The Man Comes Around

“There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names And he decides who to free and who to blame Everybody won’t be treated all the same There’ll be a golden ladder reachin’ down When the man comes around”

Today is the second Sunday of the Christian season of Advent. Each Sunday in advent I’m offering a reflection on one or more of the passages for Sunday’s Liturgical readings. You can read this week’s passages here.

All of this week’s passages are concerned with the topic of Eschatology. Much of contemporary eschatological conversations – across religious traditions – usually focus on “the end of the world. ” However the word derived from the Greek, eskhatos simply meaning last things. Most worldviews and religions that provide some sort of myth for the origins of cosmology, also propose some sort of “end of days” or at least “end of an age” rooted in the mythology used to explain human origins.

In India, Some Hindus await the tenth and final incarnation of the god Vishnu. He is described to appear in order to end the Kali Yuga (the current age of confusion, despair and wickedness) and bring about the Satya Yuga (or new epoch in which humanity is righteous and governed by the gods). In most Eastern religions, time itself is understood to be more cyclical than linear. So these are extended periods of order and chaos that repeat themselves. Ancient Germanic tribes would await Ragnarök, a final battle in which the gods of Germainic and Norse mythology – Odin, Thor, Týr, Freyr, Heimdallr, and Loki – would wage war that would mean the death of gods, a time of turmoil on earth.

Long before the rise of Islam, Zoroastrianism, was the ancient native religion to the indigenous people of Iran. Zoroastrianism probably had more interplay and impact and Jewish and Christian theology more than any other distinct religion of the Ancient Near East. Zoroastrianism has a dualistic but ultimately Monotheistic cosmology of good and evil. It is within this monotheistic framework, the Zoroastrians developed an eschatology which predicts the ultimate conquest of evil by good.

All of this is to say that Eschatology is not a category that belongs solely to Christianity or even the broader Judeo-Christian tradition(s). And within both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament there are nuanced and varying – if not conflicting – eschatological hopes.

The Hebrew Bible or what Christians call “The Old Testament” can be broken down into three major divisions: Torah (Instruction, or Law, also called the Pentateuch), Neviʾim (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). The Hebrew Bible is often called Tanakh, an acronym derived from the names of the these three divisions. Further, the Neviʾim is divided up into two distinct eras: Nevi’im Rishonim or “Former Prophets” and Nevi’im Akharonim: “Latter Prophets.” The primary role of the prophet in either case is to speak boldly to Israel’s political and religious leaders, pronounce god’s judgement on Israel and “the Nations” and to intercede to god on behalf of the people.

For instance, in the more narrative books of the Former Prophets, Nathan confronts David about his grotesque misuse of power, his raping of Bathsheba (not much choice involved when a king calls upon a subject), and his vicarious murder of her husband, Uriah. Elijah stood up to Ahab when he stole Naboth’s vineyard. Collectively, the Former Prophets tell the story of a nomadic collective of 12 tribes becoming two divided Kingdoms and the fall of the norther kingdom to the Assyrian Empire.

The Latter Prophets focus on gods judgement end looming Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple after the Babylonian Captivity. In this liminal space between being a crushed and wounded people and the efforts to rebuild Judah and the temple the notion of a Messiah (an anointed liberator) begins to develop. The book of Isaiah is pregnant with messianic expectation.

Today’s reading from Isaiah 11 is about a leader who will have the spirit of God rest on him. This leader would be righteous and faithful. He will bring about a time so peaceful that “the cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together.” Please remember that Prophets spoke truth to power in their own time! They did not just ramble about things hundreds of years in the future that would be nonintegrable to the prophet’s first audience. I will leave it to others to argue about whether this was about Hezekiah or some other Southern leader in the “house of David.”

No doubt this passage also envisions a deeper fulfilment that still has not come to pass. War, violence, famine, and inequity permeate the air we live in. The air we have always lived in.

But look how much the “center” of this eschatological hope – especially in Christianity – has dramatically changed and mutated. The notion of God coming to humanity by way of an anointed leader has turned into God coming in the person of Jesus to take humanity away.

That may be a bit of an overstatement that doesn’t find a home in doctrinal statements that still talk about a renewal of the earth and God Reigning on earth.

I remember as a child coming home from church many a warm Sunday to sit on my dad’s wood pile, making percussion instruments of the logs and singing, “Our God Reigns.” Or I would just lay on my back on our family’s large trampoline and stare into the sky. In the warmth of the sun I would wait and stair for Jesus to part the Clouds. Have you ever seen the Hanna-Barbera animated series, Super Friends (DC’s Justice League)? I waited every Sunday for Jesus to part the clouds and appear like a 1000 foot Apache Chief, come to carry me “home.”

But earth is my home. Earth is my only home. During this advent season, I do long for and work towards whatever bit of heaven, of light, of good, of “divinity” we can manifest on earth.

I no longer wait for “the man to come around” and drop a golden ladder for me to climb out of this world. To continue to do so, would require tremendous cognitive dissonance. However, we can all live like we are eager for a time of justice, peace and equality. It is often said that the linear notion time that is the genius of the Hebrew scriptures when compared to more cyclical world views like the cyclical epochs in Hinduism. I would contend the true genius – especially as it is seen in Isaiah and the prophets – is not that time is linear or will come to an end per se. Rather, they present a case that while time goes on, and on, and on… a day is coming – or at the very least a day is possible – when the status quo of tyranny and oppression are overthrown and replaced with justice and a spirit of freedom. This is the kind of messianic age I light a candle, hope for and work towards this Advent Season.

