Isaiah 65:17-25; 2 Thess. 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
Well, it’s 4:00 Monday morning in my body. That’s one reason I’ve been up since 3:30. The other is that I couldn’t shut my brain off about what I was going to say this morning. I have to confess that when I first heard the results of the election as we were driving away from the Forbidden City in Beijing, I felt sick to my stomach. Since then I’ve turned things over and over in my head. I have read article after article, email after email, Facebook post after Face book post, and listened to CNN panel after CNN panel discussing what it all means. I’ve also sat with this morning’s Scriptures, struck by the synchronicity between their reality and ours. I don’t feel ready to stand here and speak to you today. But that itself feels like a parable on what we are living. We need to decide how to speak and act before we are clear about what it all means. So let’s practice.
Today’s Gospel presents Jesus’ view of the apocalypse. Apocalypse literally means uncovering. It has come to refer to cataclysmic events that lift a veil that has covered something to keep it out of view. Apocalyptic events shake things up in a way that lifts the veil over true reality, thereby revealing a basic truth about the world. The theme of apocalypse has special relevance after last week’s election. But it is also relevant to our personal lives.
On most days, we go blissfully through life, believing the truth about the world that our parents, teachers and televisions have taught us. On most days we can decide what we’re going to do, and with minor adjustments, that ends up being what we do. On most days we can make others believe what we want them to believe about us, whether it’s true or not, and they never suspect anything else.
Then, one day, the masks come off, and we’re faced with the naked truth, unveiled. The doctor sits us down to tell us the the test came back positive, and the truth about the limits of our power over death is unveiled. A friend finds a note we accidentally left where they could see it; a secret is unveiled and our friendship is finished. The candidate who called Mexicans rapists, promised to build a wall and keep out Muslims, and spoke of women as objects to be manipulated, became the president-elect, and every thing we believed about our country was called into question. These are all apocalyptic moments. Was last week’s election an apocalyptic moment? We don’t know yet if it will bring fundamental change to our world. But it certainly threatens to do so. And it unveiled certain truths about our world that many of us had managed to remain blind to until Wednesday.
We have to answer three questions about this apocalypse: Which truths were unveiled? Which changes are truly apocalyptic for our generation? And what is the appropriate response for people committed to justice and love? Some say that the election unveiled the blatant racism that has bubbled beneath the surface for years. Others insist that it revealed the feeling by many citizens that they have been left out and spoken down to by politicians. Still others argue that it showed the widespread belief in the prosperity gospel, even among immigrants who came to this country in part to enjoy that. Some immigrant communities view the election as a response to a demographic shift over the last quarter century that has led the majority white population to feel anxious over a loss in privilege due to economic disruptions and dislocation that they blame on immigrants. These are just a few of the views of people reflecting on what has been unveiled in the apocalypse of last week’s election.
What are the apocalyptic changes we face? Do they include the increased racist bullying in schools in the aftermath of the election? Will there be restrictions on the freedom of the press, which has been targeted in the campaign? Will the ability to protest become more limited? Will neighbors start to snitch on neighbors who harbor those the government seeks to deport? Will the rich get exponentially richer as a result of new economic policies? Will the growth of minorities slow down due to limits on immigration, assuring a white majority farther into the future?
Then we come to the question of how to respond to the election. Some are protesting in the streets. Others are saying to give the President-elect a chance before judging him. Still others are strategizing about how to both pressure and work with the new administration to hold the line on certain issues. Many organizations are raising money to carry out their struggles along certain battle lines.
How timely that Luke’s Gospel presents Jesus’ version of the apocalypse. Jesus described both physical disasters and human insurrections that would bring huge upheaval to peoples’ lives. And he described how people would respond. People would be understandably afraid. Some would respond to their fears by turning friends and relatives over to the authorities to save their own skin. Others would get drunk to deaden the pain. Others would abandon their faith to avoid the painful consequences of their convictions. Still others would go around scaring other people into believing their version of the end of the world, so they would have more adherents in their sect. All of these are ways to respond to apocalypse, and they are still around today.
Jesus suggested an alternative set of responses, which I think offer guidance to those of us who are trying to figure out how to move forward after the election. “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name. Do not go after them.” “Do not be terrified.” “Do not prepare your defense in advance” when you are arrested. But “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, flee to the mountains.” When you see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud… stand up and raise your heads.” “Be on guard” against anything that will distract you, and “be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape.”
