It’s because of this one statement that I think of Vincent VanGogh’s painting Starry Night created in 1889, as one of the first postmodern paintings. At first glance, it might seem to be a “window” painting. After all, it IS the view from the window of the sanatorium where VanGogh was staying at the time. But, although it is a picture of a night sky, it is a work which he painted from memory, during the day. (This and other information about Starry Night from Wikipedia. Awesome idea of connecting this scripture to this painting from Feasting on the Word.) So, it’s not exact replica. Rather it’s a reflection of VanGogh’s night-time state of mind, as remembered by him during the day. It’s not a window, it’s a mirror. Rather than showing you something exact, by viewing it, you have a window into VanGogh’s mind, heart, soul; and your own too.
So, with that in mind, I invite you now to take a moment with the painting, Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. Look at it, rather than looking at window, instead as if in a mirror. When you look at it, what does it make you think of? What does it make you feel? What does it remind you of?
It might be helpful to consider today’s passage from Luke in the same way – as less of a window than a mirror. Rather than hear these words as a picture painted of events that will happen exactly as depicted, think of these words instead as a mirror. It is helpful to spend time with words of scripture like this with the same questions we asked of the painting. (Starry Night was painted by the way, when VanGogh felt “a terrible need for religion” and which shows a sky in as much turmoil as the sky in the scripture passage. )
Now, here’s what I believe. Rather than a grand final judgment, in which Jesus will return to terrorize and amaze the world, I believe that the kingdom is being revealed all the time, every day. I believe not in one cataclysmic event, but in the everyday unfolding of the Reign. What then does a passage like this - in which the planets provide signs so terrifying and absolute that people faint from fear - have to say to we who believe in this way?
Well, first, it might be helpful to remember what it is that people who believe in apocalyptic actually believe."Apocalypticism is the religious belief that there will be an apocalypse a term which originally referred to a revelation of God's will, but now usually refers to belief that the world will come to an end time very soon, even within one's own lifetime. This belief is usually accompanied by the idea that civilization, as we know it, will soon come to a tumultuous end with some sort of catastrophic global event such as war." (Quote from Wikipedia) In other words, a big, one time event.
It’s can become almost a joke, this view of the end of the world. You know that guy in the cartoons wearing a beard down to his knees and a tattered robe, carrying the “end is near” sign? How about the recent movie 2012, which one citizen review acknowledged contained “Good cataclysmic Action, but waayyy to much bad kitsch…” It can be kitschy, this view of apocalypse
With these kinds of jokes, what does this kind of scripture have to seriously say to you and to I? Well, it depends on how you look at a scripture like this. If you look at it as if through a window, you are going to start looking for these exact things to happen in just this way.
And on the one hand, this may have been a very real warning to the people of Jerusalem. Jesus is talking in the temple – a place he both loved and challenged, the center of power for his faith and system that has grown unjust and corrupt. He is warning them that things cannot go on in the way of injustice. And it is true that some years later, the temple was destroyed, brought to the ground in what must have been a scene of confusion and terror. A one time event. (Thanks folks at Working Preacher Brainwave for conversation on this, and also for discussing why passages like this do not mean that God is a sadist.)
But what if we look at this passage as if looking into a mirror, not a window? Think again about how it makes you feel to hear those words – the day when the planets themselves seemed out of order, you were confused, the wind and the sea roared.
Look in the mirror – you’ve had days like that.
Because we’ve had times, each of us, when the planets seemed out of order – the absence of a loved one, the layoff, the accident, the illness, the divorce, the unwanted legal action, the death. At times like these it does seem that the roar of the wind is so loud that you can hear nothing else. At times like this, it does seem like the planets have been rearranged.
When Jesus says “this generation will not pass away before these things have come to pass,” it sends window-scripture readers paging through their bibles looking for signs to back up the signs. But for those of us who see passages like this as a mirror, instead, we know that Jesus is saying “this is business as usual – death and accidents, and brokenness and grief happen. In every generation they happen, including this one.”
But that’s not all that happens in every generation. Jesus is also saying, “Business as usual is God’s work too, and the way God comes to us - bold and beautiful and frightening - is business as usual, too."
In hard times, good, well meaning folks will sometimes say something like: “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” or even “God is testing you” like it’s GOD who’s set up the situation which moves your world. No. In times like these, business as usual times, God grieves more than anyone. In hard times, it's God who sends small but life giving reminders of hope in the most hopeless times.
Let me warn you of a little danger. There is a little danger that mirror-lookers might turn into navel gazers. You have to walk this path carefully, because this IS about you, but it’s not ONLY about you. Listen to Jesus when you feel like you might doing just a little too much navel gazing. “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they sprout leaves, you can see for yourself and know that summer is already near.”
In that time of interior calamity – of the confusion and the roar – it is the beauty and constancy of the tree’s movement from one season to the next that reminds us that the revealing of the kingdom is not a one time deal, but an every day, every moment occurrence, we just need to open our eyes to see.
When the planets are crashing around us, can we take a moment to pause and look for the barely budding, sweetly opening leaves of the fig tree? Can we dare to find hope in unexpected, and yet expected too, signs of life in creation and in one another?
The apostle Paul expected it. Separated as he was from the Thessalonians, he expected to see them again face to face, knowing that it was their relationship with each other, the love they felt and knew for one another, that would restore loss of hope they had. And you’ve seen it too. In the sun breaking through the clouds. In the phone call that restores a relationship. In the touch of a hand. In a kind word said at just the right time. At a prayer unexpectedly, and yet expectedly too, answered.
And remembering that is what advent is all about. Unlike the retail Christmas season that sends us in a frenzy out to grab the one “must have thing,” in advent we say, “we are people of hope because we know that the kingdom is not going to be revealed in the single cataclysm of being first in line to purchase this year’s must have toy (which by the way is a robotic hamster which rolls around, makes 40 different sounds depending on its environment and comes with quote "tons of accessories" – we hope that tons is not to be taken literally) rather than that one perfect toy – a one time event, we are looking for signs of hope every day, in every small thing.
In the weeks to come, we will hear snippets of the Christmas story – we will hear of angels who proclaim good news, of shepherds who are willing to hear and leave all that was familiar, of a young mother who says yes to god, of a husband and father willing to trust, of wise ones following a star. We might be tempted to think of these as one time, cataclysmic events – life changing. We might be tempted to look at the Christmas story through a window, as events that happened once to other people, long ago. But for each of us, if we see the Christmas story as a mirror, not a window, we will see that each day we have the opportunity to wake up and proclaim, to be willing to hear, to say yes to God, to trust, to follow. These are not cataclysmic, one time events, but every day every day every day opportunities. These are the ways in which the kingdom is revealed. These are the ways in which the Christ child is born anew within each of us. Amen.