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Advent 1 - The Bear

Luke 21: 25-36

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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 

Why this passage in Advent? It is a good question, as it seems somewhat out of step with the hopeful and joyful message that characterises the rest of the season.

Story of the bear For context, please read the story at the website. 

Luke writes of Jesus telling of the sun, moon, stars, and earth in distress, and he knew of what he wrote. That is because Luke was writing after Roman armies had marched into Jerusalem, and seized it, destroying the Temple, defiling the Holy of Holies, and crushing the hopes of many who had thought that this uprising with the sword was God's own doing, and God's vindication of those who took up the sword to defend Jerusalem was at hand. Luke wrote to Christians at a time when their refusal to take up arms to defend Jerusalem was bringing rejection and persecution from kin and neighbours as well as the ongoing ire of Roman authorities who saw Christians as troublemakers who stirred up slaves and fractured families. It’s a setting that must have looked very much like the end of times predicted in the scripture of the Jewish people.

I sometimes wonder, when I look at what is happening in the world today, if we are not in the end times of the human race. We see wars, famine, epidemics like ebola, ruthless fundamentalists of very religion committing atrocities, and a raft of natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. It is easy to see comparisons between what is happening now and what Jesus said, just as the writer of Luke did.

Yet Jesus speaks of these things as a sign of redemption, and a sign that the kingdom of God is drawing near. What does that mean? What hope is offered by a redemption that sounds so unfair and violent? Why is this birthplace of the kingdom of God?

The story you can read at the link above is a true one. Those of you with internet connection can Google it and you will see it really happened. I found it in a book of essays called "Small Wonder," by Barbara Kingsolver. The whole book is a poetic proclamation of the power of hope. It is also a stinging criticism against a self-centred society, and it takes a sharp look at the wars, the natural disasters, and the political violence of the 21st century. Barbara Kingsolvre has taken the story, and uses it as a lens to understand hope. I am using it to understand Luke's little apocalypse.

Did you read the story of the bear?

In the book, Kingsolver ends the story with the words: “I believe the things we dread most can sometimes save us.” Let us think about those words.

The bear is not a natural ally of the human race. There are many stories about bear attacks and deaths caused by bears. They are a natural enemy of humans. Yet the story of this bear does really show that “the things we dread most can sometimes save us.”

It is hard to imagine our current day enemies as a vehicle of our salvation. Our response to the hatred and enmity that has been shown by a few is to rain bombs down on the heads of the innocent and guilty alike. We are alive in a fearsome time, and have been given new things to fear, things that may look to us a lot like the apocalypse of Luke. Though we have been dealt a number of blows by this new enemy, we can still choose our response to it. The easiest thing to do is return the blows, much like the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.”

But is this what Jesus means when he says the kingdom of God is near? To return blows for and hatred for hatred? It is clear that dropping bombs and waging war does not bring peace. Perhaps it is time to take Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies seriously, and invent a new response to hatred, a response that discards the destructive answer in favour of a constructive one.
The kingdom of God is about the renewal and reconciliation of the whole creation breaking into our present. This is what we pray for when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. This is the future we long for – a correspondence of behaviour and existence between heaven and earth.

How we interact and respond to terror, the bear of our time, will determine whether or not it will eat us up and destroy us, or whether it will be the instrument of our salvation.

On p.9 Kingsolver writes: “There are many angles….. Sometimes when we engage to save the bear, it actually saves us.

We have seen many bears throughout human history. The bear of racial segregation, where white Americans feared the sky would fall in if their children sat near black children in school.  The picture on the screen is of Ruby Bridges aged 6, having to be escorted to class by her mother and U.S. marshals due to violent mobs when she became the first African-American child to integrate a white Southern elementary school. Bridges' bravery paved the way for continued Civil Rights action and a huge step toward race equality, despite the hatred and screams of protest by white students, which is clear in the other photos.

Another is the bear of slavery, where first the British then the Americans claimed that economy and country alike would wither and die without the free labour. slavery. As it turned out, neither happened. Apartheid was dismantled in South Africa and the country did not collapse as predicted. In the 20th century, we fought bitter wars with those who are now are allies and friends. Other bears include feelings of despair, anxiety, fear and hopelessness. We invest in walls that segregate us from the rest of humanity. We construct boundaries between the haves and have-nots, and defend them with armaments, while at the same time creating a desire for material wants in those doomed to stay as have-nots. This leads to angry, hungry people rising up to protest, and then requiring more armaments to keep them at bay and higher walls to keep them out, all the while creating a culture of fear in us who cower behind the walls, fearful that our ‘way of life’ is under threat.

