Last week I told a story about my sophomore year in college, a time in my life when I was haunted by the dread of nuclear apocalypse, and about a confrontation I had at the time with a man whose job it was to plan nuclear war. This week I’m remembering something that happened about six months after that. It was the summer, and I was on a three-week expedition at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in Maine. I was on a thirty-foot sailboat with about ten other teenagers and a couple of adults, and we were cruising from island to island in the coastal wilderness of Penobscot Bay.
One afternoon we were out of the sight of land, sailing by dead reckoning in a light rain and fog. There were some rocks on the chart with a bell buoy that we found right where we thought they’d be, and as we left them astern I looked back. Rays of light were breaking through the low clouds, shining on the sea in the distance, and three or four black cormorants, what the Mainers call “shags,” were standing on the rocks holding their wings outstretched for the feathers to dry. Something about the sight of those birds spoke to me, as they stood out there in the middle of that cold ocean, just doing what naturally needed to be done. They spoke to me of the great life that moves through all things, of its indestructibility and its powers of rebirth. I felt a sense of trust and peace, and I knew that no nuclear war or any other human evil could destroy that life, or thwart its sheer desire to become. We could do it great harm, and ourselves along with it, but we could not kill it forever.
Last week we also heard another story, the end of another retelling of the tale of Jesus Christ. He stood before the man who would shortly condemn him to death and bore witness to the truth, as he had come into the world to do. And we bore witness to him, saying prayers and singing hymns that acknowledged Jesus as the abiding truth about what really matters in the world. We acclaimed him as the world’s true ruler. And with that we came to the end. We turned the page on another year, as the church reckons years.
So it is strange to say, here we are again. Two weeks ago, we were in Mark’s gospel with Jesus looking out from the Mount of Olives at the great Temple of Israel’s God, and he prophesied its destruction, and his disciples asked about the end of the world. Today we begin the new year, and open Luke’s gospel, and Jesus is in Jerusalem, in the Temple, speaking about the end of the world. So why are we still here? Why pick up again where we just left off? Why begin at the end?
Well, maybe because we are still waiting. We may know that Christ is the king, the true ruler of the world. We may know that love is the almighty power that orders all things, that was before the beginning and will be at the end. We may know it, I should say, by faith. But that faith can seem pretty tenuous when we look around at the state of things. It’s hard to see the cycles of violence and retribution in the Congo and the Middle-East, and say that love is the supreme law. It’s hard to look at the greed and exploitation by which the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, and the earth gets thrown further and further out of whack, and see how Jesus Christ is the ruler of this world. And so, even though we have heard the good news, the question still hangs in the air, “How long? How long will this go on?”
That question is at the heart of the Hebrew Bible. And the message of the Hebrew prophets about the evil in the world and the unmerited sufferings of the innocent is that it will not continue indefinitely. God will act. A day will come, a great and awesome day, when God will re-assert sovereignty over creation and the whole world will see what now only the prophet can. Because the judgment that takes place on that day will not just apply to this or that person’s immortal soul. It will be a great cosmic upheaval, God’s housecleaning, in which the whole world will be transformed.
Over centuries of exile and oppression, the Jews developed the promise of a coming cosmic judgment into a literary form we call “apocalyptic,” from a Greek word that means “the lifting of the veil.” Today’s gospel text from Luke begins with language drawn from that apocalyptic tradition. Speaking of the coming judgment, Jesus says “there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars.” On earth, people will faint from fear, “for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” He goes on to quote one of the most famous passages of apocalyptic in the Bible, the Seventh Chapter of the Book of Daniel, when he says “they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.”
But from there Jesus’ speech takes an unexpected turn. From the oracle of apocalypse, he suddenly becomes again the teacher who sat by the Sea in Galilee, speaking simple parables of the kingdom of God. The imagery that he uses now also resonates deeply with the scriptures, but with a far older stratum of the tradition. He says, “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees,” and suddenly we are not at the end of the world, but at its beginning. We are in the garden that God planted with every kind of tree that was good for food, and gave to our first parents for a dwelling. “As soon as they sprout leaves,” says Jesus, “you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
“The kingdom of God is near”—this is the essential proclamation of the Gospel, the place where all the teaching of Jesus and the teaching about Jesus begins. This is not just the threat of imminent destruction but also the promise of justice and liberation that are intimately present, intimately real. And the signs of the kingdom are the miraculous life of ordinary things: of a sower who goes out to sow; of a woman mixing yeast into the dough, and a net full of every kind of fish. While the nations fall into terror and confusion at the unraveling of the world, Jesus says “look—it’s almost summer.”
I’m going to say that it’s not a mistake that these two sayings are together--the apocalyptic vision and the parable of the fig tree. The conjunction suggests that this is where we are meant to live—in this balance point where the end and the beginning meet, this precarious place of freedom called “now.” That is why Jesus so strongly recommends watchfulness—staying awake and alert. Because in the presence of Jesus people experience the justice, and the truth, and the repentance and forgiveness that are supposed to be unveiled at the end, only it is happening now. They know the freedom, and the innocence, and the intimacy with God that were there at the beginning, only now. And yet there are so many times we meet Jesus and we don’t see what is happening. Our hearts and our minds are closed and we miss it.
And I suppose that’s why we no sooner finish telling the Gospel story than we start all over again. Because missed something the last time around. We are still waiting for God to do something. We are still asleep, as if Jesus never came, as if the troubles in the world still have no solution, as if we still don’t know what to do. So we start the story over again from the beginning. And we do it with a sense of hope and expectation. We hope that this time we really will hear it, that this time it will wake us up, and Jesus Christ will not be someone who died a long time ago, or someone who will come someday, who knows when, but that the Son of Man will come and stand before us, and live with us, and work through us. Now.