November 29, 2015 – The Venerable Grant Rodgers
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars … distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
One could be forgiven for believing that we are witnessing the signs of the end, as conflict in the world ramps up and terrorism emerges as a global phenomenon; as the sun becomes our enemy due to the destruction of the ozone layer; as ocean levels rise to potentially catastrophic levels due to global warming; as the weather becomes more and more unpredictable and deadly; as the powers of heaven (perhaps here implying religion and faith) are shaken and damaged. From a lot of perspectives and for a lot of reasons, it could seem like the apocalypse is upon us.
At such times, Jesus says, many people will be overcome by fear and foreboding – the dread that something terrible is about to happen. As Jesus puts it, many will tend toward extreme and destructive behaviours, just giving up all responsibility and living recklessly for the moment, and many will start to anticipate evil and not good – whole societies will develop a pervading sense that something bad is going to happen. And it is especially at times like these that the significance and necessity of the Son of Man emerges and begins to make sense. As Jesus says, “when you see these things taking place, know that the kingdom of God is near.”
In the face of anxiety, as part of a process of teaching his disciples to pray and to connect with God (Matthew Ch. 6), Jesus had told his followers to look at the flowers, and to pay attention to the birds. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to look at the trees – in this case a fig tree. Trees tend to signify longevity, long-term growth, things solid and stable, life itself. They are often huge and beautiful and life-giving. Any time you feel panicky and unsettled and disconnected, a walk in the woods is a very good way to get centered and connected and grounded again. Martin Luther, when asked “What would you do if you heard that Jesus was returning tomorrow?” said that he would plant a tree. Planting a tree is a sign of hope; an expression of confidence that God is far from being done.
The presence of leaves tells you that a new season is beginning, and it is a time for joy and hope, not despair. In The Chronicles of Narnia, when the reign of the white witch was finally overcome, a reign which had plunged Narnia into an apparently permanent deep freeze, in which it was “always winter and never Christmas,” the inhabitants of Narnia didn’t lament, saying “Oh no! Winter is ending” — of course not! They rejoiced that a new day was arriving.
“At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump inside . . . Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of Summer”
(The Chronicles of Narnia).
As a father, I found that when one of my children was upset, or had hurt herself (or himself), I would pick them up and carry them over to a window and say “Look!” and almost always their crying would subside immediately. We are more than babies, and what Jesus is talking about is more than diversion, but the principle holds true to some degree.
In other words, don’t let immediate and external circumstances, no matter how dire, govern your life – don’t lose your perspective. Look out the window, whatever that window might be, because the very goodness and scope of God’s creation can speak to us and remind us of deep and essential things. In critical and frightening times, Jesus says, don’t hang your heads – don’t faint and fall down, don’t give way to dissipation and drunkenness, don’t give way to conniving, manipulative, self-serving behaviours, and don’t turn toward addictive and self-destructive habits. When some are saying “All is lost!” it is a good time to remember the wisdom of Jesus, who said that sometimes it is necessary to lose one version of life in order to find our true life.
“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away . . .” Instead of reading this as Jesus’ prediction that the end of all things was at hand (and then debating about whether Jesus was wrong or not), you could read it as a reassurance that things were not going to end with that particular generation, but that a new manifestation of faith was about to occur, as people were about to experience a whole new sense of the kingdom of God and the reality of the spiritual realm. If you consider the |Resurrection, and Pentecost, that is exactly what happened.
So, when you see all these disturbing signs, he says, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Maybe that is a Christian way of saying “when the going gets tough, the tough get going;” but it is much more than that – it is an orientation of trust; a deeply integrated faith in the sovereignty and purposes of God.
We begin one of the great seasons today, a new year in the Christian calendar. Advent is the season in which we remember that our redemption is always drawing near – always presenting itself to us – always re-emerging — and especially in distressing times, Christ can become more real, more present, to us, because awareness of our own mortality and fragility always opens us up to the reality of our own need.
As we see the signs of the times, and the life we have known and appreciated seems threatened and on the verge of destruction, it is important not to become one of those tiresome people who drone on about the good old days, or talk nothing but negativity. Jesus teaches that it is in times like ours that we need to persist in hope that something new will be manifested – it is about making a choice not to give way to darkness and debauchery in the face of doom – it is about choosing to look to the horizon expecting light and not darkness. The Church, after all, thinks in centuries, not decades.
In the reading from Jeremiah, we look back to a time 600 years prior to the coming of Christ, and the promises of God to the people of Israel at a particularly low time of their history. Considered from the present, we know, looking back, that Israel overcame that terrible ordeal – in fact they emerged from exile and slavery stronger and with a renewed sense of identity. So we know that “end times” and “last days” come and go – it’s how people choose to respond in the face of crisis that matters. It is always about choosing life, and believing that ultimately, what comes to us is not evil and death, but goodness and life.
Advent is a time when we are reminded that God came among us in the form of a child, perhaps the greatest sign of hope and new life; we are reminded that in any and every crisis, God in Christ is with us; and that new life will emerge as surely as leaves emerge on the trees in the Spring.
“The kingdom is as near as a prayer” (Canon Frank Logue), so let us in these difficult times pray more urgently “your kingdom come” because as Jesus taught us, it is in such times that we should “seek first the kingdom of God” and so let us pray with the Psalmist: “O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame.”
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: “I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.”
It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called wonderful counsellor, mighty God, the everlasting prince of peace.”
It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: “To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.”
It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church, before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall have dreams and your young men shall see visions.”
It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: “The hour comes, and now is, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.”
So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.
From Walking on Thorns, by Allan Boesak, Eerdmans, 2004.