These are shaky times. In spite of America’s prosperity, one poll says that only 28% of Americans think we’re going in the right direction. Jim Forbes, our preacher last week, described the stock market as shaking like a bowl of jello. Ever since 9/11 there’s been this vague sense that nothing is secure any more. Now with global warming worries, with the fear that we might one day run out of oil, thus tanking our whole economy, with the spreading of nuclear weapons around the world, and with the surging power of terrorists, there is plenty to keep you staring at the ceiling at 2 a.m.
Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that images of apocalypse, of catastrophic future scenarios, are turning up everywhere in our culture. Last year an article appeared in New York Magazine that opened with an interesting question: “What do Christian millenarians, Jihadists, Ivy League professors, and baby-boomers have in common? They’re all hot for the Apocalypse.”
Apocalypse means literally “revelation,” an “unveiling.” It usually describes a vision of a final calamity that emerges from a frightened people. They sense that since their own world is ending, then the whole cosmos must be ending too. Many Christian fundamentalists look to the apocalyptic passages in the Bible for a road map for how the end will come. Many imagine, for example, Christians being snatched from the earth to escape suffering as Jesus returns as an avenging warrior on a white horse to destroy his enemies.
That’s something of what you get in the series of Left Behind novels written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that have sold more than 60 million copies. In them the heroes are an elite band of born-again Christians called “the tribulation force” that drive gas guzzling Hummers and carry Uzis as they battle the Antichrist during the earth’s last years. At one point, I gather, when Jesus appears, people start physically exploding and tumbling into hell howling and screeching.
But there are more down-to-earth forms of apocalypse too. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson is arguing these days that Europe and America today look a lot like the Roman Empire in the year 400 A.D. We’re seeing the beginning of the decline and fall of the American Empire, he says.
We are all living these days with apocalyptic visions of what we are doing to our earth. Our planet is heating up at an alarming rate. There is a strong chance that our grandchildren will live in a starkly different world from our own—with massive droughts and storms, with hundreds of millions of people driven from their homes. The ice is shrinking rapidly in the Arctic and Antarctic, and within ten years, many scientists are now saying, we may reach a tipping point beyond which the climate will not be able to recover.
There seems to be little political will to change our direction. Instead, people are thinking primarily of their own comfort. I even read recently of a New Yorker who was thinking about buying a country house—in Nova Scotia, as a “hedge against the climate-change end-days.”
And then there are the apocalyptic visions on all sides of the conflicts in the Middle East. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalists are convinced in their own ways that the world as we know it must end, and that their violent acts will help bring it about.
Mainstream columnists and leaders in our country can sound apocalyptic too. One has argued that a military attack on Iran would double the price of oil, ruin the global economy, and incite a vast surge in terrorism, but that we may have to do it because the danger of allowing nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of religious fanatics who believe in an imminent apocalypse is even worse. How is that for a plan? We will have to unravel the world as we know it in order to prevent other countries from having the power to do it themselves.
And here in Washington we live with what someone has called a “non-trivial possibility” of a major catastrophic event in this or some other major city in the next few months or years.
Are you feeling cheerful yet?
Even our daily lives seem shaky. A year or so go even Wall Street Journal columnist and former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan, who created the phrase “Morning in America,” wrote that, as she put it, “We’re at the end of something.”
I think that there is an unspoken subtext in our national political culture right now…. A sense that the wheels are coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks. That in some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can’t be fixed, or won’t be fixed any time soon.
And so the elites, she says, have decided to withdraw and enjoy their lives. “I got mine,” they are saying, “you get yours.”
Apocalyptic thinking seems to be everywhere. As that famous philosopher, musician Jerry Lee Lewis put it, “There’s a whole lot of shakin’ going on.”
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, and the beginning of a new church year. This season of preparing for Christmas, of a birth and new beginnings, begins by having us think about the end of everything. Listen to these words that come just before our gospel lesson for today:
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places…. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken…. and [people] will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory….
It’s a vision of a cataclysmic end of the universe—nations collapsing, towers falling, tsunamis decimating, the stars themselves collapsing. A day will come, Jesus says, when the universe will be no more.
