Why start Advent with such an apocalyptic reading?
Everyone in Noah’s day is eating, drinking, and marrying—you know, living their lives. It sounds like a movie trailer: “Until one day, one awful day….”
One is carried off and one is spared, or
One will be taken and one will be left.
Sounds terrifying. Carried off to where? This sounds like the description of the Rapture, when God’s chosen are to be swept up to heaven.
There’s a painting by Glen Strock called “Rapture at Rio Arriba.” It has a sense of humor: half a dozen people are floating up toward the sky, swept up in the Rapture, along with a hoe, a pan with eggs, shoes, everything every which way. But if you look closer, for those on the ground it is disaster: the house is on fire, the goat has broken free and is running away, people are falling across the rows in the fields. One man in the bottom corner has a gun and appears to be contemplating suicide. So the idea of some being taken and some being left behind sounds like chaos, very scary.
And our reading from Matthew concludes with an image of a homeowner keeping vigil against someone trying to break in and steal the owner’s things.
Fearful times. Disastrous times. Apocalyptic times.
There is an apocalyptic literature genre. You can find examples in Isaiah, in Daniel, and of course in the book of Revelation. These readings are prophetic, focused on end times. But the message is always that some come out the other side to begin something new, a new realm centered in a faith journey with God.
This is my take on why such readings start our Advent season: In order to make room for new beginnings, we have to assess, clean house, put an end to some old ways.
Another way to look at it: When everything seems to be falling apart, look for where new life takes hold. Stick with that. We practice living in hope amid apocalyptic times.
This is how we live in hope. We look for what is life-giving. We don’t deny destruction, disaster, and death. We grieve, and rage, and weep. Our hearts are broken. But we don’t dwell there forever. (Psalm 23: “And I will live in the house of God forever.”)
That’s the key. We don’t live in houses that can be destroyed. We don’t center our lives on living in houses where thieves can break in—even if the thief is the Son of Humanity.
We live in God.
We practice giving thanks. Studies show that people who practice gratitude are happier and have fewer mental health problems, fewer bouts of depression.
Practicing gratitude is one way of living in hope. Hope is not passive. We don’t just hope that others will do the right thing, or that the story will have a happy ending. We focus our life energy on making happy endings happen. We say, “Here’s a challenge that I really care about. And here’s what I can do about it.”
We see the problems: people hungry, homeless, sick, naked, etc. (For more on this, see the following chapter in Matthew, the parable of the sheep and the goats.) We are not Pollyannas: oh, everything is fine, fine, fine. We see the problems . . . and we do something. We make some noise to our elected officials. We make sandwiches or casseroles and give them away to people who have no food. We hold fundraisers for worthy organizations and take offerings every Sunday to do God’s work out in the world. We hold a bake sale for the preschool, as we will do today during the Advent workshop. We donate socks to the Sock It to Homelessness Campaign, as we did last month; or we donate coats to Community Lunch; or we clean out our whole closet and give things to those who need clothes at Real Change or Goodwill and the Salvation Army. We build tiny houses, like the members of Alki UCC.
We live in hope. Okay. But we also live in Seattle, which is more or less functioning. What does living in hope look like in apocalyptic situations? Here are a couple of examples from the Bosnian War.
Back in July 1995, the Muslim community of Srebrenica experienced its own local apocalypse. Although this town had been declared a UN safe zone, the Serbs swept in, rounded up all the Muslims, and marched them out of town, supposedly to escort them to the next “safe” Muslim town. But at some point along that road, all the Muslim men and boys—over 8,000 of them—were marched off into the woods and executed. It’s the largest mass slaughter in Europe since World War II.
Is this what the reading from Matthew means when it says, On that day, don’t even turn back to get your coat—just run for the hills. Two will be working in the field; one will be carried off, and one will be left behind. Or in this case, two will be walking on the road from Srebrenica; one will be taken off into the woods, and one will be left behind. Terrifying.
Tom Paxton wrote a song, “On the Road from Srebrenica,” that depicts this horrible, horrible time, which surely must have felt like end times to all the Muslims involved.
[Please find the lyrics at https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/tompaxton/ontheroadfromsrebrenica.html]
In the midst of disaster, in the midst of genocide, in the midst of apocalyptic times, one old man who seems half dead himself, who trudges without hope, picks up a baby who could not be carried, and together they move on down the road. They bring life to each other.
That old man just became the embodiment—the incarnation—of hope. Now whether the woman with two babies and a broken arm and the old man actually existed, or whether they were Tom Paxton’s way of creating a narrative thread, I don’t know. But the point remains the same: We can give in to the disasters unfolding around us, to the hateful political attacks on good people who don’t have citizen papers, or the attacks on the poor, the homeless, and so on. We can give in to all this hate. Or we can embody hope and do something.
Here’s another story—a true story—that you may recall from the Bosnian War. During the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, a mortar killed 22 people who had been waiting in line for bread at a bakery. In response, Vedran Smailovic, a professional cellist with the symphony, played Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor for 22 days, one day for each person killed. He played in the ruined square of a downtown Sarajevo marketplace. He played amid the rubble of bombed buildings. He played despite the risk of sniper attack. He took what he did best—making music—and played a lament for all the hate and death and destruction that was wiping out his city. And his playing was such an act of beauty and courage and hope in hopeless times—such a way of refusing to go along with the war that surrounded him—that people have never forgotten it. He called people to remember their better selves. He called them to rise above the apocalypse they were enduring, and to live instead in hope, whatever the cost.
Matthew talks about apocalyptic times and warns against easy answers. You must stay strong in faith, strong in Christ, strong in God, strong in Spirit. No matter what war or disaster is trying to pull you down to its level. Remember who you are and whose you are, and live in hope accordingly.
So at this time of Advent, we beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. We study war no more. We walk in the light of God. We wait expectantly with Mary to welcome a homeless child born in a stable because there was no room for him anywhere else. Or perhaps it is a child crying in a ditch, abandoned in desperation by a mother with a broken arm. We wait for that new thing, that new spirit, that new baby, being born in us and in our midst. And we live in hope for all that this new life brings. May it be so. Amen.