Has anybody here seen the movie “2012?”
I was flipping around the other day and found it on TV.
In case you haven’t heard,
it’s 158 minutes of Hollywood entertainment featuring
Los Angeles falling in the ocean,
Yellowstone blowing up,
and just about every other bad thing that could befall
John Cusack and Amanda Peet.
It came out in 2009, and is based on the Mayan calendar prediction
that the world would END in December, 2012.[i]
In a recent issue of USA Today,
amid football scores and “Black Friday” ads
and accounts of some financial crisis in the middle east,
was an advertisement: “Christ Is Coming Very Soon!”
It helpfully listed 8 compelling reasons why we can be sure
Christ is coming very soon…
‐ Israel’s rebirth as a nation in 1948
‐ Plummeting morality
‐ Famines, violence and wars
‐ Explosion of travel, education, cults
‐ and the rise of the New World Order.
There’s no mention of the Mayans,
whose endtime came and went in 2012, thank you very much
and I’m not sure any of these compelling reasons have changed all that much,
but you can get more information at www.JesusReturnSoon.com.[ii]
Then there’s this:
Those of you who came of age in the 1970’s may remember the book:
The Late Great Planet Earth.
The book is a treatment of literalist Christian eschatology.
That is, things dealing with the END TIMES.
It compared the Bible to then‐current events
to predict when the world would come to an end with the return of Christ.
Once, at the church I used to serve,
I was going through the church library, and, believe it or not,
I came upon The Late Great Planet Earth SONG BOOK!
As far as I could tell, it had been in that library for at least 30 years…
…and it had never been checked out, not once.
If anyone had ever opened it, you would find classics such as:
“Jesus Is Coming!” (from the musical by the same name)
“I Wish We’d All Been Ready”
(with the chorus: There’s no time to change your mind,
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind.)
“He’ll Break Through the Blue”
“I Will Look for You Up There”
“What If It Were Today?”
and, “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.”
I think ALL this:
Mayan calendar‐‐or Gospel of Luke‐‐cataclysms,
and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder:
‐‐strikes us as mostly absurd
and disconnected from our sphere of living.
The Second Coming of Christ.
It’s not just something we think very much about.
A movie on the apocalypse may entertain us,
a book on the “Biblical signs” of the last days may puzzle us,
but this just DOESN’T play any sort of significant role
in our life or in our faith.
R.E.M. sings “It’s the end of the world as we know it…”
and we perk up for an instant:
Six o’clock TV hour.
Don’t get caught in foreign towers.
Slash and burn, Return,
Listen to yourself Churn.
Light a candle, Light a votive.
Step down, Step down.
Uh oh, This means No Fear
Cavalier. Renegade and Steer clear!
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies.
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives
and I decline.
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.[iii]
…Do we really?
…Do we really feel fine in the midst of such upheaval?
At the season of Advent dawns upon us this morning,
we have a fundamental choice.
We can see this as the season of stability,
OR, we can see it as the season of INTERRUPTION…
If we follow the stable, well‐worn path approach,
we need to IGNORE Luke’s Gospel this morning.
To follow the INTERRUPTION wherever it may lead,
we need to be able to see these strange texts
in a more nourishing light—
‐‐something that moves us beyond goofy song,
or Hollywood blockbuster…
A noted, creative biblical interpreter was once asked:
what was the most difficult challenge with interpreting the Bible?
Mastering Greek and Hebrew?
Keeping up-to-date on the latest trends in biblical scholarship?
No, she said: “The greatest challenge is not to let your presuppositions,
your expectations for what the text says or cannot say,
get in the way of the revelation of a living God.
The most difficult thing is to NOT stifle God’s sovereign freedom.”
She noted how Karl Barth once said,
“Christians go to church to make their last stand against God.”
In the light of today’s Gospel,
we might paraphrase Barth to say that, sometimes,
we Christians go to church for the purpose of stabilizing and taming
the incursions of a living, interrupting God.[iv]
But advent is here, right? Everything is as it should be. Everything feels fine.
We’ve got the red Starbucks cups out and the greens up
and the festive music at the mall to prove it.
I’ve got a friend who is a pastoral counselor in Chicago.
Once I heard her define “balance” as
“the illusion that the world is under your control.”
