Sunday, November 29, 2020
Perhaps nothing reflects the popular perception of what apocalypse means than the movie that bears the name in its title: Apocalypse Now. The 1979 classic remake of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, into a tormenting tribulation set during the Vietnam War is filled with all things apocalyptic: Darkness, dread, death, disease, disaster. Thus, with such an understanding, apocalypse is something to fear, something to avoid, that which we prefer not to talk about. Meanwhile, there is a term for Christians who believe that today’s text--along with other Biblical writings--points to such a judgmental and calamitous end of all things. These are the “Rapture Happy Christians.” And they have existed down through the ages, predicting the time of Christ’s return and reveling in punishment for unbelievers and salvation for the true believers.
Unfortunately, apocalypse means nothing of the sort. The word itself means revelation. Thus, the complete name of the final book of the Bible is The Apocalypse (or Revelation) to John. So, taking a step away from some popular notions of apocalypse, allows us to ask what, specifically, is being revealed? Well, one clear take away from the text is precisely what Jesus says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” As one theologian aptly notes, he’s always suspicious of authors of end-of-time books predicting when the end would come and how it would look, because they often invested their royalties in real estate. Nor did they heed Jesus’ words!
In fact, what Jesus describes might actually be termed Crisis Literature. His response in today’s gospel develops because of the question that the disciples put to him about the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be destroyed leads into a discussion about the Son of Man coming on the clouds. The end of things. The eschaton. Yet, those hearing Jesus’ words to the disciples are precisely those who have lived through the destruction of the temple in the year 70. Jesus’ words are not so mucha a prediction. They are a reality for the early Christian community. And you can imagine the kind of disorientation that the destruction of the temple would have created. No more central place of worship. No more infrastructure of priests and Pharisees to offer sacrifices and ritual leadership. No place for God to reside among the people.
Why, for many Christians, as well as other religious followers, COVID-19 may be the 21st century analog to the 1st century destruction of the temple. Are we not in similar places? Albeit, our buildings still stand and a virus rather than the Romans is the problem. However, the disorientation of moving out of the physical sanctuary to virtual worship was fraught with similar questions and concerns. How do we do worship? What is possible? What is necessary? What provides meaning? And, most importantly, where is God in all of this? Questions, I would guess, that were very much on the tongues of those followers in the first century and now on our tongues as well. How is this our apocalypse? Again, what is being revealed?
Furthermore, the moment that we find ourselves in right now lends itself fittingly to the full experience of apocalypse. What is revealed is not a blueprint for the end-of-time. Rather, the tension of waiting with a sense of urgency and expectancy for God to act now and waiting with a disposition that our waiting is going to take time is very much what is revealed in the text today, in the eschatology of the tradition, and in our lives. Indeed, scholars believe that what we read today is the melding of two different sources. If you read specific verses, there is a coherent message that God is nigh. If you read the remaining verses, there is a coherent message that we are to settle in for the long haul. Perhaps, the brilliance of the text is to meld both messages. If you receive only the former message, it is only a matter of time before you give up on God returning. If you receive only the latter message, there is no expectation that God will come.
And I think that we know exactly what both messages are like and how they, while seemingly contradictory, can exist simultaneously. Since March, we have waited expectantly for a vaccine. We know that it is out there. It is just a matter of time. Yet, while we are waiting for this cure, we also know that we need to continue to wait with the long haul in mind. Indeed, even when a vaccine is distributed, there is a good deal of continued waiting and preparation that will continue. Even when we move beyond the pandemic, there will be more work that we will need to do. Thus, we find ourselves living with the very tension of what Jesus describes: God’s imminence and God’s delay.
Finally, what may most importantly be revealed in today’s apocalyptic text is that the end has already begun. That is God’s redemptive act isnot so much about a future cataclysmic event, but rather what is revealed is God’s surprising, even hidden, appearance and in-breaking in and through Jesus’ cross. That is where the end begins. Today’s text ends with, “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.” Evening, midnight, cockcrow and dawn are four “time-stamps” that mark the scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion. He gathers with his disciples at evening, he is betrayed and arrested at midnight, he is denied at cockcrow, and he is sentenced to death at dawn. Thus, the master returning has, in essence, already taken place. Furthermore, Mark uses the Greek verb to “rend or tear asunder” at Jesus’ baptism when the Spirit comes down, and at the rending of the curtain in the Temple at Jesus’ death. That is to say that the curtain shielding God from the people no longer exists. God is on the loose.
I have a favorite image of the waiting that is a part of our Advent rhythm as well as our life practice. We wait for God to come and fulfill all things, while we wait with Christ who is present with us and for us. My dad loved to go to livestock shows. Years ago I have a vivid memory of him waiting on apron of the garage in the early morning darkness. All that you could make out was his silhouette as he anticipated the ride that would come and deliver them to the livestock show in Thief River Falls. He knew the ride was coming. He was clearly filled with excitement around something that he loved so much. And, I like to think that that is part of what our waiting looks like. The end is not here yet. We certainly hope for the redeeming of all things, for we are too aware of the pain and problems in life. And, yet, while we wait, there is opportunity for excitement and anticipation for God has given us these type of gifts to enrich life while we wait. What is that excites you? What engages you? What makes you feel alive? These are also moments where while we wait, God meets us. Apocalypse NOW if you like.