December 1, 2019, Charles Mayer
Listen again to these words from our epistle lesson:
“Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near” (Romans 13:11-12a).
I’ve spoken before from this pulpit of the remarkable young Associate Pastor in my home church, who came to us at the age of 23 and inspired a total of six members of my high school youth group to attend seminary. Pastor Stamper took us seriously, and had us reading Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoffer and other 20th-Century theologians, and this in turn led us into other areas, like existential psychology. Do you remember Rollo May? His book Love and Will was widely read by diverse audiences in the late sixties and early seventies, and its themes bridged psychology and theology in a way that excited us. I probably first began thinking about somehow putting ordained ministry and the practice of psychology together on the strength of May’s book.
One of his key claims in the book was that the neuroses of one generation become the realities of the next generation. I loved the way that Rollo May respected his patients so much, taking their anxieties and fears seriously, even in fact as often prescient, based on deep perceptions of the underlying state of the world. Perhaps it was wrong to see his patients as neurotic at all, but that rather they were daring to face the true realities at hand.
This was in the days of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, and there was indeed a lot of existential dread in the air, and not only among people in therapy with Rollo May. The focus of it, at least from my perspective, was mostly two-fold: fears of nuclear catastrophe, and to some extent, fears of the destruction of the environment. Rachel Carson’s great book Silent Spring, about the dangers of pesticide use, had been around since 1962, and there was certainly a great deal of talk about what was usually called “pollution” in those days. I still very distinctly recall a nightmare I had in the sixth grade about the world coming to an end. And after reading Rollo May, I worried that while I certainly thought of the dream as reflecting my own neurotic anxiety, there might still have been good reason for me to worry about the future two or three decades ahead.
And, of course, it turned out that there was good reason. Worrying about “pollution” seems almost quaint now. I could fill the time allotted for this sermon with the list of seemingly catastrophic realities that we live with today (still including nuclear destruction, of course, which is rarely discussed anymore). So, when we hear Paul’s words today – “you know what time it is” – and “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers” – the sense that the end is near in a literal way seems entirely possible, even likely.
I know that it is different for me to preach on this Advent text now than it was even five years ago, let alone thirty-five years ago. The last time carbon levels in the earth’s atmosphere were as high as they are now, sea levels were twenty-five feet higher than today’s levels. Indonesia is moving its capital from Jakarta to Borneo because the massive city of Jakarta is actively sinking. Recent floods in Venice caused permanent, irreparable losses. Fires like those we have seen in California are raging in Australia. A town in the Florida Keys has had uninterrupted flooding for three months. And on and on and on we could go.
It has always been the teaching of the church – as our Gospel lesson tells us today – that as for the timing of the end, “about that day no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). But one couldn’t really blame a preacher for wanting to say that this may be so, but it sure does seem like we’re getting close.
Here’s the thing, though: yes, it is fair to say that the circumstances in which we live have changed for the worse, just in the past few years – there is no question of this. Yet the claims of scripture have not changed. It is still the case that no one knows God’s timing but God. In fact, Jesus says that only the Father knows, not even the Son – a phrase that some early manuscripts deliberately removed. Luke left out this verse altogether! But it’s here in Matthew, and it was Jesus’ clear teaching: it will always be the case that the timing of the end of the age is known to God alone.
Not only this, but scripture has so many different ways of talking about the end of things that it is impossible to say exactly what the nature of that end will be. For Paul, it was the conversion of the Gentiles to belief in the God of Israel, after which “night would be gone, and the day would be near.” For Isaiah, as we heard today, it would involve the elevation of Zion: “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it” (Isaiah 2:2). Many texts involve a Last Judgement. Others involve the Coming, or the Second Coming, of the Messiah.
One thing is for sure: nowhere does scripture say that we human beings, in our wanton destructiveness, will have the last word regarding what becomes of God’s Creation. God will have that last word. So just as it is no more true than it has ever been that we can know the timing of God’s plans, so is it no more true than ever that we can know exactly what those plans are.
And it is precisely because we can’t know these things, and are not in charge, that we in the church can be beacons of hope for a world that is rightly terrified. God’s plan for Creation is a loving and redemptive one – this has not stopped being true because our environment seems to be on the verge of collapse. We Christians should absolutely be environmentalists of the most passionate kind, because we know that we are caring for God’s own Creation. But we should also be environmentalists who believe that God somehow can and will redeem the mess we have given Him: somehow, in His time, in His way. This is our Advent hope. Thanks be to God.