Message Supplement for Sunday 10 November 2019: “The End is Dear”
Posted On October 23, 2019
The scripture for today’s message covers 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5 and two consecutive weeks of gospel readings, Luke 20: 27-38 and Luke 21: 5-19. The epic, controversial subject is Jesus’ return at the end of history.
The Bible contains weird and wonderful verses, many of which elicit lively responses from readers who all have assumptions, some of which hold the Bible as literally true while others argue for a more symbolic, diary-like aspect of scripture. Both approaches can be problematic for examining the end-time, which involves the apocalypse as the final, fiery and cataclysmic struggle between good & evil. The lingering questions about the apocalypse, when or even if it will occur, centers on what Jesus, known as the “Messiah” and the “Son of God,” may have communicated two-thousand years ago.
Take a deep breath and keep an open mind given that examination of the apocalypse provokes strong emotions, especially from people who feel their convictions challenged when confronted with contrary evidence. One premise scrutinized today is the literal view of Jesus’ return, that it signals the end of normal reality—ushered by the horrendous death and destruction of the apocalypse—followed by the final judgment of each person, the righteous destined for heavenly bliss and the evil condemned to eternal hell. This black/white dichotomy is a common summary of what many people believe. Thankfully, scrutiny invites a richer perspective for this and similar interpretations of God’s message.
To make sense of what’s going on, enter Bible prophecy, a basic assumption of which is that a reader can more-or-less plainly discern aspects of the future by referencing certain Bible verses. Passages widely believed to reveal God’s plans are sprinkled in both the Old and New Testaments, culminating in what some argue is the end times psychodrama described in the book of Revelation apocalypse.
In today’s Luke passages, the narrative reveals Jesus discussing a chronology of wars, persecutions, natural disasters, arrests, trials, and betrayals, all believed to accompany humanity’s end game. Worried about weathering such an apocalyptic storm? It’s all worth it, prophecy peddlers preach, because the text of their red-letter, Jesus-said-this Bible reads that “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:18-19). The stakes are enormous for people who believe that Jesus was predicting the end of the world. Even if you don’t believe in a literal religious apocalypse, Jesus’ words are valuable in that they encourage persistence in the wake of everyday life challenges.
In a text similar to that quoted above is the clearest, unambiguous answer about the apocalypse timing: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Matthew 24:34). There is a persistent problem here for folks who force every bit of literalness from their Bible, akin to a misguided person trying to squeeze lemonade from a piece of dry fruit. In the passage quoted above, Jesus declared that those listening to his words in first-century Israel—“this generation”—would not die before his return. It never happened. You might think this would have marked the end of apocalyptic prophecy but that’s strangely not the case.
If the “this generation” in Jesus’ quote above is interpreted metaphorically as signaling a vague, distant future then the game changes—slightly. But the basic problem of interpretive inconsistency remains. Often, religious conservatives claim that they “value the word of God so much that I take every word as literally true.” While this declaration sounds noble in its determination, such a stance often crumbles under duress. Since it is deemed unpleasant to consider that Jesus failed to return when he said he would—the literal words seem wrong—apocalypse defenders then switch their interpretation to a non-literal or figurative approach, signaling a vain attempt to preserve the integrity of their view of the biblical text.
Along with their inconsistency in understanding scripture, apocalypse enthusiasts still face the issue of what “this generation” refers to. Could it be a spiritual generation? A totally indefinite generation? Beyond the text’s literal words is speculation, often of a type hijacked into sensationalism. Those who claim consistency in literally interpreting scripture can’t squirm out of the problem they’ve created by silently switching between either a literal or figurative view, whichever defends their preexisting ideology against unpleasant truths.
“What now?” you may ask. “Jesus didn’t return as the Bible declares and history didn’t end. Are the Bible and Christian faith both fatally flawed?” The short answer is “no”, and the only fatal flaws are in the minds of people who either deny the God of love or who betray such a God with prophetic nonsense. The issue here may be as basic as that either Jesus never said anything so specific about his return —the Bible writers messed up—or he did say literally what the Bible lists but something went terribly wrong and Jesus didn’t return. Both of these aforementioned scenarios are bad news for a prophecy-infused theology. Indeed, life has gone on for over two millennia beyond what was supposed to be the end-time.
Paul the super-Apostle to the rescue? Paul was the most prolific New Testament author, who also acknowledged the prophecy problem but who took a different approach by encouraging the faithful to not give-up (2 Thessalonians 2:1-5). Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, Greece that the day of the Lord (i.e., the end-time) had not come, but that they shouldn’t be alarmed. Instead, Paul pragmatically advised that they go about their lives. Paul knew that Jesus’ return was embarrassingly overdue, yet he encouraged his readers “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here” (2 Thessalonians 2:2).
Paul’s writing confirms that ancient Christians perceived Jesus’ words as predicting a return that didn’t occur. Amid such a bitter disappointment, consolation became paramount along with the technique of interpreting divine promises as happening far into a hazy future. Undeterred, Paul wanted to clarify a certain order of events, that a great rebellion would occur followed by the rise of an evil and lawless leader (likely a Roman emperor). Make no mistake: history reveals that Roman persecution against Jesus’ followers was so severe that many early Christians became despondent, Jerusalem and its great Temple were destroyed, and all seemed lost. Paul’s priceless, comforting words revealed his aspirations as he earnestly focused on distant promises rather than surrender his sanity to the excruciating, barely admissible uncertainty of Jesus’ return.
