Apocalypse Now?

Luke 21:5-19; Isaiah 65:17-25

Earthquakes, famines, plagues, dreadful portents, great signs from heaven: sounds like themes from Hollywood. When we can’t tell the difference between a Hollywood movie or the preaching of end-time reverends, you should know we have a problem.

I offer you a lesson in biblical reality and a different kind of reading of the Bible than these words usually receive. Our readings are apocalyptic texts.[i] Apocalyptic is a word that should “sue” Christian preachers for verbal abuse. 100 million American Christians use the word to mean the coming end of the world, but it has nothing to do with predicting the end. No movies have blurred the line between Hollywood fiction and biblical reality than the “Left Behind” series. Apocalyptic is not a word about the end; it is God’s new beginning. It is not about destroying creation but about replenishing, restoring creation. The language is symbolic and that was a curve ball for literalists. In every Christian generation there have been those who used apocalyptic language to predict the end.[ii] They are all members of the 100% wrong club.

Pat Robertson said the world would end in 1982. Not. Hal Lindsey said it would happen in 1988; then 2007; then 2018; and now he has a back-up date of 2037 that he calls the First Third Coming. Old prophecy predictors are never disgraced by being wrong; they become even more famous and get lucrative television ministries. Harold Camping said it would be September 6, 1994; then September 29, 1994; then October 2, 1994; then March 31, 1995. Then he said the world would end October 21, 2011. Tim LaHaye said January 1, 2000. On May 16, 2016 Pastor Richardo Salazar was allegedly told by God that an asteroid fully made of ice, with a 9km diameter, would strike earth killing 1,200 million people. Wrong.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses lead the 100% wrong club with an all-time 9 wrong predictions. You should be kind to Jehovah Witnesses. They come out on Saturday mornings in neighborhoods and suburbs and go door-to-door to spread the word. They usually come in a pack of six. I always invite them in because I am impressed with their courage. All those doors being slammed in their faces on a Saturday morning has to be unnerving. I always say, “Jehovah, huh? I’ve been witnessing for Jehovah for forty years.” I get them water and offer them a piece of cake or pie and then start telling them about my Jehovah – Jesus Christ, son of God, Savior of the world. They leave quickly without eating their pie. They are more afraid of Jesus than the Unitarians; nice people though.  

Now, I have a lot of enthusiasm for debunking end-of-the world schemes, but the places I go and the people I talk to have zero interest in all this razzamatazz. As a child, I loved those preachers who would bring fighter jets screaming off the pages of Ezekiel and battalions of tanks rolling out of Russia toward Israel. All of it was crazy as a bat, but to a curious 9-year-old boy, it was Star Wars circa 1958.

Now, let me show you that Jesus was up to deliberate good in his use of this language. Apocalyptic language is the language of hyperbole: exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.

Jesus is not predicting the end. He is calling us to action. It is no longer enough for us to sit around and make fun of the right wing Christians as if that is our primary mission in life. Jesus is calling us to more. He is encouraging us because this is a language designed to given hope to a people hanging by a slender thread and over the cliff of hopelessness. Here’s how it works. Jesus points to the sheer goodness and glory of eternity and then calls us to produce that goodness and glory here and now. There’s a world of difference between the language of hope and the language of defeat.

The disciples asked Jesus a question: “When will the end come?” Of all things, he says, “MANY WILL COME IN MY NAME AND SAY, ‘THE TIME IS NEAR!’” Jesus says, “DO NOT GO AFTER THEM!” How 100 million American Christians have managed to miss this lesson escapes me. They are like children who do exactly what Mama tells them not to do. “Don’t go swimming in Buster Dodd’s pond,” Mama said and all eight of us boys went right over to Buster’s pond and jumped in the water.

These Christians follow the doomsday prophets like fire ants to a pile of sugar. They are panting like a hound dog over the dead bones of prediction theology. They are glorifying these preachers, sending them millions in contributions, and worshiping every word that falls from their lips like solid gold. If you were getting investment advice from a broker and he gave you bad advice, not once, twice, three times, but four times, and you lost almost all your funds, would you keep sending your broker money to invest in your account? Find yourself another preacher if you are tempted by these end-of-the-world guys. Isn’t it odd that among conservative Christians the preachers obsess about the beginning of the world and come up with crazy theories about the world being only 8,000 years old and they obsess about the end of the world and insist that Jesus is coming soon? And yet Jesus is trying to teach us how to live here and now on this earth in this moment. Here and now matters more.

