It’s the End of the World as We Know it…

by the Rev. Sarah Buetux

November 29, 2015

Advent 1, Year C

Jeremiah 33:14-16   Luke 21:25-36

 

 

We’re going to get things started off this morning with a little game called best first lines of novels. I’ll say the line. You name the book. Raise your hand as soon as you know it. We’ll start off easy in case you’re still coping with too much tryptophan in your system.

 

  1. “Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

 

  1. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

 

  1. “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

 

  1. “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” —C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

 

(I didn’t actually expect anyone to know that, but it’s a good opener, isn’t it?).

 

  1. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter

 

  1. “You better not never tell nobody but God.” —Alice Walker, The Color Purple

 

  1. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  1. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” – Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. (by Seth Grahame-Smith? Author of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

 

(I didn’t actually expect you to know that one either, but the fact that I do tells you a little bit more about me. Perhaps more than I actually want you to know. OK last one.)

 

  1. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” – Yes, Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities – That’s my personal favorite of all time. “…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

 

That’s my favorite first line hands down, because it seems always to be true. And never more so than on this, the first Sunday of Advent when we traditionally read some version of what scholars call Jesus’ “little apocalypse;” Jesus words about the end times.

 

Given the fact that the Christmas season has already officially kicked into high gear in every store from Macy’s to your local Cumberland Farms, you’d think we here in the church of all places might set the tone with something a little more upbeat: a tale about Mary or Joseph the early years, say, or a little back story about some wise men or shepherds searching for a baby. But no.

 

If you follow the lectionary faithfully the church year begins with the end of the world as we know it; and I don’t know if that feels “fine,” but if you can pull yourself away from all the advertisements for a moment and actually look at the headlines, it certainly feels appropriate. Right?

 

I mean our world is a mess right now – a mess of inequality and injustice, vitriol and violence, a world that works ludicrously well for a few at a terrible cost for so many.

 

We live in a time when even the pope is saying we should call off Christmas.

[1] The Pope! Did you hear that? He says that celebrating the birth of the prince of peace with all our tinsel and trappings would be nothing more than a “charade” this year given that the whole world is at war.

 

It’s a great day to be an arms dealer, he says, but what of the children, the innocents, all the ruined lives these wars will leave behind?

 

And yes, I know on some level that the world has always been this way, that it has always been “the best of times and the worst of times,” that there has never been a time without war or suffering, pathos or pain.

 

But maybe that’s the point.

 

Maybe that is the wisdom of returning to these apocalyptic passages year after year, especially at this time of year, because the good news Jesus came to bring is that the world as it is… is not the world as it will always be.

 

The good news is that the world as it is, is not the world as it has to be. The good news is that we can change. And if we can change… why not the world?

 

Now I know these apocalyptic words of Jesus might sound, at first hearing, like a bit of downer.

 

I mean I can totally see how stars falling from the sky and distress amongst nations might sound like more than you can handle if you have guests coming for the holidays, halls to deck, menus to plan, and only 26 shopping days left between now and Christmas.

 

But let’s back up and talk for a moment about what “apocalypse” actually means.

 

How many of you (show of hands) think that apocalypse literally means the end of the world?

How many of you think it might mean something else?

How many of you don’t know?

How many of you hate it when I make you raise your hands? Good to know.

 

Friends, the word apocalypse now-a-days is synonymous with the end of the world, but it’s original meaning in the Greek was something more like “unveiling,” a pulling back of the curtain to reveal the truth, literally a revelation.

 

That’s why John chose “Revelation” as the title for his final prophecy at the very end of your Bible. In Greek, it’s the Book of Apocalypse. He had things to “reveal” to his people. But because John’s prophecy in particular appears to detail the end of world in such vivid detail, the word apocalypse has come to mean exactly that… the end of the world.

 

Hence the confusion… which I’m not entirely sure I have alleviated, but for now, just relax, do me a favor, and simply think of the word apocalypse as meaning revelation.

 

Try to understand that when anyone in the Bible uses apocalyptic language – when they say that the moon will turn to blood or warn that the stars will fall from the sky- they are not speaking the language of science or physics.

 

They are not detailing the actual physical destruction of the universe as we know it, but describing in very vivid poetic language what it feels like when the world as you know it completely collapses. They are describing what it feels like when the viability of the economy, the structure of society, the strength of the military, starts to crumble all around you.

