WHEN THE TREES CLAP THEIR HANDS
"The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands."
"For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man."
Last Sunday, as I was reflecting on my meditation for this, the third week in Advent, a message appeared on my screen from Avaaz, that global network for justice which involves forty-two million people in its various campaigns. The message read:
Out of great crises, humanity has borne beautiful visions. World War II gave rise to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an enduring standard for our spirit and capacity as one people. The fall of Apartheid led South Africa to the single most bold and progressive constitution in the world.
And now world leaders at the United Nations climate talks in Paris have set a landmark goal that can save the planet. That is the significance of what was achieved after intense debate and negotiation between virtually all the nations of the world. Of course, the Paris Declaration still has to be ratified by the relevant national authorities and they have to put it into practice. It is also true that the Declaration does not go nearly far enough, for even if the targets set are achieved, this will not automatically prevent disastrous weather patterns over the coming years. Much, much more needs to be done, and sooner rather than later. But for the first time almost all the nations of the world have agreed about global warming and what must be done to stop it before our planet is destroyed.
As I reflected on the significance of this event, and its potential to prevent disaster, a verse from the prophet Isaiah came to mind.
"The mountains and the hills shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands."
This is part of Isaiah's vision of the coming of God's reign on earth and therefore an appropriate text for Advent when we focus among other things on the Second Coming of Christ when God's glory will be revealed in all its fullness, when creation will be restored, and justice and peace will finally be established. At last the trees have reason to clap their hands.
While reflecting on Isaiah's utopian vision, another Advent biblical passage came to mind which refers to the days of Noah when "corruption and violence filled the earth," when people were oblivious to the consequences of their actions and ignored the warning signs. Instead they "were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage" and did not know what hit them until "the flood came and swept them all away." That is all except Noah, his family and the animals that crowded into his ark. We miss the point of this ancient and universal story if we go searching for the remains of Noah's Ark somewhere in Sinai and try to work out how he got all the animals inside including, presumably two tarantulas and two crocodile. There probably was a great flood that gave rise to the story, but it was told not to dazzle generations of Sunday School children and then turn them into sceptics about the Bible's truth at the same time as they stop believing in Father Christmas. No, the story of Noah is a prophetic warning about the dire consequences that inevitably follow corruption and violence. As such, its message is universal and perennial, and told for our time, perhaps more so than any other when people, as in the days of Noah, have scoffed about global warming and continue to pursue policies that destroy the environment. Suddenly, is seems, people and governments are waking up as floods engulf towns and islands across the globe. The significance of the Paris Declaration is that we might just have woken up in time, but only just. In fact during the Paris Conference the Indian Finance Minister first came out against 100% clean energy. This was potentially an enormous set-back for the process. But then a film was screened the city in the conference hall showing the city of Chennai under water that week along with messages from across India. A day later, Prime Minister Modi declared that he had changed his mind, and this decisively influenced the discussions.
There are two approaches to the Second Coming of Christ. The most popular and widespread among many Christian groups, especially fundamentalists, is that the world will come to a violent end in the final battle of Armageddon. Then Christ will return to establish God's reign of justice and peace. This view is based on apocalyptic passages in the New Testament, especially the book of Revelation which are taken literally in a way never intended. Many Christians think this will happen in their life time -- as many have in previous generations -- and that the sooner the Middle East blows up the better. They therefore support the wars now taking place because these herald the return of Jesus, and they oppose those who work for peace and justice. War in the Middle East is part of God's plan, to put it crudely, which is also the view of ISIS which, strangely, also anticipates the return of Jesus in that final battle of Armageddon.
But is its God's will that the world continues on its present trajectory of corruption, violence and war, leading to death and destruction on such a scale? Does the God who loves the world really plan to annihilate millions of people through bombs and bullets, as well as devastate the earth, in order to establish his kingdom of justice and peace? Is God a cynical god for whom the end justifies the means, so that in order to bring about peace you promote war? That certainly does not correspond to what we know of God's will for the world in Jesus Christ, and therefore does not tally with any notion of a Second Advent of the Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever. The Christ who is with us and who will come again, is the same Christ who came to Bethlehem.
God's way according to Jesus and the prophets, then, is the way of justice and the renewal of the earth, not the way of war and devastation; it is the way of loving enemies not destroying them, fighting corruption and evil for the sake of the common good. That is the way of Christ, and it is to the coming of this Christ of redemption, the Christ who is the healer of the nations. The message of Advent, then, is one of hope in the coming of God kingdom, but it is also a call to wake up before it is too late! Too late because we have allowed corruption and violence to get out of hand, too late because we have so degraded the environment that it has got beyond the point of no return. That is why Advent prepares us for the coming of Christ by calling us to conversion, to a change of heart and mind, to renew our efforts at being peace-makers and good earth-keepers. We have every reason to live in hope, but that means keeping awake and, with John the Baptist, preparing the way for the coming of God's kingdom when
"The mountains and the hills will burst into song,
and the trees of the field will clap their hands."
John de Gruchy
Volmoed Advent III, 17 December 2015