25“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. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees;30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
I love apocalyptic movies and books. Throw me a premise of what life will be like after the end of the world as we know it and I’m in. Zombies are not my thing so much, but plagues, natural disasters, societal collapse, I’m here for it. And I’m not the only one! Apocalyptic and post-Apocalyptic movies are a big draw, in spite of the fact that they depict the destruction of most of the things we hold dear. There’s something about us that likes to see the status quo get smashed to bits and wait in suspense to see what remains standing when the dust settles. Part of the fun is watching unjust, or just plain stupid, parts of our current world collapse, and part of what’s compelling is seeing what takes their place. In Mad Max-Fury Road the most precious thing becomes water, in Children of Men it’s fertility and babies, in Oryx and Crake it’s human connection and community, and in a beautiful novel I just finished about a post pandemic Shakespeare troupe called Station Eleven, it’s art, music, ingenuity and all the things that make us human.
So here we are in Advent, the beginning of the church’s story, starting at the end, at the apocalypse. It’s a harsh juxtaposition that just as we begin to prepare for Christmas and surround ourselves with all sorts of cozy and shiny things, we hear “People will faint with fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”
Some of this juxtaposition highlighted by when Christians have chosen to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Of course we don’t know Jesus’ actual birthdate, but sometime in the 4th century people started celebrating it on December 25th. We don’t know why for sure, but the likeliest theory is that Christmas was created as a Christian alternative and rival to the Roman holiday “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti,” the birthday of the unconquerable sun (S-U-N). It’s easy to see how this could be translated in Christian imagery into the birthday of Christ, the light whom darkness could not overcome. What this did was to make the birth of Jesus coincide, very intentionally, with the solstice as the Romans calculated it. Waiting for Jesus’ birth they, and we, encounter the darkest nights of the year and our nowadays mostly rationalized away but still subconscious fear that the darkness will keep coming, the cold will last forever, and life as we know it will end.
We are surrounded with so much paradox during this season: Apocalypse and hope, past and future, sacred and secular, joy and sorrow, cosmic and humble, temporary and eternal, all swirling through these stories that lead toward both a baby in a manger and the end of time. Yet we tend to focus on what appears at least to be the more tame side of the season, nobody decorates their Christmas tree with the roaring of the sea and the waves, more’s the pity. But in the lectionary texts for today we are asked to pause with the wilder side of Advent, and before we get to the baby Jesus, to spend some time with the apocalypse.
There’s two ways to look at the destruction and shake-up we hear about in Luke. One is to say that when it feels like our world is ending, God is near. The other is to say that when God is near, it often feels like our world is ending. Both are true in different ways, but I want to focus on the second interpretation: that it’s because the kingdom of God and Jesus himself are getting closer that the heavens are shaken. What we are shown is that divinity showing up in the world destroys some things, even as it creates others. Us humans can’t be in close proximity to God without our lives changing radically. This is why the Magnificat/Mary’s song while she’s pregnant, talks not only about lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry, but throwing down tyrants and sending the rich away without food. The truth is that some of the things that crumble as the kingdom of God approaches are things we really like, and that the danger is if we look for Jesus we might actually find him, and find that the places he enters demand more from us than the comfortable lives we would choose.
Being open to, even looking for upheaval is really scary, especially if we feel like things in our lives are just about as good as we can arrange them to be. We might be happy for upheaval for other people, as long as it doesn’t touch us too much, as long as our own priorities and securities can remain the same. But the message of Advent is that when God gets near, they can’t and we are asked to not just accept this, but to raise our heads and look for the changes God brings! That is what is both scary and hopeful about this season, the chance that if we raise our heads and look, really look, we might see something that changes us. We might recognize in ourselves a way of living that makes no sense when confronted with the stars falling, waves crashing, and a woman who is carrying the son of God approaching her due date.
In the midst of this Jesus assures us that one thing will not pass away: his words. That may seem like vague and rather cold comfort, but let’s look at what his words in the Gospel of Luke actually say. They say that Jesus cares for people who are sick, are grieving, are hungry, are seeking justice. They say that Jesus blesses people, feeds them, connects them to their communities. Jesus’ words that will not pass away say that God cares for the least of these, and that God cares for you. What Jesus is promising will still be standing is not merely laws or quotations, but God’s commitment to blessing and caring for the people who need it most.
But when what is strange and awe-inspiring and divine bursts into the room, we wake up, shake off the sleepiness of assumption and routine, and begin to look for what truly matters, what in our own lives will be precious on the other side of an apocalypse. Because, you know this, the things that will be precious then are the things that are truly precious now: The nearness of God. The love of someone you care deeply for. The ability to help another gain justice or healing. The beauty of human and divine creation. God draws near in an apocalypse because in God’s presence so many other things that seemed important turn to dust. In this particular apocalypse of God getting close enough to touch, many things will be destroyed, but like the movies, the compelling part is seeing what is unjust and frivolous come tumbling down, and seeing what will still be standing when the dust settles. What Jesus promises is that what God holds as precious will survive. So amid destruction, stand up and raise your heads. Look for God, and look at the radical disruption of life’s priorities. Look for the precious things that will last. The truly precious things are enfolded in God’s promises, and what is truly precious will not pass away.