Recipe for an apocalypse:
- Take one part oppression
- Suffer under a healthy scoop of affliction
- Set aside and allow to rise
- Meanwhile, sift through several books of prophecy, selecting the ripest and choicest morsels
- Fold in Judgment
- Chop two cups of nuts and mix well
- Turn out onto a world dusted with fear and trembling
- Knead well
- Sprinkle liberally with chaos
Place all ingredients in a pressure cooker and bring to a boil.
Serve garnished with victory.
The problem with some recipes is, you just don’t know what you’re getting. A lot of the time, something sounds like you just don’t want it, until you know what it is, and then you realize that it could be good. Like, for instance, borscht or goulash or lingonberries, or just about anything German. The names don’t sound particularly appetizing, but once you get a taste, they are good, you might even want more! That’s apocalypse. What is it?
Most of us don’t even know what an apocalypse is, much less whether it’s any good. I’m sure you’ve already got an idea of apocalypse in your head, likely influenced by popular interpretations of the Book of Revelation, often co-opted to scare people into following some agenda or other. You’ve probably heard of things like the Rapture Index (that’s at raptureready.com – it stands at 159 now – high chance of prophetic activity). Or of the Left Behind series, which portrays the trials and tribulations of the end times. Well, first, I want to say, in all humility, there is a chance that those people are right, and that this is what God has planned for us. It is entirely possible that we are close to the rapture. As Christians, we do confess a belief in the return of Christ. The question is, what will that look like? I do not want to pretend that I know the mind of God. I don’t. What I have is evidence. And the evidence that I see points to a few key things: First, God never does things the way we expect; second, God is always able to turn the human tendency to screw things up to God’s purposes; third, so much does God love us that Christ has already returned, and is here with us at every moment.
So, let’s figure out what’s cooking. Apocalypse, contrary to the popular notion of death, war, famine, and pestilence, simply means “unveiling.” It means to disclose a future reality, to demonstrate the trustworthiness of a present hope. Apocalyptic literature in the Bible includes several texts. There’s a few Old Testament passages, especially the Book of Daniel. Then there are the New Testament passages, especially the final book, The Revelation of John. And those like today’s passage, where Jesus gives a speech that sounds pretty apocalyptic. It sounds like talk of some nasty times, when there will be war and famine and plague – it’s the standard recipe, for sure. There’s no doubt that this is frightening.
The thing is, when wasn’t this going on? Can anyone name a time when there were not nations against nations, kingdoms against kingdoms, great earthquakes, famines, plagues? There have always been these things, just as there are now. That’s why 4800 years ago, the Assyrians thought the world was coming to an end. Jesus doesn’t mention it here, of course, but then as now, bribery and corruption were common. In fact, just two chapters ago, he was cleansing the temple, saying “my temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” Obviously Jesus saw the same thing then that the Assyrians saw before him, and that Barry McGuire saw in 1965 – the whole crazy world is just too frustratin’! So, if we’re looking for the signs of the apocalypse, we just have to look around us, no matter where and, more importantly, no matter when we live.
This genre of apocalyptic literature, books such as the book of Revelation, were written by and for those who were smack dab in the middle of these things. When Jesus spoke, he and the Hebrew people were under the thumb of the Roman Empire. When Luke wrote the Gospel, the temple in Jerusalem had just been destroyed. Everything that the Hebrew people knew about how to be in relationship to God and one another had just gone up in smoke. Jews and Christians were being persecuted for trying to live out their faith in spite of the destruction of its institutions. For those of us who live in the richest country in the history of the world, for those of us who are in the wealthiest, healthiest, best educated 1% of the world, it is difficult to really get ahold of the mentality in which and to which this was written. Most of us have never lived through the destruction of a civilization or the kind of oppression that brings daily fear. At least not on a societal level.
