Monday, December 20, 2010

Getting Beyond Step One

Ask a bunch of guys who has the best job in the world and most of us would say, “the Mythbusters!” Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman get to blow up a lot of things: dump trucks, fake sharks, houses, trombones and more. That’s not all they do, however. They also crush cars between tractor trailers, drop elevators, break out of prisons, set fire to the Hindenberg, and smash beer bottles over the heads of dead pigs. While they do investigate positive urban legends sometimes, they mostly destroy stuff and enjoy themselves while doing it. And we enjoy it vicariously.

There are a lot of other reality shows that features various high-tech ways of destroying stuff. Or, as in Storm Chasers, they video natural disasters. In the case of shows that put a disparate group of people together competing for love or some other prize, we watch relationships and lives implode. The highest rated episodes tend to be the ones on which a person or couple either blow up or melt down.

Most of our fictional entertainment seems to consist of vicarious violence. The James Bond films, Indiana Jones movies and just about every other franchise seem to revolve around a hero who kills a lot of people and blows stuff up. Beginning with “24,” our action TV shows are less adverse to heroes who kill. So it was refreshing when, in the first season of the relaunched Doctor Who, the Doctor comes up with a solution that doesn’t involve death or explosions. The Doctor almost never directly engages in violence but has been known to maneuver his enemies into traps in which they destroy themselves or each other. But in this case, facing the deformed and demented human victims of the crash of an empty alien spacecraft, he comes up with a solution that restores their humanity and health. “Give me this, “ he says, almost as a prayer. “Just this once--everyone lives!” This change has set the tone for this revival of the world’s oldest science fiction TV series. These days, more often than not, the Doctor at least gives his opponents a chance to save themselves from the self-destruction they are lurching towards.

But that is atypical. Most sci-fi and action films and shows are filled with things exploding and people, robots and aliens having their lives ended. Why does destruction entertain us so much more than constructive endeavors?

There is an equivalent phenomena in religion. In Christianity there are those who display a morbid fascination with the end times and the details of how bad things will get before Jesus returns. For the most part we Episcopalians don’t really do that. It’s not so much that we are virtuous but that our theology really doesn’t know what to do with the more unpleasant apocalyptic passages in Scripture.

The first thing to remember is that these passages are meant to comfort. When God’s people were persecuted, or oppressed, or taken into exile, they wondered why God allowed this. Perhaps they had sinned but how long would they be punished like this? When would it end? And what about those who treated God’s people so badly? They longed to see God give them justice.

In these passages, God assures them that good will triumph, evil will be defeated and that those who remained faithful during the bad times will be rewarded. The present evil age will end and God’s kingdom will be established. And we see in Luke 21:5-19 and Isaiah 65:17-25 both parts of the apocalyptic timeline.

At the request of his disciples, Jesus is telling them what to look for when the Day of the Lord is coming. Notice that, contrary to so-called prophesy experts, Jesus warns them not to follow anyone who claims that “the time is near!” After all, as Jesus says elsewhere, even he doesn’t know the hour it will happen. Those who claim to know better than Jesus can hardly be called his followers, now can they?

Jesus mentions the typical signs of the Day of the Lord, like wars and insurrections and disasters, and says that the end of the present age is not going to take place immediately afterward. Don’t get anxious! In fact, Jesus’ advice is exactly the opposite of the modern evangelists and book writers who seem to want to stir up fear in their audience. They delight in pointing to current events, firmly linking them to biblical prophesies, and then making it seem crucial that one buy into their interpretation of the end times. Jesus says, in essence, don’t let these things freak you out.

Some extremists warn Christians to prepare for economic turmoil, riots and societal upheaval. Some advocate shelters, stockpiling and survivalist strategies. A few say Christians should arm themselves against rampaging hordes or even Armageddon, which ignores both the fact that Christians are told to be witnesses, not combatants, and that the Battle of Armageddon in Revelation never actually takes place.

Instead, Jesus tells us to do the work he has given us to do: proclaiming the good news, following his commandments to love God and one another, and taking care of the least, the most vulnerable, of his brothers and sisters. This is what he wants to find us doing when he returns, not playing soldier.

And the great thing is that Jesus’ counsel works whether it’s the end of the world for everyone or the end of our world, our life. Jews and Christians have been persecuted and executed at many anxious times in the world. It’s happening right now in the Middle East and Asia. We need to heed Jesus’ words, not just at some distant time in the future, but whenever times are bad. Don’t be anxious. Trust in God. Do your work.

That’s what Paul is saying in 2nd Thessalonians 3:6-13. He’s not talking about just any layabouts. He’s writing about people who thought Jesus was returning so soon that they quit work. When Jesus tarried a bit, they started living off gifts from others. This was giving the church a bad name. Elsewhere, Paul pointed out that though he was an apostle and could reasonably expect the church to support him, he worked in his profession as a tentmaker. He was the original bi-vocational minister. He didn’t use Jesus’ return as an excuse to goof off.

That’s the context of the sentence that is wrongly quoted against those on welfare: “if anyone is not willing to work, neither should he eat.” Paul was not equating the poor with the lazy but dealing with a specific misunderstanding of what we are to do while waiting for Jesus’ return.

Nor is what happened at Thessalonica unique. In 1831, a Baptist layman named William Miller began to preach that Jesus was due to return within 12 years. The Millerite movement swept the nation. While Miller refused to set an exact date, some followers of his were not so restrained. In particular, Samuel S. Snow’s prediction that the second coming would happen on October 22, 1845 caught on. Some people sold their farms or businesses and just waited for Christ. When that day passed uneventfully, many Millerites fell away in what was called “the Great Disappointment.” Some reworked Miller’s ideas and became the Seventh Day Adventists. Still others felt that mankind had entered the seventh millennium known as the Great Sabbath and so they stopped working. Sound familiar?

People who focus on the events leading up to the end times are like folks so caught up in analyzing the trailers and spoilers leaked about an upcoming superhero movie that the film itself becomes secondary to all the buzz and debate. They miss the point. The point of what God’s doing is stated in Isaiah 65. “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” That’s the main event. God is creating once again. He’s not into destroying but making, just as Jesus was a carpenter, a builder. Any destruction is only the first step, like tearing down an old and condemned building to build a new and better one. The destruction might be more exciting than the slower and more patient process of construction but it’s the new building that is the ultimate goal. That’s where people are going to live.

And while God doesn’t want us fighting his battles for him, he does want us building up his kingdom. The kingdom, Jesus reminds us, is within and among us. We are the living stones, the building blocks, as it were, of Jesus’ kingdom. We build it by sharing the good news with others and by showing his love in all we do. We do it by building a community. It can start small. The core of the church was once just 12 individuals. But they spread the word. They invited people in. They didn’t just sit around worshiping God all the time. They went out and visited the sick and fed the hungry and clothed the naked and quenched the thirsty and freed the imprisoned and welcomed strangers and made disciples. That’s how you grow the kingdom. That’s how you grow a parish. That’s what Jesus expects us to be doing when he returns--not savoring the destruction but building the kingdom, one word, one act, one person at a time. And then another. And then another. And then another. Let’s get started.

No comments:

Post a Comment