What Are We Waiting For?
Scripture: Luke 21:25-36
“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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
Sound familiar? Wildfires in California, Brexit, War and Famine and nuclear threats, cyberwarfare and fascism, Tsunamis and Earthquakes and Hurricanes and each week on the news feeling more nightmarish than the next, it’s easy to wonder if this was the time that Jesus was referring to. It’s easy to laugh at the trope of the random guy on the street corner with a “the end is near” sign, but then again folks may have laughed at John the Baptist when he implored people to “repent for the kingdom of god is at hand”.
And maybe even a few folks might have given Jesus an odd look after they heard him give the same predictions we just heard in the Gospel reading. It can be easy to laugh at the man preaching apocalypse when things are going well, but what about when the apocalyptic scene sounds a little too familiar?
Somewhat similarly to our modern day genre of ‘post-apocalyptic’ stories, such as the Walking Dead, Handmaid’s Tale, or The Hunger Games, Apocalyptic texts were a literary genre unto themselves, Apocalyptic texts in our canon include the Book of Revelations and the Book of Daniel, as well as this text from Luke that we just heard. And there are many others from the same time period that didn’t make it into the biblical canon, such as The Apocalypse of Ezra, 3rd Enoch, the 1st and 2nd Apocalypses of James, and so on.
What I find interesting is that Apocalyptic texts at their origin weren’t necessarily meant to be predicting things in our own future, but meant to be talking to people in their own day, reflecting what was happening around them. While the ‘predictions’ they include seem scary, while we often seem to perceive a ‘the end of the world’ message, Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman explains that apocalyptic texts were
“functioning to provide hope, because they’re all about how there are wicked forces in charge of this world, that God is going to overcome, if you just hold on, if you just keep the faith”. Apocalypse isn’t so much about fearing the end of the world, but anticipating and awaiting the beginning of a new world in Christ.
There is precarity, anxiety, uncertainty, yes, but also hope and excitement and reassurance.
In fact, I find a lot of parallels between Apocalypse and Advent. And it’s not just because advent should feel just as threatening to the powers of Empire as Apocalypse does. It’s also because in both instances, we’re waiting for God to break into the world; we’re watching and waiting for the rebirth and return of Christ, the Prince of Peace, the one who Isaiah declared, shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
The one wearing a belt of Righteousness and Faithfulness. The one who will usher in a world in which The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
And it’s not just the Jewish and Christian traditions that find hope amidst apocalypse and light amidst darkness.
Ancient peoples in the northern hemisphere, living and loving and grieving together… during the time of year when the days got shorter and shorter and the sun never quite made it up into the sky, these people found meaning in evergreens, the plants that live on through the period of darkness.
Whether these ancient people truly worried that the sun, the light of their world, might not return, or whether they were commemorating legends of a time when their ancestors feared the light was gone for good, in this time of deepening darkness they found ways to hold on to the light.
One of my favorite authors, Susan Cooper, describes it beautifully in her poem The Shortest Day.
So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
We’ve incorporated many of these traditions into Christianity, especially in the northern hemisphere and places with northern European influence and peoples. We use the same evergreens they used to hold on to the sun, the light of their world, to mark a time when we await the return of Christ, the light of our world.
So what about when we’re reading the signs, when there’s distress among the nations, what about when it feels like we’re approaching a breakdown of everything we thought we knew, hurtling down the track with no way to stop the train?
Perhaps that’s when we try and find a little Advent amidst our apocalypse- when the light seems to be getting dimmer and dimmer, and… we know it comes back every year but…but what if this time it doesn’t? Fear leaves very little room for rational thought, very little room for faith.
So we hold on to whatever we can grasp. We seek out the light of our world, the beseeching fire of our souls.
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
We carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love our friends,
And hope for peace.
As we move into and through this service of the Festival of the Greens, I invite you to set an intention for this sacred season of watching and waiting. Where will you find the light? How will you hold onto it? What- who- are we waiting for?