Advent I, Year C
1 Thes 3:9-13
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."
(1 Thessalonians 3:9-13)
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth 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. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
We must observe that nowhere is God mentioned as the cause of these cosmic signs. The text does not indicate the origin of these signs. What are they? First, signs in the sun, moon and stars. Second, nations will be in anguish and perplexity over what will be occurring in the oceans. Third, people will be scared like they could never imagine in their worst nightmares.
Regarding the first, signs in the sun, moon and stars. There is a Native American prophecy on the end regarding ‘the night of the red stars.’ It is a sign of the impending end and new beginning. What, we wondered, could possibly occur that would cause people all over the planet to perceive the stars as red? How about the dust thrown up into the atmosphere by a couple of countries using nuclear weapons on each other? The second sign? What if the earth were to warm up and begin to melt the polar ice caps? How much more water now becomes ocean? How much of the polar ice caps do we need to melt before there is more water than we can handle? Ever hear of global warming, or the loss by melting of the north polar ice cap, or the growing number of icebergs being calved off the Antarctic ice shelf? (But then this same Native tradition also spoke of ‘holes in the sky’ before we knew about the effects of industrial pollution and chloroflorocarbons on the ozone layer.)
Regarding the third sign, according to the Bush administration we live in terrifying times (see Vice President Cheney’s speech before the Heritage Foundation Oct 10, 2003.). And we do. The possibilities of what may occur in the light of what has occurred since Sept 11th 2001, are both frightening and real and the policies of the Bush administration have only exacerbated the problems. But the real terror is yet to come. We’re just watching the trailer now, wait ‘til the movie starts.
It has been twenty centuries since ‘the times of the Gentiles’ began. And here is the news you need to know: humans have permanently altered the natural environment. In the past two hundred years humans have signed their death warrant. We have polluted the planet, and ravaged eco-systems and species so much so that many aspects of the natural world are no longer as they were created. Now they are created in our image. (Bill McKibben, The End of Nature).
When we look at ‘the times of the Gentiles’ through the lens of mimetic theory what we see is a history of warfare. It is not possible to describe human history other than in terms of conflict. So the ‘apocalyptic discourse’ is fundamentally an anthropology in the gospel tradition. It describes the human predicament as conflict and it moves to the eventual consequences of such a developing orientation for the human race. In this regard, it has similarities to the night of the red stars Native American prophecy. Both are oriented in their criticism of humanity as conflictual, consumerist and destructive of the natural world. Both develop similar ecological consequences. We saw this when we looked at Mark 13 in Year B.
The phrase ‘times of the Gentiles’ is certainly a Lukan redaction and probably reflects the Pauline conception of history (as found, e.g., in Romans 9-11). If so, Paul and Luke have carefully retained the anthropological cause of apocalyptic, which for both begins with the crucifying of Jesus and the beginning of the end of the Powers.
The prevailing understanding of apocalyptic in popular Christian discourse, especially of the Evangelical variety (across the denominations) does not begin with the Cross of Christ. The Cross does not function as a hermeneutical principle for Evangelicals. It is the place where the price was paid, where the wrath of God was poured out. It is the violent sacred. In short, the Cross of Jesus is ‘mythologized.’ Now, the construct of the sacralized victim ends up in Evangelical eschatology because it was not dealt with in their christology. The eschaton is the (ritual) separation of the victim from the community, the good from the bad, the just from the unjust. The end is the scapegoat mechanism in full fury. It is not Gospel.
This, of course, translates into the rhetoric of politics, and viola! we have the Christian myth beating at the heart of the American government. And this myth is the model/obstacle of the American way of life. When apocalyptic is read through an anthropological lens, that is, through a theology of the Cross, then it is clear that the prophetic quality of the Lukan text may well ring true. Furthermore, it is not too much to say that the planet is manifesting the damage we humans have done to her but we are only seeing the first effects. Don’t ask what this will mean for you in your lifetime. Ask what will this mean for your grandchildren.
An excellent ‘reading from below’ of the book of Revelation is William Stringfellow’s An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. Written at the height of the Vietnam War, it profoundly sees the United States in ‘Babylon.’ If anything, it is more true today than before.
1) in 21:24, it is the collective ‘ethne’ that will trample Jerusalem; in 21:25b the ‘ethne’ will experience the breakdown of creation. These are Lukan additions.
2) Luke ‘historicizes’ Matthew’s more generic apocalyptic description. That is, for Luke the recent (to him and his readers) destruction of Jerusalem was an event of cataclysmic proportion. It had to be interpreted.
3) Luke interestingly omits Matthew’s ‘ap arxe kosmou’ (Lk 21:23 = Mt 24:21) and changes Matthew’s ‘thlipsis’ to ‘anagke.’
