I wrote a paper in college on William Miller, a self-taught preacher who, in 1822 he published a paper that proved that the world was going to end by March 21, 1844. He traveled and preached this gospel, attracting tens of thousands of followers until that fateful day came, and many of them gathered in a field together awaiting His joyous appearance…until the sun rose, awkwardly, the next morning. After a bit of recalculation, he admitted his error – it would be the next month, April 18, he was sure of it. While many followers abandoned him after the second date passed, others continued to eagerly anticipate Christ’s return. They formed the beginning of the Adventist movement, to whom our Seventh-day Adventist brothers and sisters trace their heritage.1 Adventist. Advent, from Latin for arrival, coming. And it’s the same story in every age: from the Mayan confidence in the world ending in 2012, to the Left Behind Series in recent years. There is a rapture index online that calculates the exact chance of Armageddon, based on interpretations of certain news events.2 This week we are only one point off the record high which is in the category they label "fasten your seat belts." It is hard to discern how much of all this stuff is worth anything. What can we know about the tumult described in texts like this? What can we not know? What difference does it make?
I will first suggest that trying to read the signs in order to predict when the world is ending is precisely the wrong way to read these passages with strong apocalyptic overtones. Not only will you drive yourself crazy calculating from the gospels to Daniel to Revelation, I also think that kind of work tends to profoundly miss the point. This is coded and poetic language that defies literal explanation. Complicating matters further in today’s text is the fact that Jesus says something that seems to be wrong. "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place." He says it in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.3 And, unless you massage things a bit, our existence is proof that Jesus wasn’t quite right. I don’t have a need to protect Jesus’ perfect opinion on all matters, but the fact that He is so astoundingly incorrect might be a sign that there is more to this passage than the mechanics of the end of the world.
Because, in my view, what passages like this do is express a yearning. We all have moments – maybe you are in the middle of one now – when we want God to come down here and fix this mess. NOW, GOD. Because the Middle East cycles through endless war, because our government can’t seem to function, because our family is a mess. Because in a world in which people go hungry EVERY DAY college football coaches are getting paid millions of dollars as they are fired. Auburn’s coach got paid $7.5 million last week to be fired. I visited my 96 year-old grandmother on Thanksgiving, in a nursing home in Salem, Virginia. We were showing her pictures of family members who love her and she starting shaking her head, "I just don’t remember any of those people," she said. We need God to come with that great power and glory, because things down here are simply too much.
But it seems like things are to get worse before they get better. As Luke tells it – signs in the sun, moon, stars…distress among nations as the seas roar. Fainting, fear, foreboding. Then, in a quote from Daniel, the Son of Man flying in a cloud. We then shift to a rather confusing parable about fig trees. When leaves sprout – not just on fig trees but on most trees, you know summer is headed your way. This, Jesus says, is like those signs he has just mention, those vague scary things that are supposed to make us know the kingdom is near? No wonder people do silly things like make up a rapture index. Find me a time in our history where you couldn’t find distress among nations to point to (Israel, Palestine, Syria), to natural calamities (Sandy). No wonder we don’t know what to do with these passages….it seems like they fit every occasion. Not just the generation of those first disciples that Jesus might have been talking about, but every generation. Nothing is clear.
But, a few small things are. We just get distracted by the wrong stuff. As my friend Kathryn writes, "It seems like we live in a time where everyone is trying to pick up on clues as to what might happen next" – the end of the world, an economic upturn, that of our beloved basketball teams might make a run in the tournament. I wonder, she continues, "what would happen if we focused on what we do know. In the middle of a speech on the future and the second coming and the signs, Jesus says, "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…"
Look, see… and know. Jesus uses the same pattern earlier in verse 20: When you see Jerusalem surround by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. As destructive as that example is, the point is clear – when you see this, you will know. When you see the tree sprout leaves, you will know that summer is near. Look, see… and know. It just seems that rather than spending time on translating the signs of what might be, there is plenty of opportunity to see what is right in front of us and know what needs to be done.
I don’t know what the Mayan calendar means, but I can see the line at the food bank and know that God’s children are hungry. The math of Revelation is above me, but I can see the parched lips in the Horn of Africa and I know that God’s children are thirsty. We don’t need fancy economic indicators to tell us that we are a slave to the pressures of spending and consumption, especially this season, and that all of these things we own actually own us.4 Yet Jesus’ instructions for Advent are simple. EVEN in the midst of the pain that comes with this life, stand up, look up, because your redemption is drawing near. Don’t let your hearts be weighted down by dissipation, Jesus says, – which, by the way, means to spend or use wastefully or extravagantly," (did Jesus KNOW this is what we would make the holidays?)5 Look. Watch. Pray. Because, if you aren’t careful, you’ll miss the more than 125 people that we have gotten Christmas present for through Share Your Christmas. You’ll miss hats, mittens, coats, and sheets gathered for Urban Ministry. You’ll miss the faces of homeless children who slept in our Sunday School rooms this week as the nights got cold. It is sure a sign that the kingdom hasn’t come that brothers and sisters are left without jobs, without crucial social support, without a community to hold them. But, instead of being filled with fears as those powers are shaken, WE must be a people who hold hands and look up. Because if we don’t, we’ll miss these astounding partners we will support through our Christmas Eve offering. We’ll miss opportunities to take care of each other, especially those of us who will have an empty chair around their holiday table this year for the first time. We’ll miss the Lovefeast tonight, and the gifted youth who share it with us. We’ll miss the work we HAVE to do this season of preparation.
Wednesday I had meetings all day, back to back to back all over the Triangle, I was late, I was cranky, there was too much to be done and it was Advent and I was supposed to be cheerful. I flew back in here after 5, parked in the back, and was coming up the side to the courtyard. I heard voices and was confused. I walked up – it was almost dark – and there 20 or so 5 and 6 year olds, standing on the steps of the sanctuary, singing: Away in a manger no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head. The stars in the sky look down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. And while I am sure the parents who put in so much time planning and corralling and organizing the pageant might argue, for a moment…it was magic. And we lifted up our heads, and the world changed.
I don’t know what other communities will do this busy season. My gosh, there’s lots of shopping to be done. But I pray that we, in the midst of all of the distractions and dissipation and craziness, will do everything in our power to not get distracted, but will raise our heads, as we give thanks with every ounce of ourselves. One day He’ll come back – I don’t have the slightest idea when, but I don’t think we’ll miss it. And we’ll stand up and raise up our heads together, because the world’s redemption is drawing near.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. I reread my old paper this week (you’re welcome to come by and read it if you are bored), but I supplemented it with details from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Miller_(preacher)
2. http://www.raptureready.com/rap2.html Yes, this is real.
3. Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30
4. I am grateful to the Rev. Kathryn Johnston, pastor of Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church in Mechanicsburg, PA, for this language in her great paper on this text for the 2012 gathering of The Well in Montreat, NC. This whole section is unabashedly cited from Kathryn’s great paper