A sermon, based on Luke 21.25-36, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 1st Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018
Apocalypse, from the Greek, apokálypsis, literally means “lifting the veil” to reveal something hidden.
Jesus speaks apocalyptically, lifting the veil to describe something yet to occur; the terminus of human history, the cataclysmic end of time.
Jesus’ words, perhaps, are strange to us who dwell in time and space. Once we are in-being, it’s hard, maybe impossible for us to conceptualize, much less contemplate non-being.
Even more, Jesus’ words may be nonsensical. For we do not inhabit the cultural and theological context from whence his words arise and make meaning. For we, I would guess, do not ascribe to an ancient Jewish view of history and cosmology of this present age with all its joys and sorrows, victories and defeats, good and evil and the coming age of God’s reign when love and justice will abide forever and between them, the Day of the Lord, filled with violent upheavals; the cosmic birth pangs of the advent of God’s reign.
No, I don’t imagine that most (any?) of us think this way.
Even if we did, I doubt we’d look forward to fainting in fear at the sight of darkened skies, the sound of stormy seas, the news of distressed and confused nations.
And even if this language did make sense to us, I doubt we’d like it. For beneath the words, beyond the imagery stands, lurks a transcendent god; distant and dispassionate, unreachable and unapproachable, ultimately unknowable, and maybe, as the cosmic author of this foretold and untold terror, unlikable.
Nevertheless, as on this day we read and reflect on these words, their very existence verifies that they mattered, made sense to someone, somewhere, at some time. Who?
As I have already alluded, Jesus’ people. Our religious forebears, the ancient Jews. They who believed in a divine, dynamic arc of history. They who anticipated the Day of the Lord. For they were oppressed by the occupying Roman Empire. Before that, the Greeks. Before that, the Persians. Dispirited and despairing, they longed for liberation. A prophecy of the end of history, therefore, was good news; a sign that their “redemption was drawing near.”
So, I think, it is for anyone at any time who knows the anguish of a life filled, overflowing with strife and suffering. Apocalyptic language is not strange, but rather the longed-for proclamation of a promised new age. This explains why those of any era who are (and who perceive themselves to be) victims of oppression respond willingly to cries of revolution and calls for action whether the voice be that of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, or even the leaders of the Central American migrant caravan pressing against our nation’s southern borders.
Still, this can’t be the only truth. It can’t be only for those who live on the extreme bitter margins of life for whom extreme language of cosmic upheaval is meaningful. What about us? We who, for the most part, have more joy than sorrow, more victory than defeat, or, in the worst of our moments, in equal measures. Even so, though we may not know the extremes of oppression, we still have our share of life’s worries and woes. Therefore, Jesus speaks to us, too, calling us to “stand up,” “raise our heads,” “look,” “be on guard,” “be alert.”
How ironic it is that Advent, the season that begins the new church year, begins by focusing on the end of time. Yet this seeming paradox lifts the veil to reveal this truth: Life, for as long as we possess it, is a continuous cycle of beginnings and endings, mornings and evenings, dawns and twilights, within which there always is joy and sorrow, victory and defeat, good and evil. Therefore, Jesus calls us to be alert. Not only for the end of time, but always, every day. Jesus calls us to be active contemplatives, reading astutely the signs of the ebb and flow of life of the world around us and the movements of our lives within us, our thoughts and feelings, our intentions and actions; and then to be contemplative actors, reacting prudently, responding faithfully.
What that may mean for any of us in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives no one dare tell you. I surely cannot and will not, for I only can speak to and tell myself what being an active contemplative and a contemplative actor means to me.
I will say this to me and to you. Following Jesus, we are called to incarnate, to embody in our living the love that is active, unconditional benevolence to all and the justice that is right and fair dealing with all.
Our calling, then, is nothing less than to make immanent a transcendent God, to lift the veil that covers God’s hidden face so that all may see.