But I bet there are those here who have been through a personal experience of this. We have all come to our own personal endings, those moments when we don’t know what is to come next. The Day family has reached just about rock-bottom. The elder daughter, Janice, having struggled with drugs for years, finally OD-ed in September. She was found by her 13 year old daughter, unconscious, unresponsive. The younger sister, Rose, flew home to help take care of the children, who were staying with Janice and Rose’s parents. After Janice got out of the hospital, she showed up at her parents’ home to pick up the kids. She was drunk. Her father refused to allow her to drive anywhere, with or without the children. Janice got belligerent, then violent. She punched Rose in the eye, and kicked her father so hard that he was knocked unconscious. The police came and arrested Janice, in front of her children. She is now appealing her sentence, and in the meantime, her children are continuing to stay with their grandparents. Things look very bleak for the whole family. No one knows what the future holds. What they do know is that Janice is oppressed by something – she is not able to get out from under it. She is giving herself up to destruction. What is going on inside her we can’t know, because she is so trapped by her destructive ways that we cannot trust her words. This is a family on the edge of apocalypse. It would be very easy to let go of hope, to turn away from the possibility of a future at all. That would be a victory for the powers of evil, a victory for death, and that is absolutely not what God promises us. The world is full of families like the Days, of women and men like Janice, and of much worse. We only have to look at the headlines on CNN.com. Every time I read them, I want to grab my kids and climb under the covers and never come out. I am afraid. So what is it that gets me out from under the covers? What is it that keeps the Days going, seeking some sort of future for their family? It’s apocalypse. It’s hope. It’s the hope for a future in which God does what God promises. That may not be the way that we normally phrase it, but that’s what is at work when we push fear aside and step out into the hope of a better future. It’s apocalypse.
Okay, so what are the ingredients of apocalypse? Let’s check our recipe. Okay, we’ve already got some oppression, in all its different forms. Affliction seems to travel with oppression, so that’s already mixed together. Let’s set that aside for a few minutes while it’s rising. Next thing – “prophecy,” alright. There’s another often mis-used term, one that can lend itself very nicely to a misunderstanding of apocalypse. What is prophecy? And do we have any of it handy for our recipe? Well, first of all, prophecy is not so much about predicting the future, as it is a warning about the present. Usually we talk of prophecy in terms of something that has been written down and is certain to come about –That’s how it always appears on Buffy the Vampire Slayer – there’s a prophecy, they have no choice but to live into their destiny – their only hope is to supplement the prophecy a little bit with some kind of extras that allow them to circumvent the final doom of it. Like at the end of season one, when there’s a prophecy that Buffy will die, and she does, but then Xander gives her CPR and revives her? it’s a fatalistic perspective: there’s nothing we can do to prevent or bring about a prophecy – it’s just what’s going to happen. But that’s not what the Bible means when it talks about prophecy. Biblical prophecy is the act of speaking truth to power. It’s the act of calling the people back to God, reminding them that what God wants is for them to pay attention to God’s ways. Usually it is reminding them to take care of the poor, the widowed and the immigrant, in other words to take care of those that society would rather forget. Prophecy in the Bible usually looks like somebody standing up to the expectations of the world and saying, “this is not God’s way, and we had better do something about it.” And so Jesus says in today’s passage: “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” For those who are willing and able, Jesus promises words of prophecy.
“So what does the prophet talk about?” you might ask. Let’s take a look at our recipe….oh, dear, the next ingredient answers that question. Judgment.
What the prophet talks about, what God’s Word promises us, is judgment. Yikes! That doesn’t sound too good, does it? Judgment is another one of those words that makes us shut down. But this is not judgment the way humans do it. We get enough of that as it is. This is God’s judgment. This is a whole different thing. Throughout most of the Bible, when God’s worst judgment on the people is God’s turning away from them and leaving them to their own devices, and worst of all, leaving them to lie in the bed they’ve made. Honestly, I cannot imagine a worse fate for humanity – we are doing a darn fine job of screwing things up as it is, and without God’s attention we will just keep right at it. But God does not leave us to that. God always comes back, God always brings God’s judgment on us. And what that looks like it this: God sends us prophets, to point out how we are taking the world down the toilet. It might be someone who reminds us that the resources of the earth are finite and ours to steward; it might someone sharing his or her dreams for equality and peace for all people; it might be something as personal as a daughter who tells you that you hurt her feelings when you snapped at her. All of these things remind us of the way that God wants us to live (that would be God’s law), and how we are not living up to that. But God does not just leave us hanging in that. God’s judgment is always aimed at reconciliation (that would be God’s gospel). God does not judge us to shame us – that’s what we do to each other. God judges us to help us find ways to do better. God judges us out of God’s love for us, and out of God’s desire to be with us, and out of God’s desire to have us living in right relationship, with God and with one another. The good news is that God’s worst and best judgment of us is in the cross of Christ. In Christ’s death on the cross, God is showing God’s hand completely. God is showing that reconciliation is the most important thing for God. So important that God was willing to come here to earth, to take on human form, and to then die on the cross, so that we could be reconciled.
