaps it’s both. After the ominous and foreboding imagery of the heavens shaking and the sea roaring, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree. ““Look at the fig tree and all the trees,” he says. “As soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” While the earlier teaching seems to point toward the end of time, the parable Jesus uses to explain the teaching suggests something very different. Trees, by their nature, are cyclical. One phase follows after another, over and over, year after year. And when we look at the world around us, we see that disasters and tragedies, while less predictable than fig trees, are cyclical as well. From natural disasters to wars to public health crises, disasters seem to crash over us like waves. Political assassinations, the AIDS epidemic, September 11th, the Syrian refugee crisis, and all of the others before and after and in between. Perhaps Jesus’ words are not only about the once-and-for-all end of time, but also about all those moments when it feels like everything is being torn apart, turned upside down and shaken, shattered irreparably into thousands of pieces. Perhaps that is what Jesus was suggesting with his parable of the fig tree - perhaps he is reflecting on the seemingly endless cycle of violence and destruction that make us look toward the day when God will set things right. And in the face of the world’s constant cycle of disaster and tragedy, he speaks of the big story of God’s love. “When these things begin to take place,” he says, “…your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus does not say that God brings terrifying events upon the world. Rather, Jesus promises that when things seem darkest, God will draw nearest.
A few months ago, my two-year-old Abel fell and cut his face on a piece of furniture. The cut was very deep, and very close to his eye, and we spent hours in the emergency room, where they wrapped him in sheets to immobilize his arms, held him down, and gave him dozens of shots of novocaine and several layers of stitches to close the cut. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't much, but he had never experienced so much fear and pain in his short life. That night, he fell immediately into a deep sleep, but I lay awake, reviewing the day’s events, wracked by guilt, worrying that his tylenol would wear off and he would wake up disoriented and in pain. Over and over, I tiptoed into his room, double- and triple-checking that he was asleep. Finally, around four in the morning, I lay down beside Abel’s crib and fell asleep, knowing that I would know the moment his eyes opened. It gave me a new perspective to see my child in pain and know that I couldn’t fix it, that all I could do was hold him and stay close as he endured the pain. Maybe some of you have been through something like that with a child, or a spouse, or a friend. Perhaps that kind of love is a bit of a glimpse into God’s love for us: God cannot always protect us from pain and fear. But when we are in pain, God draws near. When we inflict violence on each other, or on ourselves, when nature turns on us, when the heavens shake and the seas roil, when there are wars and destruction, when creation cries out in fear and panic, God’s heart breaks for us, and God draws near, holds us close, and offers us comfort and strength to endure.
When refugees are fleeing from Syria and our nation is in the grips of reactionary xenophobia, God draws near. When terrorists bathe the streets of Paris and Mali in blood, God draws near. When gun violence takes life after life after life, and we are paralyzed, unsure what to do or how to change it, God draws near. When a domestic terrorist rampages through a Planned Parenthood, God draws near. When every week brings yet more stories of unarmed black men, women, and children killed by police, and stories of cover-ups, and stories of white supremacists shooting at protestors, and we cannot even remember all the names we have heard, let alone the ones who never made the news, God draws near. And in our own lives, when we face our darkest moments, when we are in the grips of grief, depression, illness, turmoil, grief and despair, God draws near.
As we begin this season of watching and waiting, we hear Jesus’ words about calamity and destruction, words that promise that we have nothing to fear, that indeed we should “stand up and raise [our] heads,” because redemption is drawing near, the reign of God is drawing near. The work that Christ began will be completed, God’s promises will be fulfilled, and God will wipe away every tear. We hear these words and we remember that one night in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, in an occupied nation, in the midst of abject poverty, under the thumb of a violent and oppressive empire, creation cried out and God drew near. God drew near, as the Word took on flesh, and dwelled among us. So no matter how dark things seem, Jesus repeats the biblical command, “Fear not!” He invites us to stand up and raise our heads, to be courageous and loving in the face of the very worst the world has to offer, and to know that, no matter what happens, God will draw near. God has drawn near. And even now, God is drawing near. Thanks be to God. Amen.