Spitting Off the Edge of the World

“Cowards, here’s the sun So bow your heads In the absence of bombs”

This is how we got here. Karen O’s words ring out like a fierce indictment: ‘tracing the steps’ of the “cowards” that have led humanity to this precarious cliff we are coactively hanging from. The slow, smoldering movement of the synthesizer seems to invite a sense of the grandiose. As the Yeah Yeah Yeahs play on, Karen O shares vocal duties with Perfume Genius. But amidst the foreboding, there is a palpable sense of resiliency bubbling up.

This is where we are. We’re spitting off the edge of the world. It’s all come to this. The chorus washes over the listener in waves, creating a call and response effect with the main and backing vocal takes:

We’re spitting off the edge of the world (out in the night)
Never had no chance (nowhere to hide)
Spitting off the edge of the world (out comes the sun)
Never had no chance (nowhere to run)

This is where we’re going. Everything we thought we ever knew, has radically changed to bring us to what we previously thought was the edge of the world. We’ve arrive at what seems like yet another point of no return. The days at hand won’t be easy. It won’t be easy. Things may not feel normal or comfortable: “Wounded arms must carry the load.” However, hope remains palpable. The final line of this apocalyptic ballad is pregnant with expectation:

Winds from the sky (never had no chance) Will watch us rise

Karen O wears a bit of a prophetic spirit on her sleeve. Explaining the meaning of this song, she said, “Spitting Off the Edge of the World” was inspired in at least in part by the devastating impacts of climate change. . “I see the younger generations staring down this threat, and they’re standing on the edge of a precipice, confronting what’s coming with anger and defiance,” she said. “It’s galvanizing, and there’s hope there.” 

Karen O wears her prophetic voice on her sleeve. She couldn’t hide it if she tried. This is what a prophet does! They tell us where we are, how we got there and give us a good idea of what the consequences are going to be.

Long before Karen O ever sat down at a piano to compose, there was a guy – perhaps a group or “school” of guys – named Isaiah. The book of the Hebrew Torah that bears his name, conveys a very similar foreboding feeling that the world as we know it – a world of violence and mayhem is about to end. Long before Karen O longed for silence in the absence of bombs, Isiah Looked for a day when the ways of war and violence would be so passé that we can all feel comfortable melting down our tools of violence and fashioning them into tools of gardening: tools that cultivate life not death.

The human disposition of hubris and violence is so prevalent, the prognosis of our situation so unsettling, and the hope for a time of peace and rest so unwavering, that you can just about make out the mournful yet hopeful tune of a prophet regardless of time, place, culture or religion.

Unfortunately in our time, words like prophecy, even simple words like god, truth, good, evil have become so overly used as weapons, we might do better to lay them down for a time with the bombs and swords and just focus on trying to live life now.

We can all be pretty bad at that. We often live with a foot in the past, dreaming about a better future.

Sometimes it is so damn hard to just be here, right now, in the moment. The writer of the “gospel” or letter we today call Matthew was so eager for a time of peace and universal prosperity, that he used a rabbinical approach called midrash to apply a lot of Hebrew concepts to the person and work of a first century Palestinian peasant who inspired a minor uprising and was killed by the government of his time.

Writing around the time of 70 CE (about 40 years after the crucifixion), Rome’s destruction of the temple had many, Jews and Christians alike, certain that the end must be near. Matthew placed words of near certainty about the end of days in directly into Jesus’ mouth. If you go just a little further passed today’s reading, Jesus says, “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”

He was wrong. They were wrong. At least in the sense that Jesus is going to come back and bring us an ice cold coke from the heavenly fridge or open up a can of fiery whoop-ass on the unrighteous

So what? That’s what I said for a very long time. So fucking what? The human predicament is still the same. Still so full of violence and war. Hanging our hat on external projections in the sky doesn’t seem to help at all. In fact, focusing on “the end” whatever the hell that means, has potential to turn us all into a selfish, preoccupied noobs that only cause more pain and violence.

What would happen if we lived in the present? Religious or not? What if we learned from the hard lessons that brought us this far? What if we changed the – just ever so slightly – the orientation (or disorientation) of only focusing on the “advent” or coming of the divine into our lives in the past. Those inexplicable moments that feel, for lack of a better word, “Holy.” We sit, dream about the good old days, and wait for restoration.

But that is no way to live. Regardless of time, place, culture or religion we have often dared to hope not too much, but too little. We need to stop waiting for restoration and start living towards our own emancipation and that of the whole.

Happy first Sunday of Advent. So we are at the beginning of a long journey. If you’re not familiar with some of the words and terms that are saturated in religious sectarianism (Like advent, sin, prophecy, etc) don’t worry, if you’re interested, we should have plenty of time to explore these things together throughout the coming weeks, months., years.

We’ll see how this goes and if anybody else comes along for the ride. My name is Wayne. I’m no longer a Christian. But terms like theist or atheist no longer make sense to me (or a lot of others) in a vast universe we know to be ever expanding.

Get the baby out of the trash can, and warm up some fresh bath water. Lets explore together what to throw away and what to keep.

I’ll start with one post each week offers a reflection on at least one (if not more) of the weekly passages from the common lectionary.

I won’t always save the passages or all of my cards so to speak for last. I’m just your average former pastor and recovering alcoholic with CPTSD, Anxiety Disorder, Chronic Depression and a hope that will not let me go – gentle or forcefully – into that good night.

Instead I will offer some reflection and life stories and try to celebrate the only way the light ever comes, anew, each day and punctuated by long cold nights, and even longer seasons of darkness. Spit in the face of that darkness as we spin together at what feels and has always felt like the end of the world.

For today, you can view the lectionary passages for this first Sunday of Advent here.

The Christian Atheist

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