On the first Sunday of Advent the church says, be alert to the dangers of your times. Face your profoundest fear, and then, with that reality threatening you, dig deep to find the source of hope hope for the purpose of your life and hope for the future of your world.
Apocalyptic literature wasnt written as a prediction of events hundreds or thousands of years into the future in the way people attribute such predictions to Nostradamus. Because of fear of persecution the apocalyptic writers of the Bible were reflecting, sometimes in code, on what was happening around them.
Luke wrote 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, and crushed the hopes of many who had thought that this armed uprising to defend Jerusalem was what God wanted.
But Jesus himself had proclaimed a non-violent resistance to Rome. Jesus had refused to take up arms and his followers, at the time Luke was writing, had in like manner refused to take up arms to defend Jerusalem. Their stance on this was bringing rejection and persecution from family and neighbours.
That's the setting in which Luke writes of Jesus telling his followers to look to 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 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:
These struggles are frightening but the experience of suffering is on the path to restoration it precedes the completion of the work of God in our midst. This vision of the realisation of Gods dream and our own longing is the vision that gives us the strength, the hope, the courage to carry on.
Luke's community saw their world crumbling, but in the midst of that crumbling, they 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 it, God gives us grace to glimpse it too - and the height and depth and breadth of what God is bringing about will keep us grounded when everything else starts to shake.
I find inspiration in Biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossans work. He believes that the Kingdom of God is here, present, that what he terms the "Divine Clean-up," (what others call "The Second Coming") is now and does not await some future cataclysm at the sword of a returning Jesus.
The Kingdom is manifested in healing the sick, dining with those you heal, and announcing that the Kingdom is present in that mutuality. Crossan says "The Second Coming happens when Christians recognize that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start cooperating with its Divine presence."
At the heart of Christianity is the assertion that Jesus is the Christ. The scriptural tradition is that this Christ has existed with God from the beginning of eternity. The Christ appears when ever God desires to reveal Gods self in the material world to be light and life. In other words, to be the anointed one is to be the one who reveals God.
The Christ is a symbol that is universal. There has always been an expectation that a new reality will be breaking into our world. The title Christ is a description that refers to this God event".
Our 2000-year church history has been focussed almost exclusively on past history interpreting the Christ as a person, full stop. We have made Jesus the focus of our worship, instead of following him. We have assigned other titles to Jesus that he fled from.
If we understand the mystery of the Christ, it changes the whole emphasis. The Christ is responsive to the call of God. Of course we see that in an awesome way in Jesus of Nazareth.
For him, the call of the divine was towards truth-telling, speaking out against the oppression of his people by the Romans and by the Jewish religious authorities. The Christ was evident in Jesus as he chose non-violent solidarity with his own oppressed people; as he expressed love and respect for those who were ostracized by their own self-righteous community; and as he developed relationships of deep sharing and teamwork through communal living with his friends who shared his passion for change.
At all points along the journey of his life, we read that Jesus welcomed and embraced the invitation and longing of God within, so that the Christ was born. Jesus embodied the Christ because of his response to the invitation and lure of the Spirit of God.
Christ is born again in human life, in flesh, whenever a person embraces that invitation and longing of God towards justice, beauty, wholeness, truth, freedom, love and peace.
And all this happens alongside of another reality. The fact is, there will be days of suffering, days when nothing seems to make sense.
The utter horror of genocide has been visited upon our global community a number of times and for those helplessly caught in the middle of such horrors, it might as well be called the end of the world.
While taking these texts too literally may lead to despair and thinking there is nothing we can do, positively, they do remind us of our personal and planetary vulnerability. We always live between the twin and contrasting poles of security and vulnerability.
The story of the world that we celebrate every time we gather in the name of Jesus - is not a story of safety and certainty, but of restoration.
Just this week I have read from Tim Costellos new book entitled "Hope" the story of his sitting with a World Vision supported project in Jerusalem. The group called the Circle of the Bereaved consisted of Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs who were all parents united by a common grief. Each of them had lost children killed by the violence between their two communities. Each sat and listened to the painful stories from the other side of the divide.
Tim tells how he was often in tears as he heard stories of young lives slaughtered. As he says, "Telling the story of loss is in itself therapeutic and healing. But telling the story to the enemy and receiving a sympathetic ear is unprecedented."
There are many such miraculous experiences of truth telling, of courageous sharing, of potential peace building that happen quietly, away from the intrusion of a cynical and insensitive media. And these are a source of real hope.
The gospel isnt a message that nothing can harm us. The gospel is a message of healing and restoration precisely because things will go wrong. Brokenness and suffering, it appears, are part of the human condition.
There are two extremes of reaction to calamities.
Either reaction to calamity is tragic:
As we look at our own precarious future, what is our appropriate response do nothing and accept our fate? or active engagement with a dangerous, and unpredictable future?
Do you believe that our future is open or closed? Is everything pre-ordained so that human choices are irrelevant or does God prompt us and encourage us always towards creating a future that is not yet fixed?
Put simply, the Biblical God is experienced as the one who shatters the old and commences the new; the one who creates ever fresh openings for the building of a genuine human community of righteousness and love.
Real hope is not burying our heads in the sand and saying: oh it cant be as bad as they say it is. God is in control, so all will be well. That kind of optimism smacks more of irresponsibility than inspiration.
We are responsible for the future that we create. Thanks be to God, we do not have to create a good future alone. We are co-creators with God in this challenge, but it certainly doesnt happen without us. Jesus called us to justice, healing, wholeness and generous living. That does not add up to "shell be right mate."
It adds up to a willingness to care for the planet; a passion to overcome the dangerous divisions in the human community; and to the creation of a compassionate local faith community in which healing is made possible for the marginalized and the least; It adds up to placing our trust in the goodness of God whom we partner in this adventure.
Is that not the source of real hope?
These difficult and frightening texts, if not misread, can be a gift to us because we live in a paradoxical world - gorgeous and gashed, broken but with the potential of being a beautiful mosaic of broken pieces in relationship with each other.
When life seems to be coming apart at the seams it helps to remember that times of great suffering are like the crest of a wave. They will not last forever. God is forever birthing new life out of suffering.
Perhaps this is where hope is born: in our walking into our own suffering and the suffering of others; in our willingness to stand up and be seen and heard in a world that is shaking all around us; in courageous truth-telling that gives birth to transformation. Hope is born whenever the Christ is born again within humanity. Lets pray that this happens over and over and over again in history - not just a second time. Amen.