Sunday, August 8, 2010
“It’s the End of the World As We Know It”
“It’s the End of the World As We Know It”
If you were here last week, you may remember that I began the sermon by saying there are two things that we rarely talk about in public: religion and money, and that our scripture reading for last Sunday was forcing us to talk about both….Well, this week our scripture reading is presenting us with two more topics we rarely talk about in public, let alone in this church…and that is The Second Coming of Jesus and the End Times, otherwise known as the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the Day of Judgment.
With our scripture reading today I had the option of staying with the "money" theme as I did with the kids, but I only have one week left, so why not live dangerously and tackle the hard stuff.
In the United Church of Christ, in general, we tend to focus on the living Jesus, the teaching Jesus, the Jesus that shows us how to be better disciples and tells us how to make the world a better place for all to live in.
We tend not to stray too far into the theology of the resurrected Jesus, or espouse the belief that what we are meant to be doing right now is preparing for Jesus’ return.
Yet, as with all generalizations, there are exceptions, some of us may espouse these beliefs on our own, but in general, in this church, we tend to not spend too much time talking about the end of the world or the second coming. Agreed?
A few weeks ago, I came across a short video on the Internet titled, “Are you ready?”
It was a dramatization of a church service, and it starts out with the pastor standing in front of his congregation with a bible in his hand reading from the Gospel of Matthew.
The text he is reading is similar to the text we heard today from the Gospel of Luke: It’s a forewarning about the Second Coming of Christ: “Stay awake, for you do not know the hour that the Lord will come.”
After reading the scripture, the pastor in the video launches into his sermon with an earnest warning that we must be prepared at all times for Jesus’ return, for he could return next month, or next week, or even right at this moment.
The surprising twist in the video is that before the pastor even completes his last sentence we hear a loud crack of thunder, see a bright flash and the pastor disappears, with his bible crashing to the floor.
The majority of the congregation disappears in a flash as well, leaving only a few unfortunate souls behind, who quickly fall to their knees in tears as they realize that the "rapture" has occurred and they have been left behind.
The video was only a minute long, but the technique it used to get its point across was very effective. I personally don’t believe that there will be a "rapture" yet I flinched in fear when half the congregation disappeared and I as the viewer was left behind with those who were not chosen, feeling their horror and their pain as they contemplated their fate.
This particular video has been viewed over 7 million times on You Tube, which is not surprising. The “Left Behind” series, a series of fictional books about the apocalypse, has sold over 65 million copies since it was introduced.
The series depicts what might happen after the rapture, after millions of people have disappeared off the face of the earth, leaving the world shattered and in turmoil.
While the Left Behind series is a fictional account, it is based on real world theological beliefs.
The belief itself is called Dispensationalism, and it states that after Christ returns to the earth, those who are deemed righteous will rise up to meet him in the air and then take the fast lane into heaven, while the rest of the world’s population will be left behind to fight a final war between good and evil.
This belief is a fairly new addition to Christian theology.
It was birthed by an Irish evangelist named John Derby in the early 1800’s, and was introduced to America in 1886. And it has since become the backbone of conservative evangelical belief.
Dispensationalism is only one of many apocalyptic theologies that have arisen over the past 2,000 years. Throughout Christian history, believers have combed the Bible for clues, primarily the Book of Revelation, in an effort to determine what will occur during the end times.
At this point the only thing they’ve come to agree on is that Jesus will return, there will be a time of tribulation, and we will all stand before God and be judged. What the apocalyptic theologians don’t agree on is the order in which each of these events will occur.
Some say Jesus will return before the time of tribulation and some say after.
The reason why Dispensationalism has become so popular is because it assures the righteous that they don’t have to worry about surviving the predicted war between good and evil here on earth, because they’re going to be lifted off the battlefield as soon as Jesus returns. The rapture is their get out of jail free card.
What is troublesome about many of these apocalyptic theologies is that they are based primarily on fear rather than hope. The fear of not knowing one’s fate. The fear of death. The fear of Judgment. The fear of eternal damnation. The fear of not making it through the narrow gate that stands at the entrance to the coming Kingdom of God.
Yet in the opening verse of today’s Gospel text, Jesus tells his disciples: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
In other words, the Kingdom of God, and all it’s promises of peace, love, and happiness, is something that God wants us to have. It is a gift that God wants to offer us freely. And we’re not supposed to fear its arrival.
As we read this verse along with the texts we’ve heard all summer, it appears as if the Kingdom is not something that God has reserved for only the few. Rather it is something that is offered to all of us, and love is the only key that we need to get in.
Love of God, love of self, and love of neighbor.
Now, before I go any further, I realize that for some of you I’ve just dropped a huge boulder down in front of you and you have no idea what to do with it or how to maneuver around it.
That boulder is the phrase “The Kingdom of God”
This is a phrase that we hear nearly every week in church, but rarely does anyone take the time to explain it’s meaning to us. Even those of us who were raised in the church, may not have a clear understanding of what we mean when we say “the Kingdom of God.”
Some mistakenly believe that the Kingdom of God simply refers to heaven - the place where God resides and where we go after we die if we’re judged worthy enough to get in.
We can blame the author of the Gospel of Matthew for this confusion.
While Mark, Luke and John use the phrase “The Kingdom of God,” to refer to the new creation, the new earth that will come to be in the End Times, Matthew calls this new creation “The Kingdom of Heaven”
The simple explanation for this difference is that the author of Matthew’s gospel was Jewish, and the authors of Mark, Luke, and John were not.
