The End of the World? Part 1

Am I the only one who is feeling extremely anxious every time I open up Facebook?  This election cycle has turned what used to be a nice, relaxing diversion into something quite alarming.

I think I’m getting PTSD… or maybe FBSD.  What used to be a collegial collection of friends sharing anecdotes, articles, and photos of their lives has been torn in two.  Literally, I now look at two Facebooks.  On the one side are people who align themselves with the Republican nominee for president.  On the other side are people who align themselves with the Democrat nominee for president.

…and really, I shouldn’t talk about sides.  Because it’s much more like they are upside down in relation to one another.  Something happens, and one side says, “See, this proves that their candidate is terrible!”.  And about that same event, the other side says, “See, this proves that our candidate is awesome”.  It’s like every other Facebook post is upside down from the ones around it.

People see the world in incredibly different ways.

Under normal circumstances, I make this observation with a smile, and deep appreciation for our collective diversity.  But in the middle of this election cycle, this observation seems ominous.  How in the world can we all coexist when this thing is finally over?

There is something that everyone agrees on, though:  it seems that everyone is worried that if the other candidate wins, we are in a world of trouble.  Things will go downhill, right away.

It’ll be a disaster for our country, and it might eventually lead to the destruction of the whole Republic.

This week, the famous evangelical leader James Dobson said:  If Americans elect the wrong person, the United States would never recover and might go down in flames.

Many others— on all sides!— criticize the church, saying that Christians supporting the wrong candidate have invalidated the entire church.  The church has no further influence, because so many Christians are on the wrong side of the election.

So the question I’d like to explore today is:  Why do people do this?  Why all of the worries about the end of the world?  It’s like we automatically escalate arguments all the way to the most extreme conclusion.

Perhaps more than most, Christians are people pretty quick to invoke the End of Days.  And I think we come by it rightly.  Our holy book has a few sections in it that are pretty alarming.  We call them “Apocalyptic Literature”, and they make The Walking Dead seem like a picnic.

Visions of violence, and vengeance, and vitriol.  Many-headed beasts, terrifying creatures, and blood as deep as a horse’s bridle.  It’s enough to make a thoughtful, progressive person reach for a scissors to perform some surgery on the family Bible.

READINGS from Revelation 13: 1-10 and 19:11-21

?uncomfortable?  Now many of us have a long history with these passages, because we come from branches of Christianity that put a lot of stock into a whole worldview focused on them.  Our church classrooms had wall-charts that outlined the terrifying timelines for the end of the world.

But for those of you who aren’t as familiar, let me try to summarize.

Based on a very narrow reading of Daniel and Revelation, along with a few isolated teachings of Jesus, a whole series of theologians (especially in the 1900s)  (doesn’t it feel weird to talk about ‘the 1900s’?)  developed a whole worldview.  They said that the purpose of these Apocalyptic writings was predictive, and that their intent was to give a very specific chronology.  So we should expect some bad wars, and dire political developments, and trouble on the rise.  Then there will be a ‘rapture’, where all followers of Jesus (living and dead) will be taken up to heaven.  After which there will be a time of terrible tribulation, called ‘The Tribulation’.  This seven-year period will also include the rise of the AntiChrist, and the return of Jesus to earth.  These two will face off in the battle to end all battles, ‘Armageddon’, where the AntiChrist will be destroyed, and Jesus will begin a thousand-year reign on earth.  So it’s our job to wait, and be ready, and to help everyone else be ready when God hits the ‘EJECT’ button and lifts us all up to heaven.

Now, there’s a lot to be said, and a lot to critique about this line of thinking, and from all kinds of perspectives:  Biblical, theological, sociological, cultural, political, etc. etc..  But let’s not dive too deep today— let me suggest a few interpretive keys.

First, let’s define some terms.

“Apocalypse” = not the end, but  revealing, uncovering, unveiling.

eschatology as ‘expectation’ of the future God will bring.

The Walking Dead and the hope of the future.  Yes, the outbreak of a virus that might bring extinction is a bad thing, but it also does a kind of work of revealing, uncovering, unveiling.

In TWD, we see the breakdown of society, but this reveals many things that were already there:  prejudice, financial oppression, materialism, disconnection.  And it shows us a world where we can move beyond these things.   We see uncovered the dark side of human nature, and we see unveiled the best side of human nature.

In a similar way, the Bible’s apocalyptic literature is intended to name and identify the evils in the world, and cast a vision for a world made right.

Second, let’s state something that might be obvious:  this is figurative literature, not literal.  It’s a literary genre not intended to give us a roadmap of the future.

Some of you have heard me talk about taking a college course on Daniel and Revelation.  The prof’s first assignment was to read Lord of the Flies.  “This is an example of contemporary apocalyptic literature— it’s a commentary on our times, the dangers Golding sees, and the remedies he thinks are necessary (note that the kids are rescued by the military).”

So apocalyptic literature is useful, and important, but  not in the way that it’s often suggested.

Third, I’d like to look at the larger forces behind this popular Left Behind theology.

The core ideas that go through these views of our future history are things like:

avoidance, escapism, power, victory.  Fair enough.  But who wouldn’t want all of these things?

I would suggest that all of us find avoidance, escapism, power, and victory appealing.

