Forming character through the insights of literature, contemporary culture and Scripture.
by Penny Kovacs
"I heard the news today, oh boy."
(Lyric from "A Day in the Life" by The Beatles, 1967)
OH BOY INDEED. Displaced people in record numbers. Countries turning their backs on refugees. Drone attacks. Food rationing. Devastating fires and hurricanes. Violence in the streets of cities around the globe. School shootings. Hatred between nations and within nations.
Sounds apocalyptic. Sounds like Matthew 24. Starting in verse 6 we read, “And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Image from Visual Homilies illustrating how Advent encounters us as rock, paper and scissors.
It is in the context of this message that we begin Advent. Not with happy Christmas tunes, an abundance of rich foods, jolly elves handing out attractively wrapped gifts, or with laughing children and brightly lit garlands. Not with light but with darkness.
In September, a 16-year-old girl became a household name because of her activist stand against climate change. In her impassioned speech at the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit, Greta Thunberg said to world leaders, "You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Again we hear echoes of Matthew 24: “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of heaven will be shaken.” (verse 29)
Both Matthew, set in the first century, and Greta in 2019 are trying to get our attention and make us notice that something big is coming, something catastrophic. They are really not telling us anything we shouldn’t already know by looking around and reading the climate of the times (excuse the pun). They are telling us to “Wake Up!” Greta said as much in her speech: "We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
By having these texts read at the beginning of Advent, what is the intention for us as a people? How should we wake up and pay attention? How should we be ready?
Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 hit us like a rock. They stop us in our tracks. They are hard, heavy, rough and painful. They prevent us from moving forward with business as usual. This is how they are intended to be.
The apocalyptic words of Matthew 24, like those of Revelation, have a threefold purpose, the first of which is to reveal the truth, to warn us and make us realize that the life we’re living now is untenable. We’re going to lose our comfortable, settled existence and it’s not going to be pretty. Think of the many losses that are common to humanity - a rift in a long friendship, the breakup of a marriage, a child who goes off the rails, the loss of a job, financial ruin, a death in the family. Life is forever changed by these painful events. Furthermore, in some cases, the catastrophic situations we find ourselves in are partly our fault. And we haven’t even listed the big ones - war, famine, climate change - which affect not only us personally but whole people groups, even the whole planet. Matthew’s text wants us to pay attention when these things happen.
I recently watched the 2019 HBO series, “Chernobyl”. It illustrated perfectly some instinctual, harmful reactions to a disaster which are the opposite of waking up and paying attention. First is the impulse to ignore the facts and go on as if nothing has happened. In the series, the government agent had to see the smouldering radioactive graphite on the Chernobyl reactor for himself before he was willing to accept the awful truth which the scientist was telling him. He, like many others in government, wanted to be optimistic, “Nothing to see here, minimal damage, don’t worry, things are good, hope for the best.” As Greta Thunberg said in one of her speeches, ”I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”
The Soviet government did not want to acknowledge the planet changing event that had happened, or their fault in it. Similarily, the people in our Matthew text are asleep. They are not willing to look honestly at their dire predicament. They are doing the equivalent of plugging their ears, and singing “la la la” while their world crumbles around them. They don’t want things to change, and preoccupation with “business as usual” serves to distract them. They seek pleasure (“eat, drink and be merry”) to avoid any dread they would feel if they acknowledged the truth of their situation. This kind of posture will leave them (and us!) ill equipped to face the reality that is coming, and unable to see any means of escape once it is here.
Deflection is another reaction that we are often guilty of as well. I think of the way I was taught to read this text as a precise prediction of end time events. This invariably led to much speculation as to what the end would look like, who the key players in the devastation would be and when this would happen. We may not be able to know the “day or hour” but we could supposedly make an educated guess on the year and specific locations. Make sure you’re covered, for sure, but don’t look to your present circumstances as an indication that change is not only imminent, but necessary for you as well.
This kind of deflection is seen in the disciples’ questions in our text, and is masterfully ignored and redirected by Jesus with an injunction to recognize the signs and be ready. While these signs can be signals of apocalyptic events, they are also recognizable as happenings in every place and time. When this ugly truth hits home and is finally accepted, grief is necessary. As verse 30 says, “All the tribes of the earth will mourn.” No more end time charts and predictions but only bottom-of-the-barrel sadness.
So what should we do when we fully realize that disaster is at our door? In our grief we turn back to the pages of scripture, and maybe, that’s where the second purpose of apocalyptic literature comes in - to sustain and encourage us. This begins by turning our grieving hearts and voices to God. If we are, like our text states, truly like Noah, then the world we know will never be the same. The first action required of grief is lament and it’s interesting that Jesus models this for us in the previous chapter of Matthew when he mourns over Jerusalem. If we have no tradition or teaching of lament, the fateful predictions of today’s text might very well lead to overpowering despair.
We are lucky, however, to have an extensive written and oral tradition to help us in our own task of mourning. Our OT passage for today is found in Isaiah, and this whole book is a response to the world-ending event of Israel’s history, that of the exile. The OT prophets and psalmists took pen to paper and wrote numerous passages of despair and hope which are a rich resource for our time as well. The nourishment of these writings along with other voices and texts are needed to help us deal with our painfully altered lives. Our lament can help us acknowledge our loss in order to let go of our past. This is necessary in order to move forward.
