Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Watching for Signs of the Kingdom - Lectionary Reflection - Advent 1


Luke 21:25-36 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.33 Heaven 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 does not catch you unexpectedly,35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be 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.”

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                We are living in an apocalyptic moment. At least it is easy to read the situation at hand in an apocalyptic manner. Things seem to be coming to a head. The battle lines are being drawn and the various military forces are gathering.  The Middle East seems to be in a constant state of chaos, with violence the norm. I was talking to a couple of friends who happen to be Muslim, and they are worried that this will lead to another World War that would erupt in the Middle East. For some this would be “good news.” We’ve been hearing from certain sectors of the Christian community for several decades that the we live in the last days, and thus the outbreak of a world war in this region would be the sign that the end has come. The only thing lacking, it would seem, is a rebuilt Jewish Temple. According to some accounts this is a necessary prerequisite, but perhaps not. If all the parties are present—Russia, China(?), the United States, France, Israel, and the many varying Islamic nations ranging from Saudi Arabia to Iran are present. Isn’t this all laid out somewhere in Revelation or maybe Daniel? In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris the great powers do seem ready to engage in a major military operation, which is fueling this apocalyptic fever. The only question left concerns who will light the match to set off the explosion that will trigger Armageddon.


What is interesting is that these apocalyptic-focused Christians have a similar vision to ISIS and its rivals. There seems to be a desire among a number of religious/ethnic/nationalist entities to provoke an attack that would allow God to intervene and set up a new realm, whether that be the kingdom of Christ or a new Caliphate. Of course, such visions are not new. Every time we have a chaotic situation, especially in or near the Holy Land, hopes/fears are kindled.  We saw this at the time that World War I broke out. The fall of the Ottoman Empire and the expanded return of Jews to Palestine seemed to signal a new apocalyptic era. World War did the same, especially as the nation of Israel was born. So what does Advent have to say to this situation? Does the season encourage our fears or counter them? 

The first Sunday of Advent signals the start of another round in our ecclesial journey. It offers h hope that the reign of God will be experienced in its fullness. The season offers us an opportunity to do some soul searching, as well as helping us prepare for what is to come. It is a season of expectation; which means that we need to be on the alert. Jesus warns us against being caught up in the things of this world. Focus your attention on what God is about to do. 

We who know the Christian story understand that Advent leads to Christmas. In fact, we know enough that sometimes we want to move on too quickly. The Advent hymns simply don’t resonate the way the Christmas carols and hymns do, and besides Christmas is in the air—everywhere. Advent seems like a pointless effort, and yet the message of Advent is an important one. We’re not only encouraged to consider the first advent, but to prepare for the second one. The problem with the second advent is that our eschatology (our view of the future) becomes so tied up in apocalyptic imagery that we’re not sure what to do with it.  Do we embrace it or ignore it? Are these the last days, or simply a continuation of an ongoing reality where conflict emerges, people get excited, and we move on, without the “end” coming upon us?

                The reading from Luke 21 begins with typical apocalyptic imagery. Before the Son of Man comes on the clouds, there will be chaos and violence. Even the skies will be darkened and the nations will experience distress. In other words, there will be cosmic signs that suggest that the day of judgment and redemption (what we celebrated a week earlier) is at hand.

                This message is followed by a parable. Look at the fig tree or trees in general. When they sprout leaves you know that summer is at hand. Again, if you know what to look for you will see the signs that something is about to happen. The signs will be obvious. You won’t be able to miss them. The previous paragraph offers signs that are cosmic in nature, but the fig tree is natural, even unassuming. So is the end signaled by cosmic signs or more unassuming and natural ones? Could that be the point? Whether with extraordinary or ordinary signs, we should be attentive to the signs of divine presence.

                What is important to note here is that while this is a reading for Advent, in the context of Jesus’ ministry these words come near the end. He is facing the cross. The days are drawing to a close. The great conflagration will take place not on some battlefield called Armageddon, but on the cross. Death will lose the battle, for life reigns supreme in the resurrection.

                The message of Advent is that of alertness. Be on the alert. Be aware. Don’t engage in activities that will cloud one’s vision of God’s work in the world—no dissipation or drunkenness. Don’t let the worries of this life keep you from seeing what God is doing. Finally pray that you will escape the time of judgment.

                All of this is apocalyptic in nature. While apocalyptic fervor is understandable, it can also be dangerous. It seems clear to many, including me, that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher (as was Paul). They seemed to sense that the world as they knew it was coming to an end soon.  It’s been a few years since the first century. The end hasn’t come, at least not as described here in Luke 21.

                So, what word should we take from this passage? What is God saying to us as we begin the Advent journey?  As we watch or listen to the news, do we let fear control our decision making or do we trust that God is present in our midst? Claudia Highbaugh writes a response that is helpful here:
The shape of our faith in times of crisis and change and confusion carries us from uncertainty to becoming persons of reliable faith. Watching for signs and being on guard and attentive to the natural world around us—the world of wonders and change—inform the ability to live through difficult circumstances. Jesus models this!  . . . The only adequate, informed source of meeting the crises to come is to be prepared, prayerful, and attentive to the signs of the natural world, and warned that the kingdom of God is always near (vs. 31).  [Feasting on the Gospels--Luke, Volume 2: 246].     

When we don’t prepare ourselves properly, fear will take hold. When we aren’t aware of our surroundings and the resources God provides then we put ourselves in a position to be manipulated and used. We shut our hearts and minds to the needs and concerns of others.  We become insular. But when we’re able to look at the world through the eyes of God we can weather the storms and embrace our calling. 

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