Advent in the Midst of Collapse

[ A homily preached at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, New Toronto, on December 2, 2018. The texts were Jeremiah 33.14-16, Luke 21.25-36]


There is nothing ‘festive’ about Advent.

At least not if you are listening to Jesus this morning.

We read the gospel of Luke today
not as a warm up to Christmas,
nor as a way to get into the ‘spirit’ of the season,
and certainly not as a way to ‘lighten up’
as the days get shorter and darker.

Not for Jesus.

In this gospel reading everything is going to hell.
Jesus paints a scene of cosmic collapse,
and everything – literally everything! – is falling apart.

There are portents in the sky,
paralyzing distress and confusion amongst the nations,
and even the sea seems to be totally out of control
with rising sea levels and devastating tsunamis.

No wonder people are fainting from fear,
no wonder people are overcome with anxiety,
no wonder hope seems to evaporate
in the heat of foreboding panic.

Doesn’t this feel as if it could have been written yesterday?

While Jesus is actually using this kind of apocalyptic language
to foretell the destruction of Jerusalem
and desecration of the Temple by the Romans in AD70,
doesn’t all of this have a strikingly contemporary feel to it?

I mean, in the light of recent political, economic
and environmental developments
is it any surprise that we are seeing,
an alarming rise in anxiety levels
in our own lives, our families and throughout our culture?

Therapists have even begun to talk
about political and ecological anxiety.

You see, there is a direct parallel between
the surge of right wing populism

in the United States, Ontario and throughout the world,
and the rise of deep anxiety
amongst so many people these days,
especially young adults.

No wonder there has been an intensified curiosity in
the rise of fascism, totalitarianism and ethno-nationalism.

As we watch the dissolution of human rights,
the emboldening of in-your-face racism,
the dismantling of civil society,
the demolition of democratic structures,
the erosion of international cooperation and treaties,
together with the loss of neighbourliness, citizenship,
and a shared commitment to the common good,
doesn’t a dispiriting sense of political anxiety
seem like the appropriate response?

So also with eco-anxiety.

From the recent expert reports on climate change,
to the Anthropocene exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario,
it is becoming devastatingly clear that we have moved
from talking about climate change to climate crisis.

And the timelines are shorter and more urgent
than most of us have anticipated or can bear to imagine.

In ten years we will begin to see crop failures,
an acceleration in severe weather events,
ever more dangerously extreme heat waves,
together with economic collapse
and an even more desperate movement of refugees
seeking food, security and a future in other countries.

No wonder my students are asking about whether it is
responsible to have children, given this kind of future.

No wonder therapists are facing more and more clients
presenting with all the symptoms of a debilitating eco-anxiety.

And … no wonder we are experiencing an epidemic of addiction
in our city, our province, our culture.

Is it any wonder that Jesus says:
“Don’t let your hearts be weighed down with dissipation,
drunkenness and the worries of this life.”

Jesus knew what he was talking about.

When it is all falling apart,
hearts are indeed weighed down,
burdened with worry and a paralyzing anxiety.

No wonder that we seek to distract ourselves
through an addictive consumption.

No wonder the malls are full of people
seeking consumer therapy, trying to fill the void,
or at least ignore the collapse all around us.

No wonder that we are an addictive culture,
trying to numb the anxiety through alcohol,
or escape our pain through substance abuse.
Undoubtedly the opioide crisis is born
of a culture of fear and depression.

Or maybe it is even worse.

In a conversation with a well-respected Christian psychotherapist
I was saying that it seemed that we were facing something of
an epidemic of depression in our times.
But she shook her head,
“Not depression, Brian, but despair.
We are in an epidemic of despair.”

Happy New Year.

Welcome to Advent.

You see, my friends, the Advent of the Lord,
the coming for which we so achingly long,
the redemption for which we wait,
is an Advent, a coming, a redemption
that breaks into the midst of our despair,
or it is no Advent at all.

You see, in our gospel reading this morning,
it is precisely in the midst of the despair,
in the middle of social, economic and ecological collapse,
that there is a remarkable turning towards a strange hope.

When you see all of this happening, says Jesus,
when it is all literally falling apart all around you,
that is when it is time to
stand up,
raise your heads,
open your eyes,
and see anew
that the kingdom of God in near.

Precisely when it seems that the future
is totally closed down,

Jesus tells us that things
are going to surprisingly open anew.

At the very heart of our despair, hope is born.

You see, Jesus says,
heaven and earth may pass away,
but my words will never pass away.

The political structures may crumble,
the systems of the global economy may collapse,
the relations of nations may deteriorate,
the very eco-systems of the world might spin out of control,
but my words will never pass.

Or to use the language of St. John,
Jesus is the Word from the beginning,
the Word through whom all things came into being,
and he is a faithful Word,
faithful to his promises,
faithful to the very creation he so deeply, deeply loves.

The amazing little passage from Jeremiah this morning gets at the same thing.

While Jesus was talking about the cataclysmic events
that would be wrought upon Jerusalem by the Roman empire,
Jeremiah is living under Babylonian siege in the same city.

And it is all coming down.
The land lies devastated.
The political, religious and economic systems are all in disarray.
The people are held captive by a spirit of panic.

And in the midst of it all Jeremiah receives an oracle of fulfilled promise.

Precisely when it seems that it is all over,
there is the Advent of hope.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when political deceit is met with divine promises fulfilled,
when ecological devastation meets a land restored through justice,
when fear and hatred is overthrown by righteousness,
when we will be saved from all forces of oppression,
when our anxiety dissipates because we will live in safety.

I know, I know.

It all sounds impossible.
Impossible for Jeremiah.
Impossible for those listening to Jesus.
Impossible for us.

But Advent, dear friends, is all about embracing the impossible.
Advent is about hope against the odds,
and against the evidence.

To enter into Advent is to read the signs of the times
to discern what is happening,
and where we are going,
through the eyes of Jesus.

To enter into Advent is to stand with Jeremiah,
in the dark days in which we live,
with the audacious hope that
“days are surely coming.”

You see, my friends:

Hate speech and violence are sanctioned
from the highest office in the United States
but days are surely coming …

The planet lurches to the right
but days are surely coming …

An anti-semite kills eleven elderly Jews at worship
but days are surely coming …

St. Margaret’s church is assaulted again with racist graffiti
but days are surely coming …

War on the most vulnerable continues to rage
but days are surely coming …

We stand on the precipice of a climate crisis
of unspeakable threat

but days are surely coming …

An epidemic of despair grows unabated
but days are surely coming …

The days are surely coming, says the Lord.
The kingdom is near, says Jesus.

May your Advent, my friends,
be filled with the anguish and longing
for the coming of that kingdom.

May your Advent, my friends,
be animated by the aching hope
for the days that are surely coming.

And may your Advent, my friends,
see this church arise as a place of hope,
a community of justice,
and a fellowship of shalom,
in the face of the despair,
injustice and conflict
of our times,
our city,
your neighbourhood.

May it be so, dear Lord.

Come soon, Lord Jesus.

Amen

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is entitled Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.

One Response to “Advent in the Midst of Collapse”

  1. john van sloten

    This is terrific Brian. thank you.

    Reply

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