Dec 10 2012

The End of the World As We Know It

Dr. Stephen Dann/Flickr

A Sermon for “The Reign of Christ” Sunday, November 25, 2012.

A disproportionate number of people who I encounter these days seem to be worried about the end of the world. This could be saying something about me … about the kind of persons I, and my job, attract. And it certainly says something about the infamy of recent movements within Christian theology.

Yet the more questions I receive, the more I get the feeling that there is something bigger at work in this than just religion. Apocalypse is a note that resonates somewhere deep within our humanity whenever it is sounded … like a bell tolling to trigger our desire to answer an ultimate question. And my ears are ringing from all the talk of apocalypse that has been floating around in the world-wide interwebs and coffeehouse conversations for the past eleven months.

We have many believing in the legitimate possibility of a Zombie apocalypse. So many, in fact, that the Center For Disease Control published its own guide to surviving it in an effort to get people to pay attention to the real work that they do. There is the whole Mayan-calendar-ending-on-December-21st and the-world-coming-to-a-crashing-end thing just won’t give up. People will ask me: “Pastor, aren’t you even a little worried that existence as we know it may over in 27 days?” And I will reply, “I’m open to it … especially if it means I don’t have to work on Christmas Eve.” And there are more: Once action hero, multi-gym user, and current paper-towel shill Chuck Norris thinks our president is the anti-christ and has warned that we are headed for 1000 years of darkness. So apparently Chuck Norris is afraid of something: and that’s strong black man. And, quite possibly the most terrifying apocalyptic thought to date: Nicolas Cage is signed on to reboot the Left Behind films beginning in 2013. That 2012 Mayan Apocalypse thing sounds pretty good to you now, too, doesn’t it?

You know, while it may seem as if there is great confluence of apocalyptic thought, this is actually nothing new. For thousands of years, crossing every culture and religion, you find humanity tiptoeing up to the edge of the cataclysmic. The soles of our feet touch these dark waters because we know we are not perfect. We know we are not eternal. And we know that life, creation … all of this … is incredibly fragile in its present state. Even my joking comes from a part of me that is uncomfortable with my own mortality … about how so much of life seems ambiguous. Like watching the Truman Show, I keep on living partially because I want to know how it will end. That is an ultimate-kind of question. Imagining where our current trajectory will take us, and amplifying the tragedy we’ve seen, we dream up hopeless scenarios. We dream up the ways that we would respond if we were in charge of life, the universe and everything.

But what is God’s answer … what is God’s response?

For an image of the God-dream, we are given this reading from the Prophecies of Daniel. Daniel may be one of those books we know better than most because it has a number of fantastic, superhero-type stories in it … the Lion’s Den, the Fiery Furnace, a villain turned into a ghastly beast. Daniel is the book in scripture that is probably best suited to be made into a extraordinarily amusing comic book series or graphic novel. I wouldn’t be surprised, in fact if somebody already did that.

But the lesser known parts of Daniel are the poetry of Daniel’s prophecy and dreams. They are the most subversive parts of this book. Written in response to a day in the people of Judah were forbidden from worshipping the I AM God, Daniel’s dreams and prophecy called out the brutal ways some leaders reigned over their subjects. Daniel dreams of those leaders as if they were beasts with their wings plucked and given the illusion of humanity … that their aim was not to care for people as was required of a great leader, but instead to consume the people … to enslave them … to eat them alive to increase their own power.

In Daniel’s dream, the beast leader does nothing to comfort its people, no words of compassion or edicts of justice are spoken to change the plight of the downtrodden. Instead, the only thing the beast leader does with its mouth is tell its own stories and brag about itself.

Now, you many be asking: how does that honestly sound any different than the kinds of apocalypse our world dreams of? It isn’t much different, is it?

The difference is, Daniel’s dreams don’t end there. They aren’t nightmares from which there is no escape. Like all the prophets in the Hebrew texts and all those they inspired in the New Testament, God gave Daniel a different way to imagine the end … the God answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe and everything. The end they imagine and celebrate is that of a world where those leaders who rule like beasts and keep all God’s people from being God’s children are overthrown. They imagine and dream of a world in which God’s grace and power are once again revealed. The end is actually a new beginning. Apocalypse is actually a hopeful possibility.

It was from these kinds of moments in history … seeing the oppression of their family and friends … that the prophets dreamt of a world what was turned upside-down by God. They imagined the God reality … the time and space when justice would roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream … that the year of God’s favor had come, that there was good news for the poor that the broken would be made strong, liberation for the captives, the blind would see.

The truly human one, not from beast, but from heaven, will reign justly in cooperation with the God who has been there since before time began. It is a beautiful image. It is the reign of Christ … the age when the good news of grace and justice are not just ideas, but embodied and protected for, and in, all persons. That is the reality of God. It is coming.

I know there are many who would say that reality has arrived. That we shouldn’t hold out hope that God will draw heaven and earth any closer than this.

But I disagree. If the reign of Christ is already here, I should probably find another line of work because I’m actually not interested in a God who believes the world as it functions, and humanity as it lives, is complete. If this is the end … if this is the dream of God and the work of Christ’s redemption … then we should all be doing something else with our time.

No, a greater God reality is coming. But when? How long?

