Saturday, November 27, 2010

It's the end of the world as we know it --- and I feel fine!

RCL Advent 1A
28 November 2010

St Thomas’ Anglican Church
Chilliwack BC

Let us pray.

God of justice and peace, from the heavens you rain down mercy and kindness, that all on earth may stand in awe and wonder before your marvellous deeds.  Raise our heads in expectation, that we may yearn for the coming day of the Lord and stand without blame before your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.  Amen.  [‘Thematic Prayer’ from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers]

            More than seven hundred years before the advent of Jesus of Nazareth a priest and prophet living in the southern kingdom of Judah received a series of revelations from the God of Israel.  These revelations came at a time of political and social disintegration as both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were slowly and surely absorbed into the Assyrian Empire.  We know this priest and prophet as Isaiah, son of Amoz, a name which can mean ‘Yahweh has saved’ or ‘Yahweh may save’.  Perhaps his parents, keenly aware of the crisis into which their son was being born, chose a name to express their deepest hope that Yahweh, the God of Israel, would bring the two kingdoms safely out of the crisis just as surely as God had brought the people out of Egypt.

            Throughout the centuries the words of the prophet of Isaiah have been as important to Christians as they have been to Jews.  When the earliest Christian writers began their efforts to explain the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, they found in Isaiah a rich source for their theology.  But today’s reading, with its message of hope and of universal peace, points to one of the challenges of the use of Isaiah by Christians.

            When Isaiah’s beautiful poetic vision of the peoples of the world streaming to Jerusalem to acknowledge the supremacy of the God of Israel and to worship at the Temple is set in its context, we realize that this is a message predicated on the end of one world before a new one can begin.  Our reading ended with the words, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”  But these words are actually the first words of a lengthy section in which the prophet, speaking in the name of God, indicts the people for their failure to be faithful to the covenant God made with them on Sinai.  The consequences of this failure is the moral and social chaos they are presently experiencing.  Soon this chaos will lead to the end of their political independence.  It’s the end of the world as they know it.

            Let’s jump forward two thousand seven hundred years.  As I run around the city these days, I cannot escape the music of ‘the season’.  Every mall has begun to fill the air with Christmas carols and the light music that we associate with the coming of the Christmas feast.  All of this is to help us get into the spirit of the season which for the retail business is the spirit of buy, buy, buy.  I heard a radio commentator talk about ‘black Friday’, the day after the American Thanksgiving holiday when businesses hope that they will be ‘in the black’ rather than ‘in the red’.

            Despite the best efforts of the malls I find that the music I am hearing is not the recorded sounds of snowy Christmases, warm houses with cherubic children waiting for Santa Claus and the generosity of poor little drummer boys.  The music that I am hearing comes from the creative minds of the American popular music band, R.E.M.:  “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.”  At times I have the almost irresistible urge to take up residence near a Salvation Army bell ringer and start singing this song loudly.  I can imagine a polite but firm security guard asking me to be quiet and to refrain from troubling the mall’s customers with such words!

            The song itself does have other lyrics that are somewhat ‘doomsday’ in their tone.  We hear about earthquakes, a traditional image in the New Testament of the coming of the Son of Man.  We hear about birds, a reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film in flocks of birds begin to attach humans in a small town.  We hear about snakes in a reference to the Egyptian myth about Apophis, a snake that made daily attempts to devour the sun only to be denied by the gods.  We hear a reference to an airplane that seems to point to the use of nuclear weapons.  Certainly we can relate to all these images as reminders that our world is not always as secure as we would like to believe it to be.

            But the message of Advent is that ‘it’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine’.  It is difficult to read the New Testament without quickly becoming aware that the early Christian community rejoiced to see the end of the world of oppression in which the rich exploited the poor and the strong abused the weak.  Hear again Paul’s words to the Christian community at Rome:  “[You] know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”  (Romans 13.11b-12a)  Is it any wonder that our society prefers to hear about warm and cozy holidays rather than the stark truth the world as we know it cannot be sustained.

            Christians know of two ways of telling time.  One way is chronos or chronological time.  It is measurable, inexorable and inescapable.  Whether it is the calendar year, the academic year or the fiscal year, chronos churns along, bearing us in its wake.  Even our hymnody recognizes this force:  “Time like an ever-flowing stream bears all of us away.”  Chronos can be oppressive especially as we realize that our ‘time’ grows ever shorter.  From the moment of our birth the chronos that is our lifetime decreases even as our awareness of the value of chronos increases.  In so many ways chronos is death-dealing especially when we find ourselves thinking about ‘what might have been’ rather than what is and what will be.

