Monday, May 22, 2017
From Gazing to Gathering
From Gazing to Gathering
June 5, 2011
John 17:1-11; Acts 1:1-11
Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
Regardless of what the calendar says, it must be summertime because I’ve been out of town for the last two weeks at weddings. Last weekend, I had the privilege of marrying Michelle Soper and her delightful husband T.J. Witucky in Phoenix. The weekend before that we were gathered with Chris’ family in the Twin Cities as Chris’ youngest sibling and only brother Matt married a wonderful woman named Danielle. Now, that was an interesting weekend, for a variety of reasons having nothing to do with making a covenant, grooms, brides, or anything even remotely romantic. In case you missed it, the two weeks ago marked the end of the world.
By now, we’ve all gone back to ignoring him, but two weeks ago Harold Camping received an inordinate amount of attention by being the latest false prophet who has taken a smattering of poetic Scriptures literally, mixed in some numbers from the Scriptures with a kind of magical amplified meaning, and baked a bold prediction of the world’s end. I had a lot of fun ridiculing Mr. Camping’s biblical interpretations, his post-modern mathematics, and his predictions. It’s not that I enjoy ridiculing people. In the main, I think ridiculing is a fairly low form of entertainment. But I don’t know how else to encounter the ridiculous other than to ridicule it. You can’t ignore a message that is broadcast over thousands of “family radio” stations and then reported in virtually every news medium around. You can’t reason with a position that ascribes certain meanings to simple numbers as their starting point. And when this admixture is proclaimed as “the Word of God” with such bold arrogance, there are very few options left. The biblical prescription for a prophet whose prophecy proves not to be correct is to stoning (Deuteronomy 18:20). I don’t really have the stomach to stone anyone, so I opted for ridiculing him instead. In fact, here’s an interesting thing about living in the age of mass media. We don’t even need to look at Harold Camping and proclaim, “You’re dead to me,” because – now that May 21 has passed without the “rapture” or the end of the world – most of us are no longer even paying attention to Harold Camping.
This morning, I’d like to reverse the strategy for just a moment and to try to take Harold Camping seriously. Please understand, I’m not saying that I agree with his biblical interpretations, his quirky mathematical symbolism, or his predictions in any way. But, here are some things about Harold Camping’s failed prophecy that may sound more familiar to us. He is convinced that our world is on a path of destruction. He is convinced that, though the world be destroyed all around us, “salvation” means that we (the “saved”) will escape that fate. And he is convinced that the Bible holds the key to the future. And, I would argue, that many people in the Christian church hold these convictions in common with Harold Camping. So, while his asinine date-setting proved him to be false and foolish, Harold Camping’s convictions are probably why this tiny slice of foolishness became so inescapably popular as a focal point of discussion, whether one was for or against it.
It is not just latter day fools who pay an inordinate amount of attention to the “end of the age.” It is written in the human spirit to speculate about such things. We can do so on a personal level, when we come to grips with having to die. Or, we can do so on a larger level, when we see the forthcoming end of a church institution that has meant a lot to us over the years, or we see the utter fragility of an economic system that is so pervasive that its failure seems to be the end of life as we know it. We can speculate realistically about the loss of an indigenous language or a local custom that is no longer viable in an age of globalization. We can speculate about the relationship between the buildup of carbon dioxide in the stratosphere and its potential destructive effects on our atmosphere. And, with a purely scientific and not a religious perspective, it is even possible to speculate about “the end of the world”, the implosion of the universe, the destructive mass density of black holes, and so forth – because with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, we’ve actually witnessed the effects of such cosmic events all around us. The point is, it is because we are rational creatures, not because we are foolish ones, that we can think transcendent thoughts and speculate about what might be, rather than simply living with what is. It is human, not simply religious or philosophical, to speculate about the fragility and finitude of human existence.
Setting aside the arrogance and the voodoo mathematics and the awful biblical interpretation, in one respect, Harold Camping is not just the latest in a string of bad biblical interpreters. He is simply one of us – a person who cannot avoid trying to understand what it means to be able to think about eternity while living with finitude.
