DHAKA, Bangladesh – November 27, 2012—“When the fire alarm went off, bosses told workers to go back to their sewing machines. An exit was locked. The fire extinguishers didn’t work and apparently were there just to impress inspectors and customers. Such was the picture survivors painted of Saturday’s garment-factory inferno that killed at least 112 people who were trapped inside or who jumped to their deaths in desperation.” (Farid Hossain and Julhas Alam, AP)
DOHA, QATAR, November 29, 2012—“The annual climate report concluded that …”ice cover had reached “a new record low” around the North Pole and that the loss from March to September was a staggering 4.57 million square miles — bigger than the United States.” (Associated Press)
MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA, October 17. 2012– “We’re pretty close to crisis mode right now, and I’m not a person who tends to hyperbole,’’ says Daniel Gumnit, executive director at People Serving People, a family shelter in the shadow of the Metrodome. “Last year we had an average of 350 a night. [Recently] we had a record-breaking 416. You literally now see a sea of toddlers. We have never, ever, seen so many homeless families,’’ Gumnit says.” (Cynthia Boyd, Minn Post. http://www.minnpost.com/community-sketchbook/2012/10/area-homeless-shelters-swamped-and-worry-about-what-s-ahead)
“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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Our Gospel text sounds very contemporary, doesn’t it? The end of the world, or at least the end of the world as we know it, doesn’t seem so far fetched when we consider things like inhumane working conditions, global climate change, and homeless children in ever-rising numbers. After all, these stories are just a random sampling of those which confuse and distress us, which fill us with fear and the foreboding as we absorb each day’s news.
Our faith tradition, and the way it speaks about the end of the world, can help us navigate these disturbing, disorienting realities– if we can get past the kind of viewpoint espoused by the “Left Behind” series. We need a different kind of theological thinking about the end times. Viewing the scriptures as a source of symbolic and metaphorical truth, not just literal historical fact, is one place to begin.
Let’s start with today’s passages. Jeremiah’s prophecy of hope and safety for a battered nation arises out of the experience of brutal war and conquest. For the Israelites, these events marked the end of one world and the beginning of another. In the first world, they saw themselves as a people rooted in a homeland. In the next, they identified themselves exiles – strangers in a strange land. Similarly, in our Gospel reading, Luke portrays Jesus preaching his sermon about the end times even as he stands on the cusp of the end of his own personal world. The way Luke tells the story, just as soon as Jesus finishes talking, the scribes and Pharisees begin to plot his death. And Judas looks for an opportunity to betray his friend.
Finally, Luke himself lived and wrote his Gospel in the context of the first Jewish revolt – which the Romans crushed in 70 CE. Luke must have had these events at least in the back of his mind as he penned these words of Jesus: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” The fledging Jewish-Christian community of that time believed that the end of the world and the return of Jesus to earth was imminent – probably because such a belief was the only thing that fueled their hope in what seemed like a hopeless situation.
Scott Black Johnston writes this: “One of the things that scholars tell us about apocalyptic imagery [that is, imagery about the end times] is that the communities that generate these disturbing visions are usually themselves subject to tyranny and persecution…. Allan Boesak, renowned South African preacher, once remarked that it made sense for him to preach on apocalyptic themes during the years of apartheid, for apocalyptic images spoke to and adequately described the lives of his listeners. Boesak’s parishioners knew what it was like to live each day as if it were the end of the world.” (Apocalypse: Then and Now: Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston; http://day1.org/1018- apocalypse_then_and_now)
What I find most fascinating about the text from Luke’s Gospel is the response we should have as the world devolves into chaos around us. Don’t run. Don’t hide. Don’t pretend nothing is happening. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Don’t interpret fearful realities as a sign that we are doomed. Know that hidden within them are signs of hope. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 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.”
Joanna Macy, eco-psychologist, writes: “I imagine that future generations will look back on these closing years of the twentieth century and call it the time of The Great Turning. It is the epochal shift from an industrial growth society, dependent on accelerating consumption of resources, to a sustainable or life-sustaining society. There is no guarantee that we will make it in time for civilization, or even complex life forms, to survive; but it is clear that there’s no alternative, because now we are, in systems terms, “on runaway,” consuming our own life support system. I consider it an enormous privilege to be alive now, in this Turning, when all the wisdom and courage we ever harvested can be put to use and matter supremely”
She continues: “We are going to have to want different things, seek different pleasures, pursue different goals, than those that have been driving us and our global economy. New values must arise now, while we still have room to maneuver – and that is precisely what is happening. They are emerging at this very moment, like green shoots through the rubble. It’s not in the headlines or the evening news, but if you open your eyes and fiddle a bit with the focal length, you can see it, like a faint green haze over things, intensifying here and there in pools and pockets of grass, cress, clover.” (The Great Turning: Reflections on Our Moment in History; http://www.earthlight.org/jmacyessay.html)
My partner, Jen, who is also a pastor, told me about a phone call she received this week. There she was, happily working on the bulletin on a Thursday afternoon. Ring, ring. “Hello, Salem Lutheran Church.” The woman said: “I want to know if there is information about a birth class.” Jen replied: “Birth class? I’m not sure I understand.” Wrong number, both Jen and the caller realized at about the same time. Maybe a birth class isn’t such a bad idea during Advent. The end of the world is always at hand… And in response, God is coming to be born – among us, in us, for us. In God, we are reborn. And we are the midwives, helping the birth along. “Stay alert” — watch, wait, and hope: that is the work of Advent. The days are surely coming when we will see the promise and live the promise: from the rough stump of a dying world God’s fresh green shoots of life are emerging. Amen.