"The End of the World?"
Sermon by the Rev. DWHinkle
Proper 28 B 11-15-2015 (Nov. 13-19)
Scripture: Mark 13:1-8; Dan 12:1-3; Heb 10:11-25
I've often been asked, "Fr. Dan, I have a good friend that's really caught up with these TV evangelists who always preach some sort of doom and gloom, blood moons and the end of the world. He keeps showing me all these bible passages to prove his point. What do you think? What can I tell my friend?"
We Episcopalians generally don't talk about the end of the world much, but given current events and our scripture lessons for today, it's a good time to offer at least a few brief reflections. Episcopalians stand somewhere near the middle on the matter of end-times. We emphasize God's grace and forgiveness rather than a terrible Day of Judgment.
Groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists and TV Evangelist Pastor John Hagee love the apocalyptic books of the Bible such as Revelation, the last book in the Bible, and the Book of Daniel, from which we heard our first lesson today, and Chapter 13 of Mark, known as the Little Apocalypse, a portion of which was read for the Gospel lesson. But, Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther clearly said that Christians must emphasize the four gospels and the letters of St. Paul to understand the importance of the cross of Jesus as the heart of our salvation, rather than the apocalyptic books.
Why is the cross so important when talking about the end-times? Well, let's first look at how these doom and gloom preachers speak of the end. For them God will come with a terrible Day of Judgment in which all the wicked will be punished and the righteous rewarded. And we'll be knee deep in blood. The popular "Left Behind" series is a rather gruesome example of this understanding of the end-times.
But as Christians we need to ask ourselves this very important question: If we believe that the cross of Jesus shows us the love of God, then how does this picture of the god of doom and gloom and blood, who visits all kinds of destruction on us jive with the love of God revealed in the death of Jesus on the cross? Well. It doesn't. Is God punishing anyone on the cross? No. Was God bringing terrible death and destruction upon all the sinners at the cross of Jesus? No. In fact, the cross shows us the opposite: God willingly taking the death and destruction upon himself through Jesus, so that it might be clear to us that God's way of salvation is not punishment but forgiveness.
Popular culture and Hollywood movies about the Apocalypse, such as the "Left Behind" series, have taught us to fear the Day of Judgement of our god as a terrible thing. But notice that Jesus never once says that the wars, earthquakes or famines come from God. He always emphasizes grace and forgiveness of his Papa rather than terrible destruction, death, and punishment. So, any Christian preacher who wants to talk in terms of such doom and gloom must explain how such a view of God squares with the God we see in Jesus, who was willing to suffer the consequences of our sin for us on the cross.
We need to be very careful when we talk about punishment as well. For, when we look to the cross, who's punishing whom? Is Jesus our substitute, suffering God's punishment for us? Christians often talk this way, but where do we see this in the gospel stories themselves? When I read the gospels, I never see God plotting any punishment. It's us human beings plotting the punishment: the leaders of the Jews and the Roman officials. They trump up false charges and then crucify Jesus. The only thing the gospels show us is a State punishment for an alleged crime. "It's better that one should die for the many."
We need to be very clear about this. Jesus is offering himself and accepting punishment at the hands of human beings, not God. Jesus is exposing who we are as human beings and it's not a pretty picture. He takes away our usual justification for punishing people we think are bad. We usually rationalize our punishing people by saying that God wants us to do that. This is what groups like ISIS, responsible for the recent attacks on innocent civilians in Paris, France do. And here's the kicker. We're no different from them. But Jesus shows us a very different God, one on whom we can no longer blame our violence. So, if the end-times bring terrible violence, it won't be God's violence. It'll be ours.
The revelation of the cross goes even further. It shows us why there might be more violence in the end-times. This is crucial. And its something that we Episcopalians and most other Christians haven't talked much about, certainly not as much as Jesus does in our gospel lesson this morning. Yes, Jesus tells us that there might be more violence at those times, wars, earthquakes and famines, because he knows that he's exposing our violent means of trying to stop violence. Do you see? Exposing our usual means of stopping violence means that we won't be as effective in containing violence with violence, so there will be more of it at first. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Pour it on!
