Is it the end of the world? A violent misogynist and serial liar, who shows naked contempt for women, people of colour, the democratic process, the office of the President, and the law; a man who deliberately muddies truth and fiction; a man who threatens to exclude 1.6 billion children of Abraham from his country simply because of their faith; a man who claims to represent the working class, yet flies in a gold-plated jet and pays no income tax himself; a man who feeds on and fuels the anger of a nation: this man has just been elected president of one of the biggest military powers on earth.
Then tomorrow night we will see a rare astronomical event: a perigee-syzygy, or a supermoon. This is when a full or new moon happens at the same time that the moon is closest in its orbit to the earth. This week’s full moon is the closest full moon the earth has seen since 1948: it will loom large in our skies. What with the violent threats of the president-elect of the United States, and the signs and portents in the skies, it would be easy to believe that the end of the world is nigh, and I am sure there will be preachers who will say so.
And so this week, some of us might want Jesus to return, charging down from the clouds with the riders of the apocalypse, trailing chariots of fire, and carrying out God’s justice with a sword. Surely our king will come, and all the women-haters and liars and racists and hypocrites and militaristic yes-men will be weeded out from among us, and peace and justice will prevail. Surely …
Into this context, in the miracle of the lectionary, come some rare apocalyptic words from Jesus. He is speaking out of a long tradition of apocalyptic literature, which uses powerful and often violent imagery to describe God’s coming to earth. In this literature, God’s arrival will be heralded by earthquakes and tsunamis and supermoons, by nation turning against nation, by bloodshed and violence: and all this will be part of God’s judgement of the world. At least, that used to be the story.
But Jesus turns everything on its head. Because when he uses apocalyptic imagery, he doesn’t say that God will bring this violence, nor that the violence is God’s judgement or God’s will. Instead, he simply reminds his disciples that this is business as usual. Human hands will tear down the temple; human kings will slaughter the innocent; human voters will elect an arrogant and violent man; human groups will turn on the outsider and send him to Nauru. Meanwhile, the earth will groan, rivers will dry up, wildfires will burn, and earthquakes will shake the foundations—and all of this is normal. There is no divine judgement here, and no outsider group to blame. Keep calm, he says, and carry on. Keep living in God’s culture: where violence is met with gentleness, hatred is met with love, and priority of care is given to the most vulnerable.
Of course, living this way won’t make us popular, and Jesus knows this. And he trusts his followers with this truth. For he goes on to say that they will be arrested, persecuted, and some of them will be killed. And for three hundred years, this is exactly what happened. Christians were feared and hated by the powerful for their nonviolent insistence on justice, for refusing to bow down to imperial power, for sharing bread, wine and stories across all human boundaries, for seeking the ways of love—and yet, despite brutal persecution, their faith spread like wildfire across the empire. Even now, Christians around the world are being persecuted. In Iran, in Iraq, in Bangladesh, in North Korea, in Nigeria, and in many other places, Christians are regularly arrested, imprisoned, and sometimes killed.
Even in Australia, Christians who put God’s justice above human justice are also being arrested. Some here today have felt called to nonviolent action and civil disobedience. As part of the Love Makes a Way movement, they attend sit-ins in our local member’s office, seeking justice for asylum seekers; and some have been arrested for their troubles. Christians have been arrested and physically assaulted for breaking into Swan Island and disrupting military exercises; Christians have been publicly criticised by the church for advocating for survivors of clergy abuse; Christians have had their services picketed and disrupted when they have welcomed gay and lesbian people into their congregations. Jesus said, “They will hand you over to the powerful religious institutions and prisons,” and so it is. Being persecuted is something we should expect if we live out God’s culture. But, says Jesus, it’s also an opportunity: a chance to share God’s vision of a world where love, hope, peace and compassion prevail. In other words, when you are persecuted by the powerful for living God’s culture, don’t retaliate, and don’t back down. Instead, keep calm, and carry on.
It’s not just the authorities who will push back. Jesus warns that some of his disciples will be betrayed even by their own families. And this is a dangerous reality for some Christians in other countries. Even here, many of us have been criticised, mocked, or manipulated by families who can’t understand, and even hate, the choices we have made because we are followers of Jesus. Perhaps we have decided not to use physical violence to punish our children; perhaps we are trying to free our marriages from suffocating gender norms; perhaps we have chosen to work for love, not money; perhaps we have prioritised Jesus’ values over our family’s values—for these and other reasons, living in God’s culture can make our families furious. But, says Jesus, this is normal. Stand your ground. Keep calm, and carry on.
For your life is lived in God. And when you hand your life over to God, you are alive, fully alive, and not a hair on your head will be lost. So live in God’s justice, not the world’s justice; seek God’s peace, not the world’s peace. Terrifying events and violent world leaders and terrible wars and civil strife and natural disasters and family conflict will all happen. There will be people and authorities who will hate you. But Jesus is not going to come charging out of the skies on a white horse and annihilate them all. Nor will he turn up heralded by a supermoon or a famine, a tsunami or a nuclear war. Instead, he has already come, as a vulnerable baby born into a marginal family on the move. He has already come: and we, his followers, have already been commissioned. And our call is simple: to serve him and to participate in God’s healing of the world with love. And we are already equipped. For when we live in him, his Spirit is with us, and will give us the words and the attitudes of love.
So whatever happens—elections, arrests, family strife, natural disaster—don’t lose your head, and don’t panic. Instead, pray, open yourself to the Spirit’s guidance, and carry on serving the God whose grace makes you sufficient. For our hope is in the long run and, in the long run, we know: love will always transform hate. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Luke 21:5:19 given to Sanctuary, 13 November 2016.
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