Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
How do you feel about disruptions? You’re settled in for the evening, reading a book on the couch, and there’s a knock at the door. Your day is going pretty well until you get a phone call that a family member has just been hospitalized. Or maybe you are that family member hospitalized. You’re driving along with a friend having a great conversation and you come to the top of an exit ramp where you are confronted with the person with the sign that says some version of: “Hungry and jobless. Anything helps.” Disruptions.
Or: Another kind of disruption, which happened to me a little while ago at home: the girls were playing and laughing and having a good time together and I turned up the volume on NPR to better hear the news. Then I realized I was most likely committing some kind of grievous sin by drowning out the laughter of children to listen to the sorrows of the world. I turned the radio off. It was a welcome disruption, all things considered…
When the Advent planning group got together and pondered the scriptures for this season, the theme that emerged was the singular word of Disruption. As a person fully at home in the modern Western world of clocks and scheduling and Google calendar, I admit that disruptions can be disorienting. As a father of a two year old who still doesn’t regularly sleep through the night, I admit that some disruptions can be really disorienting. As someone who has experienced enough disruptions to know that they often pull me out of my narrow focus and challenge me to rethink my priorities, and as a person of faith who notices that throughout scripture and history God seems to be a really big fan of disruptions, I confess I want to be more open to the goodness that disruptions can bring with them.
As we prepare for the birth of Christ, which is both a gentle and world-altering disruption, we are confronted this week with scriptures that speak of disruptions of apocalyptic proportions.
When the prophet Isaiah looks around at his world he sees that Jerusalem is in shambles, the temple is in ruins, the people are lost, and the world is adrift in injustice. Things are coming apart at the seams, and God is nowhere in sight. Isaiah speaks from within the ancient worldview of the three tiered universe – the gods and angels and powers in the heavens above, the humans and other living things on the earth, and the watery abyss and underworld below. Within this geography, Isaiah cries out to the Lord, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Isaiah longs for the days of those stories his people tell, when the Lord did awesome deeds overcoming enemies, and mountains quaked at the Divine presence, and nations revered the Holy Presence. Back when God had some real muscle and didn’t hesitate to show it – or so the stories go. Now, Isaiah laments, it’s as if God is in hiding. The moral fabric is fraying. Isaiah confesses, “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities like the wind take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you.”
Isaiah’s poetic words sound similar to the poem included in the midweek blog, the Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats, written in 1919 as smoke still filled the European air after the devastations of the first World War:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
If we would include our own laments we could add that the streets of Ferguson cry out for justice, the sands of Iraq and Syria are soaked in blood, and gap between the rich and poor continues to grow. “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” says Isaiah. Oh that the veil that separates the gods and humans would be torn, and we would be visited by One who sets things right. For Isaiah, disruption of the status quo would be an act of Divine mercy. Disruption is our only hope. Disruption is salvation.
This hope for a Divine inbreaking, and this sense that things are so askew that they cannot simply be restored incrementally, came to be characteristic of later Jewish writings, collectively referred to as apocalyptic literature. When we think of apocalypse our minds most likely go straight to the group of films that base their plot around the impending destruction of the planet. The new movie Interstellar, in which a crop disease and second Dust Bowl bring the earth to the verge of being uninhabitable and require a search for a new home elsewhere, is only the latest installment of this storyline.
But apocalyptic writings that did and didn’t make it into the Bible don’t so much foresee the destruction of the world as they do the end of an era. It’s not so much Bruce Willis Apocalypse, end of the world, as it is what the band REM sang about, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” The world as we know it is coming to an end, and something new is emerging. The word apocalypse itself is Greek for “unveiling.” To undergo apocalypse, is to undergo an unveiling of what lies just below the surface and is on its way into existence. You may not see it yet, but an apocalypse is at hand. The world as we know it is ending, and a new world is coming into being.
