As we begin Advent we are presented with seemingly opposite themes. The first is a happy one; it is New Year’s Day on the church calendar and, filled with excitement and hope, we set our sights on the birth of the Messiah. It is time to get the nursery of our souls ready for the Holy Baby. Time to reorder our priorities because every urgent thing in our lives is about to kneel before the one important thing in our lives that wants to be born anew in us—in you and in the person sitting next to you. God among us, willing to be made known through us. And willing to become small enough to hold in our arms. This baby is on the way. And the other theme is frightening and stormy. Christ is coming alright, but not as a cute little baby, but at an unexpected time in an apocalypse where one is taken and one remains.
The context for Jesus’ harsh sounding words this morning is that he has just left the Temple in Jerusalem, and his disciples, awed by the sheer size and grandeur of the Temple buildings are all agog, talking about how grand it all was. Sort of like Temple fan girls. And Jesus was irritated by all of it. The wealth on display, the splendor, the gawking. And so he snapped at his disciples—your priorities are all wrong and you are attached to the wrong things—just stop it because it is all coming down. “But before that happens,” he says, “there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now. Nation will rise against nation…There will be famines and earthquakes…false prophets will appear and deceive many people…one will be taken and one left..no one knows when it will happen.” Well, these are not things we need reminding of. We hear them on the news, we read them in the papers and all over social media. The sense of foreboding and anxiety, of the end of the world as we know it, is omnipresent.
Recently I learned that, over the last few years, the Hallmark Channel has moved rapidly up in cable channel ratings. It is a network with shows like Love Comes Softly and In My Dreams. All of which have happy endings—problems are resolved, the characters in them do the right thing, and sweethearts find one another before the end. This makes complete sense to me. We are living in scary times and on the lookout for ways to soothe ourselves. It is hard to imagine anyone who is not feeling the anxiety that pervades our culture. Every interaction feels fraught—ripe with the potential for argument—a straw can conjure up an image of the great Pacific garbage patch, and politics—well, bring that up at dinner and no matter which way people around the table voted you will be discussing the end of democracy by dessert. There are a lot of ways people handle anxiety, and perhaps bingeing on the Hallmark Channel is the most benign of them. Shopping works for some, gin, or sedatives for others. But as Christians, we look to the Gospels for clues as to how Christians have lived with their anxiety from the very start.
It is important to remember that whenever we read the Gospels, we are always hearing from the Gospel writer as well as Jesus. Scholars believe that Matthew was not an eyewitness to the events recorded in his Gospel—it dates from towards the end of the first century CE—which means he had lived through the end of the world as he knew it several times over. Before he set his version of the story down he had lived through the crucifixion of Jesus and the executions of Peter, James, and Paul, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Nero’s persecution of the early church, and maybe even the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79CE which, while it isn’t mentioned specifically in the Gospels, rocked the ancient world with 100,000 times the thermal energy of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Matthew was not an eyewitness to all these things, like us, he got a lot of these headlines from the news, but doomsday was not lurking somewhere in front of him, but behind him and present to him. It was the reality in which he wrote his Gospel, doing his best to set down the saving words of Jesus for those who were caught in it too. His job was to make Jesus’ teachings apocalypse proof so that they would be there whenever fear of the end seized peoples’ hearts. Heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus said, but my words will not.
So how did Jesus speak to the anxiety of those first Christians? Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, he didn’t tell them to just knock it off and get ahold of themselves—that their fear somehow disqualified them from being his followers. He said, look, it’s going to be bad. People are going to be freaking out with fear for what is coming on the world. This is something he himself knew deep in his bones—and he knew that some things cannot be changed. While his courage was superior to ours, he was not anxiety free, rather that he had the ability to keep moving in, through, and in spite of it. Jesus also knew that God was also up to something that involved breaking before it involved mending—that terrible things, tumult, uproar, panic, and doom are not always because of some malignant force from the underworld, but because of the gravitational pull of the Kingdom of God. Stay alert, Jesus says, because when all of this turmoil happens, it means your redemption is near. This is mind bending for those of us who believe we know what redemption looks like, and chaos is not it. We tend to think we are competent to know if something is coming from the Enemy or from God, but the lifesaving news in this is that which brings redemption, that save us, is often embedded in that which causes us the greatest anxiety.
Think about being on a flight when you suddenly hit some significant turbulence. In that moment I find that the humanity of the person next to me suddenly becomes as precious to me as my own because it is crystal clear that our survival is connected, inseparable even. Then the plane evens out, everyone breathes and goes back to what they were doing. There is nothing like some significant turbulence to teach me how to really pray—and it has nothing to do with my stuff in the luggage hold or an on time arrival. Because Jesus is not attached to the same things we are, he can take the God view—which includes redeeming more than our individual lives but bringing the whole plane in for a safe landing. God is not in the business of only giving parachutes to first class —God means to redeem the whole world. And from this perspective it means some big time tear downs are coming before the global renewal project goes forward. Some cosmic asbestos removal to be completed before the world is safe for God’s creatures to live in again. All those systems, powers, and economies that keep us separated into business class and coach, they are already doomed. All those tribal politics that make us thrive on fear and loathing each other, any kind of religion that demonizes the stranger or the other—it is all coming down. Jesus will not soften the message, but he does rebrand it. All of this, he says, is not cause for absolute panic—all of this means your redemption is drawing near—you may not know exactly when—but it is coming. That cloud that you see coming at you? That is not a hurricane or the enemy, that is the Son of Man coming in power and great glory. If we can let a little of that understanding seep into the cracks of our fear and anxiety, then I think God can sanctify even those two demons.
In these apocalyptic sayings in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus encourages us to stay alert because he knows that when we get scared we tend to just check out. He knows we have a tendency to lie down when it is time to stand up and to cover our heads when it is time to look up and around. When things get really bad, it is tempting to retire from reality as much as we can—to settle in for a full season of the Hallmark Channel —but as hard as it is to hear messages like the one we just heard, Jesus promises that it is messages like this that will save our lives because the One who comes to us first as the Son of Mary in a manger, comes again as the Son of Man in a cloud—not just once, but over and over again, whenever fear seizes the people whom God so loves. Matthew thought it was happening in his time. Soldiers in the Civil War, the Great War, and the Second World War thought it was happening in theirs. At the turn of the millennium many people thought the world was about to end. I think perhaps this happens to all of us in some form or another so that every generation gets some practice with it before we pass away. But my words, Jesus says, well they don’t pass away. Words like love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, if anyone strikes you on one cheek, offer them the other too, give to anyone who begs from you, do to others as you would have them do to you.
When the baby is finally born a few weeks from now, he will not be that articulate yet—all he will be able to do is cry and coo. But these words, these words, will be forming in him along with many other life-saving words, so that when he speaks them at last, we will not only be able to hear them coming out of his mouth, but also see them leafing out in his life. An apocalypse proof way of life that he commends to us too, the kind of life he promises we can not only live in and through, but in which we can live beyond the tumult of our times—if we just stay awake and alert, taking part, whenever it may be, in the coming of God’s reign at last.