Remember that scene in O Brother Where Art Thou? Pete tries to warn his buddies in an exaggerated stage whisper: DO NOT SEEK THE TREASURE. DO NOT SEEK THE TREASURE. And I’m begging you, “Don’t send contributions to their television ministries. DON’T READ THEIR NOVELS OR AMEN THEIR SERMONS. DON’T ENCOURAGE FALSE PROPHETS. Don’t visit their museums. It’s like: STAY OFF THE GRASS; NO TRESPASSING; DON’T FEED THE ANIMALS; DO NOT PASS GO, DO NOT COLLECT $200.” We’ve had more than fifty years of this kind of preaching, much of it on cable television, and it is distorting our faith, undermining our democracy, and destroying the scientific imagination of America. It has to be opposed with all the vigor we can muster? Where in the hell is Harry Emerson Fosdick when we most need him? The outbreak of fundamentalism in the early 1900’s was a tempest in a teapot; today’s outbreak is a tsunami of misinformation, lies, and bad, bad religion. Somebody needs to find us a new Fosdick for the new viral version of fundamentalism.

This leads Jesus to the lesson that defines our mission: “THIS WILL GIVE YOU AN OPPORTUNITY TO TESTIFY.” Jesus gives us an opportunity not an invitation to disaster: Testify to the power of the gospel to bring about a new heaven and a new earth. Testify to the gospel not to the end. Testify to a new heaven and a new earth. Testify to the God who makes all things new even in churches that dig in their heels and say “We don’t like change.”

Jesus expects us to bear witness. He sent 70 of his disciples out into the world with clear instructions: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” We are not supposed to be packing guns or provisions or looking for security. It is clear that our mission is dangerous but it will never be boring. This is the missionary character of the gospel and we have missed it with our obsessions for certainty, protection, security, power, influence, and status. “To be without protection is the condition necessary to learn how to live in peace with one another.” “Christians are sent out into the world armed with nothing more than a conviction that we have been given a word of truth so exceedingly strange that we nailed it to a cross” (Chris Heubner, A Precarious Peace). Jesus would have you and me go to where his name is not known, places like Bradley, Caterpillar, city hall, Main Street, to be witnesses to his name. And yes it will be dangerous and you should expect opposition.

But we are not much interested. Pentecostals do that sort of thing but they are boisterous already and excitable. We American Baptists have the view that mentioning Jesus might cause people to think we did not graduate from a good university. On a good day we might invite someone to come to church because everyone needs a bit of fellowship, but we find it quite awkward to ask someone to believe in Jesus as the Son of God.

We have purchased the heresy that religion is a private affair. Public witness has been strangled by a faith that is hidden in the closet. IT IS TIME FOR BAPTISTS TO COME OUT OF THE CLOSET AND TESTIFY. I am not a fan of closets. It is a place where things can get locked away and forgotten. If you want to lose your faith, put it in the closet. Closets are for coats not Christians. Hang the robes of self-righteousness in a closet and then go forth crying “God me merciful unto to me a sinner.” Put hypocrisy, ill-will, racism, hatred, fear in boxes and stack’em to the ceiling in a closet. For the sake of all that is holy in this world, let Christians stop parading fear and hatred and racism in our streets. God doesn’t like closets; too small for God’s glory to fit; too dark for God’s light to shine; to cluttered for God’s majesty. Let’s get this faith of ours out into the spacious open of God’s good creation.

Our faith is meant for public display. Street-talk, street-wise, outside, in the world, down to earth, wise as serpents, get-our-hands-dirty public display. Public display of faith is meant to be an act of beauty. We are the temple of God and in Revelation the temple is described as incredibly beautiful. Here and now the church is to be the beauty of God on display in public. Wherever there is ugliness, the church must spread beauty. We are God’s jewels that shine in the darkness. WE ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD. When we do the hard work of kingdom-building that requires time, intentionality, commitment, and discipline, we are the beautiful people of God. How can you get mad at a preacher who just told you that the Bible says you are beautiful.

George Carlin once compared baseball to football. I offer you this analogy because I believe the analogy holds between those who predict a future of violent destruction and those who see the coming of the glory of the Lord as sheer goodness, those who see unrelenting violence and those who see the Lamb of God seated on the Throne of Grace.

