by Linda McMillan
Any child who has been to public school in the USA can tell you that teachers don’t really have eyes in the back of their heads. My Chinese students weren’t so sure about it, though. One day, I decided to have a little fun with them and I turned my back to the class to write on the white board. It was a new white board, though, and it was shiny. I could see a reflection of the students behind me. I let Helmco pass a note to Jou, then I turned around and said, “Jou, what’s in that note that Helmco just gave you?” They were stunned. The next time I turned around, a brave lad named Paul got up and went to his locker. I called him down without turning around. And then I said, “I can see you with my back eyes.” In my most serious teacher voice, I explained that Americans have eyes in the backs of our heads. “Didn’t anybody ever tell you that?” I asked. “Well, anyway, don’t try anything else because I can see you. I really can’t believe that you don’t know about this.” And, without the cultural background of the USA children, my Chinese students almost believed. I think a few of them did.
Advent is a time when we need eyes in the back of our heads because we are looking back to the time when God came into the world and we are looking forward to the time when God will return. Like my Chinese students, we may know that something’s up, but we’re not quite sure what it is. The darkness, the sudden focus on incarnation, looking backward, looking forward, it’s all so disorienting. In what are undeniably dark times — literally and figuratively — we light candles as if our tiny lights have a chance against the forces of darkness. The light comforts and warms, but it also reveals the apocalypse in waiting.
In the readings appointed for this morning, the apocalypse had begun. Friends, families, and communities were being torn apart. They were once whole, but suddenly some went missing. A co-worker…. gone! A sister… gone! A friend… gone! What are we to make of that?
History is littered with accounts of despots who took one but left the other. One of my Russian students made a joke a few months ago about being “disappeared,” and then his face clouded over and he told us that his uncle had been disappeared. “But, we know, he at gulag,” he said and laughed, because it’s good to think that you’ve got something on the oppressor. In Myanmar, Muslim women held in IDP camps face the daily possibility of being called out while those left behind can only imagine where they are. In 2014 we all watched in horror as 276 girls were kidnapped from the Chibok Secondary School by Boko Haram in Nigeria. They were swept away and for awhile nobody knew where they were. Last year one of my young friends who fights in a so-called “rebel” army wrote to me to tell me about an exchange of gunfire in which his friend had been killed. As the fighting in that area has heated up in the past couple of weeks, I wonder if he will be swept away next.
It must have been that way during the flood too. Two people would have been shielding themselves against the deluge and then one would be swept away, the other left behind. Or, maybe a group of people held on for dear life, but one of them would let go and they’d be gone! Eventually, only Noah and his family were left behind. The others were swept up in the catastrophic waters of the flood.
Through the noisy catastrophe and sweeping up and away of the flood, and the shocking apocalypse of having our families, relationships, and lives torn apart, we can learn something about the next coming of God: It will not go unnoticed.
But, I suspect that the vast majority of catastrophic events do go unnoticed. If the one in the field who goes missing is noticed, and if one of the women grinding meal is mourned, then there are a hundred other apocalypses which are not noticed or mourned. And that’s the message of the thief in the night. His are the catastrophes that don’t make the news: The broken heart, the unfulfilled dream, nagging self-doubts and second guessing… the thief takes away everything except the bare necessities for starting over. And, when day breaks, and the thief is gone, we find that we, like Noah, are faced with an empty world to rebuild.
In the dark days ahead we may face apocalypses like the ones described above. There is hardly anybody who is not somehow threatened by the new presidential administration. Families and communities may be torn, even torn apart. But, most definitely we will face the quieter apocalypses which tear at the heart.
The Gospels are full of admonitions to:
Be on guard (Luke 21:234),
Be alert (Luke 21:36<)
Be dressed for action (Luke 12:35)
Keep awake (Matthew 25:13)
Beware; keep alert (Mark 13:33)
Even the Didache gets in on the action: Keep vigil over your life. Let your lamps not go out and let your loins not be weak but be ready, for you do not know the hour at which our Lord is coming. (Didache 16:1-3)
But, despite all this good advice, there is no guarantee against anything bad happening. None of these verses say, “Be alert so that…. won’t happen.” They just ask us to keep awake, to notice what’s going on, to be aware of one another and the world. Apparently that’s pretty important because the Bible talks about it a lot.
So, apocalypse will come. That’s the bad news. There’s no escape.
The good news is that Jesus is coming too. He came in a manger about 2000 years ago, and he comes to us in each apocalypse. Whether it is a torn country or a torn relationship, a heart that won’t mend or memories what won’t let you move forward, God is there in Jesus, in the past, and in the future too.
None of us has eyes in the back of our heads, but we can look back in time and remember how God came to us. It was not in a storm, with lightening. nor did God come as a king to rule over us. God came as a baby, to be vulnerable and present with us. He faced his own apocalypses, and he is with us in ours.
Whatever you are facing, you are not alone.
Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai, China.
By U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), . Please credit by saying “Photo Courtesy of ICE”. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons