St Paul’s, Centralia—Luke 21:25-31
When we watch a scary or suspenseful movie for the first time, it’s easy for us to forget that what we’re watching on the screen is not actually happening, but that actors are delivering lines written by an author, and moving according to the wishes of a director, and that there are banks of cameras and audio equipment just beyond our field of view. Our emotions correspond to what we’re watching, as if it were real. But if we watch the same film a second or third time, our emotional responses become less intense. We know how it ends. There’s no longer any reason to be frightened or anxious on behalf of the characters in the drama. We watch the action as if through different eyes.
As Christians, as the people of God and the Body of Christ, we have a similar advantage as we watch the compelling drama called real life play out in our experience. It’s not like we have a script that feeds us every line and blocks every move, so there is still an element of suspense. But we do have a plot summary—a library of documents called the Holy Scriptures—we have a plot summary that tells us the ending. We know everything comes out OK. The good guys in the white hats arrive on the scene just in time to untie the widow from the railroad tracks and throw the villain in jail. God wins; Satan loses. We are confident in the knowledge of our ultimate redemption.
Outside the context of faith in Christ, however, real life is at least a melodrama, and very often a suspense story, if not a horror film. This reality is brought home to me every time I preside at a funeral. The traditional Christian burial rites provide such a level of meaning and comfort, and lend such appropriate dignity to the occasion, that it’s difficult for me to imagine mourning the loss of a loved one, or preparing for my own death, in any other way. Rarely have grieving family members not mentioned to me how supportive the funeral liturgy is and how grateful they are for it.
In the absence of a well-grounded, well-formed, and mature faith, the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” the trials and tribulations of our lives, seem random and utterly devoid of significance. The daily grind of getting up in the morning, trying to make a living, and tending to the essential infrastructure of our lives, from taking out the trash to flossing our teeth—this all becomes a burden that is depressing just to contemplate. Bumps along the way—cars that won’t start, checks that bounce, relationships that turn sour, people who betray us, cancers that metastasize—bumps along the way only add insult to injury. Earthquakes, floods, fires, famines, droughts, train wrecks, and plane crashes become the punch lines of some cosmic standup comic
with a sick and twisted sense of humor. It’s no surprise that the dispensers of anti-depressants are doing such a brisk business. It’s no surprise that people, particularly in “advanced” First World cultures, continue to abuse alcohol and nicotine and other drugs. It’s no surprise that we are so confused about sexuality and gender and what any of it means, if anything. It’s no surprise that we are consumed by acquisitiveness. We can’t appreciate anything unless we can own it, any more than a one-year old can appreciate an object if he can’t put it in his mouth. As a society, we are chronically and relentlessly driven, but we have no clear idea what our destination is. These, my friends, are the signs of our times.
Our Lord Jesus has some pointed words about reading the signs of the times as we examine his apocalyptic discourse, this time as it is recorded for us by St Luke. (You may remember that, a couple of weeks ago, we looked at St Mark’s parallel version.) He talks about the end time, the culmination of history as we know it, and that the days leading up to the apocalypse will be accompanied by massive social and political unrest, economic dislocation, and natural disasters. The language can easily be construed to predict both the projected effects of global warming and the incessant Hollywood preoccupation with objects from outer space colliding with the earth. And then Jesus offers the very homely example of a tree changing its appearance as the seasons change, and how, if we can tell what time of year it is by looking at a tree, we ought also to be able to “read” what God is doing by looking at the signs of the times.
What Jesus is inviting us to do is to take a good look at that plot summary God has provided us with, and to live our lives not as if we were watching an action or suspense or horror movie for the first time, but, rather, as if we were viewing a re-run, a story that we already know the ending of, and it’s a happy ending. When friends stab us in the back, when loved ones let us down, when the stock market takes a dive, when the body politic of our country seems to have cracked along a fault line running right down the middle, when your teenage daughter says “I’m pregnant,” or the boss says, “You’re fired,” or the doctor says, “You’ve got cancer”—we know that the story doesn’t end there. The final scene of the final act is yet to come. The credits have not yet begun to roll. Read the signs of the times. It is going to get worse before it gets better. The darkest part of the night is just before the dawn, when Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, comes down in a cloud with power and great glory.
I am among those who enjoy taking long trips by automobile. When Brenda and I lived in California many years ago, it was almost an annual habit of mine to drive to the midwest to visit family. If I could cross two time zones in a single day, was a real high! When I would return home to central California after being away on one of these journeys, I noticed certain things that otherwise escaped my attention. The absence of mile markers on the side of the road, for instance, and the presence of raised dots between the lanes—something we can’t do in our part of the world because they don’t play well with snow plows!—were signs that I was definitely back in California, and getting close to home. The species of plant along the highway median was a sign that I was in the central valley, and not anywhere else. A reddish hue along the side of the road was a sign that the tomato harvest was in progress. Without even thinking about it, I “read” these signs, and my body responded with a rush of adrenalin. I was all of a sudden not sleepy anymore. I took delight in familiar voices and familiar announcements on familiar radio stations. I rejoiced in anticipation of the end of my journey, and in gratitude for my safe arrival home.
Jesus tells us that this is the attitude we should have when we read the signs of impending apocalypse. For those who are on the edge of their seats waiting to see how the story will end, such signs are occasions of great anxiety and distress. But we have that plot summary. We know how the story ends. We can see a long-expected Jesus just outside the margin of our viewing screen. Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
This is what the season of Advent is about—keeping vigil, watching, praying, growing in holiness, joyfully contemplating the return of our Savior in power and great glory.
Maranatha—Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.