What Are We Waiting For?
Chilmark Community Church
December 6, 2015
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
What are we to do with the dire warnings of the end times that appear in the 21st chapter of Luke? Why do we read these warnings and admonitions right before Christmas? I have never like these apocalyptic scenarios and have managed to avoid preaching on them for a lot of years. But this year the text wouldn’t leave me alone – so here goes!
Luke wrote his story of Jesus for a tumultuous and ugly time in the history of the Jews and of the early community of “Jesus people”. Indeed, their world was falling apart. By the time Luke wrote the Romans had already destroyed the great Jerusalem temple that stood at the center of Jewish life. Judea was utterly occupied by Rome with the intent of obliterating both Jews and Judaism including the relatively new Jewish sect that embraced the teachings of Jesus. So these warnings have their ground in the terrible disruptions happening 2000 years ago.
As I wrestled with how to find meaning in them questions about what we expect in the way of a messiah kept rumbling around. The notion of a coming messiah was around long before Jesus as the Jews suffered through one devastating occupation after another. There was always the hope that there would be the one strong military leader who would arise from the ranks and deliver the Jews into a “golden age” of order and justice and peace and well-being and wholeness. The historical reign of Kind David epitomized this longing. The loss and devastation was so thorough and the hope for a messiah was so profound and seemed so distant that a certain kind of thinking arose around it – – that, indeed, everything had to end so that a new beginning could happen. This is the thinking that pervades the 21st chapter of Luke. There will be wars and devastation and destruction – and this all has to happen so that a new thing can take place. In a nutshell, this is what apocalypse means. So why is this text chosen for us to read in the run up to Christmas? Where is the hope and light and peace and joy in a text that warns of destruction and desolation?
Quite some time ago I came across a scientific metaphor that has helped me to find a way to appropriate this text for today. I found it in Ilya Prigogines’ Theory of Dissipative structures. – How is that for a tongue twister? Prigogine was a physical chemist. He thought about the critical role that stress plays in transformation. He used the language of open systems and closed systems. A closed system might be a cold cup of coffee or a piece of granite. In a closed system there is not much energy being exchanged with the environment around it. Nothing much happening. Open systems, on the other hand, take in energy from their environment and transform it and give it back into the environment again, frequently changing the environment around the system in the process.. Prigogine described an open system as a flowing wholeness. Open systems are complex. There are often many interconnections in an open system – we can see this in the human networking that happens on the island. The global human community is an open system – – incredibly complex, with billions of points of connection. One of the main characteristics of an open system is that it is not stable – – it is subject to perturbations or disruptions as the energy of interconnection moves. If a disruption is large enough, the whole system is shaken up. The elements of the old patterns of relating come into contact with each other in new ways and make new connections. The parts reorganize into a new whole – – and the whole system “escapes” to a higher order.
Isis and Paris and, now, San Bernadino have become metaphors for things falling apart – for chaos and destruction – for the disruption of so many patterns relationships that humans depend on for order and a sense of well being. They are the perturbation in the open system of global human realtionships.
And yet – even as we worship here in Chilmark, a large group of men and women from 150 countries have gathered in Paris to attend to the issues of global climate change – – San Bernadino’s holiday parade went forward as scheduled – – human beings once again have rallied around each other to offer comfort and compassion in the midst of another unthinkable crisis –fightng fear with joy as the newscasters reported. The human system begins reordering itself right in the epicenter of a major disruption.
Do we dare to understand Luke’s Jesus to be teaching about a way of looking at the world through the eyes of a physical chemist? Do Jesus’ words about the coming disruption carry a far more hopeful purpose? What are we waiting for? What are we watching for? Is it possible that the things that Jesus tells us to be alert for – to be on the watch for are already happening? Is it possible that the idea of “messiah” – the hoped for bringer of order and justice and wholeness is a metaphor for the kind of creativity and regeneration that is already happening in the midst of chaos and fear and destruction? Is the “messiah” hidden and working in the midst of the turmoil? Are we to be watchful and awake to what this “messiah process” is doing right now?
The apocalyptic scenarios in the scriptures are there for a reason.
I am inclined to think that Jesus’ words want to wake us up to how the Holy One is working all the time in the midst of the terrible things we fear the most to bring to birth a new creation. Birthing is painful. It is frightening – sometimes it is life threatening. We are tempted to lose hope – – and then Advent rolls around again with its promise of a great new act of generativity and love and peace and hope coming into the world – – in the midst of the chaos.
The prophet Isaiah said it well when he preached the word of God to Israel at the end of her exile: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth from the bud, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. And so we light our candles. We share our light with one another. We find ways to meet the needs of the world around us. In the midst of all the chaos that goes on in the world, we watch, we wait, we see, and we celebrate a birth – – new life ever emerging. This is our Advent hope.