Sunday 29 November 2009

Apocalypse and Advent

An address given at St Mary's, Nenagh, on 29th November 2009, Advent Sunday.

We have witnessed appalling sights over the last 10 days.
Homes, businesses and farms have been flooded, devastating the lives of thousands. More thousands have been deprived of clean water to drink. Close to home, the Shannon has risen to levels never previously recorded, and there are fears for critical infrastructure such as the bridge at Killaloe and the Ardnacrusha dam. Those of us who have been spared have a duty, I think, to help those who are suffering. So I urge you to put your hands deep in your pockets for the retiring collection suggested by Bishop Trevor, which will be channelled through the Irish Red Cross. Or alternatively you can make a donation on their website by credit card.

Many people are asking themselves whether all this is due to climate change. No one can say so with certainty, I think, because climate is a matter of statistics. But climate scientists say that global warming will increase the frequency of extreme weather events, and also that winter rainfall in the west of Ireland is likely to increase as temperatures rise, making flooding like this more common. I believe we should take these floods as a wake-up call to act now to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Catastrophic global warming is not just something that will affect people far away – our own future is at risk.

We are increasingly afraid, afraid that the world as we know it is about to undergo a terrifying change. And I think we have cause to be afraid. We are living in apocalyptic times.

Luke records Jesus speaking in apocalyptic terms in today’s Gospel reading.
‘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.’

Jesus’s words are in an apocalyptic literary tradition reaching back into Old Testament times - “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” is actually a quotation from the Book of Daniel, one of the apocalyptic books. The tradition reaches forward to the New Testament book we call Revelation. And from there through medieval visions of the last judgement to, I suppose, modern science fiction fantasies of disaster.

Does Jesus forecast in these words an apocalyptic end of the world? There are Christian fundamentalists who look forward to the second coming of Christ amid awful battles and destruction in the end-time. They clearly believe so - but I cannot. They take scripture too literally, and I think they are deeply misguided. Instead I suggest that Jesus intended his words to apply to every time, to all times, 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 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 the looming catastrophe of global warming. But my parents were haunted by the horror and destruction of total war. Their parents suffered the horrors of the trenches followed by a bloody liberation struggle and fratricidal civil war. And every previous generation has lived through its own nightmares.

Jesus’s message is surely one of hope as we confront our fears, hope for us and hope 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 this hope - 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 will make his parents travel from their home to far away Bethlehem, where they will find no shelter but a stable. And soon they will be forced to flee as refugees from Herod’s violent wrath. Mary and Joseph had 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.’ So I shall finish with a prayer:
Loving Father,
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.

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