4) Angels, which have such a prominent feature of the Lukan narrative are omitted from the eschatological picture (Lk 21: 27 = Mt 24:31).
5) Luke omits the saying of Mt 24:36, where Jesus asserts that only the abba knows the hour of the end.
6) Luke adds 21:34 as his summary statement. [Note the three things that weigh our hearts down: dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life. This is descriptive of a culture which is oriented to a) partying, clubbing, chillin’; b) addicted to substances (pharmaceuticals) and c) concerned about their paychecks, jobs, social status, etc, etc. Sorta sounds like the good old U.S. of A? ]
Points 1 and 2, as well as the word change in point 3 all point to Luke’s more universalistic outlook. That Luke historicizes events should not at all surprise us. Not only is it good writing, there is a certain ‘pesher-like’ quality to it. Luke is absolutely astounded at the entrance of God into space, time and history in Jesus Christ. Luke looks back barely 70 years, sees an event that changed everything and writes about it. Think about it. It is 2003. 70 years ago Hitler came to power. Did that change anything? So, for Luke, there is a bigger picture of something going on in Jesus than many are willing to acknowledge. Luke, thankfully, was no modern historian, buried in data, searching for cold hard facts like needles in a haystack (as though the haystack wasn’t important). The facts of this life, the life of Jesus, were salvific, they meant something very important and something very, very good.
Even our mother earth groans in travail as she awaits the redemption of the children of God. Perhaps this Advent we can appreciate even more the coming glory of God. And of his Kingdom there will be no end. The earth waits and we wait with her for our redemption.
The contemporary church suffers from what Adrio Konig calls The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology. 80 years ago Barth wrote in his Epistle to the Romans that if christology is not eschatology then it is not christology at all. Today we might say that if eschatology is not christology then it is not eschatology at all. The popular eschatology of the Christian churches suffers from a lack of coherence. God is good at the beginning, he is good in Jesus but at the end he is one bad mutha. ‘God’ (presumably the Father) is the bad cop over against Jesus the good cop. In the typical doctrine of election or atonement, God is nothing more than an alcoholic in the sky. It makes no sense from the viewpoint of the gospel to import violence into eschatology, but from the perspective of the scapegoating mechanism it makes perfect sense. Popular apocalyptic is the closure of the myth of sacred violence and the justification for all of the violence done ‘between the times.’
We have tried to show that when the Synoptics (and Paul) utilize apocalyptic constructs, they may retain the frame but they entirely alter the structure and substance of apocalyptic. We believe this can adequately be traced back to Jesus, but this last argument is not necessary. Furthermore, it would appear that an anthropological reading of apocalyptic, that is a hermeneutical ‘reading from below’ has far more congruity not only with the gospel message but perhaps also with the greater work of the Spirit in our world as we have seen in Native American prophecy or as Rene Girard sees in Shakespeare, Proust and Dostoievski. A text like this can illumine in many directions.
Some sermon ideas….
At the turn of the millennium, we were treated to a multitude of movies with strong apocalyptic themes. Two of them were centered on asteroids that threatened the existence of life on Earth. One of them was a wonderful hero-myth in which the hero sacrifices himself to save the planet, the other was an insightful look into the dissolution of human culture when it becomes plain that disaster cannot be averted. (Deep Impact)
In this second movie we encounter characters who face the end with utter terror and remarkable courage. The only real difference is the belief in something that makes survival a less-than-ultimate “Good.”
It isn’t necessary to believe that the havoc we wreak on the environment is a sign of the coming “end” to see that our lesson for First Advent asks us to choose which side of the line we’ll stand on when things turn chaotic in our lives.
For those of us caught up in the “mimetic web,” the chaos of these times threatens, even if it doesn’t entirely create, the battle of “all against all” that the pillars of culture are designed to prevent. We will, as did most of the characters in Deep Impact, lay hands on whatever resources are at hand, ripping them from the hands of our neighbors, determined to survive.
For those of us who are caught up in the “web” of the Gospel, these events provoke compassion, but not fear. We do not fear the chaos, because we have seen beyond it, to the restoration of all Creation promised in Jesus.
The contrast of “terror” and “confidence” seems an apt image for a country engaged in a “war on terror,” or, in other words, a country determined to fight mimetic violence with mimetic violence.
The temptation to castigate the purveyors of this violence is great. As preachers, we are called to preach Gospel, and so we are encouraged here to call our congregations to a place of confidence, a place from which to name (in love) the violence that possesses our neighbors without judging its victims. We stand unafraid, and speak without stridency or rancor because we do not fear even the apocalypse.