Sermon preached on November 29, 2009, Advent 1 at St. Paul and the Redeemer
That’s great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane . . .
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it,
And I feel fine.
– REM, “The End of the World As We Know It.
This is one of my favorite Advent songs. Really. I won’t attempt to read all the lyrics here, but I commend them to you. They are full of random, scattered apocalyptic images and lines like
save yourself, serve yourself. World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed. Tell me with the rapture and reverent in the right– right. You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, flight bright light, feeling pretty psyched.
Sounds a bit to me like what we heard from Jesus this morning:
“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.”
It’s the end of the world as we know it . . .
What is Jesus trying to tell his followers – both then and now – with these frightening, disturbing words and images?
Speech about the future is a tricky thing. When I say “there will,” or “you will,” or “they will,” I could simply be describing what is likely to happen in the future based on the present. I could also, however, be making a threat. I could tell my children, for example, if you don’t brush your teeth, you will get a cavity and need a filling. I could also tell them, though, if you don’t clean your room, you may not play video games. The first simply describes the natural consequences of their inaction. The second describes the consequences imposed by me in response to their inaction. Both visions of the future are unpleasant, but their moral weight is very different.
What if Jesus was offering this frightening vision of the future as a simple description, based on natural consequences, rather than a threat and a promise as many people often assume? What if he is trying to prepare the disciples for the inevitable consequences of a world gone wrong rather than letting them in on God’s secret plan of invasion?
I’ve been intrigued by Rene Girard’s theories about the cycles of sacred violence and Jesus’ response to them. I’m no expert, but one piece of his theory, as I understand it, says that human communities inevitably develop tensions and conflicts, which, if not released in some way, will cause that community to spin apart in chaotic violence. So one response, found across human cultures, is the establishing of the sacred (which is closely tied to power and control) and structures within the sacred that function as an escape valve for the inevitable tensions. The violence is expressed against a designated victim, through a sacrifice, and/or via a scapegoat. One Girardian preacher writes this:
Sacrificial violence is a sacred, sanctioned violence that comes into place in order to keep in check the fearsome profane, random violence. A sacrificial crisis, in the Girardian parley, occurs when the effectiveness of the sacrificial institutions is waning such that the sacrificial violence loses its effectiveness in containing profane violence. If a new sacrificial solution does not come into play, then the profane violence grows into apocalyptic violence. Throughout human history we see cycles of being on the verge of such violence and then new sacrificial solutions come into play to again bring relative peace. (Neuchterlein, http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/proper28b.htm)
According to Girard and his followers, Jesus, in his life, ministry, death and resurrection, faced down this cycle of sacred and subverted it, offering an alternative which did not require victims and their sacrifice.
Through this lens, Jesus’ words take on a very different meaning. The destruction of the temple and the razing of Jerusalem, which he predicts a few verses previously, is not, then, God’s punishment on the Jews for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah, but rather the inevitable result of these human dynamics of power, control, and sacred violence, as played out between the Romans, the rulers of the Jewish people and those who rebelled against both.
There’s another, discomfiting thing that has occurred to me as I’ve reflected on this passage and others like it. The irony, according to Girardian theory, is that as the roots of sacred violence are exposed and questioned by Jesus and his Gospel, the reality of profane violence, the chaos lying just below the surface, is still there. In a way, Jesus seems to be saying that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Girard says this:
The theme of the Christian Apocalypse involves human terror, not divine terror: a terror that is all the more likely to triumph to the extent that humanity has done away with the sacred scarecrows humanists thought they were knocking over on their own initiative, while they reproached the Judeo-Christian tradition for striving to keep them upright. So now [according to them] we are liberated. We know that we are by ourselves, with no father in the sky to punish us and interfere with our paltry business. So we must no longer look backward but forward; we must show what man is capable of. The really important apocalyptic writings say nothing except that man is responsible for his history. (Girard, Things Hidden, p. 195)
In Christian communities like this one, we talk a lot about justice, about sharing God’s love, about welcoming all, about challenging structures of oppression, as we should. It seems so obvious to us that these things ought to be done, and even obvious sometimes exactly what needs to be done, that it can be disconcerting when we face resistance and outright opposition to our work. Things can seem to get worse before they get better.
