Church historian Diana Butler Bass tells about attending church with her family on the Sunday after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s was assassinated. Even as a child, she wondered what the preacher would say, and she was astonished that King’s death was not mentioned at all
Certain events require us to reflect on what is happening in the world. Not doing so would be to deny the very essence of why we gather as a community. That kind of event does not happen every week, by any means, and yet for three Sundays in a row I have felt compelled to figure out what to say about events that have shaken our world or our nation. In three weeks, we have had to address terrorism in Paris, then the revolt against refugees, and now what appears to be domestic terrorism in Colorado Springs.
At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, it all feels a bit apocalyptic to me.
In our text from Luke, Jesus speaks of future events and predicts ominous changes in the sky and deep distress between nations on the earth. Many see this passage as a prediction of the Apocalypse.
There are actually some radically different views about what Jesus is talking about here. A very popular view says that Jesus will make a literal second appearance on earth in conjunction with the end of the world as we know it.
Another perspective is far less dramatic or far-reaching. It says that Jesus’ words of prophesy are about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, events that occurred about fifty years after Jesus’ spoke these words and shortly before the gospel accounts were written. Jesus said, “This generation will not pass away before this all happens,” which gives strength to that interpretation. It is consistent with other words of Jesus about the earth being shaken and the temple crashing down. If this understanding is correct, it is less a prophesy about the future and more of a recounting in dramatic form by the gospel writers of what seemed like the end of the world for the Jewish population of Jerusalem.
For those who hold to the first interpretation, life is full of opportunity to find signs in the sky or on the earth pointing to the near return of Jesus. While Jesus mentions signs in the moon, other passages in Joel and Revelation talk about the moon turning to blood. The recent blood moon during the solar eclipse got lots of folk excited and looking for Jesus’ return. It’s also not uncommon for people to interpret conflicts in the Middle East in light of a specific understanding of biblical prophecy, to the point that some actually hope for increased conflict that they believe will fulfill prophesy as the earth implodes on itself and Jesus returns.
I was really fascinated with the idea of the second coming of Jesus when I was a teenager and read a lot of books about what now seem like conspiracy theories that led me to believe that Jesus would return soon – like next Tuesday. I tend to believe now that Jesus’ words in Luke 21 are far more likely about a first century certainty – the destruction of the temple - than a twenty-first century possibility.
Jesus’ words are important, though. He said, “Be alert”, or as the words are sometimes translated, “Stay awake!”
The appeal to stay awake makes sense to me at the end of a long day when I’m drifting off to sleep while watching a movie that I’d really like to see but just can’t keep my eyes open for. It makes less sense when I drag myself to bed and then find myself mysterious wide awake for the next few hours. I don’t need to stay awake; I need to go to sleep. We can’t always control our bodies in regard to such things.
But Jesus urged us to stay awake. To be alert. And it’s important that we do so.
The Homeland Security alert system has a colorful code for several levels of danger, with orange as high alert and red as severe alert. Today is yellow, meaning a significant threat of terrorist attacks. It’s been yellow for a long time. We’re on the alert. But what about those who commit acts of terror from within? There is no alert system to warn us of that.
Less than a month ago, three people, including a man out riding his bicycle, were shot and killed ninety minutes away from here in Colorado Springs by a man exercising his right to openly carry a gun in public. Friday in the same city, three persons, including a police officer, were killed and several others injured at the Planned Parenthood clinic in the same city. You all know this. I hope we’re all on high alert. Not so we can live like those described in Luke 21 by Jesus, “fainting from fear and foreboding”, but so we can assess what is happening around us and take faithful action. The fact that these shootings took place in a community known for commitment to national security and religious faith, makes it all the more tragic. It should alert us to the fact that what we look to for safety can’t always provide it.
A friend named Rob attended the Bible study I attended as a teenager where we frequently talked about Jesus’ return and the end of the world. Rob grew up to be an evangelist who became one of the nation’s foremost anti-abortion crusaders. His dramatic protests staged at women’s health clinics and his in-your-face challenge to President Bill Clinton drew national attention. Not long after those protests, a provider of women’s health services in our hometown of Buffalo, New York, was shot in his own home minutes after return from his father’s funeral.
Rob and I have very different perspectives today on theology and social policy, but I was surprised recently to read that he had broken rank with his political party and had called for increased gun control. He was featured in a documentary film on the topic this fall that resulted in the loss of much of his financial support. The first thing I read yesterday morning online about the shooting at Planned Parenthood was a statement by Rob condemning violence and calling for gun restrictions. That doesn’t excuse other actions that raise the level of danger for women and men, but I guess it’s good to find common ground where we can.
The author Anne Lamott was featured on NPR’s This American Life one day and told the story of boarding an airplane and sitting next to a man who was reading one of the “Left Behind” books. If you’re not familiar with that series, it is dramatic fiction based on the belief that we are living in the end times awaiting the imminent return of Jesus. Anne Lamott had written a scathing review of the books and their questionable theology. The man beside her didn’t know that, however, and said to her, “You should read this; it would really help you.” It was long wait on the tarmac, because a man on the plane had a heart attack. Emergency personnel rushed onboard and provided care before placing him on a stretcher and removing him from the plane. The book in the hands of Anne’s seatmate was forgotten as the two bonded over their concern for the man and said a prayer together.
We lit the candle of peace today to mark the start of Advent. How do we act as peacemakers to find common ground with others, including those with different political and theological views, while at the same time advocating fiercely for those whose rights and safety are violated? I’m not sure I have an answer for that, but the polarizing of our society is not helping us to resolve the critical matters before us
The appearance of signs in the sky as proclaimed by Jesus also alerts us to changes in our atmosphere and call us to take action on behalf of creation. Stay awake! Don’t miss the signs that point to an apocalypse that we can hopefully avoid.
The message of Advent is about the one who is coming. Perhaps not in the ways we think, but in the actions that unfold every day around us and which call us to act faithfully, to live out principles of justice for those who are vulnerable, and to seek peace where peace is needed most.