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The Sky is Falling: Apocalyptic Literature in the Bible

December 1, 2002

Ian Lawton

Advent 1     Matthew 24:37-44


Of course, Henny Penny had a point. After all, she had evidence. The sky was falling, and Goosey Loosey and Chicken Licken and friends ran to hide. As a kid, I loved the story, but it always made me curious. If the sky fell, and if somehow I could survive the sky falling, what would be on the other side? How different would reality be without a sky?


Our world has its share of Henny Pennys, those doomsday geniuses, who state the obvious and expect the rest of us to run and hide. They notice that global tension is rising, that disease is spreading, they even notice El Nino. The sky is falling they tell us, and fill the falling sky with their own prejudice and hatred, but they never fill the vision out. Whats it like on the other side? If they ask that question they see only another world of perfection, never a transformed present. And they so often fail to ask sensible questions as to why the sky is falling.


One of these doomsday characters is Pat Robertson in the US, who warned the city of Orlando Florida that if it continued to fill its streets with gay pride flags it was risking a natural disaster such as a tornado. Janis Walworth looked for the evidence of this modern day Henny Penny theory. She studied the correlation between the occurrence of tornadoes and the gay population in particular places. She found that higher proportions of gay people lived in areas with very few tornadoes. She went on to ask the question, if God is not after gay people, who is God after?


Jews and Catholics are safer it seems, but Protestants are at greater risk of tornadoes. Within that group, Lutherans are safer, but Baptists are in trouble. She suggests that Texas could cut its number of tornadoes in half by sending a few hundred thousand Baptists elsewhere. Would you believe that gay Protestants are less likely to suffer a tornado than straight Protestants? Janis suggests so. She concludes by pointing out that there is another explanation to God bringing disaster on particular people or places; its possible she says that Baptists and other Protestants may flock to places where there are more tornadoes, illustrating the possible link between IQ and religious affiliation.


A sensible look at the current state of our world would show that the sky is falling, but if anyone is making it fall it is people and tired structures, and not some manipulative divine force. The environment is wilting, but mainly under the pressure of consumerism. Nations are in conflict but mainly over intolerance and economic and political gain.


A sensible look at the apocalyptic literature of the Bible would show it was far more than Henny Penny scaremongering. It was a literary genre especially for oppressed people, for people who believed that nothing would improve until all was lost. It was in your face, like a Nelson Mandela fist raised in defiance. It was an inspiration for a people who were persecuted, doubtful and lost, waiting for their Messiah to return. Apocalyptic literature said to them, "Don't give up. Goodness will triumph over destruction. But also be realistic- the destruction will get worse first."


Apocalyptic literature is a genre which oppressed people through the ages have identified with longing for a world turned upside down. Liberation Theology drew heavily on the book of Revelation for protest images. The anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa was comforted by the message of Revelation that injustice could not last forever.


Apocalyptic literature such as our gospel text today is a statement of the way things are, rather than an attempt to explain God's role in the world. It is an attempt to explain the opposite nature of the universe; the tendency to extremes. It is a theme captured well in the Tao Te Ching.


If you want to shrink something

You must first allow it to expand

If you want to get rid of something

You must first allow it to flourish.

If you want to take something

You must first allow it to be given.

This is called the subtle perception of the way things are.

The soft overcomes the hard.

The slow overcomes the fast.


Apocalyptic literature is a call to persistence, a reminder that justice will win out in the face of awful tragedy, and so often with a reversal. Justice will win, as it turns the current system on its head.


When asked how one best overcomes evil, the Dalai Lama said, "By valuing, truly valuing compassion and love, and conducting ourselves with restraint out of our responsibility for others' well-being."


So as we move through Advent, we watch for signs of the arrival of God in our lives. We look for signs of God in the gentle revolutions, the ordinary moments of authentic persistence where we see shifts in the status quo. We are well aware of the despair in our lives and all around us. We need no Henny Penny. Yet we endure despite and to spite the evidence.


The sky is falling. We own the parts we play personally in the falling sky. We see the systems and tyrants who rule by violence. We acknowledge the social interconnection of a falling sky. Yet our Advent vision is whats on the other side and I don't mean another world. I mean the gentle revolution of life with a new sky. The gentle revolution of authentic lives.


"The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light. The stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken."










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