Monday, December 2, 2013

Redefining Apocalypse

The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14 and Matthew 24:36-44.

The word “apocalypse” literally means “uncovering” or “unveiling.” Notice that it does not mean a disaster or the end of the world. It is simply a revelation of what had been hidden. But because of the Apocalypse of John, the older name for the book of Revelation, it has come to mean, in popular thought, all the graphically bad stuff that happens in the middle of that book, not the happy ending. Which makes those who study Revelation or Daniel or the other apocalyptic passages in the Bible look like ghouls who can't wait to see God's judgment fall upon the world. And while that may be true of some, it's not the purpose of these passages. At the times these books were written God's people were suffering. They were being persecuted and being martyred. And so an apocalypse both acknowledged that suffering and put it in context. It may have been judgment on them for their unfaithfulness, designed to trigger repentance, or it may have a time of trial because of the clash of God's people and their temporarily ascendant enemies. An apocalypse reassured God's people that their enemies would also be judged. But the ultimate goal of all of apocalyptic literature was to bring comfort with the promise of the coming of God's kingdom and the restoration of the world to way God intended it to be.

That is the focus of today's passage from Isaiah 2:1-5. It is also found almost word for word in Micah 4:1-3. Mount Zion, on which the temple sat in the midst of Jerusalem, becomes the most prominent of mountains. All the nations of the world, all the Gentiles, flow to Zion seeking to learn God's ways. All of the disputes between the nations will be resolved by God. Because God is a perfect judge, violence will not be needed to solve disagreements and they shall not “learn war any more.” I love that phrase. Because war is learned. An argument may lead to a fight, but war involves strategy, weapons and tactics. Some of our biggest technological achievements have been inspired and spurred on by war: swords, guns, cannons, bombs, missiles, chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear weapons. We have spent a good deal of energy and ingenuity on coming up with more effective ways to harm and kill each other. In a report on the popularity of semi-automatic weapons, one enthusiast said, “It's Barbie for guys.” He was talking about all the clever accessories and add-ons you can get for an AR-15 and its analogues. Get a hunting catalog and you will be astonished by all of the amazing technology one can use for tracking down creatures with brains smaller than our fists. But look closer and you realize these things were often adapted from stuff we've made for killing our fellow human beings in the theatre of war. Warfare is complicated and it must be taught. When God's kingdom comes, we will not need to teach our children how to stab, shoot, eviscerate, garrotte, gas, dismember, infect, blow up, decapitate or irradiate another person.

And although God will bring these things to their culmination, it does not mean we should just sit around and wait for Jesus to return. Nor should we spend much time calculating the date for the “End of the World.” Jesus said nobody knows the time except our heavenly Father, not even Jesus, at least in his earthly life. Jesus said, “You will hear about wars and rumors of wars. Look, do not be upset. It is necessary for these things to happen but it is not yet the end.” (Matt. 24:6) In today's gospel passage, he emphasizes how sudden it will be. No one will anticipate it. People will be going about their daily lives. The best we can be is prepared.

And by that Jesus did not mean start stockpiling weapons and building bunkers. You no doubt have seen the ads for the latest batch of reality programs. They are about preppers, people who are readying themselves to fight the hordes who will go after them when the world economy collapses, or the U.S. Government falls (or tries to take over), or the Antichrist rises and the Tribulation begins or everyone else becomes zombies. I saw the promo for one episode in which this guy was making armor that strongly resembled that devised by Tweedledee and Tweedledum in the original Alice in Wonderland illustrations. More jawdropping was him using a Sharpie to draw a dotted line on his pregnant wife's belly in case he had to perform a Caesarean section on her as they hunkered down in their shelter during Armageddon. Even his wife expressed doubts about this idea.

How did Jesus say we should prepare for his coming? By doing what he told us to do. In Matthew 24:45 and following, just after our lectionary passage cuts off, Jesus says, “Who is the faithful and prudent slave, whom the lord has appointed to be over over his household to give everyone their meals at the right time? Blessed is the slave whose lord, when he comes, finds him doing so.” Jesus contrasts this with the slave who uses his master's delay to begin to abuse his fellow slaves, beating them and looking only to his own meals and getting drunk. In other words, Jesus doesn't say prepare for my coming by hunkering down and arming yourself to the teeth. Do the job I gave you; do what I told you to do. And what did Jesus tell us to do? To love God with all we are and all we have, to love our neighbor as ourselves and to spread the good news, making disciples for him. To deny ourselves, take up are crosses and follow him. To love one another with the same love that Christ loves us. That is the opposite of abusing others and self-indulgence.

