Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sermon; Proper 28C; Malachi 4:1-2a; Luke 21:5-19

Eschatology, apocalypse, end of days . . . whichever word you prefer, this is the connection between Malachi and Luke. The end of the world is nigh, and woe to you who are enemies of God. Or something like that.

Eschatology has to do with the doctrine of last things and the ultimate destination of both the individual soul and the whole of the created order. Daniel and Revelation are the two books that deal most with eschatology, but they are not exclusive in that, as we hear from Malachi and Luke today.

I’ve noticed something about eschatology over the years, and maybe you've noticed it too but haven't had the words to articulate it; or maybe you haven't noticed, and that's okay. What I’ve noticed is that people start getting weird when they talk about eschatology.

First there seems to be a tendency to begin preaching a “turn or burn” message. Some people read passages like we get from Malachi and decide they know who the arrogant and evildoers are. What follows are attempts at scaring the hell out of Those People in a misguided effort to convert them. This is also designed as a message of comfort for their own followers to show that they themselves are neither arrogant nor an evildoer and are therefore safe from being burned up and condemned to hell.

It doesn't take much effort to find places like this. I remember seeing one such group marching in a Boatnick parade proudly proclaiming that anyone who didn't belong to their congregation was doomed to an eternity in hell.

Probably the most well-known (unfortunately) advocate of this belief system is the Left Behind series. This is supposedly a faithful telling of Bible prophecy and what life will be like post-Rapture. Besides being terribly written, they have no basis in reality or Bible prophecy. The main agenda of these books is to comfort the right religious tribe that they will be saved and then to gleefully show the gruesome destruction of those who disagree with them in a manner similar to the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Second there is a tendency to want to pin down the date of the end. Scores of Bible prophecy “experts” use ancient symbols to predict modern calamities and the coming of the end. There was William Miller in 1843 and 1844, and Harold Camping in 2011. During the Cold War, Russia was tabbed as Gog from Revelation. Hal Lindsey wrote The Late Great Planet Earth and gave the time of the end based on Israel gaining nation status in 1948. Mr. Lindsey has gone on to write other books with updated and “more accurate” information.

There have been a host of others, and there will be more to come, who fleece their followers and the gullible into believing Christ will return on a specific date because “Bible Prophecy!”

But Jesus clearly tells us that there will be wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues and signs from heaven before the end. He also clearly tells us not to be led astray or to go after people preaching the end of days.

And third, people begin looking for signs of persecution all around them. People not saying, “Merry Christmas?” Persecution! Business owners required to provide health insurance for their employees? Persecution! No school sanctioned prayer? Persecution! Never mind that people don't take issue with not saying, “Happy Kwanza,” or that non-Christian employees are forced to bow to corporate “Christian ideals,” or that people who want prayer in schools would be outraged if we gave equal time to Muslims, Jews, Hindus and pagans. Rights for me but not for thee has become the new persecution complex.

With all of this eschatological weirdness going on, is there a better way to look at these apocalyptic passages? The answer, of course, is yes.

First we must understand that eschatology has to do with What rather than with When. The day will come, that much is certain. But not only do we not know when, we must also realize that there are a variety of eschatological visions in the Bible such that it can't be defined by any one view.

When Malachi talks about the arrogant and evildoers, I think back to why Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. The people in those cities had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but they did not aid the poor and needy. This is arrogant evil. This is what the Lord seeks to eliminate.

But for those who revere the Lord in thought, word and deed, for those who love neighbor as self, for those who welcome and care for the outsider and Other, then the day of the Lord will come like the rising of the sun and all that ails you will be healed. Malachi, like most prophets, is concerned with justice. For those who pervert and distort justice, the day of the Lord will be like a consuming fire, burning them up. For those who strive for justice, the day of the Lord will be like a glorious sunrise.

Today's gospel gives us an unfortunate stopping point. Jesus continues in vv. 20-28 about the destruction of the Temple. By the time Luke writes, this has already happened. The Temple is destroyed and persecutions abound. But this has more to do with Jewish survival than with Christian persecution.

It's the end that's important. All these things will happen (are happening). When they do, stand up, raise your heads and know your redemption draws near. Death may be near, but expect resurrection. Expect new life.

We shouldn't read into these eschatological stories new and modern ways the world will end, or how we are being persecuted. Instead, we should look to them for guidance on living out and bringing about God's justice to the world. And we should look to them as a source of comfort where, like last week, we know that our Redeemer lives and at the last we will see him face to face.

Resurrection and new life is a better way to view the end of the world than looking forward to gleefully watching Those Heathens burned to a crisp. And that, in my opinion, is good news.



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