Sermon preached November 29, 2015
Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36
The Fifth Dimension, “The Age of Aquarius” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjxSCAalsBE
“What’s your sign?” The question, one asked sometimes in the late 1960s/early 1970s referred to astrology - the belief that what happens in the stars affects what happens here on earth. At its most basic, it has to do with understanding when you were born, which determines which of twelve signs you were born into, and those signs affect how you make decisions about your life. My birthdate makes me a “Cancer.” In the daily newspaper, you can read a “forecast” for the day based on your sign. I am guessing some of us look at that every now and again, but most of the time the advice is pretty generic.
Anyway, astrology was kind of popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Some argued at the time, based on astrology, that we were on the verge of a wonderful new age, the Age of Aquarius. However, things stayed very much the same and “What’s your sign?” became a cliché pick-up line. There were some snappy comebacks to it. “Hey, honey, what’s your sign?” “Stop!” “”You’re cute, what sign were you born under?” “No parking.” I won’t do a survey of those who may have used the line or heard the retorts.
Much of people’s curiosity about astrology, or looking for signs, is pretty harmless. That’s not always the case. Individuals have gotten so caught up in astrology that it paralyzes their lives. Major religious traditions have their own fascination with signs, not signs of the zodiac, but signs that tell them that the world may be coming to a cataclysmic end. Sometimes this can also be rather harmless. I will never forget the gentleman at a wedding reception I attended after officiating at the wedding coming up to me as he sipped whiskey from a plastic hotel coffee mug and asking, “Do you think we live in the end times?” He may have thought so, but it obviously was not putting him in any kind of panic.
Benign end times thinking isn’t always the case. One of the haunting and dangerous things about the so-called Islamic State is that it is rooted in an end-times theology. In explaining the meaning of its flag, an ISIS document reads: “We ask God, praised be He, to make this flag the sole flag for all Muslims. We are certain that it will be the flag of the people of Iraq when they go to aid… the Mahdi at the holy house of God.” The figure of the Mahdi is a savior who will appear in the end times, the times leading up to the apocalypse. The Islamic State declaration of a caliphate is part of this apocalyptic, end-times theology, a theology not shared by most Muslims. (McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, 22) While a number of Muslims may have some kind of end-of-time theology, most do not share the notion that violence will hasten the coming of the Mahdi. There is a real danger when a group of people believes that its violent actions will help bring about the decisive battle for God in the world.
A significant number of Christians also believe that there will be a final battle between good and evil in the world, an Armageddon at the apocalypse. Thankfully, most of these folks do not believe violence will hasten this event, the second coming of Christ. While there may be some resemblance between Christian and Muslim end-time thinking, there is very little violence among Christians who may believe in a coming Armageddon, a coming apocalypse. Yet sometimes this way of thinking has other drawbacks. New Testament scholar Barbara Rossing argues “The dispensationalist timetable completely postpones any renewal or healing for the world until a distant time way off in the future…. Dispensationalists clearly are not interested in any healing for the world.” (The Rapture Exposed, 141) Religion professor Amy Johnson Frykholm in her book Rapture Culture writes: “For some… the narrative of the rapture is primarily about exclusion. It helps to create a faith house made of secure walls and a few doors, where only those with the right answers will be allowed inside” (187). One negative side of this kind of Christian end-times thinking can be an apathy in the face of the world’s hurt and pain. It won’t get better until Jesus comes again. Another can be a deep sense of us versus them where the “us” is willing to let the “them” be fodder for destruction. Jesus is coming again, so watch out you… Instead of working to alleviate some of the hurt and pain of the world, difficulties and tragedies become only signs of the end-times – signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.
These more ominous end-times theologies remind me of William Butler Yeats famous poem “The Second Coming” published in 1921.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Perhaps all the end-times thinking that happens when it seems that things are falling apart, the center failing to hold, leads not to a peaceable kingdom, but to the coming of some kind of rough beast?
