Don't Miss It, Pastor Kinsey
I fear we’re going to miss the celestial signs in ‘the moon and the stars,’ here in Chicago, where our view is almost more closed-in than the purview of the ancients was. 2,000 years ago, when everyone was still a ‘flat-earther,’ the skies, their heavens, were alive with the Creator’s gift of lights, ‘by day and by night.’ Yet, here in our neighborhoods we can barely look up past the street lights to observe the moon and stars at night. We are perhaps the city with the most light pollution anywhere, which can be good, safety-wise, or for enjoying night life, but terrible for catching the Big Dipper or Milky Way.
In rural Michigan, where I lived for 20 years, there you could enjoy all the lights of the night sky! Step outside, and there were so few streetlights that it was almost pitch black, and immediately, there were thousands of stars up above, the Pleiades shooting stars every August, and on rare occasions, the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.
One day our friend Ruth, from Marquette, called to tell us she saw them over Lake Superior the night before. ‘You’ve got to check it out’ she told us. So we stayed up late, past my bed time – which always makes me cranky, Kim can tell you – but it was sooo, worth it! There, from our front steps, we could look to the northern sky and see the most amazing lights – colors, pulsing and vibrating, “like shook foil” as poet Gerald Manley Hopkins once described them. Pinks and greens and yellows, changing in color and shape the more you watched.
Nobody knows for sure what causes them, maybe solar flares, in concert, somehow, with earth’s gravity. Sometimes they are so strong it interferes with radio waves and major communications around the world.
That’s probably the only way we’d know they were happening, here in Chicago, because we can’t see much past the sodium vapor and LED glow, from street to street, neighborhood to neighborhood. “There will be signs,” said Jesus. And, “…when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
I hope we don’t miss them!
So, what did the signs mean, that Jesus warned of? The brilliant and ground-breaking work by biblical theologian N. T. Wright, reveals that they were certainly signs a Jewish Messiah would point to. And first and foremost, would be the sign of redemption that would signal the end of Israel’s exile, the major unanswered question of the time. They had returned from exile in Babylon, a long time ago. But they had never really become the promised ‘redeemed’ Israel, had not yet become the liberated people of God, and beacon of light to the nations, but were under the thumb of one empire after another, and Israel’s faith leaders corrupted more than ever, under Roman occupation since Herod the Great arrived, which set the stage for the birth of Jesus a few decades later.
Jewish leaders like Bar Kochba came and went, gaining the people’s favor when they liberated the Temple, temporarily, but this too proved to be a dead end.
What N. T. Wright understands about this apocalyptic chapter of Luke, which is in all three synoptic gospels, was that Jesus was referring to a real liberation of Israel, within his own generation. It would not be a military liberation like Bar Kochba, but the beginning of a new non-violent way of leadership, never before revealed by God to the nations. It would also no longer be centered in the physical Temple in Jerusalem, that sacred symbol of Israel’s identity and center of worship, where the presence of God lived in the Ark of the Covenant, in the Holy of Holies.
The signs, in the stars and the seas, would signal great upheaval in the heavens, and also ‘distress among the nations,’ and the day of the coming of the Son of Man would come suddenly. But be ready, Jesus said, “praying that you may have the strength to escape” the destruction which would come. Jesus was predicting the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Rome, but not that his followers should take up arms to defend it. This was a confusion, and even a contradiction, for all Jews – even the 12 disciples – who had believed the day of the Lord would bring Israel a new king to reign from Jerusalem, mighty like David – that’s how the capital would be saved and liberated from the occupying Romans.
But Jesus told his followers in Jerusalem to, run for the hills, and escape the violence. God’s kingdom was not to be inaugurated by war. But be ready – after the Temple is destroyed – to ‘stand up’ and take hold of ‘your redemption.’ Then the living God will dwell in the new Temple, of the ‘Son of Man,’ the Messiah, in the risen Jesus, our Lord, the one worthy of worship and praise. The One God raised, is our redemption, a new temple that is not destructible but lives and reigns bringing in the kingdom of God, which is alive as the church, in the people of God, who carry the good news in their hearts, who live by non-violence, where the last will be first, without lording it over their brothers and sisters.
There were enough followers of Jesus, like ‘the 12 disciples and women followers,’ who decided not to defend the Temple ‘made with human hands,’ and fight the Romans to the death, but ‘escaped’ to live another day, and fight the battle of enacting the kingdom and realm of God, from synagogue to synagogue, house-church to house-church, to share the powerful message of love and non-violence, faith and living-for-your-neighbor – to stand up for washing your servants feet, raising up women leaders, loving your enemies, and transforming the kingdom of this world, by the power of kingdom of God, that had broken through in the death and resurrection of the prophet and Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
So, what are the signs of our times? How do we read the sun, moon and stars? The roaring of the seas? It’s not hard to see the signs of more powerful hurricanes and wild fires, drought and floods, and rising world temperature, as a quickly rising danger of climate change, threatening the home of our “very good” eco-system God created for us. We now know it’s happening even faster than predicted just a few years ago, and we only have a decade or two to start to make dramatic changes in the way we are overusing our fossil fuels.
And then there is the exponentially growing gap of income inequality in America, and the whole world – a sign of the rigidity of our polarized politics, a palpable disillusionment and spiritual crisis where less than half of eligible voters vote, and houses of worship are languishing. Only a reengagement from the grassroots, a movement of prayer and praise in faithful solidarity, can overcome the top-down control we have slid into.
‘Be on guard,’ as Jesus said. ‘Be alert!’ We, the people of God, must be ready to lead in times of trouble, ready to guide our neighbors and country, in an ancient-future 2,000 year old, always reforming, direction: the way of love and non-violence, the way of servanthood and loving your enemy, and the way of worshiping the Messiah, the crucified and risen Savior, who is our (living) Temple-without-walls, our first-born of the dead of God’s new creation.
In Advent, we are preparing and learning to follow the sign of the ‘star of Bethlehem,’ our shooting star, more beautiful than anything else in the world, always leading us to, ‘love of the good news,’ our core message, we share and we live.
Let us not miss the sign of the star – even here in Chicago – for our redemption is drawing near!