Now, our Gospel today is from a genre of biblical literature called “apocalyptic.”
Things are overstated in apocalyptic,
the colors are too vibrant and strong,
the tone is too strident.
Apocalyptic literature is metaphorical, pushy,
and just plain strange.
It’s ‐ how shall we say this—unbalanced.
But, one of the things that we do well in the church is continuity.
We do fairly much the same things every Sunday,
just like we did them last Sunday.
last century, even.
We call it an “Order of Worship,” because that’s what it’s for –
to order our acts of worship into a continuous, flowing whole.
Church specializes in continuity.
And then we get THESE TEXTS – today’s texts –
‐which speak of a God who steps up, steps in,
and interrupts the flow of human history.
Advent is God’s great discontinuity worked on a world where
many people believe that we were going along rather fine on our own devices.
The apocalyptic, revealing ending that Jesus describes here
contains some fearsome, cataclysmic events.
And yet Jesus dares to speak of such a time as a time of “redemption”?
How can it be that the ending of a world,
the destruction of the status quo,
is a time of hopeful redemption?
ALL of our biblical texts during the season of Advent,
speak of a God who loves us enough to interrupt us.
The sweep of the Biblical narrative that stretches itself
to proclaim at every turn—“God is LOVE”—
does NOT suddenly become UNLOVING
in the face of last days!
“Be not afraid” is the most commonly expressed phrase
from messengers of God to people like us.
“Be NOT AFRAID…”
In response to the terror attacks in France and Beirut and Mali last week,
one of my friends noted that The Phrase “Be Not Afraid”
is written in the bible 365 times…
Now, he was wrong, its only about 80 times, but you get the point.[v]
No God who communicates THAT with constancy and in faithfulness
would then decide to INVENT an end of the world
based largely on being afraid!
It’s just: here we are, proceeding down our comfortable runs,
creatures of habit and routine,
getting by just fine on our own.
And THEN, in a place we don’t expect,
in a way we don’t expect,
in a time we don’t expect‐‐yet God comes.
God is born among us in a form we didn’t ask for.
Emmanuel‐‐God with Us‐‐is God’s grand, gracious interruption.
‐‐INTERRUPTING order, to make room in our lives for God to come among us.
In W. H. Auden’s crazy long poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,”
Herod the King, symbolizing the practical, reasonable nature
of many of us in our time, says:
O God, put away justice and truth
for we cannot understand them and do not want them.
Eternity would bore us dreadfully.
Leave the heavens and come down. . .
…Become our uncle.
Look after Baby,
escort Madam to the Opera,
help Willy with his homework,
and introduce Muriel to a handsome naval officer.
Be interesting and weak like us,
and we will love you as we love ourselves.
Later, in exasperation, Herod explains:
I asked for a God who should be as like me as possible.
What use to me is a God whose divinity consists
in doing different things that I cannot do
or saying clever things that I cannot understand?
The God I want and intend to get
must be someone I can recognize immediately
without having to wait and see
what this God says or does.
There must be nothing in the least extraordinary about this God. Produce this God at once, please. I’m sick of waiting.
This is why Advent is such a warm and wonderful gift to us!
It rouses us and moves us and redeems us
in God’s interrupting, intrusive spirit!
I know that some of you think you are here at church
in order to bring some order and stability to your lives.
And I hope that church is sometimes that way for you. I truly do.
But Advent suggests that many of us also yearn for a genuine disruption,
for some divinely induced instability too.
Many of us are caught in situations
for which there is no humanly conceivable way out.
Some of us are enslaved to habits that are literally killing us.
Others face some dilemma for which there is no answer,
at least no answer that is human.
We live in a world where the problems on the world stage
are larger than our collective resources for addressing the problems.
And just as we get all settled in and accommodated to things as they are,
just when we learn to face facts,
to accept reality,
to think that this world is as good as it gets,
we are surprised by the intrusions of God.
Somehow God interrupts our comfortable adjustment to the present
and offers us a considerably disrupted future.
Our notions of what can and what cannot be
are turned upside down‐‐this is Advent.[vi]
As Flannery O’Connor,
chronicler of a grace‐full, shaking, God‐interrupted world, put it:
“To the hard of hearing you shout, o god
and for the almost blind,
you draw large and startling figures.”