I think this is what Jesus is pointing to. Some of what he’s describing is simply a sinful human world, one in which victims are sacrificed to maintain the structures of power, structures in which we all are complicit. Some of it may be a warning that the sharing of God’s good news, the working for justice and peace, the working against oppression will not always be received joyfully. There will be resistance.
And so, Jesus says, “stand up and raise your heads.” Be confident in the work you do, in the gospel you preach, the God you follow. This resistance is, in part, itself a sign that your work is being effective.
I was watching one of the Harry Potter movies with my kids the other night. For those of you who’ve missed Harry Potter, the main narrative thread involves an evil wizard, Voldemort, who had some years earlier wreaked havoc on the wizard world and who has been regaining his strength and is preparing to take over once more. The trick is that only Harry has actually encountered Voldemort in his progressively stronger forms. Some believe him; others do not.
In addition to the violence exerted by the overtly evil Voldemort and his followers, there is a dangerous culture of fear that permeates the Ministry of Magic, the official governing body of the wizard world. For many, particularly those in power, the fear of Voldemort leads them to deny his return and growing power, to deny the very real danger that they all face. Fear that denies reality becomes rigid, willing to do most anything to protect the illusion of control. In the novels that blind fear leads eventually to betrayal, even of family members, the scapegoating of those who are different and even torture – for the victim’s own good, of course.
When Jesus says, “stand up and raise your heads,” he is telling us not to be paralyzed by our fear. We must look with clear eyes around us (and at our own selves) and recognize the depths of evil and violence we confront. It is real. We all know it. The fragile state of our economy and the complex interplay of greed, self-delusion, and not paying attention that got us here, the war zones abroad and a bus ride away, the ways that we can wound and oppress not only the poor and marginalized, but also those who are nearest to us – all of these are part of a web of evil and violence that can seem insurmountable.
Jesus is saying, first, look. It is the end of the world as we know it. It’s chaotic and scary and confusing. Evil is real and seems often to be in control – and if not evil, problems so complex that solutions seem a vain fantasy. So much seems far beyond our control and we can’t get a handle on what seems to be in our control.
Jesus tells his disciples to hold their heads up and not to fear, in part because fear can blind and paralyze us, causing us, inadvertently, to become like the powers that we challenge. Fear will cloud their vision, making them unable to see the signs, not only of the end of the world but also the signs that redemption is near.
They are not to fear also because they can be confident in the promised coming of God’s kingdom. But how not to fear? It’s certainly easier said than done. “Don’t fear!” can be something like the command to relax, the more we force it, the less it happens.
The REM song I quoted at the beginning has that strange refrain: the end of the word as we know it (over and over), and I feel fine. This could be just being fatalistic or apathetic, but maybe it points to another way to live in the year-round Advent that we inhabit.
Jesus is giving us a clue in his parable of the fig tree. Amid all of the images of war and cosmic turmoil – the end of the world – we have the emerging leaves of the tree – the beginning. In the midst of real fear, real turmoil, real danger, Jesus tells us to look for signs of life, signs not just in the fig tree, but in all trees, signs that contradict the machinery of war, the shaking of the foundations, the turmoil in the heavens. These sprouts may be found everywhere: in the changing of an unjust policy, in the rescuing of a child from abuse, in the reconciliation of enemies individual and communal, in the small triumphs over our own sin and weakness.
Stand up, raise your heads, Jesus says, for your redemption not only draws near, but in him, has arrived
Stand up, raise your heads so that you can see the signs of that redemption, small and tender and green.
Stand up, raise your heads, as a witness that the powers of this world cannot control us through fear
Stand up, raise your heads, so that you can see those for whom the turmoil of this world is causing pain and suffering, and respond.
Stand up, raise your heads, as an invitation to do the same for those who live in fear and without hope
Stand up, raise your heads, for it may very well be the end of the world as we know it, but the beginning of a new world is appearing . . . and I feel fine.