(Photo Creative Commons from NASA)
At numerous points in his ministry Jesus speaks of a coming time of trial and tribulation for humanity; in biblical terms we would refer to these dire warnings as apocalyptic language. Such visions of destruction and mayhem are associated with the coming again of Jesus or as Luke put it in this passage, the coming of the Son of Man.
For churches which follow the lectionary and the liturgical cycle of the year, such as the Uniting Church, we are about to enter the period known as Advent which is directly connected with the return of Jesus, sometimes called the Parousia. The focus of Advent is usually dominated by the theme of waiting, waiting not for the incarnation, or birth of Jesus, which we celebrate at Christmas, but waiting for Jesus to come again.
So, when we begin to think about this theme of waiting for Jesus’ return we are drawn into contemplating the question, ‘what are we waiting for?’
What is it that we Christians are expecting to happen in the future and why does it give us hope?
Christians are naturally Advent people, people who live waiting for the coming of Jesus, but how any of us understand this notion of waiting and what we are supposed to do whilst we wait is related to how we understand our personal salvation, as well as God concern for the whole cosmos and what God has in store for the creation.
Now the study of the end times and what will occur in those end times is referred to as eschatology and it is an important aspect of our faith to think about where we think things are headed.
I began with the reading from Luke 21 quite deliberately because it brings into our vision the kind apocalyptic language which says to us that things are going to get ugly, really ugly.
No doubt many of you will have seen apocalyptic movies like “The day after tomorrow” “Terminator” “The book of Eli” or “2012”. In fact just the other day students from my grade 7 RE class were telling me about how the world was going to end at the end of this year and asking whether I believed in the end of the world or not.
It’s an interesting question to ask, “Do you believe in the end of the world?”
From a personal perspective I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s towards the end of the Cold War. There were times I did not believe that I would live to see 18 years of age such was the spectre of Nuclear War which hung over us.
Nearly 26 years on from my 18th birthday I have put aside the fear of nuclear holocaust, for the moment, but am no less am concerned for the future of humanity and the world in which we live.
Just this week the World Bank took the unprecedented step to make a comment about climate change indicating that unless serious action were taken warming of 4 degrees Celsius or more was unavoidable and the consequences will be dire.
We are facing a crisis as human beings, a crisis not necessarily born out of anything more than the over population of the planet and our insatiable desire for more. In the West our lives our dominated by the myth of progress and growth, yet whilst our lives are advancing the capacity and opportunities of other people simply to live is diminishing.
A friend of mine who is farmer recently sent me a book called “The coming famine” a disturbing analysis of current trends in production of food aligned with the continuing growth of the population of the world.
Whether or not I believe in the end of the world, or even of signs of the times, the reality is that we are living through a very difficult period in human history and whilst we might exist in the humidicrib of Australian middle class society the world really is pretty messed up and in all likelihood even our protective bubble of Australia prosperity will probably burst.
With all of the current unrest and possible mayhem around the corner for humanity where do we find hope and how do we live that as Christians? Is this the end times? And if so what might that mean?
These questions are not new ones. For the very first generation of Christians there was a belief that Jesus return was just around the corner. In the book of Revelation, the last word we have from the Bible about this matter, it says in Revelation 22, “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’”
Over the nearly 2000 years we have been waiting for the coming of Jesus, the Parousia, there have been many times in history when Christians have believed the end was nigh.
Despite these feelings the scriptures tell us nothing about the timing of Jesus return. For example in Mark 13 Jesus says ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.’
The lengthy delay in the Parousia can only ever be understood in terms of a knowledge that we are closer to it than we were yesterday, the signs of our times may mean that there are dire things in our near future as a human race but they do not necessarily herald the end times and even if they do my question is, “is it really the end?”
The vision given to us in the scriptures is not ultimately of destruction but of recreation. Listen to the words from Revelation 21:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said,
‘See, I am making all things new.’
The promise of God concerning the future may involve a difficult time of transition but is not about the destruction of the creation, it is about its remaking.
To return to my grade 7 class and the answer I gave them, I said to them that I do not believe in the end of the world but I do believe that it will be remade. This is the hope that we have been given as Christians, Christ’s coming is about a future for the whole creation.
This vision is important to balance against the individualisation of the faith in the era in which live where for many Christianity is about living and dying and going to heaven – a vision restricted to a personal relationship with God and often distorted by the non-scriptural idea of having an immortal soul.
God’s vision for us is personal, yes, but it is also communal and cosmological. What we are waiting for is not just something for me!
Now much of the focus of what I have said so far is about something located out there in the future –something that we are waiting for but Advent and our waiting also has another edge to it.
The end times, the eschaton, are not the only coming of Christ and promise of his presence found in the scriptures. We remember that Jesus says in Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
The pouring out of the Holy spirit at Pentecost is about uniting our lives to Christ who is present with us.
So within the scriptures we hear the promise of what might be understood as a realised eschatology. Jesus coming is his coming through the power of the Holy Spirit to be with us now, as John 17:3 says: knowing God the Father and Jesus whom he sent is eternal life.
There is a present reality of Jesus Christ with us that we do not have to wait for, a now of our salvation, a now of eternity life.
This now of eternal life, our current experience of it, is as Paul describes a bit like looking in a dim mirror but it is more than that because I believe when we encounter or experience any notion of God’s kingdom coming now we are encountering the future, the new creation which is promised, now.
One of the poignant experiences we have of this future is when we share the Eucharist, or communion, which is not simply a dead remembrance of what Jesus, did but is also a foretaste of the coming kingdom.
In this significant encounter with the feast of all nations, the feast of Christ the bridegroom, we are invited to live as an eschatological community, living from our promised future. This takes us from simply living in response to the historical character of Jesus and into living as people who are a new creation in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
The gathering of the community of the church is a sign of hope within creation of the future which is promised and empowers us to live as Advent people, the eschatological community, in our daily lives. As I see it when we gather in our present reality we remember the past and so see our future and are thus transformed by Christ’s coming presence.
Jesus, who we believe is present with us when we gather, is not simply the historical figure we remember and seek to follow but is the risen and ascend Jesus meeting us from the future when, the time when God’s purposes for the creation will truly be fulfilled.
The Uniting church in its Basis of union articulates this quite clearly when it says, “God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church's call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation.”
Jesus often spoke of the kingdom of God coming near – when the kingdom comes near my question is whether or not it is the future promise of God we are encountering? It is the coming renewal and reconciliation of the whole creation breaking into our present. This is what we pray for when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. This is the future we long for – a correspondence of behaviour and existence between heaven and earth.
This means that by God’s grace we encounter what we are waiting for to come now and we name it as such and become prophets of that future hope for all creation. In the Nicene Creed we declare, “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come!”
This is not simply a statement about some imagined future but a true declaration of hope and an invitation for us to look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come in the world around us day by day.
In the book of Revelation Jesus is described as the one who is and who was and who is to come. Jesus is all of these things and when we consider our relationship with him and consider the Advent of our God, the promise of the fullness of Christ dwelling among us, we are contemplating what it means to be set free by and invited to follow him as people we live in relationship to what has been, what is now and what is coming.
Paul Gilding The Great disruption
Clive Hamilton Requiem for a species
Julian Cribb The coming Famine
David Fergusson & Marcel Sarot ed. The Future as God’s Gift: Explorations in Christian Theology
Thomas Halik Patience with God
Jurgen Moltman Theology of Hope
Nothing New Under the Sun
R.E.M. The end of the world as we know it
U2 Peace on earth
Paul Kelly You can’t take it with you
Things of Stone and Wood The Yearning
Ben Lee Love me like the world is ending