Today is the first day of Advent, the beginning of a new year in the church calendar.
We have spent the last six months in what the church calls “ordinary time,” that long period between Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, and the First Sunday of Advent. Ordinary time is, of course, where we live most of our lives. No huge celebrations, no big feast days, just the days in and out of the life of faith.
Advent jolts us out of ordinary time with the good news that God is about to do a new thing, that God’s grace is about to arrive in the world in the unexpected form of a vulnerable, helpless baby.
But surprisingly, the scripture for the first Sunday of Advent is full of apocalpytic imagery and warnings of doom.
As I read the gospel for this week, my mind went back to the beginning of Advent 40 years ago, when the nation was still reeling from the bizarre and tragic events that were happening a world away in Jonestown, Guyana.
Journalist Tim Reiterman was in Jonestown then, covering Congressman Leo Ryan from California, who was there to investigate allegations of abuse and other horrors in the Peoples’ Temple compound run by the charismatic Rev. Jim Jones.
Reiterman remembers a freakish storm that day, which in retrospect seemed an ominous warning of what was to come. Dark clouds unexpectedly tumbled through the blue sky, a powerful wind tore through the pavilion where Reiterman was interviewing Jones, and the skies suddenly dumped torrents of rain.
“I felt evil itself blow into Jonestown when that storm hit,” one of the few survivors of that day remembers.
Within hours the congressman and three others were dead, shot by temple assassins as they tried to board an airplane. Reiterman was wounded in the gunfire.
Those events were just the beginning of the horror.
When the gunmen returned to Jonestown from the outlying airport, Jones had gathered his people into the pavilion, and weaving words of desperation, had begun preparing them for the end.
As Reiterman writes in an article remembering those dark days, Jones used the news of Ryan’s murder to convince his followers that they had no hope, no future, no place to go.
“The congressman has been murdered!” he announced. “Please get the medication before it is too late…Don’t be afraid to die.”
Then cyanide-laced KoolAde was brought out. Jones insisted that the children drink first, sealing everyone’s fate because the parents and elders of the community would then follow in despair.
Unbelievably, more than 900 people died in the suicide and murder ritual that has come to epitomize the ultimate evil power of a charismatic leader over his followers.
As horrific and bizarre as the events in Jonestown were, they have scriptural overtones. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus talks about strange meteorological events being a sign of the coming end time.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves,” Jesus says. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
The season of Advent begins not on a note of hope about the impending birth of the savior, but on a note of despair at the depths to which humanity has sunk.
Each year we begin the liturgical new year with humankind at the end of its rope. One commentator writes that at the start of Advent, “We have realized at the deepest level of our being that we cannot save ourselves, and that apart from the intervention of God, we are totally and irretrievably lost.”
Those words sound strikingly similar to the message Jim Jones gave his followers that fateful day – they had no hope, no future, no place to go.
Why is Jesus speaking in such ominous terms?
These words come near the end of the Book of Luke, as Jesus and his disciples reach Jerusalem. They are the last words we hear from Jesus before the Passover, the meal he celebrated with his disciples on the last night of his life.
For Jesus, the end of his own time on earth is very near. He is telling his disciples that his death will be of cosmic importance. He knows that his death will plunge his followers into despair.
But unlike the false prophet Jim Jones, Jesus gives his disciples hope for the dark days.
“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads,” he tells them, “because your redemption is near.”
Those earliest followers of Jesus did believe that the end of time was near, that they would live to see Jesus’ physical return to earth. The apostle Paul’s letters are filled with references to Christ’s Second Coming and the last days of earth, events he fully expected to occur in his lifetime.
We know, of course, that Paul and other early followers of Jesus were wrong about that, as have been so many others since then, including the tragic cult followers of Jim Jones.
But we don’t have to take these apocalyptic images literally for them to be true. Many of us have experienced distressing endings in our lives.
In this country alone in recent months we’ve seen catastrophic hurricanes and floods, raging wildfires that have destroyed whole towns, and earthquakes that have shaken a region.
We also seen them on a more personal level – devastating illnesses, struggles with addiction, the death of someone we love or the death of love itself, the loss of work and identity, the fear of how we will be able to pay our bills.
These are moments and times that theologian Paul Tillich calls “the shaking of our foundations,” times when it does, indeed, seem like we may faint from fear and foreboding.
Those are the times for which scripture’s apocalyptic readings are meant.
The word apocalypse comes from the Greek word for “uncovering” or “revealing,” which, as writer Kathleen Norris points out, makes it also a word about possibilities or hope.
“While uncovering something we’d just as soon keep hidden is a frightening prospect,” she says, “the point of the apocalypse is not to frighten us into submission.”
It is not until we uncover, or reveal, the reality of our present situation – no matter how dire or bleak it is – that we can honestly begin to see the possibilities and hope for the future.
“Amid pain and prolonged suffering, when there can be seen on the horizon no relief from disaster, faith turns its face toward heaven, not only for a revelation of God’s will, but also for a vision of the end of the present misery and the beginning of the age to come.”
With God there is never an end without a new beginning. We hear that in today’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah. Prior to this passage, the prophet has issued dire warnings about the coming end times, and the day of judgment.
But then he offers this vision of hope.
‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise made. I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, and he will execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
We begin Advent with a call to examine the reality of our lives, but also with the attitude of hope and expectancy that God’s promises will be fulfilled.
We believe, as our prayer for the first Sunday of Advent says, that with God’s help we can cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
Unlike our more fundamentalist brothers and sisters, I don’t spend much time thinking about Jesus bursting out of a cloud to physically return to earth.
But I do believe that Jesus continually comes into the world, most often in ways that we may only recognize in hindsight; that when our foundations are shaking is when we are most likely to encounter him coming to bring hope, and possibilities for new life that we cannot imagine.