For disciples of Jesus, neither macho bravado nor untrusting panic are appropriate responses to apocalyptic times. Whether the apocalypse is personal, like discovering cancer, or public, like an election, we are faced with a choice as to whose word we are going to trust and whether we’re going to acknowledge the newly unveiled truth, or continue to not see it. Most of us need someone to help us interpret such times in ways that overcome our fears and transform us into people empowered to witness and act to change the world and people’s lives for the better. That only happens when we are convinced that that someone cares for us deeply. In Luke’s version, people seemed to know that Jesus cared deeply for them. Who are the wise people who care for you enough to help you understand what’s going on? Seek out those people.
Of course, we’ve seen in the election results that many people will support a dangerous apocalyptic message even when the messenger doesn’t really love them or advocate for their benefit. They so desperately long for hope that they will accept almost anything that offers hope and meaning in the midst of a reality that overwhelms them. The question we must face as people of faith is how people got so desperate for hope? Maybe those of us who think we’re more grounded in love and positive change have failed to present a view of hope that gets people’s attention, moves their hearts and motivates their actions for good. Some have interpreted the election as a reaction to an elitism that has tried to speak and act in truth and justice, but that has done so in a condescending way. Progressive Christians may be guilty of the same elitism. If we are going to grow through this experience, we have to pay attention to those insights.
A biblical vision of hope is based on the promises of God, not on our predictions or scenarios of the future. But it has certain characteristics that we can recognize in every circumstance. Isaiah described the new heaven and new earth in terms that all of us can relate to: low infant mortality, workers being able to afford the houses they build and the fruit and vegetables they pick for others and peace that includes animals. It’s a modest vision because it doesn’t seek to know more than what God has revealed and because it takes the reality of death seriously. And it’s a radical vision, because it takes even more seriously God’s power over death, and hopes for the transformation and renewal of all of creation, not merely human souls. That kind of hope leads to action.
Biblical prophets wrote apocalyptic messages to incite actions that would bring about change. They threatened calamity so people would act so it would not happen. They promised wellbeing so people wouldn’t lose hope. Biblical apocalyptic calls for a superhuman effort and an assault on the impossible. We know that history moves forward through fits and starts. So it matters that we work for and achieve justice, even if advances might be temporarily reversed at certain times. Our nation has moved forward on many fronts in the last half century. Blacks, women, gays, Muslims, Hispanics, and our planet, have all made great strides in terms of care. We must defend those advances as they face increased threats.
The recent history of South Africa has inspired me. I visited South Africa in 1982 when even Christians believed that armed revolution was inevitable. Blacks were becoming more desperate. Teenage boys were confronting police and army. Chaos was overtaking townships as children seized the initiative. Whites took an increasingly hard line. It was a recipe for disaster. But then the unexpected happened. The white government voluntarily relinquished power and negotiated with its former black enemies, leading to the election of a black president and forming a model constitution; all with relatively low casualties. What appeared to be an inevitable apocalyptic bloodbath became a positive apocalyptic situation. Many factors contributed to that miracle. But one set of actions was carried out by Christians, who organized thousands of people into prayer groups and raised international pressure that forced the whites to negotiate.
Los Angeles is full of people committed to do something similar. Some are already organizing. This afternoon at 4:30 pm at Holman United Methodist Church a faith network will be gathering to consider posible steps. How will you and I respond to this apocalyptic moment? Are we listening and reflecting? Are we awake to the stakes? Are we open to surprises? Are we willing to act on our best intuition, even when we don’t know enough? May God grant us wisdom and courage to answer the call of this moment.
About 15 years ago I saw a movie called My Life as a House. In the opening scene, Kevin Klein is lying in the hospital having just learned that he has cancer and has three months to live. He asked a nurse what she would do if she knew she had three months to live. She responded, “I would eat a lot of red meat.” When she asked him the same question, he replied, “I would build a house.” And that’s precisely what he proceeded to do.
The recent history of South Africa always inspires me along these lines. I remember visiting South Africa in 1982 when even the most hopeful Christians believed that armed revolution was inevitable. Blacks were becoming more desperate by the day. Teenage boys were confronting police and army. Chaos was overtaking townships as children seized the initiative. Whites took an increasingly hard line. it was a recipe for disaster. But then the unexpected happened. The white government relinquished power and negotiated with its former black enemies - a process that led to electing a black president, forming a model constitution, and all with relatively low casualties. What appeared to be an inevitable negative apocalyptic bloodbath turned out to be a positive apocalyptic situation instead. Many factors contributed to that miracle. But one set of actions was carried out by progressive Christians, who organized tens of thousands of people into contemplative prayer groups, and helped raise international pressure that forced the whites to negotiate.