“When will we know that the end is about to come?” the disciples ask Jesus in the Luke’s gospel. “What will the signs be?” they wonder, and we can chuckle at their naivety, but apocalyptic thinking still surfaces today. We are alive again in a time of hopelessness. I heard it in the fear mongering that accompanied the last presidential election. I wonder about it when people tell me they’ve lost hope in young people, or lost hope in the government, or lost hope in the church. I wonder about it when 20-somethings tell me they don’t plan to marry or have children. I wonder about it when we argue about fossil fuel and climate change instead of altering our behaviors of consumption. Someone’s world comes to end somewhere, everyday—and there is plenty of anxiety to fuel doomsday thinking around the world and across town. Thoughtful people still wonder, with reason, if the end is near.
In a sense, it’s always near. So we don’t have to be like the kid on the long car trip who keeps asking every ten minutes, “Are we there yet.” We are there, and I think we know it. Look carefully and you’ll see the disparity in schools, the spiritual and economic legacy of racism, and our wounded environment. People are hurting, some are dying, and when they lose hope or turn cynical, we can’t sit idly by. Rather, we can respond to John the Baptist’s clarion call: God’s kingdom is at hand, and it is in our hands.
Kathleen Norris writes, “The literature of the apocalypse can be scary stuff, the kind of thing that can give religion a bad name, because people so often use it as a means of controlling others, instilling dread by invoking a bogeyman God.” But apocalyptic literature, like the reading from Luke in chapter 21, is not “a detailed prediction of the future, or an invitation to withdraw from the concerns of the world.” On the contrary, it is a wake-up call, “one that uses intensely poetic language and imagery to sharpen our awareness of God’s presence in and promise for the world.” (Norris, Amazing Grace, A Vocabulary of Faith)
When we look carefully, we discover “that marriages, families, communities, and nations often come together and discover their true strength (precisely) when some apocalypse—some new revelation of the fault lines in our thinking or our systems—has occurred… For some reason, we seem to learn best how to love when we’re a bit broken, when our plans fall apart, when our myths of self-sufficiency and goodness and safety are shattered.” (Norris) Apocalypse is meant to bring us to our senses—allowing us a sobering, and admittedly painful glimpse of what is—and then envision the new life we can build from the ashes of the old.
Who knows how Christ will come, or when, or where? If we are in search of a timetable and try to crack the code of apocalyptic literature, we are probably on a wild goose chase. And when some of us claim that all who join our party or parish or denomination will be saved and everyone else is lost, we are mistaken. “The ones who will be saved, Jesus says, are the ones who are feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoners. If we love, in other words, we are in.” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking)
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s
grace to enter and do the rest. (Bishop Ken Untener)
People of good faith can change systems that have become perverse or wounding, so that they work for human beings again.
You know, we’ve read to the end of the book. We know how the story goes. We know the responsibility we hold in our hands and the kingdom those hands are pointing to. We know that good triumphs over evil, that life is more powerful than death, that the arc of the universe bends toward justice, and that love abides. We don’t have to travel through time or gaze into a crystal ball to see the rapture. But we do have to build the kingdom, if Shalom is ever going to come. We know what the coming of the living God looks like: it looks like you and me working the earth of the heart, digging into the ground of Being, confronting meanness and injustice and betrayal every day if we have to, sowing seeds of healing and reconciliation and community, because we have to, every day, one person at a time.