First United Presbyterian Church
Rev. Amy Morgan
December 3, 2017
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
24 "But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory.
27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28 "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.
29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.
30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32 "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.
34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.
35 Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,
36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.
37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."
I love the first Sunday of Advent. The greenery adorns the church. Lights twinkle out on the streets. Carols are playing on the radio. People are shopping and going to parties and sending cards to each other.
And Jesus drops this massive bomb on all the fun and merry-making. Cosmic blackout. Stars falling from the sky. Watch out! Stay awake!
Most years, we don’t really pay attention to him. He sounds like the “great and terrible wizard of Oz” with his holographic projector and smoke machine. Ooooh, the end of the world! We’re not buying it. No after 2,000 years, we’re not buying it at all. We’re too busy buying just about everything else under the sun, while it still shines.
So why do I love this first Sunday of Advent so much? It’s not because of the incongruity of an apocalyptic vision in the midst of our holiday season, though I do always find that entertaining. I love the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday when we hear about the cataclysmic return of Christ in glory, even as we anticipate celebrating his birth, because this apocalyptic image gives voice to that nagging feeling we carry around all year long, that feeling that gets stuffed way down deep in this hap- happiest season of all, this feeling that, in fact, the world really and truly is going to hell in a handbasket.
The trappings of our crisis may change from year to year. The violent uprisings shift geography. The enemy at our gates might change languages or religions. Our elected leaders are too meek or too aggressive. The abuse of power we choose to become outraged about moves from corporate greed to government waste. The fearmongers roam like a pack of wild dogs from tragedy to travesty.
And just once a year, we get to strip off our rose-colored glasses, wipe the fake smiles off our faces, throw away the sappy cards that say, “everything will turn out all right in the end,” and say, “you know what, the sky is actually falling.” This place, this world, this life, is an utter and complete disaster. And the best hope for it is to wipe the slate clean and start all over. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
Come on, God. Come on already.
That is Advent. Not the carols and lights and cards and gifts. Advent begins with acknowledging the crisis we’re in and looking forward to Jesus coming to start all over.
I wish I could tell you just what that would look like. Sun and moon going dark and stars falling from the sky and Jesus riding in on a cloud limousine sounds very cool. But these are not predictions of the future. These are images of the past. Jesus borrows these revelations from another crisis. This is a recycled apocalypse.
More than 700 years before the birth of Jesus, a prophet of Israel named Isaiah witnessed his people weather attacks from every side, the monarchy making and breaking alliances, and their cherished city of Jerusalem all but ransacked. Isaiah prophesies against Israel’s enemies, declaring that God will “destroy the whole earth” and “the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.”
Flash forward more than 100 years, and we find another prophet if Israel, Ezekiel, called as God’s sentinel to a devastated and demoralized people, taken into captivity in Babylon. Into this trauma, Ezekiel prophesies against all the nations who strut the earth, claiming divine status. “When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens, and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light.”
Flash forward another few hundred years, and we find another prophet of Israel, Joel, living in Jerusalem, generations after the exile, but facing a new and terrible crisis. A plague of locusts has decimated the city, and God’s removal of the plague is interpreted in terms of cosmic transformation as God’s army marches and “The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.”
Flash forward several hundred years again, and the Jewish people find themselves persecuted under a harsh Greek ruler and embroiled in their own civil war. Reaching back into Hebrew lore, a series of stories and apocalyptic visions is compiled and composed and attributed to a character named Daniel. In one of his early visions, Daniel declares, “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven…To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.”
And finally, we flash forward another couple hundred years, and the Jews are under the thumb of the Roman Empire. The temple in Jerusalem will soon be destroyed for the second time. And a man claiming to be the Messiah proclaims, 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. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory.
Is this all beginning to sound a little familiar? The people of God repeat these apocalyptic images again and again in times of struggle and grief and disorientation.
And that is why we do this. Every year. We read Jesus’ recycled apocalypse so that we can set down our optimism and positivity for just a minute and acknowledge how far gone things really are.
Apocalyptic writing helps us do this because it is dualistic, pessimistic, and immediate. These are the three characteristics of all apocalyptic literature. Now, let’s unpack that.
