Good News: The End Is Nigh
You have no idea how tempted I was to get in the pulpit today wearing a big sandwich board sign that said, “The end is nigh!”
It’s Advent, and the texts chosen for us to study and reflect on in the Advent season are often chaotic and dramatic, foreshadowing the end of the world.
There are themes of apocalypse woven throughout, whether it is John the Baptist or Mary the Mother of Jesus talking about social apocalypse or Jesus talking about cosmic apocalypse.
We hear in our scripture readings on Sunday mornings about valleys being made low and hills lifted up, about the mighty being cast down from their thrones, about the axe being at the root of the tree and the chaff being burnt with unquenchable fire.
As I’ve preached before, despite what the onslaught of saccharine Christmas commercialization would have us believe, Advent is not really a tender and gentle time. It is about dramatic and earth-shattering upheaval.
And our texts for this Sunday are no exception. Jesus tells us that “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
That’s pretty intimidating.
And Isaiah seems positively eager for everything to go to hell in a handbasket.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence, as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.”
He can’t wait!
Here is another opportunity to remind ourselves how different our outlook is from the people who originally heard these words proclaimed.
What kind of people are eager to see society torn limb from limb and for God to erupt into history with righteous vengeance?
Isaiah is speaking to people who have been enslaved, people who have been exiled, people who have been dragged from pillar to post by invading nations and denied all personal and national autonomy.
Jesus is speaking to an Israel crushed under the heel of the Roman Empire, longing for freedom and redemption.
In both cases, the audience is struggling to hold onto their belief in a God who loves them, a God who is on their side, a God of deliverance, despite all evidence pointing to divine powers blessing their enemies with success.
For the ones who heard these scriptures in real time, the idea of God’s coming apocalypse was indeed the Good News.
If the apocalypse, social or cosmic, is welcome and encouraging news to the oppressed, poor and downtrodden, for whom is it bad news?
For the powerful. The wealthy. The people for whom the status quo works.
We are reading these texts in Zionsville, Indiana in late 2017, and the sun turning to darkness and the moon turning to blood does not sound like good news to us.
The heavens being torn open and the mountains tumbling into the sea sounds at the very least like it could derail our plans for a pleasant holiday brunch following worship and some discreet bragging over our Black Friday deals.
We don’t want the apocalypse because we don’t need the apocalypse.
We’re already in charge. We already have all the money and the power.
The system works just fine for us most of the time, so why would we want it destroyed?
This is exactly why the season of Advent is so important for us.
We need the apocalyptic texts to remind us of two things.
Number one, there are millions, even billions of people in the world for whom poverty, political or religious oppression, and violence makes anything, even the end of the world, seem better than what they’re suffering now.
And number two, our sense of comfort and security that we’ve pretty much got what we need to get by, or at least are better off than a lot of other people, is a hollow, false, and fleeting illusion. It could all come crashing down at any moment.
Whether that is good news or bad news to us, the scriptures proclaim it clearly and consistently.
God is the only fixed point in an ever changing world, and we need to constantly reevaluate where we’re placing our trust.
Is it in our own power and wealth, or in God?
It takes conscious attention to this in our spirits to really get clear about it.
Because although it is easy to glibly say, “Of course I trust God, not my own power and wealth,” most of the time we don’t actually live our lives that way.
How do we know? Because the apocalypse remains terrifying to us.
The idea of our power and wealth being stripped away from us, the idea of waking up tomorrow and not having a house and a car and a job and our health and all the rest of it, is too horrifying to contemplate.
And while of course it’s normal to fear that in our outer, human minds, in our inmost hearts and spirits, we should be able to know with rock-solid certainty that even if all of that were gone in a flash, God would still take care of us.
God would still love us.
No outer circumstances, no matter how terrible, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
We say that easily, but I am convinced that this is the great work of our spiritual lives, to really learn and know and live and breathe that reality.
This is what Jesus is talking about when he reminds us over and over again to be aware, to keep alert, to stay awake.
“Staying awake” is a spiritual discipline that is tricky, subtle, and given how often Jesus talks about it, absolutely key to our spiritual lives.
Jesus usually talks about staying awake in relationship to the apocalypse.
Most people throughout history have taken that as a commandment to search for signs of the coming of the end of the world, but to be honest, that approach hasn’t borne much fruit except for paranoia, arcane Bible codes, false prophecies, and doomsday cults.
That can’t be what Jesus wanted.
So let’s bring it back to the season of Advent. Jesus is often speaking simultaneously on a macro and a micro level.
He absolutely is talking about an overthrow of the current social power structure, and justice for the poor and the oppressed, and that definitely is worth our waking up to and grappling with.
But he is also talking about overthrow within our own inmost spirits.
What structures of power, wealth, and blind status quo are operating within our own hearts?
What unquestioned assumptions are we allowing to govern what we expect of God, of ourselves, and others?
In what ways do we need the valleys to be lifted up and the hills made low within our own souls?
This is the work of Advent for us.
What would it be like to pray for apocalypse in our dull and sleeping hearts?
And now we see. That is Christmas.
The birth of Jesus Christ, the coming of God to earth as a human baby—that makes the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood look like amateur hour in terms of upheaval.
That’s what we’re being asked to stay awake for. That is what we are being told to prepare our hearts for.
And the scriptures are telling us, as clearly as they possibly can, that if we receive and witness and participate in the birth of Christ with true integrity, everything we thought we knew about the world and ourselves will be razed to the ground with ruthless and sudden intensity.
It is the end of the world as we know it, but in the best possible way.
Finally, the apocalypse is good news to us.
So what does that look like?
If we understand that the birth of Jesus is approaching, in a very real sense it has the potential to derail our lives and priorities forever, and that is in fact the best thing that could ever happen to us, how do we get ready for it?
What does it mean in real terms to “stay awake”?
I think it means pursuing all of our spiritual practices with an added discipline of trying to examine our default assumptions.
So we pray, worship, serve, give, learn and discern as we always try to do, but we ask ourselves some hard questions as we do that.
What is my ego getting out of this as I serve my neighbor in this ministry or project?
Why don’t I believe that God can change the mind of this person I’m in conflict with? Why don’t I believe that God can change my mind?
What would it be like to contribute to healing in my workplace, or spiritual intimacy in my social circle, or creativity and generosity in this church?
These questions and others like them are what help us learn to “stay awake” with Jesus as we approach the end of the world.
And that’s what discipleship is, in many ways—deliberately courting the end of the world.
We say we want to be part of a life of transformation in the gospel, but do we really mean it?
Do we really want to be changed by Jesus?
It’s pretty scary when we think about it, which is exactly what the scriptures are trying to get us to wake up to and decide whether we’re going to commit to it.
And it is a choice.
We can keep our wealth, power, and status quo, both in the outside world of flashy Christmas commercialization and in our hearts as the old, tired territory of a comfortable assumption that we know who God is and what God is doing in our lives.
But eventually, that status quo reveals itself for the cold and hollow sham it is.
This is when the end of the world starts to seem like Good News.
Because the end of the old world is the birth of the new, and that is our call in Advent—to welcome the birth of the new.
“Stay awake,” Jesus says. He doesn’t mean stay awake in fear and apprehension.
Remember when you were a kid and you stayed awake as late as possible on Christmas Eve straining to hear the sound of sleighbells?
Who would ever have thought you would now be staying awake with the same breathless anticipation for the end of your own self-constructed inner world?
You’d have to be crazy to welcome that.
You’d have to trust Jesus.
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