We are living in a time of great insecurity and many of us are afraid.
Only a fortnight ago we watched with horror images of the carnage Islamic State terrorists wreaked in Paris. They brought home to us in Europe a little of what people in Syria and Iraq have been suffering. This is the latest manifestation of the bitter conflict between Sunni and Shia Islamic traditions that has been devastating the Middle East for more than a generation, since the Iran-Iraq war began in 1980.
One consequence has been millions of people displaced as refugees. Most live in camps inside the countries affected, or in neighbouring countries, which struggle to feed and house them with insufficient help from the global community. More and more refugees have given up hope of a decent life where they are, or of ever returning home in safety. These are the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children we have seen this year, travelling to find sanctuary in Europe, crammed into unsafe boats, drowned on Mediterranean beaches, trudging along railway lines and motorways, or camped in make-shift reception centres. We have not seen such movements of people in Europe since the end of WW2. They are desperate, they are determined, they are unstoppable – we cannot push them back into the sea, nor can we shoot at them until they go away.
As European citizens we are worried how we will feed and house so many, and what social changes they will bring. Since most of them are Muslim – though many are Christian – extreme nationalism and Islamophobia are on the rise. Increasingly we hear strident voices claiming refugees are probably Islamic terrorists, and that Islam is an irredeemable religion of violence. Yet for all but a tiny percentage of Muslims, Islam is a religion of peace. Just like us, they want to make a decent living, raise their families in peace, and contribute to the communities they live in. Before we demonise Islam, let us remember the European Wars of Religion at the time of the Reformation, when Catholic fought Protestant in bloody conflicts that lasted for more than a century. Does that make our Christianity a religion of violence?
And then there is the crisis of climate change. We know that to avert the worst effects we will have to make great changes in how we live now. But we do not yet understand what those changes will be, so we are afraid of what we may have to give up, and at the same time we are afraid of the world our descendants will inherit if we do not change.
No wonder we worry about the future – our own, our children’s, our grandchildren’s, and if we are lucky our great-grandchildren's. We are afraid, and I think we are right to be. We are living in apocalyptic times.
Luke records Jesus speaking of apocalypse in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 21:25-36).
‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves’, Jesus says. ‘People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory.’
The original meaning of the Greek word ‘apocalypse’ is a prophetic disclosure, a revelation, though in modern English we now usually mean a great catastrophe that results in widespread destruction or the collapse of civilisation.
Jesus’s words are a prophetic disclosure, an apocalypse in the original sense. They are in a literary tradition reaching back into OT times - “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” is actually a quotation from the apocalyptic Book of Daniel. The tradition reaches forward to the NT book we call Revelation. And from there through medieval visions of the last judgement, to modern science fiction fantasies of disaster.
Is Jesus forecasting in these words that the world will end in catastrophic violence, an apocalypse in the modern sense? There are Christian fundamentalists who look forward to the second coming of Christ amid awful battles and destruction in the end-time. They may believe so, but I don’t. They take scripture too literally, and I think they are deeply, deeply misguided. Rather I suggest that Jesus intended his words to apply to every time, not just to an end-time.
Perhaps his parable is a clue: ‘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 near.’ Trees sprout new leaves every year – the image is of something that happens again and again, not just once at the end.
And it is true, isn’t it, that every generation is faced with its own apocalyptic fears. We may be terrified by terrorism and the refugee crisis, and of the consequences of climate change. But my parents were haunted by the horror and destruction of total war and nuclear holocaust. Their parents suffered the horrors of the trenches followed by bloody rebellion and fratricidal civil war. And every previous generation has lived through its own nightmares – famines, plagues, wars and social collapse.
Jesus tells us to read clearly the frightening signs of the times, but his message is surely one of hope as we confront our fears - hope for us and for every generation that hears his words. ‘So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.’ Even if these things are terrifying. ‘Stand up and raise your heads’, he tells us, ‘because your redemption is drawing near’.
The basis of our hope is the miracle of the Incarnation.
This is the first day of Advent, the time each year when we look forward to the Incarnation; the miracle that God has chosen to be part of the world he created, our world; the miracle that God has taken on our flesh in a stunning act of solidarity with his creatures. We wait in expectation for the kingdom of God and our redemption to come near.
On Christmas day Jesus will be born as the helpless baby son of Mary and Joseph into a frightening world. A Roman imperial decree forces his parents to travel from their home to Bethlehem. There they find no shelter but a stable in which Mary gives birth. And soon they will be forced to flee as refugees from Herod’s violent wrath. Mary and Joseph have to confront their own fears just as we must.
But through the eyes of faith we will see this helpless child grow up to be ‘“the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory’, who announces the kingdom of God and promises us redemption. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away’, he says, ‘but my words will not pass away’.
Jesus urges us, ‘Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’ It is through praying that we will find the strength and confidence to endure - and we may hope avert - the worst the future can bring, so that we can stand fearlessly in front of our God in his Kingdom.
So I shall finish with a prayer:
Who sent your Son Jesus Christ
to proclaim your kingdom
and restore the broken to fullness of life:
Look with compassion on the anguish of the world and of your people;
Give us the strength to overcome our fears
And to stand before the Son of Man;
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Redeemer.