First, it is dualistic. There’s a battle between good and evil, right and wrong. We can claim that God is on our side. Now, in the context of the Israelite people, this played out in geopolitical terms. The ultimate ruler of Israel was God, so if you were with Israel, you were with God. If you were against Israel, you were against God. It was pretty easy to tell whose side God was on.
Today, that’s a bit trickier. We all want to claim that God is on our side, whether we’re talking about social or political issues, religion or international affairs. We are right, and whoever the “other” is, is wrong. We’re good, and whoever doesn’t agree with us, act like us, believe like us, look like us, live like us – well, they are evil, of course.
Most of the time, you’ll hear me preaching against this kind of dualistic thinking. But without a landscape of good vs. evil, apocalypse is useless, no fun at all. A good apocalypse needs winners and losers, those who are elect, saved, and justified, and those who get what’s coming to them. So just once each year, I’ll let us think that way.
But here’s the hitch: even though the Israelites knew God was on their side, they also knew they weren’t always on God’s side. Much of apocalyptic writing is fill with confession and repentance. Isaiah says, But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. The apocalypse is not just about ridding us of the evil “out there.” The evil in each of us is to be purged as well.
The second characteristic of apocalyptic writing is pessimism. Things aren’t going to get better. There’s no plan for the future. This is an absolute mess and there’s no way out of it other than divine intervention.
I have a friend whose family is from Syria, and I once asked her to come and explain to a group I was hosting all the history leading up to the current crisis in that country. At the end, someone asked her, “what can we do now?” Her response? Jesus. And, mind you, she’s Muslim. But in her estimation, there was nothing within the powers of humanity, or our governments and institutions, that could save Syria from the mess that had been created there. Nothing, that is, except the return of Jesus, the apocalypse.
Finally, in apocalyptic writing there is a sense of immediacy, urgency. God is going to do something right now, right away. Look out, it’s coming! In some ways, we’ve lost that sense of urgency, that expectation that God is going to intervene in human history anytime soon. That’s the stuff of cults and curbside prophets.
But at the same time, we live in an age of instant gratification. We expect everything to happen right now. We want faster internet, faster cars, faster food. Fear of missing out on what’s happening right now is one of the greatest fears of teens and young adults.
So perhaps another of the gifts of this recycled apocalypse is that we can renew that sense of immediacy in our faith life. We are Presbyterians, which means we do everything slowly. But what if we allowed ourselves to be open to the immediacy of the reign of Christ? What if we really believed that what’s happening, what we’re doing right now was of critical importance? Wouldn’t that change…everything?
Now, apocalypse is a word that gets used and misused quite a bit, from “Apocalypse Now” to the zombie apocalypse. But what it actually means in Greek is “revelation” or “unveiling.” By its very definition, apocalypse is surprising, unexpected. It isn’t necessarily the end of the world. It’s the lifting of a curtain, the turning of a page, the magician’s “ta-da!”
But Jesus gives is a little peek behind the curtain, a glimpse into the magician’s bag of tricks. He points to the fig tree and reminds us that, though it sometimes seems like it is dead one day and alive and in bloom the next, if we are really paying attention, we will notice the subtle signs and slight changes that precipitate this transformation.
And while Jesus’ recycled apocalypse appears at first to be terrifying, doom and gloom, notice that the object lesson he chooses is a tree budding into new life. The apocalypse, whatever it ultimately looks like, is an event of hope, regeneration. What is dead and useless and ugly will be transformed into something lively and beautiful and nourishing.
We recycle apocalyptic images, we read about apocalypse on the first Sunday of Advent each year, because we need to be reminded that, when things get this bad, when it seems like there is no light left in the world and the sky is falling, that is precisely when we need to be on the lookout for signs of new life.
We are called, always but especially in this season, to keep awake and alert. Not for the destruction of the planet or the end of the world. But for a new heaven and new earth. For a shoot to come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch to grow out of his roots. For Christ to return in glory.
Until then, we will recycle this apocalypse each year. We will mourn the evil we see in the world and within our own hearts. We will admit that things are broken beyond our ability to fix them. And we will eagerly watch for the signs of hope and new life. Keep alert. Keep awake. Amen.