Apocalypse profiteers suggest that you should compare your internet newsfeed on one hand and your smartphone Bible app in the other, perceiving Jesus’ return based on a coalescing of natural disasters and social upheavals. The cries of these apocalypse advocates exploit dark curiosity and the life frustrations of their audience. This seductive formula of making the apocalypse enticing is so prevalent as a marketing tactic that the “end is near” mantra transforms itself into “the end is dear” attitude, revealing the absurd popularity of the prophecy industry. Apocalypse hawkers conjure elaborate schedules, many have suggested a date, and all contribute to a prophecy feeding frenzy distracting from a higher plane of personal spirituality.
More than the end times, scripture overwhelmingly emphasizes peoples’ redemption. This means that you, as a person of faith, face sufficient challenges living in the present. Creating a circus sideshow blustering “He’s coming!” scandalizes the essential message of spiritual life and vitality. Other Christians embrace the opposite extreme, throwing-out the spiritual baby with the apocalyptic bath water. Secular critics scandalized by the abuse of scripture by religious fundamentalists tend to ignore many of God’s promises. Some outright deny God’s existence and pronounce Christianity and other religions an illusory sham.
Cynicism undermines personal transformation. Rejecting any notion of God’s redemptive spirit feeds a fatalistic mentality and a skeptical detachment from spiritual awareness. We may never know why Jesus failed to return as promised, but Jesus suggested watchfulness and mindfulness, both productive attitudes which entail hopeful expectation. The danger in dismissing Jesus’ primary teachings, those about love, is that you’ll miss the divine voice calling you to holistic health in body, mind and spirit. God’s encouragement is to stay awake and alert, not caught in a self-imposed mirage of a prophecy fantasyland or, alternatively, as a castaway in critics’ nihilistic wasteland.
Hopefully, apocalypse advocates can understand that it’s not helpful to yearn for and therefore indirectly encourage earth’s destruction. So convinced are apocalypse proponents of the earth’s worsening that many refuse to dedicate themselves to humanitarian reforms. The belief is that if everything is going to burn in the apocalypse then there’s no use trying to save the earth or even spend much effort in making it a better place to live. This harmful, defeatist attitude reveals a dangerous detachment contributing to a worsening of the human condition. Apocalypse defenders are found yearning for society to get worse as a way of confirming and validating their beliefs. Even when human life seems to be making strides toward a more inclusive, just world, such positive reforms are often ignored or dismissed since they contradict their thesis that life on earth can only get worse.
There are many threats to human existence: nuclear proliferation, authoritarian governments, pandemic viruses, religious terrorism, global warming, rising pollution, and the toxic social cocktail of late: fear, prejudice and anger. No good can come by adding to the list of threats an end-time apocalyptic spectacle of ultimate destruction. Aside from satanic leaders and demonic conspiracies, humanity faces ongoing dangers percolating from peoples’ contaminated imaginations and timeless struggles with ethnic tensions and competition for resources. Religion should help alleviate tensions and conflict rather than increase them. Those Christians anxious for the apocalypse agitate for and ironically contribute to the very disasters they’ve come to cherish. That sort of dark, self-fulfilling prophecy foists upon our children unnecessary horrors that legitimate religious faith seeks to relieve.
People on either side of the apocalypse debate needn’t become irreconcilable haters. There’s enough in common for even diehard, partisan Christians to celebrate, such as the overwhelming blessing of personal redemption. You have everything needed for a meaningful life—now! God indwells you with the magnificent spirit of love, which is God’s essence. Avoid preoccupation with past regrets but equally resist fascination with a future catastrophe. Live well now and share God’s love with every living creature. By doing this you will realize the core of Jesus’ message.
It is tempting to be distracted by rousing apocalyptic imagery, which sideshow authors have taken to the bank while degrading scripture into a grotesque, B-rated Hollywood script. It’s more helpful to emphasize your status as God’s blessed child, that you’re empowered by a love that surpasses gawking at history’s end. Sure, the end of history and its cataclysms do tantalize, similar to how spectators become captivated and slow traffic while gazing at a fatal highway wreck.
Realize that it is not simply a benign choice when apocalypse advocates focus on the ruin of people who don’t meet their narrow religious criteria of salvation. The drama of a fiery earth with epic battles between sci-fi monsters makes for alluring imagery (and $uccessful book series), but it stymies progress toward embracing the living, loving God, the one who invites you and all humanity to share blessings each moment. Jesus’ words correct the morbid preoccupation with the apocalypse: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:34).
Instead of voyeuristic revelry over universal annihilation, apocalypse admires are encouraged to avoid a path leading to their own destruction. The appeal of Christian faith transcends any violent dénouement and instead rests upon the timeless presence of God’s love, the opposite of the destruction often attributed to the Almighty’s agenda. Instead of propagating imagery of bizarre flying creatures unleashing unspeakable mayhem, ignite your spiritual mojo by helping people connect with God on the precious soil of mother earth.
God loves you through all of life’s stages, including past, present, and future. Be mindful of the God who seeks you and who wants to enhance your life rather than destroy it. Life isn’t easy and the challenge of encouraging yourself and others to face a day’s obstacles is more consuming than the fiery breath of imaginary beasts. The apocalypse may be dear to some, but better still is your endearment to receiving and sharing God’s compassionate love.