Yet, it is difficult to fault people for wondering if the world is not on the verge of some kind of cataclysm, some apocalyptic moment. The very existence of ISIS, with its brutal rule over lands it controls and its willingness to make war not only on the West, but on any it considers infidels, shocks us. We are weary of war, yet seemed doomed to engage in it – Syria, Nigeria, Ukraine, and countless other sites of conflict. Paris has been attacked, blood running in the streets in a place where we imagine the blood should simply run through our hearts of little faster for it is a place of romance. Racial tensions in the United States continue to be high. In Chicago a police officer has been charged with first-degree murder following the release of a video showing his shooting of a seventeen-year-old. The young man was high, and was wielding a knife, but if you saw the video you were left aghast that there were not more measures taken before the officer opened fire. The officer was white, the young man black. Just down the road from us, protests continue in Minneapolis over the shooting death of a twenty-four year-old African-American man. There are a lot of details that remain unknown about the shooting, but our hearts are torn apart. On top of that, three young white men shot at black protestors in Minneapolis, perhaps an act of white supremacy. The human community seems unable to act in the face of some of our most difficult problems. We are still working at racial reconciliation, and that needs to happen with Native Americans as well. We don’t seem able to address issues of climate change, where there is strong evidence that human beings are contributing to the change in our climate that is having adverse effects.
Are these simply to be viewed as signs of the end-times, of the coming of the Son of Man? There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory…. When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near…. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life. Be alert. The world is a difficult and troubling place. Is our sole response to keep watch, to hang on, because it is simply inevitable? Are we to be simply observers of signs, hoping to avoid the worst of what may happen to humanity until it is somehow all over and we end up on the right side of things?
Or is there something else and something more? I am intrigued that Luke uses the phrase, “the kingdom of God is near” in chapter 21. Earlier in the gospel, when John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus, asking if he is the one to come, Jesus replies: Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. (7:22) The kingdom has come near in such things. In chapter ten, Jesus tells the disciples as he sends them out, “the kingdom of God has come near” (v. 11). In the next chapter of the gospel, Jesus casts out a demon and defends his actions with these words, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (11:20). In chapter 17 of the Gospel, Jesus makes these cryptic statements to the Pharisees, The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There is is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you (17:20-21)
It seems, then, that when there is healing, help, freedom, when there is forgiveness and reconciliation, the kingdom of God is there. Maybe the world often feels like it is falling apart, like the center cannot hold, like anarchy is loosed upon the world. Maybe those signs in the moons and the sun and the stars are never far from us, wars and rumors of wars. We long for a time when it might end, when there might be some decisive victory of good, when the pain and hurt and sorrow will be gone. There may be such a time, but in the meantime our job may not be to try and figure out if we are near the end, to look for signs of the end. Perhaps our job as followers of Jesus is to look for signs of God’s kingdom breaking into our history once again in acts of healing, compassion, justice, peace, reconciliation and love. We cannot ignore the difficult signs in the world, and they are easy to spot. What the world may need more is people who can point to places where love happens, where reconciliation occurs, where hurts are healed, where justice executed in the land, to use the language of Jeremiah. “The days are surely coming” says Jeremiah. Sometimes they are already here. God works in the world now, not just in the future, and we are invited to see that.
But even more, we are invited to be signs of God presence, power and work in the world. Let me offer three voices. Barbara Rossing: While Christ’s reign is not yet fully realized, God gives us glimpses of it even now, even while we wait for it to fully unfold in the future. [We can] enter into God’s vision for our world even now, and to live in terms of this vision. (149) Another New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, writes: It is not difficult to see… perils that threaten the very viability of life on earth today. Global warming, the ozone hole, overpopulation, starvation and malnutrition, war, unemployment, the destruction of species and the rain forests, pollution of water and air, pesticide and herbicide poisoning, errors in genetic engineering, erosion of topsoil, overfishing, anarchy and crime, terrorism, the possibility of nuclear mishap: together, or in some cases singly, these dangers threaten to “catch us unexpectedly, like a trap”…. The positive power of apocalyptic lies in its capacity to force humanity to face threats of unimaginable proportions in order to galvanize efforts at self- and social transcendence. (The Human Being, 161, 159) Theologian Jurgen Moltmann (The Coming God, 234, 235): The Indonesian word for hope means literally “to look beyond the horizon.” … Life out of this hope then means already acting here and today in accordance with that world of justice and righteousness and peace, contrary to appearances, and contrary to all historical chances of success…. It means an unconditional Yes to life in the face of the inescapable death of all the living.
What’s your sign? Our sign is less to worry about when time will end and Jesus will come. Our task is to watch for signs of how the power of God in Jesus is already at work in our world, even as we hope for and trust that in God all will be made right. Our task is to become signs of the power of God in Jesus in how we live. May Jesus come again through us to touch the world with hope and healing, justice and reconciliation, compassion and love. Amen.