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Apocalypse Now?

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Oct 23

Texts: Joel 2:23-32 and Luke 18:9-14

This is a difficult election season. No matter what our personal politics, or party preferences, it is a stressful time. If we want to be informed—if we dare turn on the radio, or open a newspaper, or click on a url— we are bombarded with divisive and inflammatory rhetoric, even apocalyptic predictions.

If candidate X wins, terrible things will happen! If the other candidate wins, it will be catastrophic. This is a painful season for many of us. Communities—sometimes even families—are divided; lines between red and blue, etched deeper and deeper; and there seems to be no end in sight.

Sure, things will change after the election. New officials will be in place, and we will carry on. But how will we find our way forward as a nation and a people after this contentious season? Is it possible to restore civility or find any sense of common purpose?

In case you’re wondering where I’m headed with all this, let me assure you that I do not intend to preach on electoral politics this morning! But I do want to begin by acknowledging the pain that so many of us are feeling, even the collective trauma that may be stirring within us. And I want to ask some pointed questions about the times we are living in. Is there anything to be learned from this time of national turmoil? As people of faith, what is our response in these days of dire predictions?

This morning we read two scriptures that seem to speak directly and powerfully to this moment, now! Which is amazing, because the texts are very different from each other, and they were both written millennia ago.

Let’s start with Joel, a “minor prophet” who lived in Jerusalem in about 400 B.C.E. The designation of “minor prophet” is not a diss on Joel. It’s just the name scholars have given to him and eleven of his buddies—Amos, Hosea, Micah, and the like—the twelve minor prophets.

We don’t know much about Joel, the person. But the prophet writes with poetry and power to a specific situation of national trauma and disgrace. The catastrophe is named explicitly at the beginning of the book—just a few verses before where our reading picks up. Israel has suffered a devastating plague of locusts, that has stripped the land of all its grain and shaken Israel to its core. One can imagine the dustbowl days of the Great Depression. Here’s how Joel describes the plague:

What the cutting locust left,
   the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
   the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
   the destroying locust has eaten. (Joel 1:4)

Joel draws a picture of extreme privation. There is no food for today and nothing stored in the granaries for tomorrow, a famine across the land. Livestock are dying and people are starving.

How can it be that God has sent such devastation? Like most people of the ancient world, Israel believed that abundant harvest was a sign of God’s blessing, benevolence, and grace, while famine and deprivation were signs of God’s displeasure. The plague of locusts is not only a terrible hardship, it also precipitates a crisis of faith. And so, Joel calls the whole nation of Israel to communal prayer and repentance.

We’ll return to the theme of communal repentance later, but first, let’s acknowledge that Joel uses some scary apocalyptic language. He writes, “I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord.”

If these words sound familiar, it’s either because you’ve read Joel before, or because you’ve heard the story of Pentecost. On the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit is poured out on the people, Peter uses these words from the prophet Joel to tell of the mighty power of God.

Blood and fire and smoke; the terrible day of the Lord. These words have always felt strange to me—potent and cataclysmic. And they are. The Book of Joel “belongs to the genre of apocalyptic, in which the prophet speaks words of hope and salvation in the midst of great suffering.” (1)

The word “apocalyptic” has a couple of meanings, both exemplified by Joel. The later meaning is perhaps the more familiar, having to do with the expectation of “an cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to [eternal] life.”(2) (Thank you, Merriam Webster.)

But the original sense of the word comes from the Greek, a-pok-a-lip-sis, (ἀπōκάλυψις) which means simply "uncovering," or "disclosure."(3) Interesting, huh? Apocalypse as disclosure. What, we may ask, is revealed in the Book of Joel?

A way of faithfulness and flourishing, in the midst of a suffering and broken world. (Hmm. That could even be relevant in 2016!) Joel’s first line of disaster response is to call the people to greater faithfulness. Rejoice and be glad, Israel. Turn toward God, whose faithfulness will show itself in replenishing rain, full granaries, and well-fed families, a flourishing human community.

And then this. Arguably one of the most powerful passages in all of prophetic literature. In Joel’s words, listen to the promises of God:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit. (Joel 2:28-29)

This is a vision, not only of material flourishing, but of spiritual vibrancy and blessing. Notice this. The spirit will be poured out on all flesh, but especially on the powerless—the young, the old, those who are enslaved, male and female.(4)

The vision is almost like a 5th century B.C.E. precursor to the Black Lives Matter movement. All lives matter. All flesh shall see it together. But how do we get from where we are now to the great reversal that is God’s love embodied in justice?

Joel says it. Our whole prophetic tradition says it. This is what is “revealed,” the hidden thing that is made evident in Joel’s apocalypse. That children and youth, the very young, the aged, male and female, enslaved people, matter. All people shall dream dreams and see visions and look to a future filled with promise.

Last Sunday, Dan and Jen and I went with our high school youth group to visit Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford. We are getting ready for a Civil Rights Tour in February and so we began with the legacy of slavery in New England. (More groups are going this afternoon for 2 pm and 3 pm tours, so if you’re interested, look for information in Margaret Jewett Hall after worship.)

I knew the story (and maybe you do, too) of the Isaac Royall Family, British Loyalists who made a killing (literally) in sugar cane in Antigua. In 1737, they moved from Antigua, bought a 500-acre estate in Medford, and brought with them 27 enslaved people, whom they put to work on their New England country estate. What I didn’t realize is that that estate is about five minutes from where I live in Somerville. Very close to home. Three centuries ago, humans were held as slaves, right down the street from where I live now.

If you follow Harvard-related news, you may know that theRoyall estate donated a parcel of land to Harvard Law School, and that in 1815 the land wealth was used to create an endowed chair. You may know that last March, the three sheaves of wheat—symbols from the Royall family crest—were removed from the Harvard Law School shield. It is now shield-less.

But there’s more. Two weeks ago, Sir Ronald Sanders, the Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda, called on upon the University to provide reparations to Antiguans, some of whom are descendants of slaves owned by the Royall family. The specific request is that Harvard create a fellowship for students from Antigua. Well that’s provocative! And complicated. And maybe even just.

I don’t mean to argue for (or against) any particular approach to reparations, just to point out that some things are passed down from generation to generation—like injustice and inequality and trauma. And we need to take notice.

But we believe that---however hidden—God’s kin-dom will be revealed. It may take a great reversal—an apocalypse—to break the cycles of poverty and injustice. But God calls us forward in hope.

If the Book of Joel speaks of apocalypse, Luke’s gospel also tells of a great reversal. “All who exalt themselves shall be humbled and all who humble themselves shall be exalted.” The point is made through the story of a Pharisee—a member of a respected class, and a tax-collector—someone universally despised.

Both men go up to the temple to pray, and like so many of Jesus’ parables, the story ends with a surprise. It is the tax-collector who shows true humility and repentance. This story is not (as some have concluded) a condemnation of Pharisaic Judaism, but rather a comparison of two individuals and a simple lesson about humility.

Luke warns us not to regard others with contempt, or to count ourselves among the righteous. Not to count ourselves among the righteous. Hmm. Perhaps there is a lesson here for an election season in which people on every side count themselves righteous and denigrate others who are not in our camp. The stakes are high, terribly high, but perhaps one way forward is with humility.

In these apocalyptic days of bad news and dire warnings, let us turn toward confession, toward collective repentance, toward love of neighbor, and a greater faithfulness to our God. Perhaps then we will be equipped to the hard work of justice and persistent work of peace. So that in truth, all flesh shall see it together.

1) Feasting on the Word, Pamela Cooper White, p. 194.
2) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/apocalypse
3) http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/1642-apocalypse
4) Feasting on the Word, p. 198.

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