Sunday, December 2, 2012

"Do they know it's Christmas?" Advent, coal, the Apocalypse, and hope

Text: Luke 21 5-10, 25-36 (signs and parable of the End)

"Do they know it's Christmas?" is the name of a British music video that helped raise money for Ethiopian famine relief in 1984. It came to my mind this week for two reasons: a CBC Radio interview about a recent video that spoofs it -- more on that later; and because the assigned Gospel reading for today is so removed from Christmas.

This first Gospel reading of Advent is not set in the weeks leading up to Jesus' birth. It is set in the final days of his life in Jerusalem. Last week, we closed the church year with a reading from John about Jesus' trial before Pontius Pilate on Good Friday. Two weeks ago, we heard what will be our final reading from Mark for two years and . . . it was almost the exact same reading that we just heard from Luke!

Why do the powers-that-be in the church suggest that we end one church year and begin another with nearly identical readings about wars, earthquakes, floods, and the coming of the Day of Judgement?

The creators of the church's Lectionary are trying to show us, I believe, that Advent is not only a time of waiting and preparation for Christmas. It is also a time for us to prepare for the awesome Second Coming of Jesus. These readings might stir up more fear than hope, but I believe that we can see God's hope in them.

Our reading today is one of those places where Luke copies Mark quite closely. The passage is often called the Little Apocalypse because, in it, Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem as well as signs of the coming of the Son of Man -- wars, earthquakes, and dreadful portents in the heavens.

In the two weeks since we heard Mark's version of the Little Apocalypse, I have watched a five-part TV series on Vision TV called "Apocalypse When?" and a one-woman teleplay about Rachel Carson on the 50th anniversary of the publication of her influential environmental book "Silent Spring."

The Vision TV series served to debunk the notion that the end of the world can be accurately predicted by religious leaders. It also suggested reasons why so many of us are fascinated by predictions of the end of the world, such as the ones found in our Gospel readings today and two weeks ago.

All of us face The End in the sense that we know we are going to die. Of course, our individual deaths do not mean the end of the world for anyone other than ourselves; and we also trust that death leads to a reunion with God's Love. Still, our fears about death may partly explain the popular fascination both with disasters and the idea that this world might someday end for everyone at the same time.

Also, despite the repeated failures of religious predictions of the end of the world, recent social developments provide new fuel for our apocalyptic imaginations -- nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, rapid social change, news of disasters such as earthquakes and famines, and fears about the well-being of the natural environment.

I enjoyed seeing a broadcast of a one-woman play on pioneer environmentalist Rachel Carson this week on PBS. It is hard for me to believe that it has only been 50 years since the publication of her book "Silent Spring," which opposed pesticides such as DDT. Almost single-handedly, her book helped to launch the environmental movement. It led to laws that banned DDT and the establishment of environmental protection agencies.

Despite 50 years of progress, the greatest environmental threat yet -- climate change -- continues unabated; and it is now back at the top of the media's agenda because of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey in October. For instance, the lead  item on the NBC Nightly News this past Thursday was a report on the melting of the huge ice packs on Greenland and Antarctica and the resulting rise in the level of the world's oceans.

Climate change is an issue for everyone on earth. But it may have special importance for an area like ours that mines and burns fossil fuels. Without the coal mine and coal-fired electrical generating plant built here in Coronach in the late 1970s, our area might have withered away entirely. In this sense, the coal industry here has been a boon for Borderlands.

On the other hand, burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil for energy and transportation is the main source of the release of carbon that is causing climate change. This process threatens to destroy the environment within which human civilization has developed over the last 10,000 years. If humanity ever finds a way to curb the release of carbon into the atmosphere and so reverse global warming, there is no doubt that coal mines and electrical plants like the ones in Coronach will have to close.

Please be assured that I am not suggesting that our church start agitating for the closure of the mine and plant. Not only would such a move be unpopular and ineffective, the closure of the coal industry in Coronach by itself would have virtually no impact on the world's climate. China opens a new coal-fired electrical generating plant every week. Closing the one in Coronach would thus be an empty gesture. It would devastate the Borderlands area while doing the world little good.

