Back when I used to travel a lot for work, there was always this question: fly… or drive?
Sometimes, that was an easy decision. If I had to go to Chicago, I drove; if I had to go to Houston, I flew.
But… there were these trips that were in-between. There were trips where the cost of mileage was a little bit less than the cost of a flight, and the amount of time it would take wasn’t all that different. And there were complicated trips where I would have to fly into one airport and rent a car and drive across a state and fly out of another airport… and where it just might be easier to…
What it comes down to is that I sometimes had to spend long hours driving across rural America… usually some part of Indiana… where there was no NPR… or oldies stations… or top 40 stations on the radio.
What there was… was Christian radio. And not nice, uplifting, inspiring, God loves you Christian radio. Oh no. It was hellfire and brimstone and damnation radio. It was rapture radio, telling the masses about a world full of signs that Jesus would be back any minute now… to spirit away the true believers… so that they could glorify God in paradise while the leftovers suffered on a charred earth.
Those long drives were little windows into a world that is not mine. I am a good mainline Protestant Christian; I am a good member of the United Church of Christ; I am a good pastor in the United Church of Christ. And we tend to focus on the here and now. We don’t usually talk about the things that Jesus says are going to come: the troubles and tribulations, the birth pangs of the Kingdom of God.
In today’s reading, Jesus takes a… dark turn.
God loves the world like this. You know the story. God creates a world and gives it to us and we break it. God comes into the world as one of us and shows us how to live and love and be human. And when we hang God on a cross and lay God in a tomb, God gets up again and says, “I’m not done with you yet.” Again and again and again. Every day. All the time.
God calls us to be instruments of love and agents of creation. God calls us towards a new kingdom and a new world, where there is enough and more than enough, where there is mercy and justice for everyone.
But the road to that kingdom—the journey to that world—is not an easy one.
We read the beginning and the end of a chapter today, but there is so much more.
Jesus says that the temple will be destroyed and buildings will crumble. Nation will rise against nation. Kingdom will rise against kingdom. There will be earthquakes and famines. There will be wars and rumors of wars. Brother will betray brother; children will betray parents; parents will betray children. Desolation and sacrilege.
And in the middle of it all, false messiahs and false prophets, calling out and saying, “I know the way out of the destruction. I know the road to safety and comfort and delight. Come follow me.”
It’s not the part of the story that we usually read. But it’s part of the story. And it’s part of the story that we need, because the path to the kingdom of God is not the nice smooth evolution of the world that we know. It is a revolution. And revolutions are… messy.
We are in the midst of a pandemic. We are also in the midst of wars and famines and earthquakes and betrayals. Even though most of that doesn’t touch us, we are in the midst of destruction. And I’m sure that someone out there—maybe even someone in a radio broadcasting booth in Indiana—has added coronavirus and COVID-19 to their list of signs that the revolution will be here any day: twenty signs that the world will end in 2020.
There is a whole sector of people who make their living predicting the end of the world. And Jesus tells us, “When you see these things happening, then you’ll know that the end is near. It’s at the gates.”
But Jesus also tells us, “No one but God knows when the end will come. No one on earth knows. The angels in heaven don’t know. I don’t even know. Only my father knows.”
And we can watch for the signs all we want. We can stand with our ear pressed against the door, straining to listen for the sound of the gate at the end of the lane to open. But we can’t tell the difference between the rattle of someone opening the gate and the rattle of the wind blowing against it.
And Jesus doesn’t ask us to look for signs. Jesus doesn’t ask us to stand with our ear pressed against the door, straining the listen for the sound of the gate at the end of the lane. Jesus asks us to stay awake and to follow him.
Even when things are hard. Even when there are wars and famines and earthquakes and betrayals. Even when we’re in the midst of a pandemic.
When things are bad and it feels like the world is falling apart, Christ calls us to do exactly the same thing that he calls us to do when things are good and it feels like the world is coming together: love.
And, if we listen closely—if we take our minds of the gate at the end of the lane and focus on his words—we can hear him say one more thing: that he isn’t talking about the end of the world at all… he’s talking about the beginning of the world. Not the world-as-it-is, but the world-as-God-intends-it-to-be.
We live in a strange tension. We are called to be instruments of love and agents of creation. We are called to work towards a new kingdom and a new world, where there is enough and more than enough, where there is mercy and justice for everyone. And we are called to do all of those things knowing that our work will not be enough… that, eventually, God will step in and tear down the world-as-it-is in favor of the world-as-God-intends-it-to-be.
Eventually, there will be a holy revolution. Eventually, there will be a divine revolution.
And it can be tempting, in the midst of that tension, to put down our work… to hunker down and protect ourselves from the dangers of the world… to fill up our storehouses and hoard the pleasures of this world… to wait for God to change everything.
To go along with the world when everything seems good. To hide from the world when everything seems bad.
But we are Christians. We took the waters of baptism. We made a covenant to follow Christ. We have eaten at his table. We are not called to go along with the world-as-it-is. We are not called to hide from the world-as-it is.
We are called to be revolutionaries of love. We are called to be midwives to the world-as-God-intends-it-to-be.
Right now, in the midst of a pandemic, that means staying home if we can. Right now, in the midst of a pandemic, that means checking in on our neighbors. Right now, in the midst of a pandemic, that means running to the grocery for someone who is vulnerable… or having a phone conversation or video chat with someone who is lonely… or just reaching out and saying, “I love you.”
And all the time, in the midst of everything that happens in the world-as-it-is, that means loving people.
And I wonder… a little bit…
Right now, we are learning to do new things. We are learning to be the church in new ways. We are learning to worship God using new technologies. We are learning to care for our neighbors by doing new things.
And I know that when this is all over, it will be tempting to return to the way that things were. But I wonder if we’re not seeing the birth pangs of something new. I wonder if we’re not seeing a little piece of a holy revolution. I wonder if we’re not seeing a little more of the world-as-God-intends-it-to-be coming into the world.
I wonder if when this is all over, we will keep checking in on our neighbors… and running to the grocery for people who can’t… and calling or chatting or visiting folks who might be lonely… and reaching out and saying, “I love you.”
I wonder if we’ll be the church in a new way. And I hope that we will. Because even as we wait for God to remake the world, there is work for us to do, and there are wilder and more wonderful ways for us to love one another.
Thanks be to God.