Apocalypse Not Quite Yet

November 17, 2013

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 26     Luke 21:5-19

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I just can’t express how good it is for us to be back amongst you. It is like slipping back into our own skins. I just wish my first time back in this pulpit did not require me to speak to apocalyptic thinking.


As a progressive I find the language and imagery off-putting. It brings to mind last year’s hysteria about the Mayan calendar and Harold Campings billboard over our car park in 2011 predicting the world’s end on May 21st of that year. There is a long history of such predictions: In the 1970’s, Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth gave notice of an impending thermonuclear holocaust. 28 million copies of his book predicted the end of the world to come in the late 1980’s. In the nineteenth century, William Miller declared that Christ would return on March 21, 1843. In the thirteenth century, Franciscan monks used the calculations of Italian Joachim of Fiore to predict the end of the world in the year 1260. In the third century, prophetess Maximilla declared The End to be before her death. As I still have to preach on this subject today, all were apparently wrong.


My discomfort is only heightened by the notion of the Rapture, a special version of the Apocalypse that involves Christ hoovering up the saints to heaven leaving behind the rest of us to fend for ourselves against the great Satan. A successful Rapture to end the world requires lots of violence and judgment. But today’s Gospel is unrelenting, so I will soldier on.


While apocalyptic thinking does not only belong to the purview of the Judeo-Christian world, our scriptures are steeped in it. Apocalypticism reaches back to the earliest Christian writings by Paul. Fewer than twenty years after the death of Jesus, Paul declared Christ’s return in current lifetimes. I Thessalonians 4:17 reads: ”Then we who are left alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them (the deceased) to meet the Lord in the air.” Written about twenty years later, the Gospel of Mark credits Jesus as predicting the end of the age. Chapter 9:1: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” Chapter 13:30: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” And in Mark 14:62, Jesus is credited with saying: “’you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’” This is echoed in Luke eight verses after today’s reading, “Then they will see the ‘Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory’” (Luke 21:27).


Liberation from suffering, the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, is the central story of Judaism. Although it was first written down by King David’s scribes around 1000 BCE, the stories and songs of liberation had long lived in oral tradition. King David had been able to unite disparate tribes into one people with that single story of glorious liberation. Like the Egyptian Pharaohs before him, King David built fortresses, a palace and temple by conscripted labor. The glory of King David’s reign mirrored the Egyptian empire; it’s monopoly of power, wealth and knowledge — militant, magnificent and brilliant by all measures.


Jewish prophets cried out against the monarchy’s trust in swords and chariots, their unjust treatment of the poor, the widow and orphan, and trust in their own wisdom. The Jewish kingdom’s utter defeat by Assyrians, then Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Syrians and Romans, slavery, exile and diaspora, did nothing to repudiate imperial injustice. Rather, the people’s longing for return to the glories of King David’s reign took shape as Jewish Apocalypticism, longing for the return of a warrior-king Messiah. 


For Jews who had experienced generations of brutalization by empires, from Egyptian to Roman, the “end of the age” liberation could only be imagined as greater imperial power, led by a warrior-king like King David.


When Paul and the four gospel writers claimed that Jesus had been seen alive after his execution on the cross that was not so difficult to believe at the time. People had heard stories of the dead being raised to new life before. What was absolutely laughable to Jews expecting the apocaypse, was their claim that this peasant who was hanged on a cross along with criminals was the Messiah. The longed-for Messiah, the embodiment of King David, the warrior-king who would conquer the Romans and drive them out of Palestine could not be this humiliated peasant criminal!


Paul and the Gospel writers, twenty to forty-five years after Jesus’ death, faced the challenge of convincing fellow Jews that while the Romans could execute the Messiah, he could still be a conquering king. Each Gospel writer had his own angle. Each is different from the others, and yes, there are discrepancies of fact among the Gospels. But the Gospels were not written as historical accounts, but as theological arguments to convince Apocalyptic Jews that the liberating, warrior-king Messiah, could conquer by dying and rising from the dead.


The Jewish followers of Jesus shared this apocalyptic mind set in the conquering sense. They dreamed of an imperial Messiah. The Gospel writers believed that God’s Kingdom would be implemented forcefully, Jesus returning in grandeur and power to overthrow the Roman oppressors. Matthew and Luke have Jesus telling his disciples: “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:28-30)


The challenge of Biblical scholars is to distinguish the dissimilar teachings of Jesus from the views of his followers, in this case apocalyptic Messianic Jews. They expected a warrior-king, an imperial monarch with overwhelming power, wealth and knowledge who would conquer their Roman enemies and introduce the Kingdom of God on earth — in the later Gospel of John, the Kingdom would be in heaven. Either way, they imagined an imperial hierarchy. This notion was developed most fully in the last book of the Bible, The Apocalypse or The Revelation to John. There we read of death and destruction, the bloody clash of supernatural forces in a cosmic battle waged on earth. This is the primary source for those of a Christian apocalyptic mind set.


What doesn’t fit with this view are the non-violent, non-judgmental, egalitarian teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies,” rather than conquer them; “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” not judged as sinners or outcasts nor cast into the fire; “Sell all you have and give to the poor,” rather than some being enthroned in glory and others cast out. Jesus’ great commission welcomed all to the common table, sharing power, wealth and knowledge. The new heaven he offers is no mighty kingdom of overwhelming power and glory.


Some scholars have concluded that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. The word apocalypse simply means unveiling. To the degree that might be true, he was unveiling a new path to liberation. He was not unveiling violence and power by supernatural forces as his way. He revealed that it was not by emulating our oppressors that we will be rescued but by a radical sense of mutual relationship, of grace and universal compassion. It is my conclusion that his message was greatly dissimilar to that of the Jews of his day including his Jewish followers. The apocalypse we find in Jesus’ followers’ words (attributed to Jesus) reflect an imperial apocalyptic view of a long-oppressed Jewish people, longing for a reversal of power and domination with them finally on top of the heap.


While we do not share the same history as Jesus’ followers we do live in a world where we often feel powerless. Injustices and inequalities surround us. As technological and global climate changes threaten to overwhelm us it is not hard to feel like we are at the end of the age. On a personal level we may find that a life we treasure is ending due to increasing age and diminishing health, the death of a loved one, economic uncertainty, difficulties in relationships; the unforeseen actions of others and long for divine power to intercede in power and glory.


In today’s apocalyptic message from Luke there is a hint of the nonviolent message of the historical Jesus. He tells us not to panic in the face of life’s hardships. Being faithful does not mean we will be exempt from them, but it does mean understanding that there really are no endings in life, only new beginnings. Trusting that there is a beginning in every ending will enable us to see new opportunities and experience liberation from all that presently oppresses us. We can only do that by being in the moment and living it well, undistracted by our fears of what comes next. What comes next can only be influenced in the moment. The Sufi mystic, Rumi makes a similar point in this story:


“A man in prison is sent a prayer rug by his friend. What he had wanted, of course, was a file or a crowbar or a key! But he began using the rug, doing five-times prayer each day: Before dawn, at noon, mid-afternoon, after sunset, and before sleep. Bowing, sitting up, bowing again, he noticed an odd pattern in the weave of the rug, just at the point where his head touches it. He studied and meditated on that pattern, and gradually discovered that it was a diagram of the lock that confined him in his cell and how it worked. He was able to escape. Anything you do every day can open into the deepest spiritual place, which is freedom.


Although we may long for apocalyptic liberation as a glorious reversal of the oppressive conditions of our lives, may we instead be open to a greater wholeness. May we find ourselves at home in a healed and healthy world at the end of our days.

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