Nor do I plan to exchange my car for a horse anytime soon. Not only would riding a horse make it difficult for me to get to all those pesky Presbytery meetings in Swift Current. Individual actions like that also seem useless to me. Even if everyone in Saskatchewan gave up their cars and trucks, the world's atmosphere would hardly be effected. After all, Saskatchewan's 1 million people represent only one seven-thousandth of the world's population.

If humanity does find a way to use less energy and to generate it using something other than fossil fuels, it will not just affect coal regions like Borderlands, but every town and city in innumerable ways.

Unfortunately, no road map exists to take us from a world in which 85 million barrels of oil and 22 million tons of coal are burned every day to one where carbon levels no longer rise in the atmosphere. Given this fact, it seems to me little wonder that apocalyptic fantasies run riot in our culture.

A positive trend that helped counter the fear generated by the subject of climate change was sparked in my mind last Sunday after church in Rockglen. Hazel had brought mandarin oranges for our lunch, and like so much of our food today, these oranges were from China. I remarked on how 30 years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that one day much of the food we eat in Canada would be produced in China, let alone so many of our manufactured goods. But since China adopted free market reforms 30 years ago, its economy has grown with astonishing speed, and several hundred million Chinese peasants have been raised out of extreme poverty.

A similar process is now happening in Africa. I read an article in the Globe and Mail newspaper this week that talked about the 21st Century belonging to Africa despite continuing political problems there. Then on CBC Radio, I heard about that spoof video of African aid programs, which you can find at the "Africa for Norway" website. I watched the video,  called "Radi-Aid," and I thought it was funny and provocative.

The video details a fictitious aid campaign in which Africans send heating radiators to freezing Norwegians. It is designed to look like 1980's music videos for Ethiopia such as "Do They Know Its Christmas?," "Tears are Not Enough," and " We Are the World."  It makes two points: that aid campaigns for Africa  sometimes foster stereotypes about that continent; and that many parts of Africa are undergoing rapid economic growth at present.

Of course, rapid economic growth in China, India, Brazil, and parts of Africa increases the burning of fossil fuels and hence speeds up climate change. But it also means the end of poverty for huge numbers of people and a reversal of the apocalyptic visions with which China and Africa were painted when I was a child.

Both Hurricane Sandy on the negative side and Radi-Aid on the positive side reveal big changes in global society. The Greek word Apocalypse means "to reveal," which is why both the rapid decrease of poverty in the Global South and climate change can be viewed through an apocalyptic lens.

Our world continues to change so rapidly that it sometimes feels impossible to keep up. Jesus calls us to stay awake in the face of such cataclysmic change. His call applies both to our individual lives and to our society. He reminds us that personal or social crises often reveal signs of his coming.

On Christmas Eve, we will celebrate the gentle signs of Jesus coming -- a manger, shepherds singing 'Glory to God' on a hillside, and a baby in his mother's arms. At the same time, we are also called to search for signs of Jesus' coming again, even though those signs might frighten us. Though more dramatic than Christmas, we trust that Jesus' Second Coming will also be from Love and will lead us to Love. Jesus reminds us of this in our reading today: "When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Death awaits all of us at the end of life. God in Christ helps us to face this reality with our eyes-wide-open. Destruction may also be in store for humanity as a whole, whether through war or an environmental catastrophe like climate change. God in Christ also helps us to face these disasters with eyes-wide-open.

In Advent and Christmas we remind ourselves of Emmanuel, God With Us. There are no guarantees in life other than this -- that God is with us. This fact is as true on a starry night at Christmas as it is at the bedside of dying loved one or in the face of human-created environmental disasters.

It is easy to be afraid in the face of apocalyptic signs, even the positive ones. But when we accept God's help, we can move beyond fear into a trusting faith. We can await our redemption.

The Season of Advent is here again. In it, we wait in hope for the coming of God's light to the world whether in the form of a helpless infant or as the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power. And so this Advent, we say again in hope . . .

Come, Lord Jesus, come.


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