Talking about the apocalypse fills me with joy like few other topics. This Sunday, however, we had a massive snow and ice storm. So the apocalypse was slightly more literal than I would have wished.
Nevertheless, we persisted. Brave souls came out for both services, pitched in, and the Lord was praised.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
December 1, 2019
Advent 1, Year A
Ah, the apocalypse. The end of the world that welcomes us into Advent each year. As you know, I have a certain fondness for apocalyptic theology. There’s a saying that all theology stems from cosmology—that you can figure out everything about a belief system from what it says about the beginning of the world. But the same can be said about the end of the world—what we say about where things are ultimately headed also sums up the basics of who we are and what we value.
About 20-25 years ago, a certain theological idea became really popular, mostly through a series of Left Behind books, and movies. The technical term for the idea is premillennial dispensationalism—otherwise known as the Rapture. These books and movies (as well as associated merchandise) made popular an idea that had been around since about the 1850s—that the world was increasingly getting worse, because that was God’s plan for it. Everything would end in a colossal war, as the forces of evil finally took over creation, but the true believers would literally rise up in the air and be saved just before that happened. The few worthy ones would be able to skip the final suffering and destruction that would overtake the rest of humanity and the world.
Part of the justification of this idea comes from these verses in Matthew—two people will be working in the fields, one will be taken, and one will be left. (The other part comes from one of Paul’s letters, where he reassures the Thessalonians that at the last day, those who have already died will rise up and meet our Lord in the air. That’s it. Those two things.)
For many people, this idea of the Rapture is in fact so widespread, that it can be hard to hear this reading from Matthew without immediately thinking about it. Even for those of us who never consciously believe in a literal end of the world, or a literal event where half of humanity rises up into the air, we live in a world where the actual news reported pretty steadily leading up to 2012 that the world might end because of the Mayan calendar. And there was that one preacher who definitely thought Jesus was returning on October 21 a few years ago. (He was wrong, btw.) Doomsday cults, explicit and implicit, are all around, warning us that they know when the end is coming, and so we had better do what they tell us.
Our world likes to contemplate its own end, in lots of different ways. We’re a bit obsessed. And for some solid reasons, perhaps. We humans are now conscious of our ability to wipe out life as we know it on our fragile earth in a way we haven’t been before. With each day that passes, we learn more and more about just how tenuous the web of life is on our planet, and how little can throw it off forever. And the more we learn about this, the easier it is for doomsday cults to rise and demand our allegiance.
But there are a few things about the gospel today that present a contrast to these prophets of doom—even the most Christian-sounding ones.
For one, Jesus argues that no one knows when the end is coming. No one. We can’t figure it out. This is past the limits of our human understanding. Part of what drives the obsession of doomsday prophets is a desire to control—because if the evangelical preacher on the radio knows when Jesus is returning and what that looks like, then you’d better listen to him, if you want to survive. Jesus reminds us that in fact, God alone holds the future. And while we can and should use our brains and all our best reason to figure out how our world works, in the end, we cannot be held captive to those who claim to have it all figured out, and have all the answers. We do the best we can, we try to make smart decisions, but in the end, we need to allow for the movement of God as well.
But also, and more profoundly, the big problem with doomsday cults is that they prophesy doom. And that has never been what God intends for creation.
Remember, Jesus in Matthew is talking here to the gathered community who had witnessed the destruction of the Temple, and the sudden coming of war in the Jewish Revolt. Again, he is speaking in descriptive and not proscriptive terms. But he is telling them this in part to validate what happened. “Yes, these horrible things happened to you, and you had to suffer them, but CHRIST IS STILL COMING BACK. You just don’t know when. So don’t give up, and don’t give in.”
Part of the allure of doomsday prophets is that if doom is certain, and definitely coming tomorrow, then why does anything we do matter? Why try? To quote the Secretary of the Interior under President Bush (the first one), I believe that Jesus is coming back, so I am not worried about deforestation. If absolute destruction is also promised to people who don’t believe exactly the same as I do, then God is also probably fine with whatever happens to them. They’re just here to illustrate my righteousness, by contrast.
Yet, that is not at all what Scripture tells us. Scripture tells us, over and over, that God’s one desire is the saving of the world. God wants to save us. Not destroy us. Everything we see God do in the Bible is in order to save and renew creation. Even in Revelation, that most frightening of books—the story doesn’t end with a huge war that destroys everything, God throwing up the divine hands and saying “Well, ok, that failed.” The story ends with the heavenly Jerusalem coming down to earth. With the heavenly hosts announcing that the dwelling place of God is now with all of humanity. And with creation being remade and heaven and earth being finally entirely reconciled as one.
The ultimate failing of doomsday prophets is that they assume that our fragile life here on earth means that we are destined for destruction at the end of history. All of our faith teaches us, however, that our fragile life on earth indicates that God has clearly brought us this far by grace. And our history is pointing not towards a bleak destruction, but with God’s help, our history is pointing towards God’s ongoing saving action in our world. God hasn’t brought us this far to abandon his work. God didn’t come to us in the person of Jesus just to burn up half the world on a whim. God didn’t hold all of this magnificently complex universe as it unfurls just to toss it away like so much garbage.
God’s intention for the world is not destruction. God’s intention for the world is redemption. God intends for us to not be complacent, not be passive, but to actively love the world into a new state of being as God loves us. Christ calls us to be awake, stay awake, stay alert—that’s a reminder that we are called to participate in God’s work in the world around us. Because God does not intend us for destruction. God does not intend this creation for the trash heap. God’s intention for all the universe is light and life and flourishing, when everything works together to praise God, in peace, justice and love.
Advent talks so much both about the coming of Jesus and the end of the world because they both line up in this way. God came to save us before and God is coming to save us again. And now, that we can see God’s redeeming action playing out around us, we can join in as we can, because the promise of Advent is that ultimate hope. That even as the days become darker, and the news continues to be awful, we rest in the awesome power of God, that has always sustained and nurtured us. And God is continuing to work out the plan of salvation even now, until the day that we can learn war no more. That is our Advent hope, and that is what preserves us through the winter darkness.