Advent 1C November 29, 2009
The gospel, as it is read in church year-by-year, begins at the end. On the first day of the new church year, we hear of the future coming of the Son of Man. This should not surprise us, unless we underestimate the degree to which the Bible is a book about crisis. Forged in the crucible of suffering, it addresses again and again, in various ways, the question of history. The course of human events—does it have meaning? All the beauty and triumph, the futility and terror of civilization, all the working and striving and hoping of our lives—where is it headed? Is God involved? These kinds of questions are central to the biblical tradition, which is not concerned with” personal problems” so much as the challenges of a small, marginal community trying to find its compass amid the turmoil of world events. And the answer to these questions, the beginning point of our conversation with the scriptures as we turn the page to another year, is “Yes.”
Yes, God is deeply implicated in what happens to our nation and our world. Yes, God has a vested interest in how things turn out. Yes, God will act decisively, when it counts, to vindicate what is truly human. And everything that has distorted human nature, everything that has falsely pretended to command human destiny, everything that has bent humanity in service of a lesser end than that which God purposed for it from the beginning, will pass away.
We Christians return again and again to this starting point, because if we do not know where we are going, how can begin the journey? Without the hope that God is also on the move, coming towards us from the future, we might conclude that the journey is not worth the trouble. We might just stay put, just keep our heads down. We might just go to sleep, and leave it to the usual suspjects to decide how things ought to turn out.
The journey of hope has its pitfalls, too: With eyes always fixed on the horizon of future deliverance, can live in a way that gives short shrift to the obligations and opportunities of the present. In our own time, when human power, augmented by scientific technique, has made it possible for us to alter the destinies of nations and nature by our own will, there is the danger that we will create our own catastrophes and consider them as God’s plan. There is something of an industry nowadays that feeds people’s anxiety about the future, from the fanciful elaborations of Biblical prophecy in the Left Behind novels, to New Age speculations about the year 2012, and the apocalyptic implications of the “end of the Mayan Calendar.”
But though they claim different sources for their authority, all these purveyors of doom are concerned with similar questions —When will God act? How bad do things have to get before we know this is really it? What will be the precise order and timetable of the end-time events? My suspicion is that these attempts to acquire precise foreknowledge of the end are motivated by a need to assert some control over the uncontrollable. If we can decipher the right blueprint, the reasoning goes, we’ll know what to expect, and maybe that will give us a leg up on our neighbors in the struggle to survive. But scriptures like today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke are not really concerned with these kinds of questions. They are ambiguous about what exactly God is going to do, even to the point of vagueness about how to refer to these events—the “end of the world” is not mentioned, neither “the final judgment”, only “these things” which are “coming upon the world” or “about to happen.”
What is crucial, as far as the gospel is concerned, is the posture in which we undergo the inevitable calamities that history throws our way. Will we be, like the gentile nations, distressed and perplexed, fainting with fear and with foreboding? Or will we look up, with our heads high, knowing that our redemption is drawing near? Will we be hung over or drunk, or preoccupied with worrying about creature comforts, or will we be alert, vigilant, with our eyes steadfastly fixed on the end, asking God for strength not to get caught in the trap, but to come at last face-to-face with the Son of Man. From the gospel’s point of view, all these terrifying portents, the signs in the sun and moon, the roaring of the sea, the shaking of the powers in the heavens, all the things which aficionados of apocalypse obsess about, are, as it were, garnish on the plate. They are signs, but only that, and the reality that they point to, the main course, is God’s judgment of the world. And the pivotal event that brings God’s judgment to pass is the coming of the Son of Man.
In Luke’s version of the parable of the fig tree, Jesus says that just as, when you see the leaves coming out on the trees, you know summer is already near, “so also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is already near.” But this announcement of final things, set in Jesus’ final speech in the temple, is the same as the announcement with which he begins his ministry—the kingdom of heaven is near. So we are back again where we started this sermon, with the end that is also the beginning. There is a deep, and I think deliberate, ambiguity about these references to the coming of the Son of Man, so that we cannot limit its meaning to a future event. Yes, we expect to encounter Christ at the end of history, when he will complete God’s healing judgment on the disastrous consequences of human sinfulness, and a new human-divine partnership for the re-creation of the cosmos gets underway in earnest. But that judgment is already underway because the same Son of Man who will be at the end has come and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. If we want to know who he will be when we stand before him at the end, we need to remember who he was at the beginning.
It is not difficult to look around the world and see signs of its precipitous unraveling. I won’t bother with the particulars, because they really don’t matter. Not in the sense that we shouldn’t do something about them, as if they are all part of God’s plan for the end-times, but in the sense that we should see them calmly and clearly for what they are—the inevitable working out a human project that still doesn’t know what it means to be human. The powers that hold sway in history still have not acknowledged that they are under judgment by the Son of Man; under the judgment of his birth in a lowly stable, of his baptism by John and his defeat of the tempter in the wilderness, of his healing the sick and feeding the hungry and dignifying the despised, of his words of the kingdom that will never pass away. Most of all they are under the judgment of his cross, which they set up for him and continue to set up again and again, and of his resurrection, which they deny.
Today we go back to the beginning and say, “we want to see that judgment come.” We don’t care if the nations tremble and faint, we want to keep our heads up and our eyes peeled for God’s true purpose for the human race. We desire and we hope to see God’s loving judgment face to face, and we will not let our vision grow dim, or close our eyes, or get distracted, because we don’t want to miss the light of his gaze.