Living in the End Times
Advent 2, 5 December, 2010
Nicholas Browne, Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
I don't know if any of you have visited a certain large American chain of booksellers recently. I suspect that St Peter's might be a bit more of a Readings crowd. But if you go into the B shop and make your way past the shelves and shelves of vampire books aimed at the teenage girl market, you can visit the Christian Fiction section. And encounter one of the most bizarre publishing phenomena of the last ten years: the Left Behind series of novels by the American authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. These books are a weird combination of fundamentalist Christianity and action heroes. Sort of Steve Fielding meets Chuck Norris. The novels are set after the 'Rapture' — the time when, according to American fundamentalist theology, all the 'saved' will be whisked up to join Jesus in heaven, while the rest of us get a thousand years of tribulation under the rule of the Antichrist. The novels centre on a force of Christians who have repented after the rapture and are fighting the forces of Antichrist. Who is, for some obscure reason, Rumanian. I doubt they have big sales figures in Bucharest.
Like a lot of fundamentalist theology, this whole scenario is based on very slim Biblical evidence. The idea of 'The Rapture' comes, pretty much entirely, from one verse in this morning's gospel reading: 'His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire' and two verses from last week's: 'Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.' On this basis, you can see bumper stickers in America saying things like 'In the event of the Rapture, this car will be driverless.' There was even an urban myth going around fundamentalist circles that one of the American airlines had insisted that one of the two pilots on each of its planes not be a Christian, so that there would someone to fly the plane if the 'saved' pilot was raptured.
It's easy to laugh at this sort of nonsense. And I'm pretty sure that laughter is an appropriate reaction. But underlying this sort of theology are some unsettling attitudes. One is an obsession with the End Times, which can distract Christians from the work we are called to do here and now, including stewardship of the earth and its resources. In 1981 (and it's alarming and salutary for a preacher to discover that one's "contemporary illustrations" are nearly thirty years old!), President Reagan's first secretary of the interior, James Watt, told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. He said: 'God gave us these things to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.' Fortunately, this testimony helped get him fired. Now this would be laughable — if this man hadn't been the top government official in charge of the environment in the most powerful and prosperous country on earth. Members of the religious Right in the USA — many, if not most of whom believe in this sort of end-times theology — are probably more careful about what they say in public these days, but these sorts of attitudes persist. For instance, American conservative evangelical support for the State of Israel is based largely on a reading of Biblical prophecy which says that the temple needs to be re-built in Jerusalem as a pre-requisite for the Second Coming. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty dubious about this as a basis for political decision-making.
The second problem with this sort of interpretation of the End, is that it reinforces a nasty tendency to divide the world up: into 'Us', the saved; and 'Them', the doomed — and presumably expendable. The least pleasant aspect of the Left Behind mindset is the way it gleefully consigns anyone it dislikes: Muslims, atheists, agnostics and nasty liberal pseudo-Christians like me, to the everlasting bonfire. These people look forward to the second coming, because they are convinced that they will be the ones gloating in heaven while the rest of us get destroyed by some random Rumanian. It has been said that you know that you have set up an idol instead of God when your God hates all the same people you do.
So can we reasonably get from this passage? Do we simply leave John the Baptist's rather alarming proclamation to the fundamentalists? Well, no. Although I suspect you know that was what I was going to say.
I've managed to get this far into the sermon without mentioning the word 'eschatological' but I don't think I'm going to get much further without bringing it in. At the risk of patronising you, I'll remind you that 'eschatological' means concerned with the whole business of the End Times, the Second Coming, the Day of Judgement and so on. And this passage reminds us that, however much we reject fundamentalism and its end times obsession, or laugh at the antics of American religious nutcases, we can't dismiss eschatology because it was crucial to Jesus and the Gospel writers.
There's a tension here between seeing the End Times as something that is yet to come and something which is already happening in Jesus. If we try to see Jesus without eschatology, we risk being left with what Albert Schweitzer called a 'domesticated Jesus' — a kindhearted rabbi who went around being nice to people. And it is no accident that the eschatological message of the New Testament is one that has been precious to the poor and oppressed throughout Christian history.
It's not necessary to take this eschatological message literally. But if we are to take it as a metaphor, as symbolic language, we must engage deeply with the symbol.
Firstly, I suggest that this passage tells us is that we have to live our lives as if Jesus was coming back tomorrow. Not, of course, in the way in which James Watt thought — that attitude is a sort of nihilism that has nothing to do with Christianity. Jesus tells us what to do, later in Matthew's Gospel: feed the hungry; give water to the thirsty; welcome the stranger; clothe the naked; take care of the sick and visit the imprisoned. This is how we are to be watchful. And not just because we get a warm fuzzy feeling from doing so. Not even because it might make the world a better place, but because we must. This is not a suggestion, it is an imperative. We have no choice — the king is coming and we must be ready.
But I think there's even more to it than that. If we don't accept the idea of a literal return of Jesus with a literal winnowing fork in hard, pitching some of us into heaven and some down into hell, then how do we engage with this image of the Baptist's?
"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
Those are the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — a man who was well acquainted with facing evil. And they are the key to how I think we might see the importance of this message. Instead of dismissing this as pre-modern superstition, or waiting smugly for Jesus to return and punish those we don't agree with, are we prepared to be confronted by Jesus, right here, right now — his winnowing fork in his hand — knowing that the tines of that fork do not separate us from the unrighteous but plunge right through the middle of our own divided heart? Are we prepared for the chaff — our self-centredness, our greed, our lack of compassion, to be cleared from the threshing floor and burned with unquenchable fire?
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.