            There is, however, another way of telling time that fills the pages of the Holy Scriptures.  Theologians call it kairos, the ‘right time’ or the ‘fullness of time’ or ‘God’s time’.  Kairos cannot be measured, comes upon us unexpectedly and, if we choose to close our eyes, can pass us by.  Kairos is a quality rather than a quantity of time.  It is a moment or moments when the world as God intends it breaks in upon us and stuns us with its beauty as well as fills us with longing for its return.  Kairos is being wrapped in the completeness of love with a beloved spouse or child or friend.  Kairos is time spent with a child lost in wonder.  Kairos is reconciliation between ancient enemies when walls fall and hate is transformed into hope.  Kairos is justice coming to those who have been denied justice.

            Kairos is the end of chronos, a release from bondage to the moment into freedom for God.  Kairos is the birthright of every human being and is at the heart of the good news of God in Jesus Christ.  Kairos is the end of the world as we know it and we feel fine.

            Of all the seasons of the Christian year Advent is perhaps the clearest celebration of kairos.  Into time and space the Word through whom all things came into existence comes to dwell among us.  All the old rules and all the old expectations are cast aside as the Word comes to re-order our disordered world. 

            Advent celebrates the end of coercion and the beginning of persuasion.  We live in a world that believes that coercion is an acceptable way of conducting our affairs.  We often use the gifts that God has given us as ways of forcing others to do what we want them to do.  It is not uncommon for people to threaten to withhold their financial support as means to force someone or some organization to act in a way that furthers their personal agendas.  It is not uncommon for people to use their educational qualifications to make others feel less capable, perhaps even stupid.  Nor is it uncommon for one group or another to invoke ‘tradition’ as a reason for refusing to engage in an honest conversation about the needs and concerns of our contemporary situation and how we may need to change.

            Then along comes Jesus and upsets this world’s applecart.  Rather than coerce others to follow his path, Jesus simply says, “Look out.  Everything is about to change.  There’s nothing you can do to stop it.  Why don’t you decide to discover God’s agenda and your role in it?  It’s the end of the world as you know it, but you can be fine!”  And for those of us who live in kairos rather than chronos we see signs of the new world even as the old passes away.

            We live in a world a few accumulates goods and resources in ways that deny those goods and resources to the many.  Even powerful political figures spread the impression that we can continue to use the resources of the earth and to increase our stores of goods without eventually paying the piper.

            Then Jesus comes along and says, “Actually, you may be happier by yielding to others, by being a bit more responsible with the goods and resources you have.  You may find that less is more.  I know this is the end of the world as you know it, but you can be fine!” And for those of us who live in kairos rather than chronos we see signs of the new world even as the old passes away.

            We celebrate the gift that we call Canada even while we fail to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our society.  On our license plates we proudly proclaim that we live in the ‘best place on earth’, yet we have one of the highest child poverty rates in Canada.  Contemporary Canadians have benefited from the appropriation of the lands and resources of First Nations, yet First Nations communities still lack clean water, still need secure housing and still await their seat at the table of Canadian bounty.

            But Jesus comes, shamelessly welcoming those whom we keep at arm’s length, eating with tax-collectors and sinners, moving among those whom good people call ‘unclean’ and calling the children to him over the protests of the adults.  And it’s the end of the world as we know it and we feel fine. And for those of us who live in kairos rather than chronos we see signs of the new world even as the old passes away.

            The end of the old world of coercion, consumption and exclusion is good news.  But there is nothing so dangerous as an old world dying.  For two thousand years the old world has fought back.  Those who choose persuasion rather than coercion are ridiculed as na├»ve, imprisoned as subversive and killed as threats to the security of the state.  Those who champion stewardship rather than unlimited consumption are condescendingly reminded that politics is the art of the possible not the ideal, that the cost is too high or that entrenched interests will not cooperate. The old world calls upon the fears that lodge in the hearts of all of us and that call is a powerful brake.

            But to those who have eyes to see, the kairos of the new world is all around us.  Day by day, as surely as the waters cover the sea, the new world is replacing the old.  To those who have ears to hear, the songs of the new world are rapidly but gently re-tuning the music of the spheres.  To those who have hearts to love, the hope of the new world is clearing our arteries of the fear that clogs the fresh blood of the Spirit from reaching every cell of our body.

            For the end of the world as we have known it is good news.  We who now begin to hang greens in our churches, who light the candles of the Advent wreath and hear the messages of the prophets can greet the ending of this old world with hope rather than the fear that grips many of our contemporaries as they contemplate the consequences of the end of the age.  You and I see the signs of this new world breaking in all around us.  We see that things which were cast down are being raised up, that things which have grown old are being made new and that all things are being brought to their perfection.  It is the end of the world as we know it and we feel very fine.  Amen.

            Friends, Advent bids us remember that the old has died and the new has come.  It’s the end of the world as we know it and we feel fine.  Amen.

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