We Need a Little Apocalypse Now
The First United Presbyterian Church
“We Need a Little Apocalypse Now”
Rev. Amy Morgan
December 2, 2018
14 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."
25 "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.
28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees;
30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.
31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.
33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly,
35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.
36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
April 6, 793. January 1, 1000. February 20, 1524. October 19, 1814. September 6…or September 29…or October 2, 1994. January 1, 2000. April 23, 2018.
On all those dates, the world did not come to an end.
No signs appeared in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and there was no distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. No one fainted from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, and the powers of the heavens were not shaken.
And, sadly, no one saw 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.
The segment we read this morning is part of a longer apocalyptic vision Jesus shares with his disciples. Jesus tells them that the temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed. Horrified, they ask him when this will take place and what signs they should look for.
Jesus doesn’t pull out a calendar and circle a date in red marker. He doesn’t give them a month or even a year. Instead, he talks about distress and suffering on a cosmic scale. He predicts terrifying events, death and destruction for not just the temple, but the whole city of Jerusalem and for his followers in particular.
Some of these events did indeed come to pass – the temple was destroyed, and Jerusalem sacked less than 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection and many of his followers were persecuted and killed. But Jesus did not return. He has not returned.
And so we are still waiting.
But why are we waiting? And what for?
The season of Advent is the beginning of the Christian year. It is a season of waiting. We might presume that we are waiting for Christmas, for the birth of the Christ-child, Emmanuel, God-with-us, into the world.
Advent calendars, reverse or otherwise, tick of the days in an orderly way. December 25th is circled in red on our calendars. We are waiting for the shepherds and the angels, the star and the wise men.
But we are also waiting for something else. Something far less predictable.
The first Sunday of Advent always begins in the lectionary with Jesus’ apocalypse. Every year. The beginning of the Christian year is the end of the world.
Because the true waiting of Advent is not the waiting for Christmas. It is the waiting for Christ to come again.
Throughout the two millennia since Jesus ascended into heaven, Christians have attempted to predict this final act in the unfolding drama of God’s salvation. They have studied the stars, looked for the signs, read the portents. And they have made predictions. Hundreds of them.
I remember a young woman in my congregation in Michigan was terrified and losing sleep over the prediction that the world would end in 2012 when the Incan calendar ran out. But other predictions have led to strange preparations and much more dire consequences for those who believed them.
But not one of those predictions has been correct. There are still more predictions on the horizon. End-times prophet Ronald Weinland predicts that Christ’s final return will occur on Pentecost of 2019, June 9. Of course, he also predicted this would happen in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2018.
Weinland, and other end-times predictors, draw from the apocalyptic literature of the Bible – parts of the book of Daniel, John’s Revelation, and these apocalyptic visions of Jesus – to try to do exactly what Jesus said can’t be done: set a date for Christ’s return.
What all these end-times prophets miss in their careful calculations and interpretations is the actual point of apocalyptic writing.
In the Bible, apocalyptic writing is never a prediction. Instead, it is always a hope. That is not to say apocalyptic writing isn’t true or won’t come to pass. But it isn’t meant to paint us a detailed picture of what, in actuality, will occur in the end times. What it does detail is the hope that God’s power will reign supreme and will rescue the world from its current turmoil.
I know that talking about hope may sound strange in the context of today’s apocalyptic reading. What is hopeful about destruction and confusion, fear and foreboding? But notice that even here, Jesus says that when we see these signs, we should raise our heads because our redemption is near. Somehow, for the followers of Jesus, these are hopeful signs.
Because you see, apocalyptic writing always comes out of a community in despair. In Daniel, God’s people have been taken captive by the Babylonians. In the first century, God’s people are oppressed by the Roman Empire. In Revelation, God’s people are being persecuted and killed.
And what apocalyptic vision allows each of these communities to do is to imagine God’s alternative future. When all they can see around them is death, destruction, oppression, tragedy, injustice; when there is no way out of this mess that they can devise themselves; when all seems lost: hope takes the shape of apocalyptic visions, of a world where God intervenes with the power to bring the whole cosmos to its knees in the service of God’s redemptive purposes.
This is the true purpose of apocalyptic writing. Not to help us predict the exact date of Jesus’ second coming, but to give us hope where there is no hope, to remind us that God has not abandoned us, to assure us that God has the power and the intention to fulfill God’s promises of redemption and reconciliation.
But just because we can’t predict the exact date when all this will happen does not mean we should stop watching and waiting for it.
Jesus encourages his followers to “be alert at all times.” Elsewhere he says that day will come upon us like “a thief in the night” and that no one knows the day or hour, not even the Son of God. There is no date on the calendar with a big, red circle around it. But there are signs.
Jesus talks about the fig tree, how you can tell from its buds and leaves that summer is near. There will soon be sweet, ripe fruit to enjoy instead of bare, empty branches. Our winter of waiting, filled with suffering and persecutions, may be long. But summer will come.
I remember vividly our first winter in Michigan. We moved there in the middle of January. It was bone-chilling cold, and the sky was always grey. There was so much snow, and it never went away.
Deep into April, I was despondent. I asked Jason, “does spring ever come here?” I didn’t see a single sign of it. Just grey and cold and snow.
And then, one afternoon as I approached our back door, I saw them. Tiny purple flowers, pushing up through the snow. I didn’t know flowers could grow in the snow. But these crocuses did. Loads of them. I ran all around the yard, looking for more of them, and finding them everywhere, purple and white and oh so beautiful. A sign that spring would indeed, eventually, come. After a long winter of waiting.
While we may not be a people oppressed or living in exile today, there is plenty of despair in the world around us. More than 68 million people worldwide have been displaced from their homes, creating a refugee crisis of epic proportions. Half the population of Yemen is experiencing famine.
Closer to home, people in communities ravaged by wildfires in California are living in exile and have lost everything. Mass shootings happen with tragic regularity, and our society and government offer thoughts and prayers and little else. The economy is growing, but predictions of potential catastrophes still loom.
Even in our personal lives and experience, we have plenty of despair. Death and estrangement, illness both physical and mental, stress and anxiety, disappointment and difficult life transitions all plague our happy holiday season.
From the farthest reaches of the planet to our dining room tables, it feels like things are chaotic, out of hand, in terrible shape, and we don’t see a way for them to get better.
In the Broadway musical Mame, Angela Landsbury sings “I've grown a little leaner, grown a little colder,” hinting at the despair that surrounds us. Her solution is “we need a little Christmas now.”
While holly and stockings and candles in the window might add cheer to our despair, I think what we really need is a little apocalypse now. We need the hope that Christ will come again to make all things new; hope that the power of God is greater than all the death-dealing powers of this world; hope that God can make a way where there is no human way through the suffering and injustice of this world.
But we must be able to imagine God’s alternative future. Apocalypse is only as hopeful as our imaginations allow. If we cannot imagine anything other than what we see right now, what we know right now, what we can do right now, then apocalypse has no hopeful potential for us.
So as we wait and prepare for that date on the calendar, December 25, I would invite us to imagine. Imagine an apocalyptic Christmas, where everyone gets to live in peace and safety in their own home; where everyone has plenty to eat; where our children can go to school and folks can go to worship without fear; where everyone has enough; where we are well and whole and loved.
It may take God moving heaven and earth to make this all happen. But we will hope for that. And we will look for the signs. We will rejoice and raise our heads when we see buds of justice and equality and sprouts of righteousness and peace. And we will say maranatha, come Lord Jesus. Amen.