Luke 21: 25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
Well, it happened again. This is the First Sunday of Advent, and just when we’re getting ready for “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” and “Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child” and “Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes,” the Gospel passage of the first Sunday of Advent sounds like the screen play to the movie 2012 or The War of the Worlds. It gives us scary, apocalyptic, end of the world stuff like, “signs in the sun, moon and stars…. nations in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea, People fainting from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world… heavenly bodies being shaken.”
So much for holiday cheer!
And so it has been, for all the 1300 years that the Church of Jesus Christ has observed Advent with this same lectionary scripture schedule. The season of lights and the Christian calendar begin with Jesus’ warnings about darkness, doom, terror and trouble. And then comes the end.
Why? So that we’ll all have hope.
Seriously. Jesus is saying these things to give us hope, but only the kind of hope that they talk about in AA and other 12 Step Groups, when they say, “I feel ever so much better since I gave up all hope.” Gave up hope, that is, of controlling the drinking or drug addiction, or of stopping it by oneself. The hope of avoiding the consequences of drinking and drugs, or of controlling, or minimizing the costs and consequences, and admit that we are powerless over something, that we weren’t doing the substance or the behavior; it was doing us. And then we (step 2) turned ourselves over to God so that God might remove our faults and failures and remake us. In other words, we give up false hopes of a self-directed self-improvement plan and surrender ourselves to God for a total remake of the world, beginning with ourselves. And so exchange false hope to receive a real and lasting hope. And that’s the first take-away lesson from today’s Gospel text: Give up hope to get hope, false hope for real hope.
Its not just addicts and alcoholics who need to come to terms with this. There are respectable, mainstream hopes that are still false hopes like, “You know, with just the right new weapons, and the right tactics, we can finally end terror for good and be truly secure for the rest of our lives. And then world markets will be secure, the stock market will go endlessly up, the economy will never stop growing, and we can retire early, and rich. Tweak the technology, the weaponry and the tax code, and its just a matter of time!”
And Jesus would ask us, Now, what planet do you think you live on? Or, “Do you still think that the world does not really need a savior?”
Or on a more personal level, give up false hopes such as: I can indulge this secret little sin as long as I keep it under control; no one needs to know, and no one will be hurt. It may have destroyed other people and their relationships, but my case is different. I can handle this, or even, I deserve this.
Or, I don’t need to pray, fast or counsel with anyone about this matter; I have the skills and smarts and education to handle it all by myself.
And Jesus would again ask us, Do you still think, somewhere down deep inside, that you don’t really need a Savior? That you’re the only person who didn’t need me to die for them? About such false hopes in such finite things, Jesus says, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.”
For the day is coming when the trap is sprung, and so many of the world’s conventional hopes of power, control and perfection, go down the tubes. Scary, but if it helps, consider that some of what Jesus is talking about has already happened. That’s how he can say that “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” When Jesus talks about “signs in the sun, moon and stars” and “the roaring and tossing of the sea,” we have only to read the Old Testament prophets to know that Jesus is using the same language that they used to talk about the rise and fall of kings and kingdoms. In place of falling stars and moon, read empires and emperors.
And we only have to read the history books to realize that Jesus was talking about much of what would indeed come to pass within forty years, a generation, of his saying these words: the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of God by the Romans. For Jews like Jesus, those were very distressing signs in heaven and earth, the shaking and quaking of everything once thought sacred and stable. But it would also vindicate Jesus and his teachings, just as surely as if the Son of Man had indeed come in a cloud with power and great glory. So these words are mostly about the events of 70 AD.
Mostly, that is. Because the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple would only be the start of the end. It would finally cut the apron strings between the church and the temple, and release upon the world the most stunning, apocalyptic, earth-shaking sign of the last times and the rapidly approaching end of history: the church of Jesus Christ in mission and in worship until he returns.
So, this scary apocalyptic passage is about 70 AD, its about 2012, and its about whenever Christ returns. And as we approach the renewal of all things, expect the world to keep staggering from one dilemma to the next. Expect something like labor pains, with what looks at first, to the faith-less eye, like sheer chaos and catastrophe. If our hearts are still set on the hopes of the world, and conventional wisdom, then indeed, give up all hope. But if our hearts are set on the hope of renewal and recreation that God promises, and does, then, “Lift up your heads, your redemption is drawing near.” That works if we have surrendered all hope. False hope, that is. That was the first lesson of this text.
