I suspect the apocalyptic vision in the Bible with which we are most familiar is in the book of Revelation – but there are other apocryphal visions in the book of Daniel and in several other biblical books. Today’s excerpt from Mark 13 relates an apocalyptic vision of Jesus’ that we call the “little apocalypse”. Another one is in Luke 21. And in both of these Jesus foretells a time of great trouble and suffering and warns about being prepared for an “abomination of deso-lation” that will end this world and inaugurate the second coming of the “Son of Man”.
When we call Jesus’ vision in Mark 13 an ‘apocalypse’ we use a word that literally means to uncover. But it also denotes a revelation or prophetic disclosure that is usually accompanied with dreadful events that Jesus calls ‘signs of the birth pangs of a new age to come’. So apoca-lyptic is like other expectant and looking-forward seasons. Like Advent and Lent it is prepara-tion for one of God’s momentous events – this one is for the second creation of God’s will and purpose for his world and his people – and Jesus’ return that we call the parousia. So our prepa-ration is directed to the end of everything we know in this world of time and space so that we can look to a ‘new age’ – to that “great gettin’-up morning” when there will be no more trials or troubles for God’s people. “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be! When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory”.
But the ecstatic joy that will follow the great trouble in our future is not ours now because permanent damage was done to the first creation when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. We know that story – that despite God’s warning that they would die if they ate of the tree in the middle of the garden, our first parents yielded to the serpent’s promise that they would be like gods. The result is that our lives are tainted by their sin so that we can claim no righteousness of our own. Instead we stand in perpetual need of God’s saving mercy and grace. Isaiah put it this way in foretelling the role of the Messiah: “We’re all like sheep who have wandered off and gotten lost – we have all done our own thing and gone our own way – and God has piled everything we’ve done wrong on him.” (53:6) Mark succinctly says: “No one is good – except God alone”. (10:18) And Paul echoes Isaiah in Romans: “There is no one righteous, not even one…there is no one who does good.” (3:1-11) Compared with our current BCP, the 1928 PCB echoes this language in its prayers of confession when it laments that “there is no health in us”…(and that) we are “miser-able offenders”. So an abundance of bleak quotes about the human condition underlies the Bible’s unquenchable hope for God’s redemption of his world and his people.
In the new creation, however, every consequence of sin from the first creation – sorrow, pain, and death – will be no more. But that is just now more hope than reality – and the gloomy estimates of our unworthiness in the Bible precede our hope for that special ‘day of the Lord’ when God’s long-interrupted will and purpose for his world and his people is going to be fulfil-led. Meanwhile the tendency nowadays is to replace these sinful estimates of the human condi-tion with robust notions about how good we are – to infatuate by excusing ourselves. Instead of ‘miserable offenders’ we are not so bad – just not as nice as we ought to be.
But for some time now I have been reminded of ‘Chicken Little’s’ ominous proclamation that “the sky is falling” because a day doesn’t pass that someone doesn’t wonder out loud wheth-er there are real signs that the end of the world is coming soon. Because apocalyptic and the pa-rousia are closely related, you would think these ought to be boom times for street corner evange-lists and social activists and their posters proclaiming the end of the world. That’s when I am re-minded that this intimidating and threatening notion has been simmering in the US since at least the terrorist atrocities of 9.11.2001. After that, you will remember, we had the anthrax scare and then the claim that al-Qaida terrorists had atomic or nuclear weapons – and then a frightening series of night club and school shootings – and more recently suspicious packages delivered to prominent critics of the President – and then the synagogue murders Pittsburgh – and I could go on and on because there’s more. Meanwhile these ugly signs have convinced many of us that we live in portentous times. Both here and abroad things just keep getting worse in a typical allot-ment of mayhem and human misery that seems to lurch from crisis to crisis. The gloom is all around us: “All we hear about on the news is violent crime and bloodshed, murder and rape, terrorism and war, and incivility and rupture in our relations with each other. Everything seems to be falling apart. No one knows what’s going to happen next. Maybe the sky is falling!”
Except for evangelical millinarians and rapture-advocates, the Church has traditionally ig-nored the imminence of an end of this world as we know it and the entire re-creation of every-thing to which we’ve become accustomed. Instead it has treated these apocalyptic materials as the uncertain prediction of a remote consummation of history that is in fact irrelevant to our con-temporary life. It has appealed to Mark’s claim that only the Father knows when the end will come (13:32) – and Matthew’s claim that it will be like Noah’s flood, when everyone not in the ark was eating and drinking, oblivious to what was about to happen when the flood came and took them away. (24:37-40) Lacking any existential relevance of serious confession, apocalyptic imagery has meant simply to get ready for the rapture.
