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 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.
The Way It Is, Was, and Will Be, World with an End
The season of Advent, these four Sundays before Christmas, celebrates the coming of Christ... in all of its tenses, yesterday, today, and forever. Apocryphal passages like Luke 21, the Gospel lection for November 29th, forcibly remind the attentive worshiper that there is far more to Christmas than a baby in a manger, that that signal event in Bethlehem is the beginning of the end, at which that baby will make a triumphant return.
Meanwhile, said here, "mean while," that is, as a mean and forbidding while, the time between Bethlehem and the cloud of glory, filled with portents and worries, is our time, now.
And how it is now! We are wont to think our time is fraught as no other time. The headlines support such a reading of this age. Ladies at political rallies, with tea bags hanging from their hats, believe quite literally, that their world has come to an end. Jeff Corwin and his "One Hundred Heartbeats" confirms that diagnosis from an ecological perspective. The U.S. is bleeding young lives and billions of dollars in remote wars, while the unemployment rate rises beyond 10%. My station wagon needs new shocks, my bunions ache, the sky is overcast, moles invade the front lawn, contemporaries fail. Was there ever a time more ripe for an apocalyptic reading than our time?
Well, yes and no. Yes, for seventy-seven year old me with a keen memory, there were more scary moments. Like running to the elementary school basement when the sirens sounded, crouching in a fetal position, expecting Luftwaffe bombs to fall. Or that fateful Saturday in October as the Russian ships with cargo of nuclear missiles steamed toward Cuba. Or that summer someone near and dear to me underwent a series of abdominal tests under suspicion of a malignancy.
But no, our times are no more fraught than they were or will be. One reason they seem to be (more fraught) is that these times are our times. We are living through them. We are the ones facing uncertainty. One year, ten years, a hundred years from now, those writing the history books may very well label our moment a golden age. Only time will tell, and that doesn't lessen the intensity of the urgency we feel.
The fact, however, is the end times, what the lection describes as "distress among nations, confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves" has been humanity's experience without letup generation after generation since and before the birth in a manger. Just because I never earlier heard of a tsunami doesn't mean South Sea islanders never previously suffered from them. 10% unemployment in 1931, the year of my birth, would have been a sign of economic recovery. World history can and has been read as a series of wars, whether Peloponnesian or Afghanistani.
Jesus clearly warns us not to be spooked by predictions of the end of the world (Acts 1:7). That determination of the termination belongs to God alone and God is not telling us when.
In this mean while God is doing something far better than providing a timetable for tsunamis and nuclear explosions. God provides us with hints of the other side of the ending, what comes next. The Bible contains glorious visions, preeminently the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21, with streets of gold and trees whose leaves hold healing for the nations. But also the intimate rapture of the Apostle Paul, in I Corinthians 13, who envisions knowing God even as we are known by God. Such promises pull us toward the future and through the agonies of these end times.
But more to my liking, to me far more compelling, are subtle clues built into the world around me, of what shall be and, maybe, already is the peace of God. As simple as a small fat dog sitting in my lap as I smooth the hair and whiskers on her snout, after having scraped the tartar from her teeth with a tool my dentist provided, and the bichon lets me do it without growl or whimper; and you'll understand why, when I look directly into her eyes and she into mine, I tell her, "You're the best, the smartest, little girl; I love you." Silly, right? But, hallelujah, a moment as full of peace and contentment as she or I find in a cluttered day. Name it a found lost fragment of the benediction in Genesis, uttered by heaven at the end of each day, "It is good."
That imprimatur, "It is good," a token of the beginning and the ending by God, marks other common scenes. Like the first bite of the third lemon meringue pie (close readers of my postings will understand). Or seventeen year olds who begin to show an interest in dinner conversation with septuagenarians. A thoughtful sermon compellingly articulated and surrounded with hymns I love to sing. The unsolicited hug of a fifty year old child whose middle name could be Gratitude. A late afternoon on the front porch surveying the emerald and now leafless lawn, that got that way from the diligence of the homeowner equipped with a brand new leaf vacuum. Hints or the final reality scattered through the day. Like any one of the evenings of music, vocal and orchestral, classical and jazz, which punctuate our weeks: previews of the choral works heard at the throne of heaven?
This mortal life has its vestiges of immortality. That lure us on. In hope. Beyond the turmoil of these end of days we live. For now we press forward. Doing our best. Loving neighbor. Making peace. Forgiving one another. Cherishing and protecting the little ones. Following Jesus. Using the intelligence we have been given to avoid tsunamis and wars.
Being faithful not only to the end, but through the end.