In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general to be on target with his aerial assault riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing his aerial assault with a sustained ground attack, which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemies’ defensive line. In Baseball, the object is to go home, and to be safe.

I hope we’ll be safe at home, safe at home. Amen!

[i] Many Christians like to pretend that the Bible is a simple book that just says what it means. The idea has been repeated so often in so many disguises that it has become an accepted truism even for people who never actually read the Bible. If the Bible were that simple, that clear we would not have hundreds of different denominations. If the Bible were that easy to understand, it would be used to manufacture so many crazy interpretations. The Bible has been used so often to authorize abuse, even murder of women, Jews, slaves, colonized peoples, Native Americans, and homosexuals that it could be charged with being an accessory to mass murder.  This book has been used, and continues to be used to repress, suppress, and abuse women. No wonder so many people no longer consider the Bible to be a trustworthy guide for faith and life. Every part of American culture that is xenophobic, racist, patriarchal, classist, and bloodthirsty, makes its case from the Bible. Some of making the case that the Bible is no longer fit to be our guide because of the awful misuse of it by so many professing Christians. The Bible is used by prosperity preachers to solicit funds from widows. The Bible is used to promote white supremacy. The Bible is used to promote America as God’s chosen nation. The Bible is used to promote fictional predictions about the end of the world. The Bible is used to advocate for our planet being only 6,000 to 8,000 years old and all of this on the strange math and calculations of an Anglican archbishop from Ireland: Bishop Ussher.

If the Bible were so easy to understand there would not be 59 different Baptist denominations.

THE BIBLE IS NOT SIMPLE; IT IS NOT EASY TO READ. Ask anyone who ever decided to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and stopped half way through Leviticus. THE BIBLE IS A COMPLEX LITERARY CREATION OF 66 DIFFERENT BOOKS.

Seminary students are often shocked at the literary complexity of the books of the Bible. Learning the literary skills necessary for reading the Bible is not that simple. Ellen Davis says that the Bible is the last place that most Christians expect their reading skills to prove inadequate, because they think they know what is there, even if they have never actually read it. The most difficult aspect of the Bible’s literary complexity is its use of symbols. The Bible speaks often in symbolic, imaginative language. Why? Because the writers are attempting to speak of divine realities that exceed the capacity of ordinary, common sense, literal language.

Perhaps you have a visceral reaction against my idea of complexity in a book that you have been taught is the simple Word of God. Well, within the texts of Scripture, the makers, characters, and writers of Scripture give us every indication that complexity is a given. Jesus, the true Word of God, struggled to teach his disciples. He referred to them as a bunch of slow learners. He asked, “How long must I put up with you?” He complained that they had eyes that couldn’t see and ears that couldn’t hear. All of this suggests complexity. Peter complained that Paul was hard to understand. Scripture itself bears witness to its internal complexity and there is no reason for us to shy away from this reality. It is essential that we teach Scripture in the church and it essential that church members know as much about Scripture as possible. Then Jesus said to the two disciples, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. This is Church 101. It does not get any more basic than this.

It is essential that the people who have promised to follow Jesus be instructed in the Bible. And I believe God grants to every church those who are gifted teachers. The church calls some historians to engage in a systematic fashion in the discipline of remembering those who have gone before as a part of the exercise of faithful living. The church calls some who are gifted in the art of biblical interpretation to engage in opening the scriptures and revealing to the church the meanings found there so that we can be more faithful witnesses of Jesus. The church calls some who are gifted in the art of ethics, preaching, theology, practical faith, and a host of other vocations in order that we may know what it means to be a church that is Christian and not pagan or American or Baptist. For years I have struggled to understand why our church culture makes so little of the importance of Sunday School and how few participate.

[ii] Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, published in 1970, is a good example. Lindsay identified the Beast from the sea as the Soviet Union and then promoted hard-line Cold War politics in the name of evangelical Christianity. The book sold more than seven million copies. I bought one and read it. When the Soviet Union fell, the book was shown to be fallacious. There was no surprise here because since the second century, the number of interpretative losers numbers in the hundreds. The riddle, for me at least, is that no one seems discouraged by this 100% record of being wrong. Each new generation produces preachers determined to get it right this time. John Hagee, of Cornerstone Church, San Antonio, Texas, is a current advocate of the predictive school. He joins Tim LaHaye of Left Behind fame in this school of thought.