Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
November 28, 2021
Begin at the End
Luke 21: 25-36
One of the bleakest books I’ve read in a long time is Octavia Butler’s famed Parable of the Sower. Echoing Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, The Parable of the Sower depicts an apocalyptic California in the not-too-distant future. Poverty, addiction, and inflation push people to the brink. The only sure jobs come by selling yourself to a corporation. Fires burn wide paths of destruction across the state and nobody leaves home without a gun. It’s a troubling read. And I can’t help but think of the main character, Lauren, as I read this passage from Luke.
Lauren lives with her family in a walled-in neighborhood outside of LA. They live in relative safety, but the world outside the walls is falling apart. She can see that their way of life, their community, will not hold out forever, that eventually the forces outside will spill over the walls and tear them apart. So, she begins to prepare, getting ready to face whatever it is that’s coming. She stores food. She saves money. She practices her aim. And she stashes a bag of essentials to grab in case she has to run. When the walls that surround her neighborhood crumble and the chaos comes home, she is ready for it. She escapes and survives the brutal landscape. She survives because she was watching and noticed the signs; she survives because she was ready.
This passage from Luke is an apocalyptic prophesy, where Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem and the terror and tumult that will come at that time. There are plenty of people who respond to apocalyptic prophesies like Lauren does in the Parable of the Sower. After all, Christ himself is calling us to be alert, to be ready – ready to stand and meet him when he returns. The Mormon church advises all of its members to store three months to a year’s supply of food and other necessities – just in case of adversity, their website says. I can remember in the first scary weeks of the pandemic, empty grocery store shelves, people hoarding toilet paper. Living through the supply chain disruptions of the past year and a half has certainly changed how my family shops – we do keep more dry goods on hand than we used to. But is that really what Jesus is saying here? What kind of readiness is he calling us to? How do we prepare? And what are we even preparing for?
This is the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the church year. Advent is a season of preparation as we await the birth of the Christ child. But we don’t start by looking back to his beginnings. We don’t read the early prophesies of one who will bring salvation to Israel, we don’t hear the angel Gabriel say to Mary, “Greetings favored one, the Lord is with you.” Instead, we begin at the end. Here, at the beginning of Advent, we hear predictions of fear and foreboding, signs in the sun, moon and stars, and distress among nations. Advent begins with an apocalypse.
Why apocalypse now, at the beginning of Advent? An apocalypse is a revelation, it shows us something that has been hidden, allowing us to understand the world and God’s work in it in a new way. The Advent season starts with a chance for us to lament and repent, and then to remember the promises of God, to reignite our hope for the future. Starting with an apocalypse gives us a chance to name the pain of our community, and to receive the promise of transformation: A new heaven and a new earth. God present and at work in the midst of the terror and tumult. God with us until the end of time.
These short, cold days of winter are when we prepare ourselves to welcome and embrace God’s presence in the world. There are signs of desolation all around – in headlines, on our streets, in our hearts. And I don’t need to tell you, there are plenty of reasons to feel hopeless. Migrants and refugees are freezing to death on the border between Belarus and Poland right now…they come from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, victims of war and who are now pawns in a game between Belarus and the EU – Belarus is using desperate men, women, and children to taunt the governments of Europe for imposing sanctions following a sham of an election last year. Twenty-seven people drowned in the English Channel this week, trying to reach England in a flimsy inflatable raft, willing to try anything to get to the UKE after being pushed out of camps near Calais – through a policy of “enforced misery.” Not to mention those many tens of thousands of people from Haiti and Central America trying to make their way northward to the US as we speak. People in search of safety. Stability. Enough food to eat, meaningful work, a roof overhead. A chance to start a new life. All while bullets continue to fly in Baltimore, and the Omicron variant threatens further travel bans and lockdowns as the world seeks to contain its transmission. These are difficult days.
Luke is writing in difficult days, too. He writes after the Roman armies have laid siege to Jerusalem, after the temple has been destroyed, after years of starvation and suffering. The things Luke’s Jesus describes have already come to pass. And so Jesus doesn’t make his predictions to scare his disciples into submission. Instead, he seeks to reassure his disciples that though it may seem unlikely, justice is coming. Their job is to be vigilant – faithful – even in the face of desolation. Even when they feel hopeless. Be on guard, be alert, he tells them. Trust that God is hard at work, transforming this broken old world into something new. Stay true to the path and work of discipleship, Jesus says, and watch closely for what God is doing. Look for the signs of new life springing forth. Even now, they’re all around us.
Winter brings short days and long nights. Green, growing things go dormant, to store up energy for the unfurling of spring. Anne Lamott writes, “as the days grow shorter,…we ask ourselves, “Where is the spring? Will it actually come again this year, to break through the quagmire, the terror, the cluelessness?…Meanwhile, in Advent, we show up when we are needed, with grit and kindness; we try to help, we prepare for an end to the despair.” We prepare for an end to the despair. Beginning at the end helps us do this: it reminds us, we are not forgotten. Christ is coming. Lamott remembers a friend teaching her, “the promise of Advent is:…God has set up a tent among us and will help us work together on our stuff.”
This is the good news: God has come to us. God will come again. By entering this world in the person of Jesus, by becoming embodied, God shows us that bodies matter, that we matter. In Christ, God reveals to us the power of love, solidarity, and service. And so in this time of year, we don’t just look back to the birth of Jesus. We look forward to the time when God’s plan for justice and peace is realized – as we do when we pray, ‘your Kingdom Come,’ in the Lord’s prayer each week.
As people of faith, we are analog people in a digital world. We read old books and light candles and sing songs. We have a long memory – remembering what God has done in the past, and gathering here in this place to remind each other when we start to forget, and shore up our faith and our hope for the future. We don’t prepare for the end by hoarding stockpiles of food, with stashes of cash. We prepare by doing the work of loving our neighbor here and now. We prepare by looking expectantly around us, to notice God’s presence in and among us even now. We welcome Christ coming to us again and again in the poor, the hungry, the sick, the suffering. Sparking compassion. Building community. Igniting hope for what is possible. Helping us expect transformation. Thanks be to God.
 Ibrahim, Arwa, “What Next for the Migrants Stranded Between Belarus and Poland?” Al Jazeera, 11/24/21, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/24/as-belarus-eu-tussle-edges-toward-war-migrant-crisis-deepens
 Breeden, Aurelien, Constant Mehuit, and Norimitsu Onishi, “At Least 27 Dead After Migrant Boat Capsizes in English Channel,” The New York Times, 11/24/21, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/24/world/europe/migrants-boat-capsize-calais.html
 Lamott, Anne, “Advent 2003,” Salon, 12/5/03, https://www.salon.com/2003/12/05/advent/
 Lamott, Anne, “I am cuckoo, but hope is coming,” Salon, 12/12/12, https://www.salon.com/2012/12/12/i_am_cuckoo_but_hope_is_coming/