Luke 21: 25-36 (1st Sunday in Advent)
I never thought I would hear a scripture like the one we heard today about signs of the end times, and think to myself, “yep that fits.” What we just heard Karen read is known as apocalyptic scripture. Its most prominent in the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures and the book of Revelation in the New Testament but you’ll find it sprinkled throughout the bible. The common understanding of such scriptures is they are all about predicting the end times. Apocalyptic scriptures are about fear, about a vengeful God who in the end will sort out the believers and the unbelievers. The common understanding is apocalyptic scripture is about an authoritarian God stepping in and finally taking control of an awful human mess. But that’s not the original intent of these scriptures. This attitude toward apocalyptic scripture is more an indictment of insecure, fearful, affluent Christianity.
These scriptures were never meant to be fearful and wrathful but rather helpful and hopeful to suffering people. It’s only to affluent, comfortable people and institutions that they come across as menacing, to those for whom the disintegration of normal, of the status quo is a threat. Let’s start with some quick etymology: the Greek for apocalypse is apokaluptein from the words, kaluptein, the Greek word for “to cover” and apo translated as the prefix “un,” so apokaluptein means to uncover or unveil. Apocalypse in it’s original context simply meant to reveal something new. Apocalyptic scriptures pull back the veil, reveal the underbelly of reality. It uses hyperbolic images, stars falling from the sky, the moon turning to blood. The closest thing would be contemporary science fiction, where suddenly you’re placed in an utterly different world, where what you used to call “normal” doesn’t apply anymore.
“Normal doesn’t apply anymore”, feel familiar, doesn’t that describe the time we’re in? Life feels apocalyptic, so much is being revealed right now. Here are some examples. The total incompatibility of economies based on growth and the capacity of our planet to sustain life as we know it. Climate change being the main example. The foolishness of individualist mindsets and ideologies in leading societies, especially in the face of a pandemic. We see it in anti-masking, anti-vaccine protests, the failure to provide effective sick leave policies and to understand that we can only come out of this together by protecting the most vulnerable. The self-defeating ideology of under-regulated capitalism that creates unconscionable inequalities that destabilize societies. We see it in the gap between CEO and frontline worker pay, the rise of authoritarianism, the toxic effect of social media in optimizing divisive content for the sake of profit. The cruel and exploitative practices of racial, cultural, and religious supremacy that keeps Black, Indigenous and people of colour under stress and disadvantaged. We see it in the discovery of children’s graves at residential schools, the anger over the murder of George Floyd, the binding of racialized children’s hands with tape at a Kitchener school. The pervasiveness of patriarchy that exploits, undermines, and abuses women. We sit in the pervasiveness of all the stories shared with the metoo hashtag. So much is being unveiled and revealed.
The truth is the more disadvantaged we are the less of an unveiling this is for us. We’ve been living in apocalyptic times for a while. For those of us who are more privileged, more comfortable by virtue of skin colour, gender, religion, ethnic background etc.…, who do not struggle together with God’s people for the sake of the gospel, and who do not feel in their own bodies the meaning of oppression, we have grave difficulty seeing beyond the veil of distraction into the life affirming truth of apocalypse. Yes, life affirming apocalypse. The unveiling is for the sake of birth, not death. Apocalyptic scripture is not meant to strike fear in us as much as imagine the end of the godless worlds we have created. These stories are not a threat but an invitation to go deeper. They are about waking people up to what is transient and passing to what is real and enduring. They ask the question, “what if? What if everything that is rooted in ego and fear were to fall away, to disappear, what then?”
Apocalyptic scripture moves us from order to disorder that me might re-order life in the ways of God, the ways of love, harmony, and unity. Another way to put it is apocalyptic scriptures invites us into the pattern of death and resurrection. Apocalyptic scripture helps us make room for something new by clearing out the old—old ideas, old stories, old ways of thinking—especially if we’ve become overly attached to them. Experience teaches us that until our certitudes and our own self-written success stories begin to fall apart, we usually will avoid any form of deeper wisdom.
What does all this have to do with Advent? Advent is about waiting and preparing to perceive the new thing God is doing. Advent is about waiting and preparing to embrace a God who comes to us in the most unconventional of ways. A God who eschews authoritarian power, control, hierarchy, comfort, and security to come to us as the helpless baby of a poor, colonized, oppressed couple who become refugees shortly after the birth.
Only a few embrace their role in it or perceive it’s occurrence—Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise ones. It is those who create room within themselves to see what is emerging by letting unhelpful and even harmful notions of God die away. Those who are willing to perceive something new happening, to wonder and take risks. It is those who are willing to live in the disorder and watch and wait. Those who acknowledge the fear but don’t react from it. That seems like a good strategy in apocalyptic times.
What are your fears amid these apocalyptic times? How might we move past fear to something less reactive and more courageous? What needs to die, what do we need to let go of individually, societally, as a species so that something new can take hold, for a new order to emerge from the current disorder? What needs to die, what do we need to let go of for us to perceive, to embrace the birthing of the vulnerable love of God in our individual, family, and communal lives—in our political and economic systems? In these apocalyptic times these are the questions that might bring us some hope. May God bless our wondering, that it might bear buds of hope and blossom into the fruit of grace. Amen.
Rev. Joe Gaspar