So biblical imminence has given way to temporal immediacy – and apocalyptic is regard-ed as the mistaken and false hopes of the early Christians. Or sometimes, as Paul said, people got tired of waiting for Jesus’ Second Coming and became lazy. (II Thess 3:6-15) I was not old enough for military service in World War II – but I can remember a group of young men in col-lege, who returned from the war and organized an exclusive fraterni-ty that they called “The League of Disillusioned Veterans”. Their motto was “We solemnly pledge ourselves to do ab-solutely nothing about anything”. But the point of Paul’s admonition is that there is no place in the kingdom for lazy people – for folks who look for “pie in the sky by and by”.
One wonders then – can contemporary Christians find a relevant word in apocalyptic without being cynical about an imminent end of this world? I think so. We can appreciate the importance and relevancy of apocalyptic in two says: first, by acknowledging the essentially mythological character of this material; and second, by appreciating that an imminent expecta-tion of ‘the day of the Lord’ is, in fact, expressive of the certainty of a serious conviction. While the ‘troubles’ in Daniel and the ‘tribulation’ in Mark may perplex the modern church so much that it relegates these things to a very remote and functionally irrelevant future, we must not for-get the confidence of Jesus’ promise: eventually and assuredly the final achievement of God’s saving purpose is going to be achieved.
“As for you,” Jesus says, ” be on your guard and keep watch. You do not know when the moment is coming. It is like a man away from home who has left his house and put his servants in charge…and ordered the doorkeeper to stay awake. ‘Keep awake…for you do not know when the master of the house will come…[and] if he comes suddenly, do not let him find you asleep… What I say to you, I say to everyone: keep awake.” (13:33-37) In short, keep the Boy Scout motto and ‘Be Prepared’.
Years ago I listened to a Scots radio preacher who was addressing a group of children. He asked them to think about the houses they lived in – and then he asked them, ‘what is the big-gest room?’ One child promptly responded, “the biggest room is the bathroom”. “No,” said the preacher, “the bathroom is one of the smallest rooms”. Then another child said, “the biggest room is the kitchen, pastor” – and another “the biggest room is the bedroom” – and another “the biggest room is the living room, pastor”. “No,” children,” said the preacher, “the biggest room is the room for improvement”.
In some ways that’s a silly little story – and I don’t know whether it stuck with the child-ren who heard it but I have remembered it to my profit. Silly or no, it’s a little story that’s true for us who believe that Jesus is God’s Christ and that his Church exists for 2 preemient reasons: for the worship of God and to form us in Jesus’ image. So it’s not news to us that the room for improvement is our biggest room. I’d think that fact is very high on the list of reasons you and I regularly come to this place to worship God and to participate in projects and programs that we believe will help craft our betterment and that of those around us. I’m especially cognizant of that every time we say together the prayer of confession and acknowledge that we have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed – by what we have done and left undone. We want to be better persons – so we confess that we have not loved God with our whole heart – nor our neigh-bors as ourselves – and that we are sorry and repent – and we pray that, for Jesus’ sake, the Father will have mercy on us and forgive us – so that we can serve him and our neighbors in ways that please him. That’s a prayer for our moral and spiritual improvement that we should not pray perfunctorily or casually. So I have now and then thought it would be a good thing for churches to pause and consider for a few minutes the existential meaning of these sentences. That would make more understandable both them and what we are promised in the absolution – namely, that we are right now becoming better persons – better people – righteous people – holy people. I noticed a billboard while driving recently that solicited recruits for the nursing profes-sion. The writing on it read: “Nursing – the opportunity that knocks twice.” I thought, ‘I wish that were true – but no opportunity knocks twice’. And I remembered that I had seen a statue called “opportunity” that once stood in one of the old Greek cities. It was the predecessor to the mythological Greek goddess, NIKE. The statue was of human form – and it stood on tip-toe as if poised to run – wings were on its feet, suggesting the speed at which it would fly by – its hair was long on the forehead but bare at the back of the head, clearly implying that opportunity has to be seized when we meet it because when it passes there is nothing to grab hold to.
None of us knows when “the Day of the Lord” is coming – when this world will end and Jesus will return in glory – and there is lots of advice in the Bible about being prepared and not waiting until the last minute to get ready for that ‘great gettin’-up morning’. There are also secu-lar adages about ‘striking while the iron is hot’ and ‘making hay while the sun shines’.
As that ancient Greek statue reminds us, an opportunity neglected or ignored is an oppor-tunity lost – so we welcome this service of worship in Word and Sacrament in the hope that it will help us will be better-prepared for when we all see Jesus and ‘shout the victory’ on that ‘great gettin’ up morning’. Amen. Deo gratias. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.