First Sunday of Advent, Year C
It's a strange accident of history that the apocalyptic texts in our scriptures were written to encourage tiny minorities at their society's margins to greet the tribulations they witnessed not with panic, but with confidence that God was working out God's purposes for peace, joy, and justice -- and that these same texts seem now (e.g., in the Left Behind series) to be read even more often among prosperous and powerful majorities as if they were written for people like them, and they are used mostly to point to current events with the loud message that people should panic, that God intends to bring chaos, agony, and unprecedented bloodshed to the world. And what these pseudo-apocalyptic visions want us to do in response isn't to change the world, but to retreat to an interior experience that will help us to leave it behind before God leaves us behind. That isn't the God I know.
I think one of the fundamental exegetical mistakes leading to this bizarre and not at all helpful trends in reading apocalyptic texts is along the lines of one advocated by the "Alpha" curriculum: namely, the profoundly unhelpful suggestion that all scriptural passages should be read as if they were a love letter written to us personally. Texts like our readings for this Sunday are an excellent case study as to why this is an approach that can go beyond fruitful to the point of being dangerous.
If I read a text like Jeremiah 33:14-16 as if it were a love letter from God to me, I might be tempted to say that the promise God made and is fulfilling is for me, and people like me. I might be tempted to define "people like me" in whatever way popped most naturally into my head, which would be very likely to be the ways in which my culture most often segregates people. I might be tempted to think of "justice" and "righteousness" as being whatever MY culture says is just and right relationship. And if all of this is God's love letter to me, I might be inclined to think of this promise as being a promise to vindicate my way of life, whatever that is, or whatever the dominant culture says it should be. I might be tempted to think that God sent and is sending Jesus so to vindicate the Americans, the industrious, the educated, the respectable. Uncritical reading of these texts -- a phenomenon that seems to be pretty common in my culture, as people at the very center of power appropriate them to claim that their approach, no matter how destructive it is, will be vindicated by God, and too many of my peers don't talk about them at all, lest we all be made uncomfortable in the process -- has turned the message of the prophets upside-down.
Let's turn it up again.
If you haven't done this, or haven't done it in a while, it would make a marvelous Advent discipline to take a look at the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. to see what he did with these texts, with eschatology -- the study of what kind of climax God intends and is bringing about for human history. If you want to work in the long term as an agent of what God is doing in the world, you need a solid eschatology. You need -- we need -- to hold on as much as possible to the "big picture" view of God's work among us.
Otherwise, it's just too darn easy to do what a great many people are trying to get us to do: namely, to monitor the news breathlessly for every twist and turn, every hint of disaster. This gives us the privilege of being the first to panic every time some new development bodes the disaster that so many tell us is impending. I don't think many of us fool ourselves into thinking we can stop the disaster, but this constant vigilance promises us the illusion (not really a very convincing one even at its strongest, I think) of control -- at least that we can be the first to know we were right, and things really did go exactly where we said that handbasket was headed, albeit perhaps even more quickly than we said they'd get there.
But really, where is the joy in that? Where are the characteristics of the Spirit's fruit among us -- not only joy, but peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control? Competing to drop the flags declaring that somebody finished the race to the lowest we can go sounds a lot more like the conceited, envious, competitiveness St. Paul characterizes in Galatians 5:13-26 as the very opposite of what the Spirit brings.
Read MLK's sermons, and you'll see a very different use of eschatology -- one a lot closer to Jeremiah's, the Psalms', and Luke's. Eschatology -- the "big picture" of what God is up to in the world -- is what lets the poor and those suffering at the margins know that their struggle is far from over when the powers that be say it is.
These texts are say that however many people point to disasters as evidence that Creation itself is destined for disaster, God made the world for a different purpose, and God is faithful in bringing God's purposes about. Apocalyptic texts take a serious, Technicolor look at everything going on in the world -- all the suffering and fear, all the fireworks the powers that be have to offer -- and envision what Creation's true end is, what God made this world for, the redemption for which the world groans and that God lovingly poured and is pouring out God's Self to bring about.
When I think about these apocalyptic scenes, I remember Mike. Mike was in a small group bible study I was a part of some years back. The group was a very healing place for me to be, particularly at that point in my life -- I was full of questions and turmoil, and the group lovingly received all of that. I struggled some with Mike, though. He always had a smile and a hug and an encouraging word, and it struck me sometimes as a naïve, sugar-coated kind of way to be in the world. It was great for him that he could think that everything was about love, I thought, but I imagined that he couldn't possibly be that way if he'd seen real suffering, if he really understood what kinds of things were going on in the world that would make any sane person (I thought) bitter. And then one day Mark told a story he hadn't told before. He talked of his service in World War II, and in particular of the day when he and his company came upon and went into an airplane hangar, and came upon some of the first evidence Americans would see of the Holocaust.
I never looked at Mike the same way again. When I looked in his eyes, that night and every time I saw him after then, I saw something I hadn't bothered to look for. He'd seen the very worst that the world and humanity at their worst could produce, and he made a choice. He could have accepted what he saw there as the final word in the world's story. It certainly fit the picture the world paints of an apocalypse -- what the world looks like when the cover is taken off -- complete with smoke and stink and flames. But Mike was a person of deep faith -- of the kind of faith I want to grow into. He looked at all of that destruction, that gash at the heart of humanity itself, and said to himself, "... and God so loved this world that God gave the only-begotten Son." It underscored just how much God was redeeming, how immeasurable the height and breadth and depth of that redeeming love was and is.
Mike was no preacher, but his ability to see that "big picture" -- that it is the immeasurable height and breadth and depth of God's love for which the world was made and which is the world's telos or end -- is what I see when I read or hear the sermons of Martin Luther King, or Desmond Tutu, or of others who know what Creation's end is, and who are preaching apocalyptically, removing the cover of these times to show where they fit in God's time. Apocalyptic is that prophetic keeping "eyes on the prize," so we can not just hold on, but keep pressing toward the goal with deep, unshakable joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control. It's what enables us to look upon ugliness in this world and see how much room there is for God's grace to rush in, God's power to work. It enables us to say with open eyes and open hearts, "All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness / to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies" (Psalm 25:9). It's what gives us hope and power to pray as Paul did in 1 Thessalonians, seeing joy, connection, love, and wholeness in the midst of persecution and threats of more.
Luke wrote of Jesus telling of sun, moon, stars, and the earth in distress, and he knew of what he wrote. He was writing after Roman armies had marched into and devastatingly seized Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, defiled the Holy of Holies, crushed the hopes of many who had thought that this uprising with the sword was God's own doing, and God's vindication of those who took up the sword to defend Jerusalem was at hand. Luke wrote to Christians at a time when their refusal to take up arms to defend Jerusalem was bringing rejection and persecution from kin and neighbors as well as the ongoing ire of Roman authorities who saw Christians as troublemakers who stirred up slaves and fractured families. That's the setting in which Luke writes of Jesus telling his followers to look to the fig tree.
My friends Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out the fig tree is among the last to bloom in Palestine. Jesus says that it is amidst all of these disasters -- all of these frightening events the world says make panic and scrambling to protect oneself and one's family is the only appropriate response -- that should prompt us to think of the fig tree. It blooms, and we know that the end that is near is the end of winter, of violence, of suffering, of shame. Luke wrote to people who were very much and in the present tense wondering how they might "have the strength to escape all these things that will take place," and his answer is this:
They take place before the coming of the Son of Man, before Jesus' coming to complete his work among us, and that coming is beyond the powers of this world to prevent. It is more wondrous than the words of this world to describe. It is the vision that gives us the strength, the hope, the courage to carry on, and to do so experiencing the abundant life even now that is breaking into the world in Jesus' word. Luke's community saw their world crumbling, and in the midst of that, with hearts "not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life," caught a glimpse of God's kingdom come near. When we are willing to confront the suffering around us truthfully and serve as agents of God's hope in the midst of that, God gives us grace to glimpse it too -- and the height and depth and breadth of what God is bringing about that we can glimpse together will keep us grounded when everything else starts to shake. These times in God's timeline are the hour of redemption, an opportunity to experience participate in what God is doing in bringing peace, freedom, and wholeness to the world God made and loves.
Thanks be to God!
Dylan, I really enjoy your blog, and especially want to thank you for taking the OT/HB Scriptures seriously as you do. Your work is a real labor of love. Will you forgive me if I make one comment about your characterization of apocalypticism at the start of this entry? I realize that it is a very small part of what you say in the post. However, in two recent books of mine (Fortress and Abingdon Presses), I think I've shown pretty definitively that we must now stop thinking of apocalyptic literature as coming primarily from the margins of society, as an opiate for the alienated. Please don't be offended that I mention this, and thank you again for all you do. ---Stephen Cook, Dept. of Hebrew Bible, Virginia Theological Seminary
Posted by: Stephen L. Cook | Dec 2, 2006 3:38:38 PM
I support much of what you say in this commentary. I do think you misunderstand Alpha which I have found to be a very beneficial program
Posted by: Steven Hagerman | Dec 2, 2006 5:57:29 PM
Always thought provoking, cautioning people against pie in the sky theology.
I find that your understanding of parousia is actually what I have always been taught: that God is about to do something, meaning justice and peace are at hand...as opposed to the Left Behind series, which describes a God who is the author of that suffering for the purpose of salvation.
Posted by: Aaron | Dec 2, 2006 7:56:10 PM