None of us are huge fans of facing our problems and dealing with them.

None of us find the prospect of disempowerment or defeat particularly exciting.

Which is, I think, where the appeal of these neat and tidy chronologies comes.  It’s comforting to think that you will escape the worst of the bad stuff, and that really, you won’t need to do much of anything about the bad stuff that’s coming— just leave that to God!

But even more, these theories are based on the presumption of self-interest.

The assumption that it’s all about us.  

This, too, in an understandable assumption.  For as long as we’ve had the Bible, we have worked hard to take it seriously and to see how it’s idea apply to us, how they interrogate our ideas, and how it guides and encourages us.

So it would be wrong to *not* apply the Bible to ourselves, but it’s almost as bad to overly apply it to ourselves.

IT’S NOT ABOUT US.

All of the Apocalyptic Literature in our Bibles was written for people who were at the end of their rope.  Whose very survival was at stake.  Revelation was written in the late first-century, when the church was enduring massive amounts of persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire as well as the citizenry all around them.  No exaggeration— their lives were at stake, and their fellow church members had been dismembered, fed to wild animals, and turned into human torches.  It was all very real.

So John, the author of Revelation, is writing to people who were essentially on death row, facing down the most terrifying military superpower on the planet.  Seen this way, it makes sense that he employs all of this imagery of beasts and dragons and vile characters— that’s figuratively the kind of opponents who were wiping Xians off the earth, and doing it with glee.

That’s why the literature can seem strange and overstated to us— because it’s not written for us:  it’s written for those folks in that time.   And in those circumstances. And to the degree that these visions were predictive, they were arguably fulfilled several thousand years ago.

…So when a person who *imagines* themselves being persecuted (but who actually isn’t) grabs hold of Apocalyptic Literature,  it doesn’t sound quite right.

If you are about to be crushed by the most powerful military force in the entire world, we can understand why your visions are of victory, vengeance.  But if you are *a part* of the most powerful military force in the world, further claiming that Jesus is dressed in a white robe and joining your army is grotesque.

But again, we can’t be too quick, or too dismissive.  People might not be experiencing persecution, but they certainly think they are.

If you are a person who sees the US as a “Christian Nation”, you really do have a lot to be worried about.  This week, and article in the Atlantic:  white Xians are a shrinking demographic:  45%.  US is no longer a white Xian country.

23% of American’s claim no religious affiliation.

67% of people 65 and older identify themselves as White and Christian.

while only 29% of people under 30 identify themselves in this way.

Evangelical perspective from NYT article about Iowa Xians.  Losing voice, feeling like a minority, feeling persecuted.  They’ve taken stands for what they have always understood as Xian moral imperatives, and they’ve been penalized by the government.  Their lifelong assumptions have been undermined, and they are scared and confused, looking for politicians who will turn back the clock.  This too, is real.

Middle-aged white people are losing their pride of place in the culture:  their life expectancy is dropping, unemployment and underemployment are rising.  They really are losing their pride of place, and this is genuinely difficult.  They hear about a ‘post-Xian America’, and they are terrified.

And apocalyptic literature seems to offer a promise of relief, of rescue.

Of their own restoration, and ultimate victory.

So how should we understand this powerful and disturbing genre of Biblical literature?  

We will spend more time next week giving much more consideration to other readings, and to other ways to understand it, but for now I’d like to pause with a dichotomy.

The message of this apocalyptic literature is an encouragement to HOLD ON.

To be patient, and to be faithful, and to wait for God to work.

But HOW should we wait?  With what attitude, with what expectation?

Because— as we have seen—  it’s easy for us to twist this:  to wait in worry, with hand-wringing, or — even worse— with us sharpening our swords in expectation of joining God’s army.

What I’d like to suggest is that we can wait in anxiety, or we can wait in hope.

Not waiting in anger, or with vengeance.  But waiting in Hopeful Resistance— resistance to the forces of control, oppression, dehumanization, and evil in the world.  To wait in the realization that we wait for redemption, that God has not abandoned us.  That God is working in the world, and with us, to bring about God’s redemption; God’s recreation of all things.

Concluding with a PRACTICE.   (reset, stretch, shift)

SO.  In what hope can you wait?  Where are the anxieties in your life, and how can they be displaced by hope?

Anxiety is obvious— it’s right there when we close our eyes at night.  And it’s there again when we turn off our alarm.  Or, when we open up Facebook.

Anxiety is obvious, but what’s more powerful than anxiety is HOPE.  It’s just that hope is a bit more elusive.  We have it, but it’s that quiet friend in the corner, not the person with the megaphone.

So let’s engage with a practice of contemplative prayer.  Let’s quiet ourselves, and imagine that loud-mouthed figure of Anxiety… and let’s just turn off that megaphone.  And on your piece of paper, let’s just take that guy’s main message and condense it into one word (okay, maybe two or three… or maybe a short phrase).

Write that idea right in the middle of the page, and then take a few minutes to focus on HOPE.  And start writing words or phrases all around it, crowding out that thing that seems so brash and overpowering.

“God, we acknowledge our tendency to wait in anxiety, worry, and fear.  Help us to instead choose HOPE.  We want to wait, and to wait in hope.  To wait in hope for your deliverance, your redemption, your recreation of all things.”

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