by Daniel Harrell
Among the things I’ve yet to grow accustomed to since moving north so many seasons ago are the death-dark days of late autumn. Whatever leisurely evenings of lingering dusk I enjoyed as recently as October steeply plunge into the savage descents of night by early December. There’s a vague anxiety that comes with being forced inside at 4:30 during what used to be the afternoon. It feels strange, like time is running out and I’m losing my grip on something. You’d think I would have built up some immunity to this over the years, but I haven’t. That we dangle over a fiscal cliff with only 23 shopping days until Christmas doesn’t help. It’s enough to make everybody feel uneasy.
Granted, such uneasiness isn’t entirely inappropriate for this season of the new church year. Advent, meaning coming or arrival, falls in late autumn as a shadowy foretoken of Christmas. During Advent, churches that operate on liturgical cycles dust off unapologetically rude scriptures mostly ignored for the rest of the year. The genial account of Bethlehem’s manger is reserved for later. Advent commences with passages labeled as apocalyptic—mystical revelations regarding the end of time. They rudely thrust us toward a future advent, a Second Coming of Christ due to arrive without any humble pretense–the Lord gallops in on clouds of glory instead, trumpets blaring and an army of angels in his wake, with truth as his sword and vengeance on his mind. Apocalyptic doom reminds us that all is not yet right with the world, and sounds ever more ominous when its already dark outside.
If Apocalypse was purely the purview of prophets and the wacky book of Revelation, it might be easier to ignore. But this morning’s words come from Jesus himself in what is known as his “Olivet Discourse.” They show up in Mark and Matthew too. We actually looked at Mark’s version back during Lent. There as here, the sun and moon go dark, wars rage with earthquakes, famine and plagues, there’s persecution and destruction, and then finally the Son of Man soaring through the air, those angels in tow. Mark and Matthew have him gathering the elect from the four winds. While in Thessalonians, Paul has all of us meeting Jesus in the air. It’s strange stuff. And frankly a little embarrassing to talk about in public. The oddness of such orthodox tenets probably explains why so many church folk prefer to stress Christianity’s more reasonable aspects: living an ethical life, making beautiful music and art, doing justice and serving the poor, building healthy marriages and raising good kids. The trouble is that you don’t really need Jesus to do any of those things. As theologian Philip Clayton put it: “once our beliefs become merely metaphorical or poetic—or worse, when one finds oneself using language one no longer believes but vaguely feels that one ought to believe–-one begins to wonder about the reason for the church’s existence.”
It’s Jesus’ fault. He taught and did so many wise and wonderful things; why go and get crazy with talk about flying back to earth like some Superman with truth and justice for all who have faith? As in Mark, Luke starts with Jesus condemning a religious system that succeeded in hoodwinking a destitute widow into giving her last two pennies to the Temple treasury. He let loose a scathing indictment against the leaders of this system, fuming about their “prancing around in long robes to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, vying for the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Jesus censured the entire Temple travesty, labeling it bankrupt and doomed to destruction. Folks naturally objected to his strident reproof, pointing out the breathtaking magnificence of the Temple which the people’s offerings had gone to construct and maintain. But Jesus shot back, “the day will come when not one stone will be left upon another; it will all will be thrown down!”
Apocalyptic talk of wars, earthquakes and famine was small change compared to the loss of Jerusalem’s Temple. For Jews of Jesus’ day, to lose their Temple truly marked the end of the world. The Temple was the religious, political and cultural nexus of Judaism; the very locus of the good Lord’s presence on earth. As such, it was thought to be impervious. The Temple was were God lived. Except that the Lord had long left the building on account of his people’s infidelity. Within forty years, Rome would ransack Jerusalem and reduce the Temple to rubble. According to the ancient historian Josephus, a Roman siege prior to the rampage caused frantic citywide starvation—people ate their babies to survive. Factional fighting among God’s own people resulted in more casualties than the Romans inflicted once they invaded. The scene was utterly chaotic. No wonder Jesus told his followers to run for their lives: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written.” After centuries of abusing the Temple and taking God’s grace for granted, their judgment day had finally come.
Jesus employed stock apocalyptic language for emphasis: “the sun, the moon, and the stars” all go dark. Throughout Scripture, the loss of light marks the end of the world–a astronomical reality due to happen either way a few billion years out. Jesus isn’t making a cosmological pronouncement here–though he does say that “heaven and earth will pass away.” Note too that our pew Bible puts “the Son of Man coming in clouds” in quotes. Jesus cites Daniel 7, a pinnacle vision of Old Testament prophecy. Every Jew knew what Jesus meant. Daniel saw “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. … He was given authority, glory and sovereign power.” Throughout the gospels, Jesus refers to himself as “son of man,” which some was Jesus’ way of saying he was just a normal “human being.” But as we know from Christmas, he was the son of no man. And as know in Daniel, he was no normal human being either. Jesus had been given the divine right to judge the world.