So in Mark 13, when Jesus goes all apocalyptic on his disciples, he’s not simply pulling this out of thin air. He is pulling this out of air thick with centuries of apocalyptic images and declarations. Isaiah, Joel, and Ezekiel had all said similar things and, most importantly, Daniel had spoken of a time when the reign of the Inhuman empires would be ended, and one like a Human Being would come and begin to rule. One like a human being – or a son of man as it is often translated. Compassionate, merciful, reconciling. Humane. Daniel saw it first, and Jesus adopts this title for himself, the Human Being, the Son of Man, but also uses it in the collective sense, which is how Daniel originally used it. A new humanity, coming as if on the clouds with power and glory. Or, as Jesus did throughout his life, the one who redefines power, and redefines glory. The one who rules from the place of servanthood. The one who gives away glory to the most despised and unworthy. The one who turns the whole system upside down and inside out and breaks history wide open exactly by not grabbing power, but by giving it away. The one who ultimately gives life away, his own, and counts it a victory. How’s that for a disruption? How’s that for an apocalypse? Everything has been unveiled – our violence, our addiction to getting and maintaining power, our inhumanity to one another, the overwhelming love of God – everything has been unveiled, and now the question is whether or not we can see it.
Despite his borrowing of destructive imagery, Jesus’ message is not one of doom and gloom. The coming of the Human One does not bring destruction, but emerges among us despite the destruction we cause. The new collective Humanity, the Human Being, is learning how to live humanly despite inhuman conditions. Jesus goes on: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as the branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that it is near.” “It” being the new humanity, which is near.
Jesus shifts his disciples’ attention away from things falling apart, and toward the fig tree, whose bloom ushers in a new season. He ends his words in Mark 13 by urging his disciples to stay awake and pay attention to these things.
Out in the front of our church building, along Broadway Place, is a ginkgo tree. You passed by it when you were coming in. I’ve been wanting to talk about this ginkgo tree for a while and this seems like an appropriate time because it fits just right into Jesus words about the fig tree. “From the ginkgo tree, learn this lesson.” The ginkgo tree is an ancient tree and has no known close relatives. Its leaves are that unique fan shape with that rubbery texture that isn’t quite like any other tree I know. What’s remarkable about the ginkgo tree is that it is a survivor. It or a very close relative was around during dinosaur times and survived that mass extinction 65 million years ago. One of the biggest apocalypses ever (Bruce Willis style) came to our planet and the ginkgo tree survived. Much more recently, on August 6, 1945, at the end of World War II, the US dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. In the apocalyptic landscape the bomb created, there were several ginkgo trees that survived the massive blast. One was less than four football fields’ length from the center of the blast. It not only survived, but began re-budding in the year following the blast and is still a thriving tree today, with steps up to a temple built around it, an international symbol of peace.
“From the ginkgo tree learn this lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the Human One is near.”
I love that we have a ginkgo tree planted right by the peace pole and peace flags. The meteor that brought down the dinosaurs, and the bomb that leveled a city were massive disruptions of apocalyptic proportions. I’m not implying that Mark or Jesus was looking back or looking ahead to these events, but the language of apocalypse fits these and other times well. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and stars will be falling from heaven.” In other words, everything you thought was most solid and sure is disrupted. It prompts cries like that of Isaiah, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
But learn this lesson from the fig tree. It’s the fig tree, it’s the gingko tree, it’s the coming of Christ, the creation of a new humanity, that is the real disruption. These signs disrupt our violence and our fascination with destruction. They interrupt our narrative of doom and gloom. They are the real apocalypse, the real unveiling, of what God is doing in this world. The branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, and you know that summer is near. The young woman is with child, and brings forth the Christ in the most humble of settings.
I find it both troubling and delightful that the first Sunday of Advent always confronts us with these apocalyptic texts. It happens every year. We think we’re getting into a time of remembering the first coming of Christ and we’re immediately faced with texts about the Second Coming. We want to simply look back, but instead we’re looking ahead, or better, looking into the present moment, for a disruption already here, and a disruption yet to come. This second coming doesn’t appear to be merely a one time event at a time to be determined. It’s more like a continual disruption of the present moment, as gentle as children’s laughter and as forceful as a collision, an inbreaking always happening, a second and third and fourth, and hundredth coming. Christ coming to us every day in the form of the Human Being, or the tree, who disrupts our tired ways of living and offers a new way of seeing.
Stay awake and keep alert.