 

Essentially, those who speak apocalyptically are speaking in code, and they are speaking in code because they have too. I mean, typically you can’t talk about the present political order collapsing in the future without getting yourself in trouble with the present political order, so the prophets throughout Israel’s history spoke in metaphor to protect themselves, and Jesus was no different.

 

If you look more carefully at our passage for today and keep in mind that Rome’s primary symbol was the sun and that the rulers of all the people’s who had been conquered by Rome and sworn allegiance to her were represented by the moon and the stars on all their flags, pins, and lawn signs, then all of a sudden a future where there will be unsettling signs in the sky starts to make a lot more sense. [2]

 

In the 21st chapter of Luke, Jesus is not talking about the heavenly bodies that rule over our atmosphere, but about the mortal bodies that ruled over his world. He was revealing to his people that the Roman Empire’s days were numbered and that the eventual collapse of that empire was going to Freak. People. Out.

 

When “the powers of the heavens” are shaken, that is when Rome goes down, it’s going to feel like the end of the world around here, says Jesus. “People will faint from fear.” It’s going to be bad.

 

But friends, what if the real revelation here is not the divine secret that the Roman empire will one day collapse, because honestly that was no secret at all. All empires crumble eventually. Theirs did and so, one day, will ours.

 

And might I just say that given the racial tensions in our country, the increasing disparity between rich and poor, the damage we have caused in the Middle East, and the fact that Donald Trump – a man who epitomizes all of these things – is the frontrunner in his party’s run for president, our days may be shorter than we realize. But I digress.

 

Actually that’s precisely the trouble with apocalyptic language. It is so easy to get distracted. It is so easy to think it’s all about the world falling apart when in fact what it’s really about …is whether or not you and I will hold it together.

 

We tend to think it’s all about what’s going to happen up there or out there but if you read this passage carefully you’ll notice that Jesus’ primary concern is on what’s going to happen in here… in our hearts.

 

I honestly believe that the real revelation here is actually about us, about you and me, about who we are and who we will be in a world turned upside down and inside out.

 

I believe the power of apocalyptic literature, be it prophetic scripture or the latest young adult novel, is not in its ability to help us pinpoint when or how the end will come, but to help us examine how we are living right now.

 

It is designed to wake us up and shake us out of our routines and our complacency… “because the days are surely coming,” says Jesus.

 

Because the world as it is, is not the world as it will always be.

 

Because the world as it is, is not the world as it has to be.

 

The world can change. The world will change.

 

It can change in an instant. It can turn on a dime.

 

It changed for thousands of people at the end of the Boston marathon 2 years ago.

It changed for thousands more two weeks ago in Beirut and Paris.

It changed irrevocably for 3 families yesterday in Colorado.

It is changing in Chicago.

It is changing in Minneapolis.

It is changing along our borders and it is changing in our streets.

 

The world can change. The world will change.

 

The real question is who will you be when it does?

 

When the heavens shake and the stars fall, will you run toward those in need or will you cower in fear?

 

Will you open your heart or will you shut your door?

Will you stand up for the powerless and speak for the voiceless, your head held high, or will you lose yourself in dissipation and drunkenness consumed by the worries of this world?

 

These are the real questions at the heart of all apocalyptic literature and that’s why we read this passage year after year. This is not about revealing the end of the world, because the world is always ending somewhere for someone, but revealing the ends within you and me – the ends that justify our means – revealing our core beliefs and our deepest loyalties, our greatest hopes and our darkest fears.

 

And that’s what Advent is about too, because you see who we will be then – when it all comes apart – has so very much to do with who we are right now, and Jesus wants us to be ready when he comes.

 

Be it in the guise of a refugee seeking sanctuary or an activist crying out for justice, Jesus wants us to be ready when he comes.

 

Be it a brother in need of shelter or a sister in need of respect, Jesus wants us to be ready when he comes.

 

Be it a child in need of protection or someone desperate for a second chance,

Jesus wants us to be ready when he comes,

however he comes,

in whatever way he might come,

that we might help him make all things new when he does.

 

Because “the days are surely coming.”

Coming for you.

Coming for me.

Coming for this great big beautiful world that God so loves.

 

“It was the best of times.

It was the worst of times.”

 

Perhaps this time that will change.

 

Amen.

[1] http://time.com/4123703/pope-francis-christmas-charade/

[2] Thanks to Kate Huey’s Weekly Seeds for this information.