November 17, 2013 Isaiah 65: 17-25 Luke 21: 5-19
Rev. Catherine Purves
For some reason in the last few weeks I’ve watched two movies in which Washington D.C., and specifically the Capital building, was under attack in an attempt to bring down the government. I also accidentally watched “World War Z” because Brad Pitt was in it; I didn’t realize that the ‘Z’ stood for zombie. Then when Gordon was home last weekend we went to see the film “Enders Game” in which an entire planet was destroyed, as I knew it would be, having read the book. I don’t know what I expected when I decided to watch these movies. Obviously, they were all going to be extravaganzas of visual effects in which the violent destruction of symbolic buildings, cities, and vast numbers of people would dominate virtually every scene. What did I expect?
The Bible is made up of various different kinds of literature. There is poetry and history; there are letters and gospels; and there is prophesy and apocalyptic writing. The apocalyptic writing includes, of course, the book of Revelation and its main Old Testament counterpart, the book of Daniel. We might think that these writings are included in the Bible for the same reason that Hollywood makes films about zombies and the destruction of our nation’s Capital – that is, because of their vivid visual appeal to the imagination and their ability to scare the living daylights out of us. That’s what we might expect, but this is not the case. Apocalyptic writing is, ironically, less fanciful than that. Its aim is to provide absolute assurance that the future is in God’s hands. When things are bad, as they undoubtedly will be, people of faith are urged to hold onto one thing: the fact that God is in control.
How bad can things get? Very bad. We don’t have to have the gift of prophesy to know that in the Philippines there will be outbreaks of disease in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, deadly, infectious diseases like cholera, hepatitis, malaria, dengue fever, and typhoid fever. Already there is a crisis because there isn’t enough fresh water, food, or medical supplies. The fact that more people will die, on top of the thousands who have already perished, is inevitable. When so much of the basic structure of that society was literally washed away, what does the future look like for the people of the Philippines? It is positively apocalyptic.
It may not signal the end of the world, but it might feel like the end of the world for the people living through it. The forces of chaos are truly frightening. But what we must hold onto is the fact that the power of God’s will is ultimately stronger.
Let’s try to imagine that we are first century disciples. Jesus didn’t even have to be a prophet (or the Son of God) to know that bad times were coming for his followers. He knew that his death and resurrection would trigger huge political and religious upheavals that would eventually change the world. If we were disciples then, we would find ourselves threatened on every side because of these cataclysmic changes. Who needs zombies when you have the full force of the Roman Empire bearing down on you? Who needs to visualize the Capital building imploding when the Temple in Jerusalem – the 1,000 year old symbol of God’s abiding presence with his people – the Temple of Jerusalem was going to be destroyed in their lifetime? Imagine what it was going to be like for those disciples once Jesus was gone. It would probably feel like the end of the world to them, and they were living through it. The one thing that Jesus wanted to impress upon them, upon us if we can imagine ourselves being back then, the one thing that he wanted us to know was that he would be with us and that God was, and is, in control.
And what does that mean – to say that God is in control? What good does that do if you’re now in the Philippines dying of hepatitis? What real difference does that make if you are a 1st century disciple rotting in a Roman prison? All of those things to be anticipated that Jesus listed in our reading from Luke were both 1st century and 21st century realities: wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, persecution, and the temporary and passing nature of all things of human devising: governments, monuments, ideas, and institutions.
This is the stuff of history, and history is always changing in unpredictable and dangerous ways. This fact is what is addressed in apocalyptic writing. Yet, in the midst of all of that change, at the center of it, there is certainty. The will and the promises of God will not change. You have to be ready for everything else to change – that is what apocalyptic writing is saying – but you can count on God being constant in the midst of that change. That what we mean when we say that God is in control.
But what is God doing as disease spreads in the Philippines, or as 1st century Christians are martyred, or as radioactivity leaks out of the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, or as Syrian children fall victim to chemical weapons? Where is God when people we love are diagnosed with cancer, or when plants are shut down and jobs shipped overseas, or when our government is in gridlock, or when children are gunned down in our schools? These are the kinds of questions that prompted the biblical writers to speak in apocalyptic language. When it feels like the end of the world, either on a personal or on a global scale, that is when we need to know what the future truly holds. That’s when we want to know what God is doing.
There is another vision of the future that is zombie-free and that exists beyond the cataclysms of history. The prophet Isaiah caught a glimpse of it, and he described it to give his people hope. This is a genuine hope, not a delusional, wishful thinking kind of hope. In God’s own voice, Isaiah wrote, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” With that one sentence, we are catapulted back to the early chapters of Genesis which describe the first creation, the fall, and the results of sin. Everything unraveled after that. God was not absent, but history ran amok. Trot out the apocalyptic language. It all fits. God’s good creation was invaded by sin and death, suffering and struggle. The intimate relationship that God had with the humans he created was broken. Disaster.
But the whole of the Bible stands as testimony to the fact that God didn’t simply turn and walk away from his creation. God would not give up on us. Isaiah saw clearly that God was going to put right everything that had gone wrong. It would be a restored creation, a new creation, in which suffering and death, struggle and despair would be no more. A new Jerusalem would be part of it, the city, like the Temple at its heart, would again symbolize the restored relationship that God would have with his people. In the Garden of Eden that intimate relationship was destroyed. Now, God declares through the prophet Isaiah, “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” And it is the whole of creation that will be renewed and be at peace. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox…They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”
It is a beautiful vision, but how do we get there from here? This is when the apocalyptic writings of the Bible really speak to us. We get there precisely by plowing through the crises of history. That is why Jesus, and all of the New Testament writers, always called for patient endurance. Bad things would happen before God’s redemption of history was complete, just as bad things will happen in our lives before our redemption is complete. The thing that is certain, however, is that redemption is happening. God is acting behind and through and in history to bring this re-creation into being. We trust that promise because we know that promise has already broken into our history in the man Jesus. Nothing could ever really be the same after the incarnate Son of God entered history and changed it forever.
All of the elements of that promised re-creation were present in Jesus. Death was destroyed, sin was overcome, reconciliation with God was accomplished, and God’s power for re-creation was then unleashed in the world as the Holy Spirit gave life to the church. Still, and even so, there would be bad times ahead. But in the man Jesus, who was the Son of God, we see that God will be with us through the worst times, the birth pangs of the new creation. We must simply persevere and endure with hope.
I don’t think that there will be zombies. But there will be wars and plagues and natural disasters. Things that we thought were permanent will be overthrown. The suffering will be real. God’s creation is that broken. But it has already been mended in the person of Jesus Christ. Now from the very heart of history, the incarnation of Jesus, the healing has begun. How long must we wait and endure? That is the question we cannot ask. But be assured, Jesus waits with us, the Holy Spirit will strengthen us to anticipate and to witness to that new creation, and God the Father will fulfill his promise to create new heavens and a new earth. That’s what we can expect!