But did you notice? The last word isn’t destruction, it is newness. The Son of Man will come to gather up and heal all things. In the end there is God, who comes again and again as our own small worlds collapse to build new worlds here and now, and who will at the end of time gather the whole cosmos up in a great embrace of searing, judging love. The last word isn’t disaster, it’s God.
Our lessons today offer us two essential words of counsel for apocalyptic times. The first, from our gospel, is simple: “Keep awake.” Be ready. Don’t fall asleep. When everything is shaking, it’s time to open your eyes and get ready, because God is going to show you something new. Our gospel recalls how all the time old Noah in the Old Testament was building an ark preparing for the flood, everyone else was eating and drinking, living it up. ‘Don’t be foolish,’ Jesus says. ‘Pay attention to the signs of what is happening.’ We can’t know what is next in our world or when, but we can live our lives truthfully, wisely, as they were meant to be lived. “Wake from your sleep,” St. Paul says. “Cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
The monk Thomas Merton was once asked why the Shakers, who expected the world to end at any moment, were nevertheless consummate farmers and craftsmen. He answered, “When you expect the world to end at any moment, you know there is no need to hurry. You take your time, you do your work well.”
In apocalyptic times we need to slow down, take deep breaths, ease up on the accelerator, turn off the computer, go for walks, sit in silence with a candle, begin to tell God what it is we really long for when Christ comes again into our life and our world.
The second word comes from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. When the tide of crisis is rising, he says, “Go up to the mountain of the Lord… that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” As Jerusalem was facing its crisis, Isaiah calls his people to claim a new vision of what God is doing in the world.
He shall judge between the nations…. [and] they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Go up to the mountain, Isaiah says. Well, all of us have come up to Mt. St. Alban today. But then you can call any church “a mountain,” a place where you go to step above the fray and see what God is doing. To read scripture is to go up to the mountain. To pray is to go up. We have to get our heads together, see more clearly what is happening around us.
And there on the mountain God calls us to “turn swords in to ploughshares.” Become people of peace and healing. Care for the vulnerable in your midst—for the weak, the hungry, and especially in these mean-spirited times, for the immigrant. Live full, well-rounded days. Make your life a model of what it means to protect our planet. We can’t stop global warming. But every one of us can bear witness in our lives to the truth that God is calling us to preserve our overheated, sickly earth—by the cars we drive, the ways we recycle, by the votes we cast, by the money we spend, by how we travel, even the food we eat.
In fact, we Christians believe that every act of generosity contributes to the final healing that God will bring at the end of time itself. Every gesture of caring, every refusal to blow up in anger or to retaliate, every check written to feed a hungry child, every determined act to give the children in DC a better school system—every act is a quiet, small contribution to that healed world that will one day bring healing to the earth.
I’ve been reading the last few days a dark, but beautiful novel about a terrible end time. It’s called The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, and it tells the story of a father and son who are among the very few to survive what seems to have been a nuclear holocaust, in which just about every living thing on earth has been destroyed. The father and son are walking through an ash-covered, blackened landscape, steadily, pushing a grocery cart with a few odd cans of food and some blankets. They have to be careful because there are bands of marauding gangs looking to rob and kill anyone they meet.
The father is ill and dying, and he is trying to prepare his son to press on without him. Near the end, they have this dialogue:
“You must go on,” [the father] said.
“I can’t go without you.’
“You need to keep going.”
“It’s all right…. Keep the gun with you.”
“I want to be with you.”
“You can’t. You have to carry the fire.”
“I don’t know how to.”
“Yes you do.”
“Is it real? The fire?”
“Yes it is.”
“Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”
“Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.”
Thank God that kind of terrible apocalypse hasn’t come our way, and pray God it never will. But in the mean time worlds and empires will rise and fall. And it’s up to us, and people of faith everywhere, to carry the fire of God’s love and our sacred humanity.
In these apocalyptic times, our calling is clear. Keep awake. Come up to the mountain. Cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
“You have to carry the fire,” the father says.
“Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”
“Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.”
[Two essays have informed this sermon: “Prophecy, End-Times, and American Apocalypse: Reclaiming Hope for Our World” in the Anglican Theological Review, Fall 2007; and “The End of the World as They Know it,” New York Magazine, October 2006.]