What do I mean by exposing our violent means of stopping violence? In Jesus day, and in the ancient times preceding him, the means for limiting violence was sacrifice. That's hard for us to see, because we are so far removed. But all the ancient societies used sacrifice as a means of getting people involved in a little bit of bloodletting as a sort of release valve. "It's better that one should die for the many." This ritualized violence against an innocent victim, a scape goat, helped reduce their violence toward each other. And it really worked! We need to understand and respect that.
At the time of Jesus, though, something else was moving in to replace sacrifice to contain violence. Sacrifice slowly became replaced by the Law. Societies have used the law to stop violence now. But both Jesus and St. Paul tried to get us to see that the law is still sacrificial. No matter how careful we are, the law will still chew up innocent victims. No matter how careful we are, there are still innocent people who are prosecuted. Jesus was one of those innocent victims! His sacrifice put an end to sacrifice, as we read in the second lesson and is implied by the destruction of the Temple in the gospel lesson. St. Paul talked over and over about the fact that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross also puts an end to the Law. It exposes the law as sacrificial, too, by increasing our empathy for the innocent victims. Witness the spotlight on police brutality in our own time. Many of the servants of the law use the law to victimize minorities in our country. Well, if that keeps happening, and the law gets less and less effective because of it, then what's going to stop the violence? Do you see why Jesus and the early Christians talked about more violence being only the beginnings of the birth pangs of God's kingdom? I like that image. It speaks not of the violent end of all things, but the birth of new life.
Can you see the effects in our world today after 2000 years of this revelation doing its work? More and more people have become sympathetic to the innocent victim. We see it in our legal system, which, to its credit, goes to great lengths to try to make sure that it doesn't chew up innocent victims. Many people are frustrated, in fact, because it often seems to ignore the innocent victims of the crimes themselves. But our legal system is influenced by the gospel not to make innocent victims under the law -- in other words, not to prosecute innocent people. In this country we are innocent until proven guilty, not the other way round.
Many complain that this has weakened our legal system to the point that it's no longer effective in stopping the crime itself. We don't know quite what to do, though, because we are so sensitized to not using the law itself to do violence against innocent people. This is the gospel at work, folks! That's why Jesus said there might be more violence before there is finally none.
We can also see it in our wars, too? We go to war to stop violence, right? But we have increasingly seen that war causes many innocent victims, including among our supposed enemies. We call these "collateral damage." What a cold and impersonal term to use to excuse innocent human death, the death of children, and women and the aged and infirm.
How many innocent Germans did we kill to stop Hitler? How many innocent Japanese did we kill to stop the Emperor? How many innocent victims did we kill in trying to stop communism in Viet Nam? How many innocent Iraqis did we kill trying to stop Saddam Hussein? And what has happened to our will to make war over that time? Has it become more difficult because we are increasingly aware of the innocent victims we make? Yes. Absolutely. The Quran says, "Whoever kills an innocent person, it is as if he has killed all of humanity." (5:32)
During the Gulf War, I was cheering those first few weeks as the military showed us those bloodless precision strikes of 'smart' bombs on military targets. I cheered because we were stopping an evil person. But in the last few weeks of the war, there were those pictures out of Iraq of bombs that had missed there targets and hit apartment buildings. Dead innocent women and children were being pulled out of the ruins. We dismissed this as just collateral damage. But the pictures were there. And I was no longer cheering. And how many people died in the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on 9/11? 4,000? 5,000? And how many civilians died in Afghanistan and Iraq when we sought reprisal? 10,000? 100,000? More? And I no longer cheer.
This is the gospel at work, too. Do you see it? It creates more empathy for the innocent victims and makes it more difficult for us to use our traditional means of violence to stop the bad guys.
God has another way for us, a way of love and mercy and forgiveness, a way of peace. I've known that grace in its fullness in my life, and I can spread the news to others. And I can hope that as more and more people know that grace in their own lives, too, we won't have to worry as much about bad people like those terrorists in Paris because there won't be enough others to follow them.
We've got Good News to share, friends. It won't seem like Good News to everyone at first. There'll be some resistance to it. It won't be easy! It will be confused with a passive whimpiness that allows the bad guy to hurt us. But we can know its gracious effects in our own lives and relationships. We have the assurance of our faith that the end-time, the Day of Judgement, will be a day of forgiveness and new life, not gloom and doom and destruction. And we have our Lord here again today to feed us and strengthen us for the task ahead of sharing that Good News with others. Amen?!
Source: Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, November 15-16, 1997