Advent is the SHOUT that says that our God
not only cares about usbut also comes to us.
We don’t have to get everything together on our own.
We don’t have to make the world work out right.
God…moves, acts, creates, and recreates.
A friend of mine says that the main difference between a living, true God
and a dead, false god
is that a dead, false god will never surprise you.
Advent is a yearly reminder to our church that God is able to surprise us.
Perhaps we ought to think of church as training in the skills required
for following a living, surprising, interrupting God!
The late John Boyle, who was once preaching at Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago
told of his own “interruption” in the way God likes to “interrupt”—
I saw him out of the corner of my eye,
walking toward me on that cold day in April, 1945
as I stood before the box‐cars piled high with the corpses
of the inmates of the infamous Nazi concentration camp
in Dachau, Germany,
shortly after we had liberated it.
They had been machine‐gunned to death in a last gasp frenzy
on the part of the guards when they heard
that American forces were coming.
I stared in horror and disbelief at the carloads of carnage,
the inhumaneness of it all,
confirming beyond the shadow of a doubt the rumors we had heard
about such places of detention and death.
Instinctively, I reached for the .45 caliber pistol on my hip
as he approached me, just in case.
Then I noticed his tear‐stained face as in a combination of German
and broken English he began to speak.
“Danke, danke,” he said. “Thank you, thank you.”
He was trying in the only way he could to express his joy and gratitude
for what he thought would never happen to him,
to be freed, to be spared, to be saved.
Then this Lithuanian Jew, who had been a prisoner at Dachau for three years,
reached into the pocket of his threadbare shirt.
Once again, like Pavlov’s dog,
I automatically let my hand drift toward the holster on my hip.
(The Army had trained me well.)
Out of his pocket he slowly brought forth a dirty looking crust of bread
and held it out to me.
I took it and he told me that on the day before
his friend gave it to him as he was being led off to be executed.
He had realized that he would no longer need it
and that since bread was a coveted item among the prisoners,
he wanted his friend to have it.
Now this man was giving me what had been given him, so as to show his gratitude.
I thanked him and put the crust of bread in the pocket of my field jacket,
where it stayed for several weeks.
From time to time I would finger it,
a memory of this strange interruption of grace
in this most horrific of settings.
It soon was reduced to crumbs.
Then one day, as I sat on a bench before the cathedral in Salzburg,
I emptied the crumbs into my hand,
stared at them for a minute,
and then fed them to the pigeons gathered round my feet.
Over the course of nearly sixty years in ministry
I have officiated at
and participated in
and partaken of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
more times than I can remember.
What I do remember is that whenever I have done so,
I remember that survivor of the Holocaust,
and a dirty looking crust of bread.
It was not much,
but in that place of horror and depravity, that crumb—
‐‐an unexpected gift from an unexpected angle—
was my redemption.
I have been feasting off that crumb, given by God, ever since.[vii]
When God chooses to interrupt you—maybe today, tomorrow,
maybe at school or office or grocery store,
maybe gathered around this table—
Whenever, however you are INTERRUPTED—
‐‐look up and raise your head:
It’s your REDEMPTION that is drawing near.
God INTERRUPTS—and surprises you,
God interrupts—and heals you,
God interrupts—and fills you,
God interrupts—and comforts you,
God interrupts—and calls you,
God interrupts—and leads you into LIGHT and HOPE and LIFE.
This is Advent. Come, Lord Jesus. Come soon.
[ii] USA Today, November 27, 2009, Page 4B. As of November 2015, The website claims to have been posting that advertisement “in newspapers across the country for approximately 14 years in the article’s present format or a form thereof.”
[iii] R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”, from Document, 1987. Lyrics at https://play.google.com/music/preview/T3dqq73gdjeq6zgbwijv4jugy2q?lyrics=1
[iv] Both these references from William Willimon in Pulpit Digest, Oct‐Dec 2009, Logos Productions. For more on this text and how it fits into Presbyterian theology, see https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/today/end-world/
[vi] Willimon, op cit.
[vii] From a sermon by the Rev. John Boyle, preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago on August 3, 2008. Text can be found at http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2008/080308.html (accessed November 28, 2015).