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Apocalypse Later

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Nov 29

Text: Luke 21:25-36

So I start with a question. Does anyone else find it strange that on this first Sunday of Advent, just as we are preparing for the story of Jesus’ birth, our lectionary serves up a text like this, from near the end of Luke, and just a few lines before the story of his death.  So much for ‘little baby Jesus.’  Instead, we’ve got super serious, super stern sounding, adult Jesus.  What’s more, he goes all kinds of end-timey on us, here!  He says in the verses that immediately precedes our reading:  “When you hear of war and insurrections, do not be terrified, for these things must take place first. But the end will not follow immediately. ‘Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes and famines and plagues, and dreadful portents and great signs from heaven…’” He predicts persecution for the disciples. He says “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days.”  Woe is right!  As in whoa! Ease up, man! We haven’t even digested our Thanksgiving leftovers!

Ordinarily, we might ask “what gives?” And yet, sadly, today, and given the extreme headlines of late -- extreme weather, extremist violence, extremely incendiary and unconscionably deceitful campaign rhetoric -- the text may seem eerily apropos to our context. If not the end of times, these are clearly some of the scariest of times many of us have lived through. Almost daily, we hear news of terrorist attacks, mass shootings, police brutality and fear-mongering, fascist sounding presidential candidates, especially ‘you-know-who, he-who-must-not-be-named.’  I feel like I’ve heard or read more references to World War 2 in the past two weeks than I did throughout my high school world history class!   

Given our context, my initial reaction to this text, and maybe yours too, is one of caution. Aren’t we better off setting aside this end-timey language?  Isn’t this the kind of incendiary hyper-religious stuff that is part of the problem we are facing today? After all, what's the difference between this end-times, “stand up” or-else kind of language and the theology of religious extremists who are out there blowing people up, awaiting their reward in heaven? 

While this text doesn’t call its readers to violence, it does seem to sound an almost military style reveille.  Fear and foreboding have overtaken the land, and the message is to “Be on guard!” In the wrong hands, this could get dangerous. The New York Times reported just this morning that Robert Dear, the person responsible for Friday’s Colorado Planned Parenthood shooting is said to have posted the following on a website in 2005 – “Aids, hurricanes, the end of times, accept the Lord Jesus while you can.”  Ugh.
 
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of hearing a talk by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, a global religious leader and a profound scholar. He was speaking about his latest book called: “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence.” I’m just about through it and I highly recommend it.  Please add it to your lists and maybe we can read it together in the new year.  The book tackles the phenomenon of “religious extremism and violence committed in the name of God.”  His opening line: “When religion turns men into murderers, God weeps.”  Amen to that.
 
As the book unfolds, Sacks recounts and interprets episodes of human violence in scripture and the gifts of moral complexity and internal struggle between good and evil that is modeled by our biblical ancestors, almost all of whom have a deeply checkered past. He offers a heartbreaking record of recent violence in the name of religion, including but by no means limited to Isis.  He’s careful not to oversimplify or overstate the connection between religion and violence. Of the 1,800 conflicts surveyed in Phillips and Axelrod’s “Encyclopedia of War,” less than 10 percent of them involved religion at all.  For Sacks, it’s both too easy and untrue to say that religion is the major source of war and violence and so it should be abolished, as if that were possible.  It’s also too easy to say that religion has nothing to do with violence, that its only humankind’s propensity for power and security that drives it. And, it’s definitely too easy to say that “Their religion, yes.  Our religion, no. Their religion is for war; our religion is for peace.” None of these explanations alone do justice to the problem which is ultimately one that is rooted in our human need to make meaning and to establish identity by forming groups.  

Through the ages, for better and sometimes for worse, the great religions have been the primary vehicle for serving these basic needs for connection and identity. Absent meaningful forms of religion, people will almost inevitably start clinging to identities rooted in nation, race or ideology. Whether religious or secular, our natural tendencies toward us and them ways of thinking can sometimes degenerate into what he calls “pathological dualism.”  In religious terms, ”we” are the children of God, “they” are the offspring of Satan. We are the children of light, they, the children of darkness.  This “pathological dualism” can lead to three things. First, it dehumanizes and demonizes the other. Second, it leads one to see one’s self or group as a victim which can often engender a ‘we are under siege’ mentality.  Last and most perversely, it leads to what he calls “altruistic evil.”  I winced when I first heard him say this. It’s a chilling expression. Altruistic evil. It’s what happens when humans commit horrific acts of violence, whether “hate crimes” or “crimes against humanity,” in the name of what they genuinely believe is the good and right and sometimes even Godly course of action.
 
The book is full of timely insight – please do pick up a copy since I haven’t even scratched the surface of all he says. There’s one other piece that’s especially relevant to our text today.  Sacks talks about the danger of what he calls apocalyptic politics, which he sets apart from prophetic politics.  The prophet, you see, thinks in terms of normal history, seeks righteousness, suffers setbacks, endures self-criticism, waits and presses for evil to bring about its own demise, holding fast to hope and God’s promise. Sacks sees the prophet as “the voice of hope.” Now, listen to this: 
 
“Apocalypse”, he writes, “is the voice of despair.  Normal history has failed to bring about the long-awaited redemption. Evil, far from being an instinct within us that we can conquer, [becomes for the apocalyptic thinker] an independent force [something that is projected outside of us], onto those who we see as threats. [There’s that dualistic thinking!] “Apocalypse,” Sacks writes, “is what happens to prophecy when it loses hope, and to politics when it loses patience….It arises at times of destabilizing change, and speaks to those who feel unjustly left behind.  At time of social and religious ferment, [it] spreads like contagion.  Apocalyptic politics [whether secular or religious], is the search for revolution without transformation, change without the slow process of education.  It uses power in place of persuasion, daggers instead of debate. It simplifies the issue of truth to the most elemental choice: agree or die.  It is the longing for the end of time in the midst of the time, the search for redemption now.  That is why it suspends the normal rules that restrain people from murdering the innocent.”
 
