Isaiah 65:17-25; Ps 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6–13; Luke 21:5–19
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”
Oh friends. The world turns even while it burns. No lack of drama here.
But no lack of drama anywhere, ever. Human beings are hardwired for drama, hardwired to notice patterns first, and to create them where none exist, like seeing Jesus in a piece of toast. This is why everything is assigned a narrative, even when there is none.
It’s kind of like assembling a puzzle, but without the box cover picture to help us out. Or maybe there is one, but we drew it ourselves. Some of those pictures are especially bewitching. The redemption story. The rebellion story. The love story. The one with the happy ending. The one where we see ourselves. The one where we’re given a piece of wisdom.
And yet, so often, we forget that we painted those pictures on the box.
The disciples ask Jesus for a sign of the apocalypse he is describing. Remember that the word “apocalypse” means “revelation,” or “unveiling.” They think his answer will be a puzzle piece they can fit into a picture they’ve already got, a picture they were given as children by their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents; a picture which they wove together from the pieces of Scripture, the vengeful and dramatic revelation of God to those who have oppressed their people for generations; a picture of God’s Anointed One who will ransom Israel in waves of blood and fire.
Jesus tells them that war is coming, but it is not the war the disciples are expecting. Instead of the Romans being cut down and flushed out, like the Egyptians at the Red Sea, they are to fall prey to judgement and the sword.
But hey, don’t worry about it. It’ll be fine. Yeah, right!
Later, of course, Jesus’ own life became the completed puzzle, and unfortunately that picture is just as horrendous. Instead of Jesus taking the Empire, the Empire takes Jesus outside the city walls and murders him brutally, as befits a criminal, not a king.
This picture is one that the disciples could never have put together on their own. In that context perhaps their betrayal of Jesus makes sense. It probably seemed to them a terrible mistake; that God was not the God of love and justice but a savage God of tyranny, or an inert God of helplessness; or worst of all, perhaps there was no God at all.
So often we confuse human stories with God’s story. It’s not that they’re mutually exclusive. It’s that God’s story is so much bigger, bigger than anything we could possibly understand. There are so many more characters, so many more twists, so many more surprises and losses and triumphs than we can see at work in one lifetime.
Out of the ashes of shattered hope rises God’s actual story: a story of a new flood unleashed upon the earth, a flood of justice; a story of a new exodus, an exodus from the bondage of fear; a story of death being rolled up in rebirth, like a garment.
None of our human stories could have prepared us for this, although now that we know this story, it can be found written into the fabric of the universe – in the supernova, in the seed, in fallen beasts which provide food for the earth even in death, in human beings who give of themselves so that others may have life. By our endurance we gain our souls.
In the face of that story, all worry about the future becomes laughable.
Politics, if nothing else, teaches this, the futility of earthly kingdoms and the struggle for earthly power. “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” Despite all of the anxiety and rage and self-righteousness, despite all of the thinkpieces written on both sides and all of the frothing news anchors, despite wise and foolish alike clamouring for leadership, we the Church must not fall prey to those stories of fear. We come together to traffic in the metaphysical non-sense that so much of our world now rejects. We do it to laugh at time and its limitations, to make a mockery of empire while yet speaking out against its injustice. We do it to encounter something larger than ourselves, something we believe is a name above every other name. We do it knowing that all empires have an end. The Church was born in the shadow of empire, and that empire, once so mighty and dreadful, rose, declined, and fell, just like all of the others. The hidden truth of the apocalypse is that all crowns succumb to rust but one – and that one cannot rust, because dead thorns do not put forth blossoms…and even that, we say to our detractors, is up for debate.
There will be days when the kind of strength and confidence we need for the work of telling this story will be thin and ragged. But we do not do it alone – not as individuals, not even as the Church. The great preacher Fred Craddock reminds us, “Not even the community of faith is adequate as the arena of Christ’s saving work. The whole creation stands at the window eagerly awaiting the arrival of the day of redemption for the children of God.”
Friends, if this is so, then we should have great joy indeed. For then the apocalypse which is about to occur is not the pouring out of God’s great jars of wrath. A revelation of this God has far more in common with the moment when a husband lifts his bride’s veil on their wedding day. What have we to fear, knowing what we know: that Christ came into the world to save sinners, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to let the captive go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour – even in this place, even in a world where hate can highjack an election; where fear can dictate policy; where children go hungry and rivers run slick with oil; where our brothers and sisters who worship the God of Abraham are met with suspicion and vitriol; where love and victims of violence are subject to harsh scrutiny while the greatest sins are excused; where a little girl who asks to go to school can be shot while a rich man can admit freely to lies and assaults and go unquestioned; where peaceful protestors can be maced and arrested while armed militants can be honoured and pandered to; where so much sadness goes unhealed and so much beauty goes unknown.
This place. Not another. Not a paradise or a planet free of all evil.
God chose this. God chooses this, every day.
God is at the cross-roads and beckons like a lover. God invited, and continues to invite us, to live and tell this story of love breaking down the walls of death and hate.
Today I call to you, children of God. I call to you, beloved of God: Accept that invitation. Accept even if you’re not sure. Accept even if you’re afraid. Accept even if you’re ticked off, or sad, or hurting, or your life is going just fine, thank you. Accept even if you’ve got a thing in the morning. Accept even if you think, or you know, that you’ll forget or turn away later. Accept even if you know it will be hard. Especially if you know it will be hard. Because taking your first breath was hard too, but you did it, and you wouldn’t take that back, would you? Because giving birth to anything in life is harder still, but we all do it, because someone must for beauty to be shared and known.
Exchange the bread of anxiety for the bread of his body and the wine of your wedding banquet.
You are the Church, and you are his bride. Let your veil be lifted. Let him see your face. Let him hear your voice. For your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.
You who are here by love, for love, cry aloud in this place, and to the whole world: Love wins, and Love never ends.