The second lesson has to do with the theme of this year’s Advent season: “A Flood of Mercy.” Now, when I first heard that so many churches in our denomination would be observing Advent under the theme, “A Flood of Mercy,” I had to ask, What were they thinking? A flood? Of mercy? Have you ever been through a flood? If so, you know there’s nothing merciful about one. I’ve heard people say, who went with Mennonite Disaster Service to help clean up after a flood, that they would much rather clean up after a fire or a tornado or an earthquake or maybe even a war, than clean up after a flood. Nothing could be more nasty than what a flood leaves behind: sludge up to the ceiling, mold in your molding and carp on your carpet. The craziest thing about a flood is that, with water up to your ears, you still have to bring in more water to drink.
And what are our partner churches in New York and New Jersey supposed to think of this theme, after Super Storm Sandy?
On the Worship Commission we briefly contemplated tweaking the proposed Advent theme to “Waves of Mercy.” Or how about “A Rising Tide of Mercy?” But then we remembered two things. A rising tide makes only a temporary, negligible change. And waves are usually regular, predictable things. And when we try to ride them, on a surf board or a boogie board, the point is to stay on top, and in control. And waves always take you from deep water in to shallow.
But that’s not how God’s mercy works. Whenever we surrender to mercy, we give up much control, and the flow takes us out and into the depths, even over our heads.
The other thing I remembered is that in some parts of the world, people actually look forward to floods. Like in ancient Egypt. There, one of the world’s most powerful civilizations depended on the annual flooding of the Nile River. Upstream, in Ethiopia and Uganda the rainy season would fill the Upper Nile to above its banks, and the floodwaters would come downstream and spread new fertile volcanic topsoil over their farm fields. Those annual floods made everything new, in a wonderful way.
Maybe all floods aren’t equally bad. Especially a flood of divine mercy. So the second lesson from Jesus’ words to us is to surrender to the flow—no, make that the flood—of God’s mercy. Don’t try to control it. Don’t try to ride it: Let it sweep over us and fill us, and carry us into the depths of God.
Sounds easy, but such surrender can be hard, lifelong work. Because floods change things. That’s why the ancient Egyptians developed the arts of surveying and of geometry. Once the flood waters swept away the usual landmarkers, or covered them in silt, they had to figure out again who’s land was whose.
A similar thing happened to Isabella Baumfree, a slave in New York state some 200-plus years ago. The bleak landscape of her inner life was washed away by a vision of Jesus, which filled her with a sense of love, and of being loved, that she had never known before in all her life of being beaten, mistreated, separated from her children and sold as a slave. She said to this vision, “I know you, but I don’t know you,” and finally, “You’re Jesus, aren’t you?” To which he smiled and said, Yes.
Previous to that vision, Bella was resigned to a life of slavery, even though she had technically been freed a year before, and worked as someone’s servant. She couldn’t trust her freedom, and thought it only a matter of time before she was returned to bondage. But as a result of that vision, and the flood of such love, assuring her of her worth before God, she became the 19th Century Abolitionist and equal rights crusader with a new name, Sojourner Truth.
Slaveholding America experienced Sojourner Truth as a flood of destruction, a threat to all the normal landmarks of power and status, so that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” And so it is with everyone who resists the divine flood of mercy and who seeks to save what God means to sweep away.
Not all of us will have such powerful and immediate emotional experiences of God and grace as what Sojourner Truth had. Nor should we. But the lifelong task of a Christian is, as the Advent theme song puts it, to overcome our fears and “Wade in the Water,” like the Prophet Ezekiel also did. He saw a vision of a new temple of God, from which emerged a trickle. Then it became a stream, and eventually widened into a river like the Mississippi and deepened into a flood, over his head. This flood was filled with life, and gave life everywhere it flowed. Think of the Christian life as swimming lessons for the River of Life, the Flood of Mercy, whenever we gather for worship, whenever we pray, whenever we witness and serve.
So let’s get out of our life boats and luxury liners in which we isolate and insulate ourselves, and enter and immerse ourselves in the flow of God’s mercy. It doesn’t work long to stay on top, and in control, like buff young surfing dudes, and stay shallow. Let it sweep us deep into the depths of God’s mercy.
After all, in Christ, God has entered and immersed himself in the river of human experience, embracing our limits and sufferings, and surrendering some measure of power and control. That’s what we celebrate every Advent and Christmas. And God invites us to do the same, to enter the flood of divine mercy, to give up false hopes for real ones, and take on more of his nature: love.