As children on a family road trip, who among us has not lamented from the back seat, “Are we there yet? How much longer?” It can be the plaintive cry in the weeks and days before Christmas: “How much longer?” Plaintive in the sense of impatience and joyful anticipation.
How much longer? It is easy to understand how it would be the question for people “In those days after that tribulation [when] the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” It is not a stretch to imagine how in the midst of such terrible days, even the faithful will lament, “How much longer?” – a question of fear, dread and anxiety.
It’s certainly not a new question. In fact, it’s one that has lingered in the minds of people throughout all history. Adam and Eve… How much longer do we live in shame? Noah…. till I find dry land and a new start? Abraham and Sarah…. till we have a family to call our own? Moses and Aaron…. till we reach the promised land? The question is repeated throughout salvation history. “How much longer” is a question belonging to anyone who simply longs to be redeemed. It’s for anyone who wants a complete life in an incomplete world.
It was the cry of an Afghan family in the days of tribulation as the provinces fell under Taliban control, as the Taliban entered and took control of the capital, as seemingly the power in the heavens were shaken, reducing their world to the chaotic, unrecognizable. Their life hanging by a thread which might be cut at the whimsy of an shouting angry man holding an automatic weapon. Family members who had worked as translators and staff with the military, with US AID programs, and with international charitable organizations from the West.
And now the family was camped out at the gate of the international airport in Kabul. Camped for 15 days. 15 days of hanging by that most tenuous of threads. All the while surrounded by an ever changing cast of angry men with automatic weapons, who were free to use slaps and kicks, and worse.
“In those days after that tribulation [when] the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
How much longer? I have heard it expressed in words, in the shrug of a shoulder, and in the grim determination of a cancer patient enduring yet another round of treatments. It is spoken by the unemployed single parent anxiously looking for work, teetering on the edge of despair. In our nation, it is a plea by victims of the natural disasters in the western US, the victims of Gulf Coast hurricanes, and by those who will be faced by the cruelty of winter cold.
In biblical times and modern times, it is the question, spoken in our humanity, that challenges that most intrinsic component of the divine within us: our trust in God who in times of tribulation can seem absent. We want our question of “How much longer?” to be answered with “… they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory, … send[ing] out the angels [to] gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.” And we want the answer now! We want the Son of Man right now in great power and glory. We want angels to lend comfort and courage.
But I tell you now, just as did our readings, in the times of tribulation “… the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.”
Stars forever, shining in all the out of the way places – far from the center stage of world view. It is tucked away on the cancer wards in the whispered words of encouragement from a nurse, the quiet presence of a loved one during chemotherapy. It is there in the angelic comfort and courage from a neighbor who helps out the single mom – the electrical workers and linesmen who traveled far from home working in the aftermath of natural disasters. It is there in a welcoming presence at Camp Ushur. It is even in the patient response of a parent in the front seat of the car, who calmly responds – for the umpteenth time – “We’ll be there soon.”
We are surrounded by people who shine like the stars. People who when the whole world around them is weighed down by the burden of the next tribulation do not ignore or wish away tribulations. People who do not act as though we live in a godless, unredeemed world. People who do not view our future as an inevitable slide into darkness. People who understand that Christian hope is not about what people are doing apart from God. Rather, it is founded on what God is doing — past, present, and future — in the lives of people. In the lives of our Afghan brothers and sisters at Camp Upshur who have encountered “the wise [shining] brightly like the splendor of the firmament.”
People of wisdom, people of hope, who acknowledge that the power of Jesus remains. The guidance of the Spirit endures. The intercession of the saints continues. That the love of God is poured into our hearts, in order to be poured into the world – even as we join the biblical patriarchs, prophets, early Christians, and people of our own time, as we have and will continue to ourselves ask, “How much longer?” People compelled by that divine love who shine especially as the heavens are shaken.
How much longer? Me, I haven’t a clue. But I know this: God does not respond to us with a timetable. God has already responded with a person – his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of our trust – the reason for the hope we have within us. The One who trusted that He could give up his life for us, never knowing if we would trust enough to say “Yes” to the Eucharist, “Yes” to the hope of everlasting life, to say “Yes” to Jesus as the answer to our question – “How much longer?”
I pray that you trust enough in the answer already given. I pray that you shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament.” I pray that you join with Jesus and be part of the answer to another’s questions in their tribulation. I pray that as the heavens shake, you shine like the stars forever.