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Apocalypse Revisited

San Williams

December 2, 2012
Jer. 33:14-16, I Thess. 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

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This is the third Sunday in a row that our scripture reading has hurled an apocalyptic fast ball at us.  Two weeks ago, we were stung by Mark’s apocalyptic warnings about wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines and the like.  Then last week, on Christ the King Sunday, another zinger—this one from the book of Revelation—was thrown our way.  I don’t know about you, but I was hoping that this morning the lectionary would toss us a text more to our liking.  But no, the scripture for this first Sunday in Advent flings yet another apocalyptic message our way, this time from Luke.  Something about this style of scripture makes me want to dodge or walk away.  Why do these apocalyptic readings come at us like a hard-to-hit curve ball?

While there are surely a number of reasons that apocalyptic scriptures are difficult to handle, consider with me one fundamental issue. I’m thinking about the tendency of these texts to take our eye off the ball; that is, off the world that God loves and calls on us to serve. They can easily leave us with the impression that we humans have no capacity to avoid the catastrophes that threaten our lives and world, and thus we can only look to divine intervention to save us.  In fact, in the minds of many Christians, the kind of devastation described in Luke and elsewhere—wars, distress among nations, confusion in the earth, rising tides and floods—these are believed to be a necessary prelude to the coming of the Kingdom of God.  All we can do, it seems, is sit tight, join hands singing kum-ba-yah while we wait for God to intervene.  What’s bothersome about such a scenario is that it creates human passivity, helplessness and resignation.

Paul Tillich, one of the great theologians of the last century, contended that such human longing for divine interference is a sure way to forfeit human responsibility and freedom.  Listen carefully to Tillich’s words:

“When we look at the misery of our world, its evil and sin, especially in these days which seem to mark the end of a world period, we long for divine interference, so that the world and its daemonic rulers might be overcome.  We long for a king of peace within history, or for a king of glory above history.  We long for a Christ of power.  Yet if He (that is a Christ of power) were to come and transform us and our world…we would have to pay the one price we could not pay:  we would have to lose our freedom, our humanity, and our spiritual dignity.  Perhaps we would be happier; but we should also be lower beings…We should be more like blessed animals than human beings made in the image of God…”  Let’s be clear.  Tillich isn’t denying a God who saves. Rather he’s reminding us that God saves in a way that does eliminate human responsibility or usurp human freedom by divine fiat.

In an article called “Apocalypse Now,” the recently deceased theologian Walter Wink echoed Tillich’s concern. He argued that the kind of global catastrophes mentioned in scripture are not the inevitable prelude to the coming of the Son of Man, but rather issues   about which God calls us to do something.  Apocalyptic announcements of doom and gloom, Wink contends, are uttered in order to shock us into action.  Ironically, they predict doom and gloom precisely in the hope that these things won’t come true.  The prophet Jonah understood this. Remember how God sent Jonah to Ninevah to pronounce doom upon the city?  Yet Jonah knew that God’s intention wasn’t to destroy Ninevah, but rather to motivate the Ninevites to change their behavior.  These New Testament apocalyptic announcements can be seen in the same light.  They create a sense of urgency in the face of real dangers, so that these dangers won’t, in Jesus’ words, “catch us unexpectedly, like a trap.”

Of course, we are acutely aware of what these potential traps are in our day:  Climate change, the ozone hole, overpopulation, war, the destruction of species and the rain forest, pollution of water and air, pesticide and herbicide poisoning, errors in genetic engineering, overfishing, nuclear mishap, all-out chemical or nuclear war.  These are some of the perils that we human beings can work to prevent.

Here’s the basic theological change-up pitch that I’m trying to get across. These apocalyptic messages are not offering us a way to escape from the world, but calling us to a deeper engagement in the world.  Dietrich Bonheoffer, who immersed himself on behalf of the Jews during Nazi Germany, insisted on a worldly engagement for Christians, and refused to accept escapist theology. He put it like this:  “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythological hope is that the former sends a person back into…life on earth in a wholly new way…The Christian, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, has no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ himself…he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ. This world,” Bonheoffer concludes, “must not be prematurely written off…”

Now I know it sounds like we’re playing theological hardball this morning.  But sometimes we need to hear from heavy hitters such as Tillich, Wink and Bonheoffer.  They help us adjust our stance and see in these difficult texts what we might otherwise miss. Let’s not miss the call to enter into the life of the world, as Bonheoffer said, in a wholly new way, a way that refuses to give up on the world prematurely.

Near the beginning of his lengthy Christmas poem, For the Time Being, W.H. Auden wrote, “Nothing can save us that is possible:  We who must die demand a miracle.”  Granted the problems that face us seem impossible to overcome, and perhaps humanly speaking they are impossible.  But we live in the hope of resurrection.  Miracles have happened, and thus despair is none of our business.  Our business this Advent is to love the world that God has given us, for he has appointed us to be stewards and caretakers of all that God has made.

We’ve had several births in the congregation recently.  I always enjoy getting e-mail pictures of these infants fresh born into the world.  Such sweet pictures stir something deep within us—joy and happiness, but also a sense of urgent concern.  Like the apocalyptic texts we’ve been considering, pictures of newborns remind us to be alert in these perilous days—if not for our sake then surely for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

Advent means beginning.  So on this first Sunday in Advent let us begin again to go back into the world in a wholly new way, resisting the evils that threaten us, and embracing the love that alone can save us.