The End of the World

Sunday, May 22, 2011

So the world didn’t end at six p.m. last night. Are you surprised?  Relieved?  Disappointed?  I must say it’s been a great topic of conversation these past couple of days: “What are you going to wear to the rapture?”  “Do you think I need to return my overdue library books now?”  “Can I have your car after you’ve been raptured?”  And–a popular line in some of my circles–”Do we need to write sermons for this weekend?”

But while we’ve giggled about one man’s delusional impression that he understands God’s timeline, way too many people have spent their life savings in the past week, forking over thousands of hard-earned dollars to secure billboards and newspaper ads warning the world of its imminent demise. It stopped being funny for me when I read about people who were advertising to care for the pets left behind by those who were raptured–$125 for the first animal, $25 for every pet thereafter. Nonrefundable–of course. What kind of fear blinds people to the extent that it makes them think that is a wise investment?  What kind of terror must have arisen among families who wondered whether their loved ones would be saved or left behind on Judgment Day?

And suddenly I’m not laughing anymore. I’m angry. I’m angry with the fear-mongers who have led gullible, frightened people astray. Who have had the gall to teach such shoddy theology, and all the ways they’ve manipulated the story of a loving God so that is one that frightens people. I’m angry that a previously obscure radio evangelist is making my job so much harder, trying to share the good news of Jesus in a society which often equates Christian with idiot. I’m angry that recent publicity has lead so many people to think that the idea of a Rapture as an ancient Biblical/Christian teaching.

You must know that it is not. You have to know that, in reality, the word rapture does not appear anywhere in the Bible. And that the IDEA of a rapture–complete with timelines and warning signs–was invented in 1830 by a Scottish evangelical preacher names John Nelson Darby, based on his interpretation of some unrelated passages from the books of Daniel and Revelation.

Darby’s ideas gained popularity after they were embraced by an embezzler named Cyrus Scofield. While Darby did not specify particular days or times for the events he imagined, Scofied published a version of the Bible in 1909 with footnotes and headings next to the texts Darby referenced in his predictions of the end times. The Scofield Bible was an instant best-seller, as have been many of the books that followed it, including Hal Lindsay’sThe Late, Great Planet Earth and the recent Tim LeHaye Left Behind series. Why?  Why are people so eager to read and believe this kind of bizarre tale?

Well, why do people read mysteries, or watch scary movies?  There’s something about figuring out a secret or a solving a puzzle that appeals to us. There’s something about the andrenaline-pumping anticipation of waiting to find out if we will be chosen for an exclusive, elite group that makes us feel more alive. There’s the buzz of danger. Which is all great. But it’s not Biblical.

What does the Bible actually say? Repeatedly Jesus tells his followers that God’s timing is not our concern. The Son of man will come like a thief in the night. Of that day and that hour no one knows. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. Be awake!  Our entire church season of Advent is dedicated to reminding us that we don’t know when Christ will return!

We say, of course, that we long for such a day, that we want Jesus to return. We pray it all the time: “Thy kingdom come  . . . .”  If it’s so scary, why do we pray for it to happen?  Listen to what Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “Let not your hearts be troubled. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I tell you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

However troubled people’s hearts have been this past week, they would’ve had good company with Jesus’ disciples at the time he says these words to them. Jesus has seen the political tide turning; he knew the religious leaders were just looking for an excuse to try him for heresy. He knows that the end is near. Most of the 13th chapter of John is Jesus preparing his disciples for the fact that he will be leaving them soon, and that his end will be a bloody hard one. Literally.

And then he says, “But don’t let your hearts be troubled.”  Oh right!  As if it were that easy!  Thomas, the practical one, wants some tangible, practical signs that he is tracking what Jesus is saying, “So where’s the map again?” he asks. And Philip says, “Just show us God, so we’ll know what we are in for.”  Jesus, who is always so patient, says, “Really?  All this time we’ve been together, walking and eating and sharing together, days on end when you’ve listened to me preach and teach, you’ve watched me heal the sick and comfort the lonely and you still haven’t figured out that I am the Map!  I’m the Way!  I’m the Truth!  I’m the Life!  You want to see God?  Look!  Remember at all you’ve seen and heard from me, and ask yourself, “Isn’t that what we’ve come to believe God is like?  Isn’t that what we’ve come to trust and love?”  If you’re walking the way of Love, then you know the Way.

Jesus wants his followers–then and now, I am sure–to remember that he did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved!  (Jn. 3:17) He wants them to get that he’s not going off into the sky to make up beds for them in heaven–he’s planning to dwell intimately within them just as he and the Father dwell inside one another. His place that he’s preparing is within believers. Jesus can be seen wherever two or three people gather to pray and to share and to care. Wherever we dwell, Jesus is going to nestle in.

And yes, eventually, according to the much-misused book of Revelation, Jeus intend to return to bring “a new heaven and a new Earth.”  But there’s no indication that the old world will be vacated, nor that this Earth will be wiped away. It says that there will be a renewed earth (or, if you translate it differently, a new earth) but it certainly doesn’t say a different earth!  God loves this world!  God so loved the world that he came to be IN it, not to take us OUT of it!  And for that matter, it isn’t just people that God so loves. It’s every lilac and every tulip, every dung beetle and every ocean, every rock and every kitten, every atom and every molecule. God loves this world so much that God would die for it!  Which is actually what happened, if you remember.

But don’t let your hearts be troubled. Jesus didn’t abandon his friends then, and Jesus won’t abandon us now, no matter how difficult things get. Honestly, there’s no reason to believe the world won’t end today. Or tomorrow. No one really knows. Some of you are already living with time lines. Perhaps a doctor has said to you, “You’ve got about six months–two years, if you’re lucky.”  But they don’t really know. A doctor once told my mother I’d be born on Thanksgiving Day, and I hung out for another week just to prove him wrong. People have been trying to predict Christ’s return forever. But let’s just let that whole calculating-the-date-of-the- rapture go, shall we?  Because it’s all so beside the point. The point is, I guess, IF this is really the end, is that OK? Are we ready?  We just never know when our last day will be.

I am sure that when Stephen, from today’s reading from Acts, got up the morning he was to talk to the church council, he didn’t anticipate it would be his last day. It’s unfortunate we only got to hear the final five verses of Chapter 7 because it’s a really exciting chapter. Most of it is Stephen trying to show the Pharisees and other church leaders how Jesus wasn’t subverting the faith they’d been given through Moses and the prophets, but completing it, expanding it. And what is their response to Stephen’s attempt to point to Jesus as the Way of Justice, the Truth of Compassion, the Life of Hope?  They drag him out of town and stone him to death.

When religious people feel threatened, they can do horrible things. Watch out for powerful people who are afraid, especially if they start doing things “in the name of God.”  But how does Stephen take it when he realizes that this is the end of the world as he knows it? He dies as he lived—proclaiming the Way. He prayed and recited the Scriptures. What prayers and what Scriptures?  The same ones Jesus turned to when he was dying—“Forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.”  And at the end, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” just as Jesus prayed at the end. If today really is it, can we die with that kind of faith?  Can we live like that?  With prayers on our lips and trust in our hearts?  Not faith that God will take us out of the mess, but faith that God would care for us in it.

Someone asked Martin Luther, “What would you do if you knew the world was going to end tomorrow?” and he reportedly answered, “I would plant an apple tree.”  In other words, he intended to keep on living till he died. He intended to commit his future and the future of creation to a loving God. A God whose care for all the world exceeds our capacity to imagine. If this really is it, my friends, don’t let your hearts be troubled.

~ Pastor Susan Schneider

About Trinity Lutheran Church

A congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) located in Madison, Wisconsin.
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