This is the first week of Advent, the beginning of a season of calling to mind Emmanuel, or God-with-us. In seeming contrast to the images of comfort and companionship that “God-with-us” calls to mind for me, our reading today features predictions of a terrifying apocalypse. Images of distressed nations, roaring seas, shaking skies, and people dying of fear fill our text. At first glance, for me, this scripture passage reminds us in a literal sense how everything and everyone we love are temporal and will pass away. There are important morals in this message: we should focus our time and resources on the work of God’s justice and not on achieving economic prosperity or financial success – along the lines of “you can’t take it with you.” We should remember the mortality of the people around us, and work to ensure the sustainability of our communities instead of relying on individuals. We should remember our own humanity, and give ourselves rest when we need it, because our body is perishable and must be taken care of. Although true, this message for me can feel bleak, and raises scary thoughts about my own mortality and hard questions about life after death. In a season traditionally marked with candles lit for hope, love, joy, and peace, this focus on death and turmoil feels out of place and uncomfortable.
But maybe there’s another way to think about this text and its description of what many believe are “the end times.”. Because to think about the end-times we have to think about the now-times, and, to be honest, the now-times aren’t that great for a lot of us. In the now-times, families of migrants are being sent back into dangerous situations, pregnant people are being denied access to needed abortions, and Indigenous land is being polluted by big oil companies. In the now-times, Kyle Rittenhouse is acquitted, a car kills and injures dozens of people in a Christmas parade, and vulnerable kids are convinced to commit acts of violence. In the now-times, hospitals are at capacity due to the latest COVID surge, diabetics are rationing insulin they can’t afford, and Black men are being murdered by police. Some days, in the cloudy dreariness of November, it seems as though our world is entirely filled up with unnecessary suffering and pain. From where I stand, the now-times aren’t times I want to last very long at all.
Read through that lens, our Gospel starts to sound a little more hopeful. We hear this story of the human one coming down to earth in a cloud of power and glory, overseeing the total chaos and destruction happening below. We’re told that the sea and waves will roar, and the nations will be in dismay. And yet, we’re told that this apocalypse is our redemption. How? Why are we to stand erect and raise our heads – which, I assume, contains accommodations for those of us who can’t do that – at the end of the world? I’m starting to think that maybe we’ve got the apocalypse all wrong. I’m inclined to think that the whole world ending – the end of existence as we know it – is not our redemption. But what could be our redemption is the end of the now-times, the end of the systems of violence and oppression that have thrived for too long in the world as we know it. We’re told that the powers of heavens will be shaken – will the powers of earth be shaken, too? The powers that kill and control and hoard, the powers that exclude and consume and dispossess, the powers that colonize and brutalize and destroy? Will those powers be shaken? If so, the apocalypse is good news for those of us on the margins, those of us who are vulnerable, those of us who are hurting.
It’s true that we can’t sit around, staring at the sky, waiting for the unknown time at which all of this injustice will end. It’s true that we have a responsibility to work towards that ending ourselves. We still need to organize, protest, march, and strike; we need to call, write, walkout, and sit-in. All of that is necessary, and all of that is a real, valid call we have inherited from God. In fact, we’re told in our text today that we are to be constantly ready for these injustices to end; we are told we are not to be drowsy, or to be caught up in carousing and drunkenness, or to be consumed with the anxieties of daily life. I interpret that to mean we are not to grow weary, disheartened, and resigned to the way things are. We are not to numb ourselves to the pain of those around us, and we are not to get comfortable in our privilege. We are not to look only to short term solutions, to the anxieties of the day to day, but rather we are to look to long-term right-sizing and repair.
Remaining constantly ready for this world to end means allowing ourselves to dream and imagine a new way of living and being in community. How hard it is to stay hopeful, to trust in the power we can build together, when we cannot even picture a world of liberation and life, a world without police, or prisons, or intimate partner violence. Our spiritual tradition, including the stories and exhortations in our scripture passage today, gives us an image of how to remain hopeful and trusting even in the face of what feels like overwhelming loss or setbacks. Let not the transformation of the world catch us by surprise; let us be always working towards it, always imagining it, always co-creating new possibilities with one another. Let us be vigilant and strong, together, watching for our opportunities to make change and grow the community of God here on earth. It is our responsibility and our joy to build momentum together towards the other side of the apocalypse, and it is work we can only do in communities of solidarity and trust.
When we do this work together, we can know deep in our bones and synapses that there will be an end to the way things are right now. There will be an end to white supremacy, borders, ICE, prisons, institutional policing, murders of transwomen, and mass shootings. An end to genocide, eugenics, big pharma, commercial health insurance, and six-week abortion bans. The end times will bring an end to capitalism, to destruction of the earth, to damning theologies, and to a murderous state. It bears reminding that only people with something to lose have something to lose; only those with privilege are at a disadvantage when society is upended by the force of God. We’re told that people will die of fright when they see what is coming upon the world. Who are these scared people, and what are they afraid of? If the apocalypse signals the end of hierarchy and oppression, those who cannot repent of their oppression, those who will not renounce their privilege, those who cannot imagine living the life they’ve created for the rest of us have everything to fear. But those of us who suffer the consequences of the actions of the powerful? Those of us who are constant in the struggle for justice and liberation? What have we to fear? Those of us on the margins, for whom the nations are already in disarray, need not be afraid of these end times. We can look for the end times, we can work towards the end times, we can pray for the end times; we can rejoice in the end times, when the powers of the heavens will be shaken and the evils of the world will be dissolved into our human-God’s cloud of power and glory.
I go back to this image we have twice in our reading today about the human one arriving among us on a cloud and holding court for those of us on earth. The “human one,” a name for Jesus that emphasizes his humanity, arrives to be with us in this moment of chaotic transition. As it turns out, our worlds are always ending in ways big and small: if not through earth-shaking, tyrant-dethroning apocalypse than in an unwanted diagnosis, a heartbreaking loss, or a deep regret. Our texts today remind us that in the midst of all of that, in the midst of all the endings, personal and systemic, we are not alone. The human one is among us, comforting us as we pass through our “imminent tribulations,” our anticipated adversity. As I mentioned at the beginning of this reflection we enter the season of Advent today thinking about Emmanuel, who we named in our opening song, which means “God-with-us.” We hold this truth, that God has come among us, is moving through our world alongside us, is journeying with us as we breathe justice and kindness into our communities, today and every day.
I invite you to take a moment, now and think of something that, for you, must come to an end. What is that for you? What is the ending you need? Maybe your ending is personal, or interpersonal; maybe it’s systemic, or institutional; maybe it’s communal, or relational. What ending are you waiting for? Working for? Praying for? When the world as we know it ends, what ending do you long for the most? I invite you to hold onto that, and to remember that this thing you need to end will end, maybe sooner, maybe later, as all things do, and that in between now and then, God is with you, wanting that thing to end just as much as you do.
In the middle of the end of the world, whenever that comes for you, I hope you know and feel the presence of Emmanuel, God-With-Us, bringing you all the comfort, ease, and welcome that is possible. I hope you are able to find the hope and belief to be ever-ready for the world to change, to transform into something new and beautiful and liberating. I hope you never become numb to oppression or comfortable with privilege, and I hope you are able to face the fears you have, deep down, about what justice requires from each of us. As we begin this Advent season, we pray: Emmanuel, God-with-us, may we be always ready.