Paul put it this way in our passage from Romans: put on the armor of light. Paul doesn't elaborate but this harkens back to Ephesians 6 where Paul gives us an extended metaphor of the armor of God. But he also speaks in Colossians 3:9 and following that having stripped off one's old self, we should be “clothed with your new self, which is being renewed in knowledge, according to the image of its creator.” Which is in harmony with the times Paul talks of putting on the Lord Jesus Christ as he does in Romans 13:14. Our new self is our restored image of God in Christ, in whom we live.

Just as putting on armor protects one from physical harm, so putting on Jesus protects us from spiritual harm. As it says in the hymn version of St. Patrick's breastplate: “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me; Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.” It is not to be used as a magic incantation but a prayer and reminder that we are in Christ and we need not fear or panic because Christ is with us and protects us. That allows us to concentrate on what we should do, not what our appetites or fears urge us to do.

This does not mean being unprepared for Jesus' coming, but no more so than one would be for any cataclysmic change. For hurricanes, the only natural disaster that gives one plenty of warning, smart folks get extra water, canned foods, flashlights, radios, batteries, etc. Because we may lose electricity, and ATMs and gas pumps won't work, we should fill up the car, take out sufficient cash for a week or two, refill prescriptions, and keep our phones charged up. If you're evacuating, you want to remember pet and/or baby items, and especially your important papers, family videos and photo albums, all the things that insurance simply can't replace. For the aftermath and cleanup, you want thick workgloves, widebrimmed hats, bug repellent, sunscreen, tools, wet wipes and garbage bags. That's not being paranoid; just being prepared.

How can we prepare for Jesus' return? Rather than obsess over the physical stuff, we need to make sure we have all we will need to be spiritually prepared. In place of food, we need to stock up on the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We need to be plugged into God through prayer to make sure we have the spiritual energy we need. We need the toolbox and instruction book that is the Bible. And pay special attention to the rather obvious examples of what not to do. And just as you would check in with family and friends to see if they are all right and to let them know how you are doing, we need to stay connected with our sisters and brothers in Christ, even getting together to do the equivalent of putting up shutters and battening down the hatches.

But what about others--those who don't know Christ? How do we help them get ready for Jesus' return? Well, I don't suggest you start off telling them about the end of the world and all that. Jesus only talked about that with the disciples when they asked about it. Tell them the good news. And you can do it exactly the way the people in the Bible did. When Jesus healed someone, even if he told them to keep quiet, they would go about telling folks what God had done for them. And people would listen. You can do the same: tell people what Jesus has done for you.

It helps if you connect your story with their needs. If a friend has a health problem, and you have a doctor who has helped you with something similar, you would tell them about him or her. The same goes with other needs. If a friend's car is on the fritz, and you have a mechanic who is honest and does a good job, you recommend him. If you know a store or a website or a service that has helped you, you recommend them to others. Why not recommend Jesus when someone has a moral or spiritual issue?

Or start out by helping them with whatever practical needs they have. Jesus did. Folks initially came to him for practical help, usually healing. Then Jesus tied his spiritual message to their circumstances, as in talking of the bread of heaven with the 5000 he had fed. Help people and if they try to reward you or ask why, talk about how Jesus helped you and wants you to do the same for others.

And one big way to help people is through programs and activities that show in miniature glimpses of the world to come. Anything that brings about justice or peace or relieves pain or pushes back death or comforts those who mourn or wipes away tears. These are hallmarks of the new creation and what we do in Jesus' name should display these hallmarks, at the very least, in embryo.

If the new creation were something that exclusively happens after all of these apocalyptic events, then it is rather like the predictions they make at the beginning of hurricane season. They say there will probably be so many named storms, so many that reach this category or that, so many which will make landfall. And that information isn't terribly useful, unlike when they are telling you that hurricane so and so will definitely hit in some specific area within a certain period of time. To repeat, we do not know the day or time Jesus will return and what's more, we cannot know it. So how is the information we get in Isaiah 2 or Revelation 21 relevant to life now?

Maybe we should change the metaphor. Jesus spoke of these things as being like the pangs of childbirth. It hurts a lot beforehand but only for a while. Once you actually have the baby, the memory of the labor pain starts to recede and you enjoy the beautiful new person you've brought into the world. People, Christians included, often focus on the pain preceding the realization of God's plan and not the delightful results. But you don't wait till the first labor pains hit to prepare for having a child and what you'll do afterwards.

Jesus often spoke of the End Times as a harvest. To harvest something you first have to plant it. And that's something we can do now. If the kingdom of God is more like a crop, then we can get to work planting seeds, watering them, nourishing them, trimming the branches. We don't have to wait for the harvest; we can work towards it. We can put on the Lord Jesus Christ like our work clothes which will protect us from the thorns and the poisonwood and the heat of the noonday sun. The harvest will come when it's time. In the meantime, we can toil alongside our fellow workers in Christ and sing songs and encourage one another and invite others to take part and enjoy contributing to the miracle of the growth of God's new creation.        

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