Of course, speculating about the “end of the world” goes far back in the biblical tradition. It does not go as far back as speculating about the “beginning of the world.” The creation stories in the Scriptures are far earlier poetry than any speculation about the “end of the world.” But, there were some provocations, some signal events, during the history of Israel that caused them to think beyond the moment and to speculate about the “end of the world.” Approximately 160 years before the birth of Christ, the people living in Jerusalem experienced an atrocity that was so hideous that it not only evoked images of the “end of the world,” but it also became one of those fixed moments in Israel’s memory that was a way of naming the world afterwards. It was their “Pearl Harbor” their “9/11,” their moment when all of them agreed that, from that point on, nothing could ever remain the same. In fact, I would argue that it was even more significant in their thinking than Pearl Harbor or 9/11, because it seemed at this moment in their history, everything in which they believed had fallen apart. God promised them the land and the Greek empire had overrun it. God led them through the king and the Greek empire had killed him and installed a puppet on the throne. Those two things had happened before in their history, but the third thing was the most shocking. God’s presence was in their temple, particularly in the holiest interior part of the temple, and a Greek general named Antiochus IV Epiphanes had entered that holy place and offered an unclean pig as a sacrifice to Zeus there. In their view of the world, such a thing simply could not happen. Antiochus Epiphanes should have been struck dead right then and right there. But it did happen and he did not die and the world as they knew it, right then, was shattered.
It was here, in the bewilderment of this moment, that the second half of the book of Daniel was written. For any of you who were raised in a tradition like I was, you’ll know that the second half of Daniel is the most significant Old Testament text for talking about the “end of the world.” And it is significant, not because Daniel predicting things that are bound to happen sooner or later, but because it set a pattern for thinking faithfully about the “end of the world.” For Daniel’s community, the current situation with the devastation of Antiochus Epiphanes was not compatible with their view of God and God’s way with the world. In order for God’s way to be re-established, it required the destruction of the Greek Empire and its hold over them. That is what the second half of Daniel envisions, with mythological vision. Two hundred years later, for the writer of the Gospel of Mark, the situation that was incompatible with their understanding of faith was the destruction of the Roman Empire which, once again, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and all that it meant to them. For Mark, God’s way would only be re-established with the destruction of the destroyer. That is the compelling vision behind the book of Revelation as well.
What these communities imagined was not the “end of the world” as a functioning habitation for life. It was more like the way REM describes it: “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” Only, for Israel and for the early church, they did not follow by saying, “And I feel fine.” They followed by imagining how in the world God could be faithful to them in their time of crisis. And what they imagined was the destruction of the destroyer.
That is what we hear in our reading today of that moment when Jesus is taken away from the disciples. They ask him whether now is the time that the kingdom will be taken from Rome and restored to Israel. But, Jesus doesn’t answer that inquiry. Instead, he sends them back to Jerusalem to await the empowering of the Holy Spirit. And after Jesus is taken up from them, the story describes the disciples gazing into the heavens. Again, they are being human, wondering about the future, the end of the world, the great overarching meaning of it all, and so forth. As Luke describes it, two men in white apparel ridicule them, asking why in the world they are staring at the heavens when they ought to be in Jerusalem awaiting the promise of the Holy Spirit. It is an amazing and sobering moment. Instead of gazing into the heavens, the disciples are called to gather so that God can empower them to be witnesses to the world. Instead of watching a cosmic fireball or a white rider in the sky come down and defeat the wretched oppressors, God calls them to gather together, to be empowered, so that by living as witnesses they can fulfill the Reign of God.
It falls to us as human being to speculate about the “end of it all.” We are wont to stare into the heavens and to imagine a scenario when justice finally overcomes injustice, when good finally overcomes evil, and when the world finally becomes a place hospitable to the peaceable kingdom. But the way of faithfulness is not in speculating and guessing, even if we call it “prophecy.” The way of faithfulness is to gather together, to await God’s empowering Spirit, so that we might be scattered throughout the world as faithful witnesses to God’s love and forgiveness. May God draw our vision from the heavens to the earth, fill us with God’s own empowering Spirit, and send us into the world as faithful witnesses. Amen.