Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
and destruction is one of humanity’s preoccupations. This weekend
a new movie, 2012, premiers with a series of calamities and horrors that are, somewhat surprisingly, described as “spectacular
entertainment” by one of the movie’s reviewers. Along with
this movie, there is plenty of material in the bookstore, on TV, and online about predictions based, fairly loosely, on interpretations
from the Mayan calendar and writings, that the world is going to end in December of 2012.
I am not particularly worried about the world ending in December 2012.
It seems that there is always someone or some group claiming with assurance about a date when everything will end.
The Gospel for today, and the first reading from
Daniel, has a different message than making people entertained and nervous, filling us up with fear about bad things that
are going to happen on a certain day. Indeed, I am always a bit surprised
when Christian groups announce their particular interpretation that Jesus’ words are blithely ignored: "But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." Jesus is not providing a coded message about the end times.
He is revealing something about God’s plan.
The fancy word for the
type of reading we find today in Daniel and in Mark’s Gospel, as well as in the Book of Revelation is apocalyptic. Apocalyptic writing reveals a literature composed by individuals who find themselves
in situations of helplessness, oppression, or reversal when a people does not have the power to remove the injustice of the
more powerful or the burdens of a life that is made heavy and bitter by others. We
hear about destruction, changes in the heavens that mirror the shaking of the world order, and a time of peril and change.
And, Jesus tells, us only
the Father knows the timing when the structure of the world as we know it will definitively change because of the power of
God. I find myself surprised by the gentle metaphor Jesus uses for being
aware that the time is coming: "Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch
becomes tender and sprouts leaves,
you know that summer is near.” The
fullness of a new time for God and God’s people is a time of fullness, of life, of a definitive end of a long and barren
season. When does the fig tree become tender? When, for Jesus would people know that summer is near?
The fig tree should bloom around the time of Passover, the time when God’s people celebrated the might act of
liberation in freeing a nation from slavery. This is the same time when
we as Christians know that Jesus died at the hands of the unjust in order to triumph over the power of death.
So what? What does that mean for us?
Let me suggest four things.
First, we all know catastrophic
change in our lives and seasons of fear. What was it like for you on September
11, 2001? Did it not seem that amidst the horror and destruction
that life changed in our country and that we have become used to a weary vigilance about terror and war?
Second, the changes that
we know in our lives, whether they are historical disasters or personal ones---the time you are told you have cancer, the
time your spouse announces that he or she wants a divorce, the time you get laid off---give us a sense of how the world can
shift under our feet and make us wonder what is the deepest meaning. Jesus’
words point out that massive change can reveal not just suffering but also God’s hand at work when we least expect to
find redemption and hope.
Third, apocalyptic is
meant for the powerless. That can be rich person with a fatal illness or a poor
person who lives in an unsafe neighborhood. In
the context of Daniel and Jesus in Mark the message is to communities under foreign power, looking for the fullness of God. God is faithful even in the midst of what appears to be disaster. This fidelity transcends even the love shown to each of us: it is the truth of the Good News---the
human story is caught up into the story of God.
Fourth, the challenge
is relating all this to our lives right now. Jesus is not revealing some
sort of weird set of predictions to be used on a pseudo documentary on the History Channel.
He is speaking as God’s word, a word that reveals the deepest truth about existence. This is a word that will remain even though everything that we count on as providing us security
can be destroyed. For me, the challenge I find, the message that I count
as Good News, is that there is security in God. This is not some silly
belief that things that will go well if I just pray hard enough. No, it
is the revelation that the center of my reality is God and that this reality encompasses me, holds me, leads me, and brings
me into a new world, different than one that I can imagine.
Again, you may wonder,
so what? What good is this?
The Good News is only good for those who realize that who
they are is precious to God and that all the events of our lives, perhaps especially the ones that we fear the most and have
hurt us deeply, are not unknown, or unnoticed, or uncared for by our God.
Jesus’ humanity provides us with the message that our very being is capable of being filled with God. All the things that we count as keeping us secure---money, health, good looks, national pride, family
stability---are transient and will change. It can be in our distress that it
seems that the sun is dark, the moon does not shine and even the stars fall from the sky.
The reality is that God is, and remains, with us. That is the source
of our softening to the life of the Spirit that causes us to bud and be fruitful.
Not being big and strong and rich and pretty. Just as the sap changes
barrenness to fresh leaves and tender twigs, so this God whom Jesus reveals as one who fills the lives of the poor and disposed
with new hope, fills us with God’s presence. That probably
is not the stuff of a Hollywood
blockbuster. But it is the stuff of salvation.