If I were a first-time church goer this morning, I think these lessons, especially the Gospel lesson which is sometimes called the Little Apocolypse, would make me turn tail and run. Wow!
There shall be a time of anguish, such has never occurred since nations first came into existence.
Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now.
Highway signs warn us to ‘Watch for Falling Rocks”! In those places, rocks have fallen, and they continue to fall from time to time.
A woman interviewed Wednesday in a devastated Malibu neighborhood said – it looks like an apocalypse.
Our lessons today consist in part of apocalypse. Apocalypse is a word that means uncovering, revealing. Let’s see what’s uncovered, what’s revealed.
Just a few verses beyond the end of our Hebrews reading we find these chilling lines: it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Remember studying American lit in Junior English? You might have read Jonathan Edwards’ sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” There Edwards paints a terrifying picture of each mortal (each mortal) dangling over the fiery pit like a spider on a fragile thread, and only the caprice of a mysterious, angry God will determine whether that thread will be cut or not.
No wonder Puritans were so dour. They seemed to believe that at the beginning of time God had chosen the very few who would be saved and the multitude who would not be given salvation; they thought there was nothing they could do to achieve salvation, and that most likely they were not among the saved. They thought that proof of having been saved might show up in one’s abilities to do good and to be successful, but still one wouldn’t really know for sure.
I wasn’t so happy when my father compared me once to a Puritan. Turns out he was referring to my drive to work hard; he meant it as a compliment. But I couldn’t shake my impressions of Edwards’ fearful thing to be falling into the hands of that angry God. Where was the love? Where was the innate goodness that I thought we all had? I really didn’t like all the fear, the foreboding and the spider web image. I didn’t like a capricious, cruel God. I decided (an amazing thing for me to do at that age) that that minister was wrong. For one thing he was dwelling on a future that he couldn’t know about for sure.
The lesson from Daniel points out that while the end times – the future – will come, we will NOT know exactly when. So we shouldn’t get diverted from what Christ has called us to do in the present age. For centuries, however, there have been those who have done that.
The Millerites are an extreme example of being thusly diverted. On the night of March 21, 1843, a sizeable crowd gathered in Low Hampton, New York, to play out an unusual drama. A preacher named William Miller had been predicting for some time that history would end on this night, precisely at midnight, and the group had gathered in excitement, trusting in his prediction. Some of these people had already given their property away. (Hmm. The world is ending tonight. Would you like to have my house and all my animals?)
Some of them were dressed in long, flowing white robes. Some had climbed up on the roofs of barns so that they might sooner meet their Lord as he returned in the air. (Hard, I imagine, to climb onto a barn roof in a long, flowing robe.)
As the appointed hour approached, the anticipation, reached a frenzied pitch. Twelve o’clock came. And went. As did the other early morning hours, and nothing appeared in the heavens except the stars that had been shining there for millennia. As the sun rose, a disillusioned crowd scattered toward their homes for breakfast (if they hadn’t given all their food away) amid the jeers of a few drunkards.
It’s best that we don’t spend time on barn roofs waiting for the end of the world since we don’t know when it will be. We don’t know what the future will be. For that matter, we don’t know all of the present, either.
Here’s an example of that. It’s a story about an angel who really wasn’t behaving very well in heaven. He kept trying to second-guess God, and he was often critical of things God did. So the angel was sent to earth to learn to behave better. Once on earth, he was befriended by a poor peasant couple. (I picture them as European, although they could as easily be Central American or Alabaman.) At any rate, he was befriended by this poverty-stricken couple who invited him into their home where the little they had was shared. The only possession the couple had was a cow. But it provided them with milk, enough to nourish them and to sell for a few necessities. The angel stayed with them for quite a while and helped them gather firewood and care for the cow. Evenings they sat in front of the fire and chatted, sometimes about the day’s events, sometimes about the life they had enjoyed together and the love they felt for each other, sometimes about philosophy, sometimes about God. The angel grew very fond of the old couple who seemed contented in spite of their poverty. Every night when he lay down on his pallet to sleep, the angel prayed for them.
One morning the old man went out to milk the cow and found that it had died. Appalled at the dire poverty that then faced the couple, the angel stormed back to heaven and confronted God directly. “Why did you let their cow die? I prayed for that couple every night! Why did you take away their only means of support?”
God said to the angel, “My son, I heard your prayers. I answered your prayers.”
“You answered my prayers??!! What do you mean? You took their cow!”
“Yes,” God answered, “I took their cow. But it was the old woman’s time to die, and in answer to your prayers, I took the cow instead.”
The story, of course, is made up. But the moral, if you will, is probably more true than any of us could believe. How much do we really know about God’s every action in this world?
In the face of all that goes on in today’s world, let’s look at the world Jesus lived in. He endured the worst that world had to offer. He was born into a place of political oppression, a world that contained hunger and poverty and illness. (Hmm – like today’s.) Yet God’s love and power and mercy were sufficient. They prevailed. God could be trusted. Jesus set the pattern for a faith that looks the world full in the face, a world teeming with lepers and demons and sinners and uncleanness and brokenness, but a world that still remains confident because of what God did on Easter morning.
So how do we live in the present world? We can look at all the brokenness and, like little kids, gather the broken pieces up and ask dad to fix them, ask someone to come in and solve all our difficulties for us. That role of passive dependency is pretty easy, at least easier than the role of responsible involvement. We can ask God to keep the cow alive. Or we can feed it and milk it and muck out its stall ourselves.
Back in the early 90’s at the school where I was teaching, we were seeing kids edging toward gang membership. We had a whole bunch of gang wanna-be’s, dressing in sagging pants, flashing gang signs, and walking with a swagger. What did we do? We could have expelled the potential troublemakers, hoping that they’d all move to Tacoma or LA or someplace else far away. What we did instead was work with them, adjusting our rules and expectations to deal with this new threat. Suddenly one could not sport a red bandana. Or was it blue? Maybe both were out. The dress code explicitly said that on boys no underwear could show. That standard had already existed for the girls, but we tired quickly of plaid and striped and interestingly patterned boxers. I remember sending a boy named Daniel, of all names, home to put on pants that fit after his sagging pants fell down in class. We cooperated with law enforcement as they dealt with cousins and friends of our wanna-be’s who came down from Tacoma to recruit our kids.
Our kids! Like the couple’s milk cow, those boys were important to us. So we lived in the present and took care of the situation. We taught in a public school, so we didn’t pray. At least openly. At least during official school hours. But the majority of the staff was Christian, and underneath it all, we acted like Christians. We were living out Christ’s injunction to love one another as ourselves, figuring that that way God would take care of the future.
It all comes down to this: Jesus does not tell us WHEN he is going to return, but he does tell us WHAT he wants us to be doing until he returns. To Peter it was the simple injunction: Feed my sheep, tend my lambs. Feed the cow. Tend the suffering. Watch for and redirect the wanna-be’s. To his disciples at the Last Supper it was this new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. Be sensitive to and helpful toward and respectful of the needy. In one sense, Jesus has already come back, as the one who tends alongside us, and one who is tended to (for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and in prison and you visited me). He invites us to join him where he can always be found – at work among the sick who need a physician. He invites us to put first things first, focusing not on the fallen stones of the temple, not to turn tail and run, but to focus on where we are needed. Amen