Jesus waits to be born in every present moment
Liz Stuart, 17 November 2019
Psalm 98; Luke 21: 5–19
I am not often rendered speechless, but over 30 years ago when I was teaching Theology in Plymouth I was dumbfounded when a highly intelligent student, on course for a first-class degree, came to see me to tell me she was dropping out of her degree. She said she had been studying the Bible and it was clear that Jesus was returning soon and therefore there was no point carrying on. I cannot remember what I said to her, but it did no good. I have often wondered what happened to her and to her faith.
We misunderstand our gospel reading today if we read it as a prediction. It is part of what is known as the ‘little apocalypse’ in Luke. Apocalyptic writing did not predict the future but, under the guise of speaking about the future, interpreted the present in such a way as to give hope. When Luke’s gospel was written, the Romans had already razed the Jerusalem temple to the ground. The Jewish historian Josephus claimed that 1.1 million people died in the siege of Jerusalem. Judaism robbed of its symbolic and cultural axis turned in on itself and became more monochrome, less tolerant of diversity; followers of Jesus were eventually expelled from the synagogues.
Apocalyptic writing did not predict the future but, under the guise of speaking about the future, interpreted the present in such a way as to give hope.
What Luke describes in our gospel reading is what his community was experiencing. And it is both terrifying because it promises no relief from what they are going through – ‘they will put some of you to death’ – but also hopeful – ‘not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.’ That is an extraordinary statement to make to people who may have watched their fellow believers die. It gets us to the heart of Christianity, which is the belief that behind the reality in which we have to live and operate (which is often chaotic and cruel) lies a deeper and greater reality which is in God’s hands and in which we live never to die.
The great theologian and mystic Thomas Merton said that in fallen time there is no present. We worry endlessly about either what has happened or what will happen, but actually, all we have is now. The next minute is not vouchsafed. Jesus waits to be born in every present moment and we are called to midwife him, to assist the breaking of God’s reality into the mess and muddle of our presenting world. Now. That is what I should have said to that student 30 years ago.
We live in a culture that likes to catastrophise, and that can lead to paralysing anxiety. Christian apocalyptic discourse can feed into this if it is not understood correctly, but if it is understood properly it is actually an anti-catastrophic discourse because it is reassuring us that God is here now and he has us in his arms and will not let us go. That should give us the joy, the strength and the purpose to work with him to bring his kingdom into this moment no matter what the superficial cost for us.
‘Not a hair of your head will perish.’ Nothing of us can be lost in God’s reality. If we really believed that, how much braver and bolder we would be, how much more self-sacrificial and how much more clearly would God be manifest in our world. And every moment God asks us: do you believe it or not?
As Christians we have a tendency to lock God in the past or strain towards him in the future and not realise that he is actually and always present in the now.
I was also a bit poleaxed much more recently when a friend told me she had been converted to Christianity by fear of the Rapture. Some of you may remember there was a spate of films about the Rapture in the 1970s and Cliff Richard wrote a song about it, ‘I wish we’d all been ready’. ‘The Rapture is coming soon’ declares a website offering a Rapture Survival Kit, which includes templates of letters you can leave to explain to your bewildered loved ones why you have been swept up into the clouds and they haven’t. I tried to find a joke about the Rapture and the best one I could find was this: ‘If you can’t think of a Rapture joke don’t worry, it is not the end of the world’. The Rapture figures large in many Christians’ lives, and who I am to say whether it will happen or not, but I can’t help feeling that as Christians we have a tendency to lock God in the past or strain towards him in the future and not realise that he is actually and always present in the now. Now is where we must encounter him, and that is our greatest challenge, comfort and hope.