He also earns this right. The stick and stone Temple gave way to a flesh and blood embodiment of God’s presence: Jesus himself. Like the Temple, Jesus was destroyed because of the people’s sin. But unlike the Temple, Jesus was raised from the dead and vindicated as Son of God and Savior, triumphant over sin and rebellion, over injustice and evil; and now victoriously sits enthroned at the Father’s side. The Daniel 7 imagery of his riding in on clouds has all the trappings of a victory parade: Daniel sees “every nation and peoples of every language worshipping the Son of Man.” “Every knee bows and tongue confesses that Christ is Lord.” “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” Jesus uses Daniel to frame his own resurrection and ascension, which is how he’s able to say “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” In Luke Volume 2 (known as the Book of Acts) the disciples indeed witnessed Jesus airborne—just as some of them would see the Temple decimated too.
If this was all there is to it, we could consign the Olivet Discourse to ancient history as already fulfilled. The problem is that as the disciples stood and gawked at Jesus ascending to heaven in the book of Acts, two angels appeared and promised that “this same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go.” And thus the Apostles’ Creed asserts Christ “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” And the Communion Table “proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes” again. It won’t necessarily be a happy day for everybody. Jesus declares, “people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” The Son of Man returns with light to be sure, but as Danielle preached last Sunday, light shining in darkness has a way of exposing our bad behavior for the sin that it is.
“Look at the fig tree,” Jesus said. “Look at any plant for that matter.” Had Jesus lived in Minnesota he might have said “look at the corn crop.” “As soon as it sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near.” Except that in Minnesota, it wasn’t long after the corn crop sprouted leaves that tiny worms started eating away at its roots. Ironically, this corn had been genetically modified to resist worms. I read last week that by using genetically modified seeds, farmers had been able to minimize pesticide use while greatly increasing their yields and their profits to the tune of some $10 billion dollars last year alone.
The problem was that the financial success led to a third of the state being planted with just two genetically modified species of corn and soybeans –setting the table for an evolutionary disaster. You see, the worms adapted. They evolved into sinisterly resistant mega worms. Now stronger, more toxic chemicals than before must be sprayed which scientists fear pose an even greater risk to the environment and human health. Biotech companies promise to unleash a whole new arsenal of genetically modified seeds to combat the mega worms, which will eventually accelerate the costly chemical warfare even further. Talk about apocalyptic. Fortunately, a biochemical company spokesperson assured a concerned public by saying, “we believe we can manage this.” In other words, run for your life.
It turns out there is another solution–but you can’t be greedy for profit to do it. This past summer, as one farmer hired a helicopter to douse insecticide on his worm-infested corn, his neighbor’s field, just across the driveway, stood tall in the wind. The difference: The previous year, his neighbor planted less lucrative alfalfa. It’s a lesson as old as farming itself. You have to rotate your crops.
“Look at the corn fields,” Jesus could have said. “When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Throughout the gospels, whenever the Kingdom draws near, it brings with it an invitation to change your bad behavior. But we push back, even if it means feeling guilty for doing what we do. As exhausting as guilt can be, it’s still a price you’re willing to pay for not having to change. And since you’re already feeling bad, you might as well just keep on doing the crap you’re doing. At least that way you can say you’re consistent. “Your day is coming,” Jesus warns, “it will come upon all who live on the face of the earth.” We believe we can manage this; we modify with seeds of self-justification and douse ourselves with pesticides of denial. But sin is a wily worm. It always adapts. “Be on your guard,” Jesus warns, “lest your hearts be consumed with the excesses and cares of this life and that day close down upon you suddenly like a trap.”
There is another solution as old as farming itself: rotate your crops. Turn from your sinful ways. Repent and trust the Lord. “Look at the cornfields,” Jesus could have said, “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Over and over in Scripture, redemption blooms in distressed soil, resurrection comes after crosses, and light outshines darkness. “So be alert at all times,” Jesus says, “stay faithful.” “Pray constantly,” he says, and we will find the strength to endure. Lead us not into trial. Deliver us from the evil one. Give us legs with which to stand and be counted before the Son of Man. “As often as we eat the bread and drink the cup of Christ,” a foretaste of Christ’s return, “we proclaim his death until he comes.” Jesus may plow a costly, demanding and obligatory field; but it produces a bountiful yield of life and hope and love stretching into eternity. Let us rotate our hearts and enjoy it.