- Jeremiah 33:14-16
- Psalm 25:1-10
- 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
- Luke 21:25-36
Prayer of the Day
Stir up your power, O Lord, and come. Protect us by your strength and save us from the threatening dangers of our sins, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
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Apocalypse Then. What about Now?
Advent is about the Lord’s coming. Many of the Biblical texts we hear in Advent sound ominous. The refreshing rain of salvation comes amidst dark thunderous clouds of judgment and brisk winds of prophetic warning that send shivers down our spines. The warning signs are everywhere: Repent, for the End is near!
On this first Sunday of Advent, I have a confession: the older I get, the more I find apocalyptic doom and gloom the least helpful kind of Christian (or human) perspective. The other day, while sitting in a waiting room, I caught a glimpse of the National Geographic television show, “Doomsday Preppers.” Wow. You can go to their website and take a survey to find out your “Prepper Score” — how prepared you are to face a global cataclysm. I’m guessing mine’s hovering around zero.
However, there are times in history when apocalyptic is appropriate. Today’s Gospel text is an example.
One key to understanding Jesus’ words in Luke 21:25-36 is to accept the timing he pinpoints: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place” (21:32). Our Lord was warning his disciples about tumultuous events that would happen in their lifetime. Therefore, I think Tom Wright has it right in terms of the basic contours of how we should interpret Jesus’ words in Luke 21:
The best place to begin is on safe ground — safe for us in terms of our understanding the text, but decidedly unsafe for anyone there at the time. Verses 20-24 are clear, and fit with everything Luke has reported Jesus as saying up to this point. A time of great crisis is coming, in which the failure of Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular to repent and follow the kingdom-way advocated by Jesus would have its disastrous result. The Romans would come (they are not mentioned by name, but if anyone was likely to surround Jerusalem with armies it was surely them) and would lay siege to the city. The result would not be in doubt.
Wright proceeds to discuss how the apocalyptic language in the passage is best understood in terms of the prophetic visions of Daniel 7, which speak to the vindication of the Son of Man and the people of God. Whether or not Jesus’ words have reverberations beyond the Fall of Jerusalem is another question, but I accept the position that the events described here took place within the lifetime of his audience.
So then, what we have in today’s gospel lesson is “Apocalypse Then” — a look back at a pending crisis that would affect Jerusalem, the Jewish nation and religion, and the young Christian church forever. Jesus exhorts his disciples to recognize the signs of things to come and to stay prepared and alert to face the impending onslaught. The Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, with its national and international impact, was an event tied to both world history and salvation history — an apocalyptic occurrence worthy of that kind of thinking, talking, and acting.
What about Now?
I’ve been hearing this same kind of apocalyptic language since the early 1970’s. In the U.S. one of the waves that caused evangelicalism to rise and gain momentum was a wave of end-time teaching. The Lord was coming back any day, and identifying “signs of the times” became a regular preoccupation.
Israel’s 1947 return to Palestine and Jerusalem for the first time since 70 AD provided much of the impetus for that emphasis. Then, the Cold War divided the world and created a standoff between powers capable of destroying the world with nuclear weapons. The social upheavals of the 1960’s and 70’s led into a generation of escalating culture wars that continue to this day, ever more divisive. After the Berlin Wall fell, Islamic terrorists rose and took center stage as last days villains of impending doom. Warnings about changes in the earth’s climate have grown increasingly dire. Technologies have increased our awareness of global events, simultaneously multiplying our partially educated opinions and full blown fears. The dogmatic language and division of the world into clear black and white alternatives characteristic of apocalyptic seems to have become more prominent, at least in our public expressions of politics and religion.
These days, at every turn, preachers and prognosticators of all stripes are pronouncing dire predictions of the end of the world (at least as we know it). A militant shadow is cast over almost every issue, and one is urged to choose sides and store up provisions for hard times ahead.
But are we living in days that portend imminent crises which justify stirring up the faithful into apocalyptic fervor?
I don’t think we are. Of course, in many ways, every age has its reasons for thinking disasters may be right around the corner. It is also true that we never know when some great cataclysm may suddenly fall from the skies and change our lives forever. Ask folks living in New Jersey and New York about that.
But are we who hear this Gospel text today facing calamitous events of imminent destruction like what the Jewish nation experienced in 70 AD?
Do you believe in “the end of the world”?
Can we humans, who have been through such events as the Crusades, the Black Death, and countless wars — including two “world” wars — and genocides, foresee, as Jesus did, a comparable day of destruction and re-ordering worthy of “last days” language?
If not, what does a text like this say to us today?
If apocalyptic is not the best language to use to prepare us for the days to come, what is?