This week, we’ve been dealing with round two of teething in our house as our daughter, Libby, is getting her 6-year molars. One of them arrived on Tuesday, and it came with a great deal of drama. We were standing in the EL station across the street talking with the afternoon station supervisor, Saundra. Saundra and Libby are good friends, and Libby always wants to stop and visit with her.

As they were talking (I believe Libby was sharing something about her school friends), Libby stopped mid-sentence, got this puzzled look on her face, moved her tongue to the side of her mouth, and then started weeping. “My skin is falling off! My skin is falling off in my mouth!” she cried.

We left quickly as she was making a bit of a scene … and her choice of words seemed to have a few folks freaked out. I’m guessing they were the zombie-inclined people. When we got to the apartment, I got a flashlight at her insistence and looked in her mouth. Sure enough, there was a large flap of skin hanging there. It had been pushed aside by the tooth.

Being her industrious self, she ran to the bathroom, soaked a washcloth in cold water, and put it over the new hole in her head. After she had calmed down a bit, she took the washcloth out of her mouth. It was spotted with blood. And she started again.

“Is it going to be like this forever?” she cried over a mouthful of washcloth.

“No, it will go away eventually,” I said. She seemed a bit comforted by that idea.

“When?” she asked. Of course,  I didn’t know, so I answered out of faith, and the fact that I had no skin flaps dangling around in my mouth.

“It won’t be too long, sweetheart,” I said. With that, she gave me a hug and went back to chewing on the washcloth.

I was struck in that moment and wished answering the questions of the world were that easy. But I also realized what I had just seen in my daughter. Her fear and pain were real. They were not masked by years of upbringing and training. They were instinctual. At 5 and a half, she understood something about forever. And all she could do was cry.

And then I was flooded with memories. The homeless woman who wept after I gave my last bit of cash to a panhandler a quarter-block earlier. The ex-felon who could not keep his lip from quivering as he dropped all his resumes in the garbage can walking out from the job fair. The single mother who screamed at the sky when showing me the grave of her husband five years after his suicide.

“It won’t be too long,” I say to them with some trepidation. But I still say it. And I do so because there are moments when the light that is the Reign of Christ comes on like a 200 watt bulb in the eyes of someone who has been fumbling around in the dark.

I see it when someone who needs a bed gets one, and when someone who needs a meal has one; and when someone who needs clean water receives some, and when someone who needs medical care gets healed, and when someone who lost family finds a new one.

These moments of light have set me dreaming. And I don’t believe God would have me dreaming things that would be so radical (and costly to myself) without them being a reality somewhere. I am convinced there is a future where Daniel’s dreams are real. It won’t be too long before this is the way for everyone.

This is important because we sing a lot of songs in church that are filled with what may seem to be metaphor to us. About prisoners being released; about an overthrow of power; about the sick being healed. And what may be lost on us if we can’t dream the God dream, is that those words mean something else to those who are actually imprisoned, and oppressed and hurting. For us to be people who call ourselves Christian … to be people who point to the reign of Christ in our organizing word … the dream of God obliges us to give up something of our power so that those who don’t have the luxury of metaphor can become whole persons and live into their given, holy identity as children of God. To change the world by changing ourselves.

There was an article in the Chicago Tribune a couple of weeks ago that talked a little about the kind of ministry that we participate in here … about our reconciling work, specifically regarding our affirmation and inclusion for members of the LGBTQ community. In that same article, one of my colleagues – who offered the counterpoint – was to have said that we United Methodists should  “honor global consensus” regarding human sexuality and the church.And when I read that I had to laugh. Of course,  those in power want worldly consensus when the world agrees with them.

Yet, it is not also the world that imagines Zombies and fears planetary collisions? It is not also the world that continues to think that war is acceptable? That slavery is tolerable? That women are less-than? And the only color to be celebrated is the one on your local currency?

Friends, I will not honor global consensus. Because a world that stands by while people die, bigotry runs rampant, and poverty is commonplace for 6 billion people, is not a world that deserves my honor. It isn’t a reality worth preserving. I will not comply. Instead, I hold fast to the Reign of Christ.

I honor the dreams of God to be our covenant friend.

I honor the dreams of Daniel, who knew that God would outlast his oppressors.

I honor the dreams of Isaiah and Ezra, who knew that people would be welcomed back to a home they never knew.

I honor the dreams of Paul, who knew that you could not limit the reach of the good news.

I honor the dreams of Hildegard, who believed that love abounds in all things.

I honor the dreams of Oscar Romero, who knew that peace is found in generosity.

I honor the dreams of Bob Dylan, who knows that the sound of the end is a beginning for everyone.

And, most of all, what I honor is the way of Christ … creating a world in which I am less, so, together, we all can be more.

This is an apocalypse I can get behind. This is the new reign.

And it is a lot like how we will share at table together in a little bit. All will be welcome. All who are hungry be fed and will eat the same. All will sing praise. All will be admitted into the mystery of God’s reality.

For some of us, this will be nothing new. For others of us, it will be a whole new world. For me, every time, it is another bright light reminding me this there is more to come. It won’t be too long. There is a new world approaching. And I know it because I have been there in my dreams. I have been taken there in your dreams. The memories are so real I can taste the air there. I remember how we all cried. And I remember the embrace … the way God, took us all into divine arms. May your dreams be filled with that same reality in Christ.


About the author

Matthew Johnson

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