Pandemic, Murder Hornets, Bush Fires in Australia, Wildfires in the U.S. Brexit.
Political assassinations. Explosions in Beirut. The impeachment of a President. Contested elections.
Did I leave anything out?
If 2020 has felt like anything to us, it has felt like we are close to the end of the world…. Repeatedly!
So, I’m wondering if all that “end of the world anticipation,” (which is an Advent theme,) makes us see this Advent season any differently than we have in the past?
The season of Advent looks forward to the return of Christ, the time when this world passes away and God’s Kingdom is established in full.
All these events piling up on us sure feels like something to which we should pay attention!
So, when Isaiah talks today about the heavens being rent wide open, our ears perk up.
And when Jesus launches into his little apocalypse we pay a little more attention.
That is in fact, the really troubling thing about the events of this past year. They all remind us of the images we remember from bits and pieces of the bible, and because of that there is always this little nagging worry.
What if the is bible’s right?
What if when the clock ticks over at midnight 2021, all hell, or all heaven, does break loose?
Why do the biblical writers use these apocalyptic visions of the events at the end of time to make their point?
For the Christian to make sense of this material, we first have to understand it as a genre of literature within Judaism.
Apocalyptic is a writing style, a way of telling a story. The people of Isaiah’s time, and of Jesus time, would have recognized that.
We often don’t. We think of these “predictions” as prophetic statements of things to watch out for instead of seeing them as signs of God’s entry into history.
What do I mean by calling this kind of writing a Genre? Well, if I were to hold up a book like this, the “Complete Book of English Mysteries,” you know what kind of book I’m talking about and what you will likely find in here.
If it’s a mystery it’s going to have clues, a murder or crime to solve, red herrings along the way, accusations made, spooky or mysterious settings, enigmatic deductions made toward the conclusion or solution to the crime.
If I hold up another book, say this romance novel, you can tell me pretty much what you’ll find in this genre as well.
There will be exotic places, historical allusions, grief, tragedy, love lost, love found, passions explored, heaving bosoms and tears shed, and a happy ending for the hero or heroine.
If I asked you what kind of message it is that a mystery is supposed to convey? You might respond by saying, “no crime is unsolvable, and justice will win out in the end… one way or another.”
How about the message of a romance? Well, that would be “Love triumphs over all obstacles.”
Apocalyptic literature is also a genre. It has trademark characteristics just like a romance or a mystery. It has a message it wants to convey.
In Apocalyptic literature the trademark characteristic most important is the removal of all obstacles to God’s entering the world and the situation. The most important thing is God getting in here.
That’s the message that apocalyptic wants to convey. It proclaims that nothing will stand in God’s way when it comes to righting wrongs and redeeming people.
Since in the ancient near east mindset, God resided above the heavens, how is God going to get in here fast? He’s going to rip the heavens open to come down. He’s going to kick the sun and the moon out of their orbit to get them out of his way. Nothing is going to stop God from coming, from getting down here where God is needed and needed right now.
Tuck that into the back of your mind and now go back to look at Isaiah and Mark again. What do you see?
Why these apocalyptic visions? Because this genre of literature helps us imagine a God who comes quickly with power to set things right again.
That’s what Isaiah and Jesus both want to evoke here.
What at first looks like scary stuff, the sky ripped open, the powers in the heavens broken — is really meant to bring hope.
“Look here, nothing will stand in the way of God when God decides to come to us!”
It may look like the end of the world but look who’s coming! Look who it is who is about to do mighty deeds again to save!
It is God, the same God who established creation and who cares for every living thing.
What is there to be scared of? Frightened about in that?
2020 may be doing a fine job of making things big and scary, but in the end these events, as monumental as they may seem in this moment, don’t say much about the God who moves in the wake of disasters and heaven renderings to bring about God’s Kingdom.
Jesus understands the genre. He knows that while it is meant to bring hope, this end of the world stuff can be scary if you don’t know the genre. So, look at what Jesus does to help us with that.
Right after all this talk about the Son of Man coming on the clouds, the sun and stars falling, angels rushing to and fro, Jesus says, “Hey— look at the fig tree.”
Learn the lesson of the Fig Tree.
It puts forth tender shoots, green leaves, grows and matures, and when you see the leaves you know summer is near.
Do you dread summer?
We might dread fall with the dying off and ending of growth.
We might dread winter with its cold and barren landscapes.
We might even be able to dread spring with its unpredictable weather and violent storms.
But summer? That’s the time to bask and to enjoy! That’s the time of ripening fruit and everything growing to its full potential.
Learn that lesson, he says, that in the face of the end of the world as we know it. We’re not supposed to be frightened, but rather looking for growth, for maturity and fruitfulness of bloom!
Could it be that what Jesus wants his disciples to understand is that when God comes, what we will have to do is be ready to grow!
Growing in our faith.
Growing in our mission and ministry.
Growing in doing what should come as naturally to us as the growth of leaves and fruit comes to a Fig tree.
From the fig tree Jesus goes on to a story about a household and an admission.
Even Jesus doesn’t know when the end will come. That is in the Father’s keeping.
Jesus can tell us to be watchful and ready, but not the hour or the moment, and then he uses this interesting illustration of a household where the master leaves on a journey.
We are to be watchful, ready for the master’s return, but what do we do in the meantime? Do we drop everything to wait for the end of the world as we know it?
When the master leaves home, he puts his slaves in charge, each with their own work.
The master commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch, which is what a doorkeeper is supposed to do!
The absence of the master in fact, just means that the household is supposed to carry on with business as usual, doing what they are charged to do, their purpose in the running of the house.
If we’re supposed to be scared of the end of the world, why would Jesus tell us a story about running a normal household, going about their normal business and routine?
Isn’t this just his way of saying that while we need to be ready for God to sweep in at any time, we do that best by doing what we’re called to do in this world.
“Keep awake,” Jesus says, which is to say, live intentionally.
Live knowing that the task you do is one that God empowers you to do in this world, and it does make a difference!
This is Advent. It is the time when we focus on Jesus promise that this world will one day pass away. God will come to bring God’s Kingdom in full, and it will be spectacular!
But until then, we live as God gives us the strength to live, and the faith to live.
Christ is coming soon, but that is not something of which to be afraid, it’s a promise made to an out of control world.
Christ is coming soon, and the Christian’s call is to be ready.
That means we are to remain faithful to the tasks that have been given to us.
Faithful in our extending invitations to others to come to faith.
Faithful in our loving and our caring and our giving as we extend that invitation through our daily lives, in the work we are called to do in this world.
It’s not that spectacular of a kind of work, but it is the kind of work in the midst of a world in turmoil that will see us through, and will see God’s Kingdom in.