And God did not stop there. One of the next ingredients in the recipe is chaos. That is, destruction and death –that is, endings. But the evidence is that God is not the God of destruction. God is the God of creation. Remember last week’s passage? Remember how we were reminded that our God is not the God of death, but of life? We have a God whose primary activity in the world is creation. Starting with the story in the beginning of Genesis, we have stories of God bringing creation out of chaos, bringing life where all we can see is destruction. When I read “the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep,” what I picture is chaos. There was nothing there, or whatever was there had been destroyed. And God pulls creation out of that chaos. That is what God promises for apocalypse. Creation out of chaos. If God could do it once, God can do it again. And has done. See, once again, the best evidence we have for God’s definition of apocalypse is in Jesus himself. For Jesus’ followers, there was no darker moment than the day that he died on the cross. All that they hoped for, the Messiah that they believed they had found, the one who would free Israel from its oppression, the one who would bring victory and fulfill God’s promises, was dead. All their hopes were gone. They were despairing. Like the hymn we sang a few minutes ago – “do not despair, o little flock.” How could they not despair? It sure seemed as if Satan, hell, and all their crew were standing against God’s power. Scorn and contempt were on everyone’s lips there at the foot of the cross, as they mocked Jesus hanging on the cross. Despair probably seemed like the most sensible course of action, as it so often does in the midst of destruction. And for three days, despair was their modus operandi.
But God creates out of chaos. Jesus told his disciples, “Do not be afraid, for these things must take place first…but not a hair on your head will perish” God brings victory from the midst of despair. So three days later, Christ rose. Christ defeated death, Christ brought salvation out of despair, right relationship out of the human sinfulness that killed him in the first place. God turned the judgment of humanity into the judgment of God – that is, God brought reconciliation, and sent chaos packing. That is why, in the Psalm, all the world is making a joyful noise! I love the imagery: the floods clap their hands, the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, who will judge the world! God will judge the world, not with the shame and scorn of humans, but with righteousness and equity. And for God, as we see in Christ, that means reconciliation.
So, imagine what might happen if, as our recipe instructs, we turn that out onto a world dusted, as ours is, with fear and trembling. If, as the prophets do, we remind the world of God’s righteousness, of God’s desire for reconciliation. What if we speak the truth to power that the world so desperately needs to hear. It would be easy to sink into cynicism. It would even be easy to placate ourselves with shallow optimism. But what if we really, honestly speak about God’s reconciling love for us, borne out of God’s judgment and God’s victory? The result would truly be apocalypse. Apocalypse of the most amazing and wondrous kind. Apocalypse as the Scriptures really teach it – that is, the coming of God’s kingdom. As we stand on the verge of the Advent season, we are getting ready to spend a month thinking about the cute little baby Jesus, lying in the manger. And we sing lots of songs inviting Jesus to be here with us. But what is most amazing to me about this season is the reminder that God’s Kingdom is already breaking in on us. Yes we are inviting the baby Jesus in, and yes we speak of the second coming. But what is most astonishing to me is that God’s Kingdom is here, already, and daily, lives are changed by Christ. Sometimes it is something profound and earth-shattering, sometimes it is subtle and bittersweet. I am not trying to be polyanna or facile. God’s in-breaking is never as easy as we’d like it to be. The pictures of the sweet little baby in the manger never show Mary in the midst of labor, cursing at everyone around her, scared to death because childbirth is scary and dangerous and messy. There’s never a depiction of the exhaustion she feels afterwards and the desire to sleep for a year, but there’s this baby who keeps waking up demanding food. But that is probably a better description of what it is like when God breaks in. God turns everything on its head, just like a new baby does for her parents. Chaos comes first, but out of that chaos comes victory, new life, new joy, a new person who will change the world around her. And daily, families like the Days are shown God’s in-breaking love and care, through the neighbors who show up with help, through the prayers of loved ones, through the strength that they continue to discover at unknown depths of their own selves, and they step out in hope. Every day, on every street, in every place in the world, people are reaching end points. And God is at work, finding ways to create out of their chaos. God is at work finding ways to bring victory over despair. God is at work, turning endings to God’s purposes, bringing reconciliation in the face of discord. Apocalypse is constant, endings coming at every moment, and the world starts again, new at every moment. In Christ, chaos become creation, judgment turns to reconciliation, and fear gives way to hope. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine!