In a week when here in the lower mainland of British Columbia we have just experienced a weather event called a cyclone bomb storm, the same week world leaders are gathering in Glasgow to address the world’s climate crisis and on a day when zombies are coming out of their tombs and witches are swooshing around on brooms, how could we not be asking the big life question “Is this really the apocalypse?” It’s certainly been a question on the tip of my tongue more than once over the course of the last 19 months.
My first recollection of ever hearing the word “apocalypse” was back in the early 80’s. I was a teenager and Francis Ford Coppala’s film Apocalyse Now was playing in cinemas all over North America. The movie was loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness but instead of a setting the film in late 19th-century Congo where the novella takes place, Coppala chose for his setting the Vietnam War during the late 1960’s.
It would be years before I understood the social commentary that disturbing movie was making and some time before I learned there is a whole genre of writing in the bible known as apocalyptic literature. It’s found primarily in the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Book of Revelations but as we heard this morning, the Gospels also contain apocalyptic warnings coming from the mouth of Jesus.
Our tendency is to drag out the word apocalypse whenever there has been the kind of natural disaster or catastrophic event that makes us wonder what the world is coming to. I can vividly remember phoning everyone in my family and telling them I loved them back on September 11, 2001 just in case that day was the end of the world. Theologian Catherine Keller, who has written extensively on the subject, says we tend to use the word in these situations because no other word has quite the cataclysmic oomph. Only the word apocalypse, she says, captures the drama of unprecedented threats to human civilization and yet it does not necessarily signal the end of the world.
The word apocalypse actually means unveiling. An apocalypse is an event or series of events that reveals something to us about ourselves and our world. An apocalypse discloses to us something about our reality, a truth we may not have previously been able to see.
When I was reflecting on today’s scripture passage earlier this week, the word that leapt off the page for me was the word “truly.” “Truly I tell you” Jesus says to alert us that he’s about to speak honestly about something. He’s about to speak without deceit or falsehood. Maybe he’s about to suggest that there’s been some kind of cover up that’s been going on all along and he’s now going to reveal the truth.. And the truth he speaks is about the temple and the way every stone of it is going to be thrown down. And then as if to confirm what we’ve already started to suspect, when his followers ask him when this is going to happen, this end of the age event, he gives them a warning about those who would want to lead them astray. So at least part of the truth of what he is saying to them about the temple being destroyed has something to do with the fact that there has been some kind of cover up going on or at least a distortion of the truth. Then he continues talking to them about nations rising up against nations and famines and earthquakes in the land. There is going to be a big disruption.
And although it sounds like he is talking about things that are going to happen in the future, I can’t help but wonder if what he’s really doing is telling them a parable about their present reality. Because what we know to be true about the times that Jesus and his earliest followers lived in is that they were times of great turmoil. The strong hand of the Roman Empire had 1st Century Palestine in its grip. There was widespread corruption, a perversion of human values and moral misalignment. The religious leaders of the day were no better than the political leaders. So there was a sense in which the temple had already started to crumble along with it every other institution meant to hold the country together.
It sounds like Jesus is talking about the future when he warns his followers about the destruction of the temple but it’s possible he was really telling them a parable about their present reality.
During an apocalypse. The truth about the way things are is revealed.
Catherine Keller, who writes about the apocalypse in our day and age refers mostly to what’s happening to our climate and how our weather patterns are increasingly revealing to us disturbing truths. But there’s more than our weather patterns that are out of whack these days. Over the course of the pandemic we’ve seen in greater measure systemic inequality and the way our global economy has had an oppressive effect on our world. Just like the Roman Empire, Catherine Keller says civilization today is still caught up in power hungry patterns. Those of us who gather in the church are seeing with even greater clarity in this moment, the way that power abused by leaders in the church over the centuries and a general misalignment of the church with the powerful has led to this time when much that we have held dear is crumbling along with many of society’s institutions. Yesterday at our Board Retreat, for example, we talked about the challenge of being a church when the church has been involved in the running of residential schools along with the general challenge of being associated with an institution that has harmed so many people. During an apocalypse fault lines in the foundations of our society are more obvious to us.
This summer when I was preparing to return to work at the end of my sabbatical I kept having this sense that something had shifted in me. It was like I was being born into a new reality. One day as I was reflecting on this an image came into my mind. In this image I was standing in the midst of ancient ruins, surrounded by old stone buildings that had fallen to the ground. It was like I had gone through a portal and landed in the midst of a sci-fi movie. The new reality I was being born into was an apocalyptic reality.
I think that’s how lots of us are feeling right now as we ever so slowly emerge from the pandemic. The world we are being delivered into is not the world we left behind, except that it is. It’s just that we can see our world and all it’s cracks with more clarity. Our planet is teetering even closer to the brink. Institutions are crumbling. Power structures that have been in place for centuries are cracking. Many of our old ways of being are gone for good or at least they are on their way out. We will never go back to being church the way we were church before the pandemic.
One of the things the pandemic has revealed to me in a deeper way is that the structure of the bible that begins in the Garden of Eden and ends with the Book of Revelations with all it’s apocalyptic visions really is the evolutionary pattern of life. We aren’t born into a new reality without a great rupturing of the old, as painful as that may be.
In today’s reading, when Jesus speaks of wars and rumours of wars of kingdoms rising against kingdoms and famines and earthquakes in various places he tells his disciples that all of this is but the beginnings of birth pangs. Out of all of this destruction new life will emerge. This is the heart of the Jesus story. Out of death comes resurrection.
Catherine Keller is quick to point out that nowhere in the bible is there a prediction of the end of the world. Even in today’s reading we hear the disciples speak about the end times but not the end of the world. So although it may be true that we are living through a time of endings, apocalyptic times that are revealing many truths to us about things that need to come to an end, this is not the end of the world.
Indeed, in my own vision of standing in the midst of the ancient ruins, right in the center of all there were two green shoots pushing up through the cracks in the rubble. New life where it seemed there might be none.
Last weekend I shared this image with my old friend Chris Corrigan. Many of you will remember Chris from 10 years ago now when we started working with him to imagine a way forward for our church. Chris was quick to point out that my green shoots were unlikely to grow into a forest anytime soon. In fact, Catherine Keller says that although there is reason for optimism about the future, the future of our political systems, the future of our planet, it is still a shadowed hope. There is surely more rupturing and disorientation to come.
In speaking of the “Apocalyse Now” that was the Vietnam War of the late 60’s, Martin Luther King said it is not too late yet but there is such a thing as too late.
May the apocalypse we are living in continue to reveal to us the actions we need to take today for the future of tomorrow. May they reveal to us the deep and abiding promises of a God, of the living Christ who is with us in every end and each beginning.
At yesterday’s Board Retreat we began and ended our day with these words from the poet Malcolm Guite based on Jesus’ words found in the Gospel of John: I am the End who meets you in the middle, the new Beginning hidden in the End.
***with gratitude to Catherine Keller author of “Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances” Orbis Books, 2021 for her inspiration for this sermon***