With all of that said, let’s return to our regularly scheduled scripture, shall we?  All Jesus’ talk of signs and portents, of nations rising against nations, and natural catastrophe and shaking foundation, it can sound like apocalyptic thinking, can it not?   Indeed, this is one of just a handful of texts in the gospels that have made scholars wonder just how Jesus would have seen or maybe even embodied some of the end-times, apocalyptical worldviews that would have been prevalent amidst the turbulence of 1st century Palestine.  We have to wonder -- is this Luke here speaking his own “voice of despair”, still waiting for some personal and collective redemption some 40 years after Jesus’ death, fed up with the power of the Roman Empire?  Is he starting to put something like an “apocalyptic politics” in the mouth of Jesus?  It’s possible. Or, I wonder, is Luke here depicting a Jesus who can sense the apocalyptic fervor that is already in that first century air, and are Jesus’ words, rightly, words of warning and caution?  If the latter is the case, then we should listen to him carefully.
 
Jesus would have known well the apocalyptic elements in Jewish scripture.  He could have “gone there,” as John the Baptist most surely did in his own rhetoric and outlook.  Yet many scholars agree that Jesus was far more of a this-worldly leader, more concerned with alleviating the present suffering of the poor and oppressed then he was about assuring any future reward in heaven.   Jesus does not say “our redemption is now”!  He says that our redemption is near, and the kingdom is near.  He says the kingdom of God is at hand, not in hand! Do you see the difference?  It's not the impatiently despairing and often violent, ultimately dualistic voice of “apocalypse now” for Jesus.  Instead, it’s the trusting, faithful and hopeful voice that urges us toward deep and urgent and soul-searching transformation. Jesus is already here, a good sign to be sure, but our redemption is not yet. For Jesus, our individual and collective redemption is a process that is already underway but not yet fulfilled.  It's the of process and ongoing protest of our wrestling with our inner demons, of our truth telling and truth revealing, and it will be disruptive. The practice of confession, of forgiveness, of truth and reconciliation will shake the powers that be within us and all around us to the core!  This is not “redemption-on-demand,” nor redemption by force, nor redemption for just some of us. He says, “when you hear” of war and insurrections, do not be terrified.   He seems to be saying when others start pointing to signs in the weather and global politics as portents, these are the time we most need to stand up, to step up and “be on guard” against those who want to bring about the end of times by their own force.  Jesus could well be saying right here, “be on guard” and stand ready to resist the faintest whiff of pathological dualism, of de-humanization, of victimization. 

He knows these tendencies are within all of us, but he says ‘stay with me’, ‘keep your eyes on me.’  I’m coming to you now and coming again and again to remind you to stay with the poor, stay with powerless, relinquish your hunger for control, surrender your narratives of scapegoating, give up the good guy/bad guy dualism and see instead that we are all, each of us, good guys and bad guys, in need of God’s judgment and mercy.  He says it himself, at the end of the passage, that the kingdom of God is not just for some.  He says it “will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.”   He then says, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."  The things we need to escape, what he is warning us against, are precisely those patterns of finger-pointing dualism, and that ‘apocalypse now’ worldview. 

Instead, in this Advent season and in every season, we are invited to come to Jesus, to stand before his love and mercy that has the power to melt us, and refine us and give us a strong voice of hope for these troubled times- hope that Emanuel, God is With Us, and that God comes to us with blessing and love for all God’s people, not just some!   Advent is not merely about preparing the way for us to remember the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem - his first coming - but it’s also about preparing the way for God’s kingdom to break in again and again.  We begin at the end because the end is our promise and our fulfillment, our direction and our purpose. The end is the vision and the promise of that kingdom of God on earth where people of every nation, class and creed are blessed, loved, housed, fed and accorded to their God-given dignity!  

Our redemption begins in our own recognition. It begins with recognition and honest repentance, speaking the truth in love with courage about our messed up world, and especially our role and our complicity in it. It continues with the discovery that we can’t get through it alone, we need a faith and a God that can draw us together, give us meaning and hope, orientation and direction especially amidst these most despairing and confusing of times. We need our rabbi, Jesus, who again and again reminds us of God’s mercy for us, and for the outcast, the poor, the marginalized, the refugee, for all God’s people, not just some.

This Advent season, we are called to see these troubled times not just as our time, but as God’s time as well- that long view of time which spans millennia and generations, a time which encompasses memory and hope, with God as our mercy and our judge. The season is about God’s coming to us, to be sure, but it’s also about our coming to God, about our coming to Jesus, returning year after year, and perhaps especially this year, to his prophetic voice of hope, to his way of radically inclusive love, to the long view of human history and with it the long view of our human redemption. May we heed his call to be on guard, and to be not afraid. May we draw near to that already and not yet day of God, even as it draws near to us. Amen.

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