Minister’s forum: Important time to bear witness to God’s love
At this time of year, the lessons in the liturgical calendar turn to apocalyptic themes. I think many of you are probably like me in feeling a bit uncomfortable with talk of the apocalypse, the eschaton, the end times, etc.
Let me begin by defining some relevant terms. Eschatology, or the eschaton, refers to the last days or end times. Apocalypse refers to destruction and calamity expected at the last days. The second coming of Christ is associated with the end times. Many people examine Bible passages such as Malachi, Revelation, or Luke 21 looking for clues to help them determine when the end times will be. It seems to me that most who try to use these passages predictively desire to fit what is happening today into what they read. They want the end times to be tomorrow.
Yet, throughout history there have been nations rising against nations and kingdoms against kingdoms. There is nothing modern about such things. Famines and pestilences are also nothing new, and have afflicted one region or another nearly every year throughout history.
Terrors and great signs from heaven are also not modern phenomena. Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and droughts are also phenomena that occur every year, though some years are worse than others.
In Luke 21, Jesus is not saying that the faithful will be spared the unpleasantness of apocalypse. Instead, he is telling them that they will experience those troubling times along with everyone else. But he gives them hope and strength by saying “But not a hair of your heads will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” Although some will die in the turmoil, those who remain faithful will gain eternal life. By sticking with the truth, by standing up for what Jesus taught, by championing justice and mercy, the faithful will gain far more than they will lose. For in the end they will be united with God.
Throughout my life, there have been people who were certain that the wars and struggles of our time were sure signs of the end times. But Jesus said, “you shall not know the day or the hour.” So why do people expect to be able to predict the day and the hour? The original purpose of apocalyptic writing is to encourage people who are living through a difficult time. Although the people are suffering now, in the future things will be better. Such seemingly gloomy passages of apocalyptic literature are meant to give hope and to encourage faithful living, despite present hardship. God’s faithful who suffer now will be rewarded then, and the unrighteous who now bring suffering to others will later suffer themselves.
Author Kathleen Norris writes, “Apocalyptic literature … is not a detailed prediction of the future, or an invitation to withdraw from the concerns of this world. It is a wake-up call, one that uses intensely poetic language and imagery to sharpen our awareness of God’s presence in and promise for the world. (It) should not be used as an allowance to indulge in an otherworldly fixation, but as an injunction to pay closer attention to the world around us.”
Like Norris, I believe that Jesus’ intent in talking about the end times was to keep us alert, and thereby to encourage us to live as he taught us to live. Jesus did not teach arrogance, but service. Passages such as Luke 21 are not intended to help us determine when the end days are coming. Rather, they are intended to remind that we must refocus our own faith on what is really important. We are invited to bear witness to our faith before the world through our words and deeds. Such passages are not meant to fuel speculation on when the eschaton will occur, but to lay down the spiritual grounding that is necessary in order to make it through tumultuous times.
So how do we prepare for the apocalypse? It begins with our faith in God’s love. For it is through our knowledge of the infinite and unconditional love of God that we will be able to stand firm in the face of calamity, and that we will be able to reach out to others. God expects us to be examples of his justice and mercy.
Since we know that God forgives our sins, we are the recipients of outrageous mercy. Since we have received such mercy, we have no justification not to practice mercy ourselves. Jesus tells us that we are to visit prisoners, strive for justice and peace, care for the poor and the hungry. The great commandment neatly sums up how to prepare an emergency kit for the apocalypse: love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.
The more troubled we perceive our world to be, the more important it becomes for us to bear witness to God’s love.
-Elizabeth Tattersall is a priest at St. John’s in the Wilderness Episcopal Church.
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