Matthew was simply honoring the Jewish belief that it was blasphemous to write the name of God in print because it could potentially be defaced.
So instead of writing “Kingdom of God” he substituted the word “heaven” - the place where God resides.
Now 2000 years later, we’ve become accustomed to hearing the phrase Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven used interchangeably, as they should because they refer to the same thing, but the use of the word Heaven has nothing to do with the Kingdom’s location.
Heaven is however the place where the Kingdom of God originates.
The Kingdom comes from God. But it will be created here on earth.
The Kingdom of God is what will be put in place in this world when we finally get our act together and stop fighting, killing, envying, coveting, and every other bad thing we can think to do to each other.
The Kingdom of God is Utopia, Nirvana, the Garden of Eden.
It is the new heaven and the new earth that God will create for us when we finally let love, compassion, and forgiveness rule our lives rather than hate, fear, and mistrust.
This definition of the Kingdom of God may sound simple enough, but here’s where things get a little bit tricky.
There is no consensus among Christians on WHO will be allowed to enter the Kingdom of God, or WHEN we can expect it to come; or WHAT role we have to play in helping to build it.
Some Christians believe we as human beings are inherently flawed, and it is beyond our capabilities to have any part in making this world into a Utopia, only God has the power to do that.
Therefore, we shouldn’t worry about making the world a better place, we should only be concerned with making ourselves worthy of entry into the Kingdom. Our personal salvation is what matters.
Other Christians believe that yes we are flawed, and it’s impossible for us to remake this world on our own, but with God’s help we’re capable of so much more that we give ourselves credit for.
Moreover, Jesus commands us to work together to make the world a better place. Our personal salvation means nothing; it is creation as a whole that must be redeemed.
Personally, I believe the latter is true.
God wants to live in relationship with us. God wants us to succeed. God wants us to help repair this world. Which is why God sent us Jesus, to give us a living, breathing example of what we can do, and what we have the potential to be.
Furthermore, Jesus often referred to the Kingdom of God in both the future tense and the present tense. As in the Kingdom will come, and the Kingdom is here. This implies that the Kingdom is currently being built but it is not yet complete. If God wanted to, God could create the Kingdom in an instant, but the implication that it is still in progress supports the belief that it is being built at human speed rather than Godspeed.
At this point, some of you may be wondering why it even matters what we believe about the Kingdom of God. It’s just a theological belief that has no bearing on our day-to-day lives.
Well, it matters what we believe about the Kingdom of God because it determines what we choose to do in our day-to-day lives.
As Jesus said in today’s reading,
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.” (Luke 12:34)
If our treasure is our own personal salvation and working to better only ourselves so we will be granted entry into the Kingdom of God, then that is where we will spend all our energy, time, and attention.
If our treasure is communal salvation and working together to help others live happier more fulfilling lives, and in doing so to help create the Kingdom of God, then that is where we will spend all our energy, time, and attention.
What we believe about the Kingdom of God should matter to us because it mattered to Jesus. The Kingdom of God was everything to Jesus.
It was the reason why God sent him into this world; it was the reason why he risked his life time and time again to show us and to teach us about the world that we had the potential to create.
In parable after parable Jesus tell us what the Kingdom is like: a farmer sowing seed, a man hunting treasure, a woman kneading dough, fishermen casting a net, a man forgiven a debt, a landowner being generous. Jesus told us these parables about this wondrous Kingdom to make us want it, to make us desire it more than any other treasure we could find.
Jesus talked more about the coming Kingdom of God then he did about helping the poor or eating with the outcast. Because helping the poor and eating with the outcast were only two aspects of the Kingdom itself.
But there was more to God’s gift then just the building of the Kingdom.
Jesus tells us: If you start to build this Kingdom, God will help you, and when it is finished I will come back to you.
This is not a threat, but a promise.
The second coming is a gift. It’s the return of our beloved friend and teacher.
Now as we look at these texts 2000 years removed, it’s hard for us to conceive of the meaning of this promise.
But to the disciples who walked with Jesus, hearing the promise that he would return was enough impetus to get them flying out the door to get started on building that Kingdom. They gave up everything they had, they went out and preached the coming of the Kingdom with no thought to their own safety or how crazy they appeared to everyone else, they started house churches, and they set the foundation of the Christian tradition that we have today.
All because of a promise.
A promise of a Kingdom where love, compassion, and joy would rule above all. And a promise that their beloved rabbi and teacher would return and hold them in his arms once again.
If we reject the apocalyptic beliefs of our evangelic brothers and sisters;
If we reject the concept of the rapture where one is chosen and one is left behind;
If we reject all claims that a war between good and evil will end our world;
Let us not reject the promise of the Kingdom of God.
Let us not reject the belief that God has called us to work as partners in building the Kingdom.
Let us not reject the gift that God has given us in Jesus by refusing to even entertain the possibility that he will walk with us again.
May we come to see the coming of the Kingdom of God and the second coming of Christ not as dusty old theological beliefs unworthy of our time, but rather as extraordinary promises from God just waiting for us to make them our own.
As we’ve heard, our evangelical brothers and sisters have not hesitated to explore this territory, adding their own creative spin to what they think this Kingdom of God will look like and how it will come about.
It’s time for us to paint our own picture and hold it up for all the world to see. A Kingdom that is inclusive of all, a Kingdom built on love and compassion, a Kingdom built by human and divine hands.
If we make the building of this Kingdom our treasure, then this is where our heart will be.
And it will not matter what hour of the night Jesus comes to call, we will always be ready to receive him.