Sunday 2 December 2012

Reading the signs of the times

An address given in Templederry on the 1st Sunday of Advent, Year C, 2nd December.

We are living through ‘interesting times’ as the Chinese say – times of crisis.
Let me try to read some of the signs of the times:
·        We know that our Irish economy is banjaxed following the crash. Government expenditure exceeds receipts. The Troika dictates that services will be cut and taxes raised in the forthcoming budget. Meanwhile ordinary families struggle to pay the mortgage and energy bills and to put food on the table, carers are at their wits end, and our children leave because they cannot find work at home. And it is not just Ireland in trouble - overseas the Euro area and the entire global economy look to be faltering.
·        Scientists tell us that potentially catastrophic climate change is upon us, and that this is a result of human activity like burning fossil fuels and cutting down rainforests - recent reports show the ice caps are melting three times faster than they previously realised. And there is precious little evidence that the leaders of our world are able and willing to lead their peoples to make the changes necessary to avert disaster.
·        Advertising constantly urges us to consume more and more in an increasingly materialist society, encouraging us in fact to be self-centred and greedy, a sure path to disaster. The internet revolution is driving perhaps the biggest social changes since the invention of the printing press, so that we begin to feel that we live in a different world from our children. And as Christians we face increasing challenges, as churches struggle to respond to scandal and division, while both militant atheism and religious fundamentalism are on the rise

No wonder we worry about the future – our own, our children’s and our grandchildren’s. We are afraid, and I think we have reason to be afraid. We are living in apocalyptic times.

Luke records Jesus speaking in apocalyptic terms 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.’

Jesus’s words are in an apocalyptic 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 apocalypse? 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 misguided. Instead 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 faces 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 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 the frightening signs of the times clearly. Otherwise we will be unable to respond to them in the way God wishes. 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 us 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 even we may hope avert, the worst the future can bring, so that in the end we can stand fearlessly in front of God in his Kingdom.

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 our Redeemer.