It's not the end of the world
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
December 2, 2018—Advent 1C
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
“Live each day as if it were your last.” That’s what you hear, anyway. And I’ve always found the reminder not to take anything for granted to be useful advice. Don’t while away your life waiting for some fantastical future to finally “begin.” Don’t dwell on the bad. You might not have as long as you think, and there is beauty and joy everywhere. Don’t miss it!
At the same time, this is also terrible advice if taken too literally. Live each day as if it were your last? What would that even look like? As Hank and John Green imagined in one of their podcasts, it would leave most of us distraught and grieving. If you literally act as though it’s your last day, you might well be miserable. At the very least, you wouldn’t be doing any planning for the future. No need to get an education. No need to save any money. No point in beginning the long and difficult process of mending broken relationships. It’s over, so you can be as selfish and careless and lazy as you want.
As I said: it’s terrible advice. I mean, keep the part that reminds you not to waste anything, not to take it for granted, not to wish the present reality away. But then: live as though you intend to be here for a very long time.
In our gospel today, Luke has taken a passage from Mark, who got it from Daniel. A passage that speaks into times in which everything seems to be falling apart. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this is the role of apocalyptic literature: to find a way for a community to make sense and find strength when they are being pummeled by outside forces bent on their destruction.
To that end, apocalyptic insists that the forces of oppression and violence run counter to the ways of God, and it invokes God’s promise to make all things right at the completion of time. God will defeat those forces; God will overturn the unjust order of things; God will make the values of the Kingdom of God fully present.
Which is why Mark turned to these promises, writing as he did after Rome destroyed the Temple in the year 70. This was a terrifying time, when all Jewish communities feared for their lives and their way of life. Surely, surely this was the sign they’d heard about in Daniel, when God would bring about the Day of the Lord and bring things to their completion.
Luke, however, writes a few decades later than Mark, and the communities have survived. People are figuring out how to live without the Temple. Synagogue and Torah practice become the center of Jewish life. Jesus becomes the locus for Jewish Christians. Life has continued. Which means that the destruction of the Temple, catastrophic as it was, was not the sign that ushered in the end-times. Neither have any of the catastrophes and upheaval since then been that sign.
Which means that Luke, and we today, are faced with the question of how to keep living. Living, when we know that so much of the world around us does not accord with God’s dream for the world. Living, when we face violence and injustice and lawlessness. Continuing to live, when we know that God will someday heal and restore all things, but have no idea when that might be.
How do we live, with expectation?[i] Luke describes it as remaining alert, but warns us against two pitfalls. First, he warns us against dissipation and drunkenness. In the face of everything around you, do not choose hopelessness. Don’t check out, escaping into self-indulgence, abdication of responsibility, or despair.
On the other hand, he warns against anxiety, against the worries of this life. In this context, this means remembering that the biblical apocalypse is not the zombie apocalypse. Being alert doesn’t mean hoarding weapons and canned goods. Apocalypse isn’t something we need to figure out how to survive.
“When you see these signs, rise up. Your redemption is drawing near.” Not the destruction of the world, but its redemption. Its healing. Its restoration. In all of this apocalyptic literature, scripture reveals that injustice will be overturned and all the human wrongs that society has worked will be undone. Will it be tumultuous? Yes. Should this news frighten those who have been in power, those who have been oppressors? Probably. But ultimately, God’s purpose is redemption and not destruction.
This is the promise. What will it look like when it arrives? To be honest, Luke backs off on that part. He drops Mark’s description of the Day of the Lord, and reorients us to the meantime. In the meantime, with this as the clear and ultimate purpose of creation, how do we live, expectantly? How do we remain attentive, while not sinking into the extremes of dissipation or anxiety?
Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians suggests that it will happen along the way. That attentiveness isn’t something we start with, that perfect love isn’t a pre-requisite. But that we walk on the path together, and in doing so, we will be blessed. In our willingness to love one another, we will be given the ability to love one another more deeply. In our decision to neither abandon hope nor grasp onto fear and anxiety, we will be made more holy. We will become more attentive.
We walk together. This is where the zombie apocalypse stuff is helpful, with the metric of “Who among your friends will be able to kill a zombie with her bare hands?” “Who will be able to construct a makeshift shelter?” “Who will know what plants in the forest are edible?” and (of course, the classic) “Who will die in the very first encounter?”
Except God wants everyone to live. God wants you to bring everyone along on the journey, walking together. God knows that we are stronger when we choose to cooperate and stay together and pool our gifts. Who can sit with the sick and the lonely? Who can pray without ceasing? Who can tap into joy? Who can make us laugh? Who can keep us strong? Who can break our hearts open to remember God’s love for the weak and the outcast?
This apocalypse does not favor the strong or the perfect. God never does. Our scriptures show us, again and again, a God who does not seek out the most spiritual, the most mighty. God chooses the younger child. God favors the smallest country. Jesus picks the bumblers and the seekers, and sends them. Sends you. Sends us.
The bumbling, the seeking, the willingness to remain in community with other bumblers and seekers: these are the things that make us stronger. That make us more holy. That prepare us to notice when God is overthrowing the oppression in this world.
Live each day as if you know that this is God’s ultimate purpose for creation. Live each day as though you will have a long time to make that truth visible to those around you, and should take every opportunity to do so. Live each day, expectantly! May it be so, Amen.