Historians tells us that from time immemorial people in each era have felt that the problems confronting the world are so enormous, so huge in scope that they it cannot mean anything other than the apocalypse approaching, and the end of the word as we know it. The destruction of the Temple in the first century, the destruction of the Roman empire by the Huns, the Crusades of early mediaeval Europe, the Black Death plague of the 14th century all must have felt like the end of the world was near.

It is quite likely that we may we wrong again in our own times about the current bear we face. History clearly shows that our fear of the bear has often been unfounded, and rather than ripping us limb from limb, when engaged with love it has become our friend and has nurtured our growth as human beings. Instead of spending trillions on the machinery of war, perhaps we should be equipping the civilians of those places in turmoil with the means to become fed, educated and housed. History shows that people turn to hatred and vengeance only when desperate, and that populations who are fed, literate, and with access to health services and education, do not tolerate the likes of the Taliban warlords for very long, and can despatch the tyrants themselves. Bread, not bombs, medicine, not missiles, and education rather than enmity may have a profound effect in changing how we are viewed by desperate humanity in other parts of the world. Surely when we confront the things we dread with such actions, then there we will surely find our salvation.

As well as the signs of the apocalypse, Jesus has left us with many words of hope. Jesus calls us to return love for hatred, peace for war. In the passage we heard, Jesus calls us to be working for the kingdom, to be ready, to have self-discipline, compassion, acceptance and a moral way of engaging with the world. Jesus presents a vision of hope and energy. As our own Basis Of Union suggests: “Christ invites us to serve humanity by creating an inclusive, connected and just world.”

Rather than feeling hopeless, like “a screen door banging in a hurricane”, Kingsolver suggests that we should be the ones to “bang and bang on the door of hope and refuse to let anyone suggest that no one is home”. She urges that we keep striking matches against the darkness of despair, and should start to reimagine our lives to find within us “a humanity we have not yet mustered, and a grace we were not aware of” to deliver a world of true peace, security, freedom from fear and want, and justice.

Today Christians around the world light the first candle in the four-week journey through the darkness of Advent. A key feature of this Advent hope is to recognise that God’s desire is to work in and through us in the midst of turmoil and struggle. We should not stay with the images of a sentimental Christmas that depict a smiling baby in a manger with adoring parents, beasts and shepherds. Instead we should open our eyes to see and understand the chaos of the cosmos. We should take on board these words of Pope Frances. We should look with a God's-eye view to see both the beauty and the terror of this world. And with eyes looking up, we are called to be about the work of the kingdom as we wait for God's promise to be fulfilled. Then, as we respond to this call, we become a sign of God’s Advent to others, leading them into the hope we have in Christ.

O Come Emmanuel by John van de Laar
Our world carries the scars of the way we live, Jesus;
the preferential treatment given
to the few who are wealthy and powerful and famous
leaves the rest ignored and neglected;
the desperate quest for more
leaves all of us feeling less, enjoying less;
the self-protective aggression we embrace to feel safe
leaves us and others wounded and frightened;
the apathetic disregard for the suffering, the grieving, the dying
leaves us disconnected from our own humanity,
from our ability to feel and to care.
We need our world turned upside down, Jesus;
We need our self-importance and self-sufficiency to be undermined;
We need a new way of being that is built on a whole new set of values:
Humble the powerful
and exalt the humble, we pray;
Fill the hungry with good things,
and keep the satisfied from taking even more;
Give us the wisdom to let a Child lead us
into a world of justice and love;
into the joy of sacrifice and service and simplicity.

O come, Emmanuel, and ransom your captive people. Amen.

Elizabeth Raine

Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018. 

Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister. 

Quote for today

...But you know Him, for He lives with you, and will be in you. John14:17

About Our Church

Our faith community began in 1975 as a small ecumenical gathering of people who settled in the new Canberra township of Tuggeranong. We have grown with the Tuggeranong Community, and our parish centre is the hub for our work, as a place of worship, of gathering, fellowship and ministry.

We come together for authentic and Christ-centred worship. While we worship in a variety of styles, we share a common focus on faithfully listening for God’s Word and sharing His kindness and compassion with others. We express our love for God and others through a range of ministries, and connections with our community.

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