The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28), Year C.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and, `The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”Luke 21:5-19
Like all good apocalypses I’m going to start with the end: don’t panic, Jesus has saved us. It’s quite a comforting thing to start with the end, rather than the beginning, because to start with the end you don’t have to worry about how things are going to turn out. Every culture has its own creation myth and an apocalypse. Whether it be Ragnarök or Nuclear War, our seemingly innate fascination with the end is a powerful tool that has been used to frighten, control, profit, call to reflect, and comfort us across all times and places. We have always had a fascination with the end, even if the end is frightening or not very satisfying for anyone. Look at pop culture, we love movies books and games about zombie apocalypses, or post-nuclear wastelands, but if you think too long or hard about it, you realize no one really wins in those stories.
I’m sure it’s no secret to anyone that our culture today is not terribly optimistic. We are afraid of the future. When we look out and see the student debt crisis, the healthcare crisis, global warming, poverty, the future of the nation, our church, our own family. It can be very frightening. Even the subjects of entertainment media have grown steadily darker in the last 100 years. News media has done the same, there was a study done some years ago looking at the word choices in newspapers; from 1918 on word choices have reflected an increasingly pessimistic worldview. Turn on any news outlet today and you can see talk of division, violence, rumors of an oncoming economic collapse, “wars and rumors of wars”.
Our Gospel today seems equally pessimistic. Here Jesus gives us an account of an apocalypse; a litany of suffering that the disciples will have to endure. It fits right in with our cultural pessimism: the world is too broken to be fixed. No matter how hard we fight to change things for the better, we always find ourselves “one step forward, two steps back”. We have now reached a point of pessimism and anxiety that we occupy ourselves with questions about how we are going to survive in this secular age, suffer through this life, rather than strive for God’s kingdom on earth.
Yet the reality is, despite our anxiety, apocalypses are meant to be gifts. Though the subject they are covering makes us all nervous, they are meant to give us comfort and ease our fears. You may have noticed that I am using the term “apocalypse” quite differently than you are used to hearing. We often think of The Apocalypse, that is, a singular event. However, an apocalypse is actually a literary genre. In Greek all it means is “uncovered” or “uncovering”. That’s right, the word that in our common usage means the catastrophic ending of all things is about as threatening sounding as taking the lid off a stove-pot. An apocalypse is an encounter with God where God reveals — or “uncovers” — His plan for us and creation. There are many apocalypses in the Bible, and they all share the same message: God has saved us.
Jesus is continuing this apocalyptic tradition in the Gospel reading. This reading is Luke’s version of Mark’s “little apocalypse”. Quite an endearing name for such a terrifying uncovering of the future. The temple will be destroyed, there will be terrible wars, false messiahs, betrayal, sacrilege. In one short chapter we hear a horror of what is to come. It can be hard to see why this apocalypse is a gift, or even remotely comforting. It’s hard to see if you are looking only at the calamities. A mistake that modern readers often make when reading this passage is to zero-in on the calamities; or more specifically, wonder when the calamities going to happen. The disciples open this conversation by their anxiety over when the temple is going to be thrown down. There have been thousands of books, documentaries, news articles, sermons, speculations about when the apocalypse described in Revelation will occur. A whole industry has been built on exploiting anxiety, poor Bible scholarship, and feeding into fear in order to generate more consumption. There are even Christian groups taking collections to pay for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, hoping that by destroying the Dome of the Rock, they will instigate a religious war between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. The idea is that this war will force God’s hand, bringing about the end of all time. They want the calamities, because they want to watch those whom they believe are wrong to be punished. All this from a misunderstanding of a what an apocalypse is supposed to be, and a twisted self-assurance that violence they instigated would somehow be pleasing to God. “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and, `The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”
Yet with every prediction He makes in this chapter, and what we often overlook, Jesus emphasizes his real point. “Do not be terrified… I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict…not a hair of your head will perish…” Over and over again Jesus is reminding his disciples that yes, terrible suffering will happen, but God is with us. Not only is God still with us, but God is actively working through us.
The other apocalypse we are given today is from Isaiah, and at first glance it could not be more different from Jesus’ “little apocalypse”. The descriptions of destruction, punishment, and desolation have all vanished, and we are treated with an idyllic scene. God’s holy mountain, where there will be no more weeping or distress, no more fear, “they shall not hurt nor destroy on my holy Mountain. These are the things that have been uncovered for us in apocalypses; how God has been ceaselessly working in the world to return us to the joy and innocence we lost so long ago. When we look with disappointment at what we have become, and fear of what the future might bring, that is when we hand over our fate to evil. In anxiety we become stuck, complacent, and willing to accept things as they are, no matter how wrong they might be. That is the gift that Isaiah and Jesus give us in these apocalypses. The calamities are the reality that any significant change, even toward the common good, will be resisted. There is enough evil in the world, and those who profit from it will say that suffering is inevitable, that hope is pointless. Yet we cannot be distracted by them. We have been shown how things can be, how they will be on God’s holy mountain.
We are living in the end times. God fulfilled the promise to Isaiah long ago. “See I am making all things new”. Indeed, God has made everything new. Through the Incarnation and the defeat of Death, God has made the whole world new. He has taken the leap to have faith in us, and has given us everything we need to finish the work. Yes, there is still much suffering on the earth, these are the calamities after all, but progress has been made. Through hope, and partnering with God, progress will continue and bring us ever closer to God’s holy mountain. There is still much work ahead of us, there is still much suffering that we will have to endure, but as Christ said, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” The more you see the promise of God, the more you see His kingdom coming. We hear an awful lot about how divided we are as a nation, as a church, or even in our own families, and we wring our hands wondering how we can heal these divides. It is a lie that we are so divided that there cannot be healing. Because you know what I see? I see people coming together with a vision to heal our wounds. I see people genuinely wanting what’s best for our society, for our church, and though we do not always agree, we work to the same goal: the coming of God’s kingdom. There is an apocalypse happening, God is uncovering His truth through our work together. He has promised we are saved. So now that we know the end, we can finally begin.