Signs of Things to ComePosted: December 2, 2012
Signs of Things to Come
The early Christians believed that Jesus would return to earth at any moment. All of the “signs” pointed to the end of history within the life time of the followers of Jesus. After all hadn’t Jesus said something like: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all has taken place?” And “watch for you know neither the day nor the hour?” When the Jews revolted against Roman rule in 67 A.D., many followers of Jesus believed that surely Jesus would return from heaven to save the Jewish people. But Jesus didn’t show up. And when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., crucifying Jews by the thousands and deporting most of the rest of the population as slaves, many Christians began to wonder whether Jesus would ever return.
Our scripture today is a case in point. Luke 21:8-38, parallels Mark chapter 13, and they are sometimes labeled “the Little Apocalypse.” The difference between Mark and Luke is that Mark was writing before the destruction of Jerusalem and Luke was writing after the destruction of the City and the scattering of the Jerusalem Church. As a result Mark was more focused on the unrest in Palestine between 67 and 70 A.D., and the impending Roman dismembering of the Jewish people, and Luke has a more generalized chaos in mind more akin to the apocalyptic vision of the Revelation of John, that anticipates the eventual downfall of the Roman Empire.
In verses 25 and 26 Luke adopted the apocalyptic imagination that the hardships of the end times will probably be signaled by astronomical, planetary, and weather signs: comets, eclipses, earthquakes, tidal waves, extremes of weather. Luke’s gospel claimed that a special star appeared when Jesus was born, and an earthquake accompanied his death. This paralleled the claims of the Roman State religion concerning the Caesars. A comet appeared after the assassination of Julius Caesar, and the Roman Senate declared that the comet was the soul of Caesar being elevated to divine status. The Roman historian Suetonius in his history of Caesar Augustus claimed that a special star had also appeared to mark the birth of Augustus.
We like to believe that in the twenty-first century we are more sophisticated about reading the signs of the times. After all we have polling data, focus groups, and computer simulations that within a scientific margin of error predict elections, recessions, consumer sentiment, power consumption, and weather sometimes. And we even have three very different networks who try to interpret the signs of the times for us –
Our scripture this morning raises an important challenge for Christian Theology and the season of Advent. When we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” we are primarily focusing on the preparation and waiting for the coming of the Messiah in the Christ Child. But theologically Advent focuses upon the expected second coming of the Messiah forecast in the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 and Luke 21:8-38, and the Revelation to John. Over two-thousand years have come and gone since the time of Jesus, are we still waiting to “see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory?”
Some branches of Christian faith still focus their primary message around the “return of Jesus:” Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, the Left Behind Series Enthusiasts, and now the 12 -21- 2012 end of the Mayan Calendar. Just last year Harold Camping of American Family Radio was predicting the end of the world on May 21st of 2011. Many of his followers sold their possessions expecting to be raptured, on the predicted date. When May 21st came and went, Camping claimed he had miscalculated the time and announced a new date of October 21st , 2011. When Jesus failed to show up again, Camping went into seclusion.
The question I want to raise is whether or not the church should continue to preach a mythologized second coming, with Jesus coming on the clouds of glory and his followers being raptured into the air, or is it time to consider that maybe the early church didn’t get that one right, and perhaps we might reinterpret this part of the message of our faith with some creative midrash.
In Judaism the progressive midrash on this topic of the end times is to stop looking for a Messiah embodied in a person, and instead to focus upon a messianic age, when people of faith learn that it is up to us to change the world. There is a famous story about a young man who went to visit Rabbi Akiba at his cave to ask the question, “when will the Messiah come?”
Rabbi Akiba answered the young man, “The Messiah is already here.”
“The Messiah is already here,” the young man surprised asked, “well then where is he?”
Rabbi Akiba responded, “you will find the Messiah at the City Gate.”
The young man ran to the City Gate looking for the Messiah, but all he saw were beggars, the blind, the disabled, the poor. Finally he noticed one of the company of the poor, who seemed a little more able than the rest. So he walked up to the figure said, “I was told that the Messiah is here at the City Gate, where is he?”
The young man said incredulously, “You the Messiah? Well if you are the Messiah, why don’t you heal the sick, and wipe out world hunger, and stop all the wars in the world? What are you waiting for?”
And the Messiah responded, “I wait for you.”
Now some of my more evangelical friends will object that this interpretation of the end times envisions that humans of their own efforts can bring about a better world. And speculating about a Messianic Age precludes the power of God from intervening in history to end or transform the world.
Certainly if God wants to send a stray asteroid to wipe out civilization as we know it, God could do that. If climate change should tip the balance and human society as we know it is destroyed, that could happen too. And I am not putting it past human stupidity to fry the planet with nuclear weapons.
However, at this point in the history of the human race, I believe it is more productive to think in terms of God like the story of Ms. Bessie. Ms. Bessie was a very elderly lady, who was reputed to be the wisest woman in the world. One day two little boys caught a song bird, and one little boy said to the other, “let’s prove we can fool Ms. Bessie. We’ll go up on her porch and you hold the bird in your hand behind your back. And we’ll ask Ms. Bessie if the bird is alive or is it dead? If she says it’s dead, you open your hand and let the bird fly away. But if she says it’s alive, then you crush it and show her the dead bird.”
So the two boys went up on the porch and the one boy said, “Ms. Bessie we’ve been told you are the wisest person in the world. So we’ve caught this bird and we want you to tell us is it alive or is it dead?”
I think God is saying to the human race, “the world is in your hands, it’s in your hands.”
Now, while the future is in our hands, I don’t believe we are just out there on our own. God cares. God is with us as we wait. God listens when we pray. If we will just shut up long enough to listen in prayer, I believe God is still speaking. And every once in a while there is synchronicity, events come together in miraculous ways that can defy logic – bidden or unbidden God is present. God is larger and more awesome than any of our ideas about God.
So as we light the first Advent Candle this morning let me ask is there some way God is waiting for us? Is there a child without a warm coat, who is waiting for us? Is there a family without enough to eat lining up at Foodline, who is waiting for us? Is there a family without utilities and the Huntsville Assistance Program doesn’t have the funds, who is waiting for us? Are there children in our Sunday School needing a teacher, who are waiting for us? Maybe God is even waiting for our pledge card? It’s in our hands. It’s in our hands.