Our spiritual tradition can help us recognize not only that our situation is hopeless without God, but also that we are not without God. Brueggemann calls this tradition “Memory”, and Nouwen echoes this idea when he says, “When we do not see any exits, then we can find salvation in a remembered love; a love that is not simply a wistful recollection of a bygone past but a living force that sustains us in the present. Through memory, love transcends the limits of time and offers hope at any moment of our lives.”
As well as the memories of faithfulness found in scripture, we can also be encouraged to remember God’s faithfulness in our own lives. In our community, the Watershed memoir and website, all our homilies and poems, reflections on singing at the senior’s home, helping at Teen Challenge, and the countless encouraging texts and emails between us are testaments to this life of faith, and the endurance it demands. Engaging in such actions demonstrates a willingness to sit with uncertainty, trusting in God who is wiser, more powerful and more loving than we are. It also provides resources to “endure to the end”. It helps us persevere in love, not letting it grow cold, but allowing it to flow out to other partners in exile.
The two parables that immediately follow the description of the end of the age in Matthew also give us clues as how to live in our own experiences of exile. The servants waiting for their master (end of chapter 24), and the bridesmaids waiting for the groom (chapter 25) both go on to detail how to live while waiting - by treating others with kindness and generosity, and living in expectation. I wonder if the oil in the lamps of the bridesmaids is the fuel of love and faithfulness necessary to keep us alive and vital?
So what comes next? Many of us have been living in situations that bring us grief for a long time, and maybe we are wondering, like the Israelites in exile, whether we should become comfortable here, if this is our new home.
The last part of our text would suggest not. Faithfulness does not equal complacency. The call to be faithful in scripture and tradition helps us deal with the reality of our situation, but then it progresses to another faithful act. This next step entails cooperating with the creative leading of the spirit towards a new reality, to a home that is not defined by exile or bondage but by salvation. The third purpose of apocalyptic literature is just that, to give us hope and help us to imagine a world that is truly redeemed. One way it accomplishes this is by telling us that just when things are at their worst, that is when God will appear. This is a major theme of Matthew - the God who abides with us. When chapter 24 talks about the coming of the Lord in verses 31 and 32, could the author be describing a rescue by God when things are at their bleakest, God with us when all hope is lost?
Moltmann has said, “The Bible does not restrict theology but sets it free and stimulates its thinking. . . An exodus theology is intensely personal because it is our journey together with God in history. This journey is marked by suffering and joy. It is joy and pain because it is God’s joy and pain, together with creation, as we await the final redemption.”
With this in mind, maybe we can look at the archetypal story of Noah referenced in our text and realize that the disaster of the flood is not the end. Reading the Noah text in a new way may place the emphasis not on the destruction of the old but on the promise of the new. We may become overwhelmed by the way God rescued Noah not only from a watery grave but from a world that had become hostile. Could Noah’s careful construction and stocking of supplies and animals demonstrate care for creation and an obedience to a loving God? Could the provisions that he stored in the ark be memories of God’s faithfulness and a love that has not gone cold? As Noah entered faithfully into his extended exile, God provided a way for a fertile land to emerge and, along with it, the possibility of a new start at a future life. Would he have ever arrived on the mountain by any other means?
Maybe the death-like situations we find ourselves in must be read in a new way as well, to help us realize that the darkness and hardship we are experiencing now is not the end of the story. Some things we thought were treasures may actually have to be taken away in order to make room for new gifts. We may have to cut up some of our settled thoughts and assumptions and be willing for God to rearrange them in new surprising ways. This is where love and faithfulness can lead us, not to despair but to hope. The lectionary gives us a hand in this when it pairs the dark chapter of Matthew 24 with a section in Isaiah. Here is another writing where destruction, sorrow and the end of a people is detailed, but already in the beginning of the book is this little section where the hopeful end of the story is hinted at:
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
We have seen how Matthew has brought us through a series of lessons. We’ve been hit by the hard rock of uncomfortable truth. We’ve been given the patient paperwork of remembering the past, learning with our community the lessons of faith and endurance. And we’ve been rearranged by the life giving surgical scissors of God’s spirit which cut away the bonds of grief and slavery, allowing our hearts to warm and new life giving patterns to emerge. Judgment becomes restorative, and the imaginations we are given by God’s grace will create better futures when we are able to look at an instrument of destruction (a sword) and see a tool for cultivating life (a plowshare).
The cycle of loss, endurance and newness in Matthew is an important pattern, given for us to recognize our need for Christ. This is necessary so we can be truly joyful when the master returns after what seems like an eternity. We can then celebrate when the bridegroom surprises us with his presence, and we can look forward with anticipation to the child in the manger. We have grieved our loss and we have been encouraged and encouraged others with nourishment from stories of the past, words of wisdom and acts of charity in the present.
Maybe now we are ready to imagine an end to the darkness. We have lamented with Israel, “O Come O Come Emmanuel”. Soon the lights will start to twinkle and we can begin to imagine peace on earth, for advent will ready us to receive God with Us, to sing joyfully, “Oh Come let us Adore Him”.
Permission pending from Catherine Nelson (click on image for details).