The end times clearly are upon us. It’s obvious, yes? Maybe there aren’t seven-headed beasts roaming the streets, but there certainly is plenty of violence, plenty of disease, plenty of man’s inhumanity to man – women, too. These signs of the apocalypse aren’t just taken from the book of Revelation, but from multiple apocalyptic visions scattered throughout the Bible, from Daniel and Ezekiel to Mark and Luke.
As we enter into the Advent season, the lectionary readings kick off the Sunday of Hope with some of these apocalyptic texts, as if we were preparing for the second coming rather than the first. Is there no difference between the two? Or perhaps more to the point, if Jesus’ birth in the manger brought hope into the world, why does the apocalypse seem so hopeless? One disturbing answer to that question might be that we, perhaps, feel we have more in common with those left behind than those drawn up to Glory in the final days. We might not be worthy. We might be lukewarm like the church in Laodicea. We might not be faithful enough, or faithful to the wrong things. Too many things can go wrong, only a tiny fraction of followers will survive the apocalypse – and so on, and so on, and so on.
With all the warm fuzzies we associate with Christmas, it is nevertheless true that Jesus is not the incarnation of a smiley-face emoji. Salvation is serious business, and Jesus has no problems clearly outlining the opposite side of the coin. But salvation is not a cold business. If it were, then indeed, we would have little hope. God does not incarnate as an accountant, noting our sins against our virtues in a big ledger, then totaling them up in the end. God comes to us as a baby, innocent and completely free of sin, who grows into a man who gives everything in order that we might be freed of our sin through grace, mercy, kindness and redemption. Those who are ultimately left behind are those who, with full consciousness of the consequences, choose to be left behind rather than accept God’s grace through Christ.
When a starving person sees an apple tree, full of fruit but in the distance, they might have hope, even though it may be some time before they arrive at the tree. But another may have despair, thinking they can not reach the tree in time. We might see the tree of life through the haze of a tempting, sinful world and wonder: will we choose hope or despair? Jesus exhorts us in Luke’s gospel to be prepared – to have adopted faith in Christ’s strength before we must cross through that haze and be sidetracked by those temptations. To trust that the path to the tree of life need not be traversed alone. To be fully aware of the dangers and snares of this world, and to fully differentiate them from Christ’s guiding light.
Jesus knows that if we pretend bad things are good things, or that falsehood is truth, we will likely get lost. Jesus also knows that even the best of us can get lost anyway. So, when Jesus warns us to be prepared, it is not his way of saying we must go it alone. Jesus wants us to go it together. And although we are warned to stay alert for the signs of evil times, those easy temptations that lead away from the light, we are also encouraged to be prepared for hope. To have faith that the difficult path does lead to God’s kingdom. Be prepared not just for the apocalypse, but also for the child in a manger.