Sermon: “Beware the Apocalyptic Appeal!"
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 65.17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13; Luke 21.5-19
Have you ever stopped to think about how much we love a good disaster flick? Natural disaster flicks include epidemics and pandemics; meteoroids, asteroids, and impact events; and volcanoes. Then we have all the end of days movies: Apocalypse, 2012, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and all the Left Behind series. The three highest grossing movies ever – over 2 billion each (Avengers – Endgame, Avatar, and Titanic) all have disaster themes. We love a good disaster!
Today’s reading from Luke presents us with a disaster scenario. People are talking about the beauty and splendor of the Temple when Jesus says, “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” (21.6:NRSV). The people ask, “When this will happen? What sign will indicate this is about to take place?” Before addressing their questions, Jesus warns them not to be led astray for many will proclaim themselves the Messiah and say the end is near. Jesus warns, “Do not go after them” (Luke 21.8; NRSV).
Jesus then turns to a consideration of signs, or certain events, which will include wars and insurrections as nations turn against each other, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. We tend to get caught up in this list of events and signs and overlook the remainder of Jesus’ message – something tells me this is not what Jesus intended. Beware the apocalyptic appeal.
Let’s look at the rest of Jesus’ message: “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” (Luke 21.12-13; NRSV). Let’s face it, if that is addressed also to us, we probably do not find that news too palatable.
However, if we are going to be called to testify, shouldn’t we be prepared; shouldn’t we think of these things in advance? That would seem to be the prudent course of action, but notice what Jesus says: “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” (Luke 21.14-15: NRSV). As with the Old Testament prophets, and the prophets of any age and time, God will give us the words to speak – we will be God’s messengers.
But lest we have an idea that this is some privileged status, Jesus adds, “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” (Luke 21.16-17; NRSV). Jesus, this is not the best recruiting slogan! But this is not the end of the matter, for Jesus adds, “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Luke 21.18-19; NRSV). Given that some will be put to death, as one commentator notes, we must understand this from the gaze of eternity – our physical death is not the end of things. Through our endurance we gain our souls.
Here would be a good place to note most scholars agree that Luke was written around 80 CE, i.e., approximately 10 years after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Not one stone was left upon another; all had been thrown down. Not only that, but Jesus had been betrayed by a friend. As Dr. Gilberto Ruiz observes, what Luke says here is more reflection than prediction.
So, what are we to gain from this passage of scripture? Should we be looking for signs of a coming apocalypse? On that note, Ruiz offers the following:
Apocalyptic literature uses unsettling language and imagery as a means to assure the faithful that they should keep their trust in God even when facing the most challenging of circumstances. Sure enough, while describing the terrible events, Jesus tells his listeners not to be afraid (Luke 21:9). There is nothing particularly original or specific about Jesus’ “predictions” here. Every age has its own false prophets, wars, natural catastrophes, and so on. We will misread 21:7-11 if we think Jesus is describing a specific set of calamities. The point is that when bad things happen -- and they will -- we should “not be terrified” (21:9) or follow anyone proclaiming these are signs of God’s judgment and the end (21:8). Instead, we should trust that God remains present in our lives. (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3059#post_comments)
In other words, when we focus on the things to come, when we are looking for the impending signs, we are focusing on the wrong thing. We need to focus on the fact that God walks with us through the perils of every age, and to find our hope in Jesus’ promise that through endurance to the end, we gain our souls.
History reveals that false messiahs lead to disastrous results, especially when most of the church is complicit, as was the case in Nazi Germany or communist Russia. In our own country, Christianity is falling into disrepute, in large part, I believe, because evangelical Christianity has embraced a leader whose views and actions are a mockery of Christian values.
Peter Wehner (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/07/evangelical-christians-face-deepening-crisis/593353/), a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public policy Center, and Egan visiting professor at Duke University, in the article, The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity (July 5, 2019, Atlantic Monthly), cites Ralph Reed, the founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition as having said: “There has never been anyone who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump. No one!” I find myself asking, where does our Lord Jesus Christ enter in? Is Jesus only a “has-been, washed-up, relegated-to-the-dust-bin-of-history Messiah?” Evangelicals have apparently found a new Messiah!
Wehner further cites Mark Labberton, the “President of Fuller Theological Seminary, the largest multidenominational seminary in the world,” as saying:
The Church is in one of its deepest moments of crisis—not because of some election result or not, but because of what has been exposed to be the poverty of the American Church in its capacity to be able to see and love and serve and engage in ways in which we simply fail to do. And that vocation is the vocation that must be recovered and must be made real in tangible action. (Ibid.) [Emphasis added.]
In concluding, Wehner writes:
There are countless examples of how such tangible action can be manifest. But as a starting point, evangelical Christians should acknowledge the profound damage that’s being done to their movement by its braided political relationship—its love affair, to bring us back to the words of Ralph Reed—with a president who is an ethical and moral wreck. Until that is undone—until followers of Jesus are once again willing to speak truth to power rather than act like court pastors—the crisis in American Christianity will only deepen, its public testimony only dim, its effort to be a healing agent in a broken world only weaken.
As Christ’s church, we need “to be able to see and love and serve and engage in ways in which we simply fail to do.” And this, my friends, echoes Bishop Folt’s challenge for St. Paul’s to be a missional church. We need to recover our vocation if we would be relevant. We need to reflect the beauty of God’s kingdom!