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Jesus is an apocalyptic figure. Christianity is an apocalyptic religion. Advent is an apocalyptic season.

This is very hard.

Apocalyptic means revealing, disclosure, unveiling. What has been hidden is brought to light. A great reversal is coming—swiftly, shockingly, out of the blue. Time is short. The weak will be strong. The mighty will be thrown down.

Not surprisingly, apocalyptic ideas give hope to the hopeless. Patient reform, gradual improvement are of no use to them. The notion that slowly and through concerted effort things might get better is less believable than the idea that a mighty God will reach into history to tear everything up by the roots, to comfort the suffering and reward the poor.

But you pretty much already knew all that.

Lutheran pastor and provocateur, Nadia Bolz-Weber, has tried to normalize “apocalypse” by reminding us that it need not refer to the end of time. It simply means disclosure. For example, the #MeToo movement is exposing the patriarchy and crassness that have always been there, just never acknowledged. The current state of politics in the US reveals that probably 15-20 percent of Americans have always had semi-fascist leanings.

Apocalypses are happening all the time, all around us and in our lives. A divorce may reveal that a marriage wasn’t what we thought it was. Those dazed and disbelieving people you see on TV, neighbors of a newly-discovered serial killer, muttering “He always seemed like such a nice guy,” are having an apocalypse.

I trust you understand how talking about upheaval, or saying things like “fallen, fallen is Babylon the great” is a difficult fit with sugar plum fairies. James Alison calls the apocalyptic tone of Advent a necessary “puncturing” of our half-truths, fantasies, and complacent religion. Wow! But how am I to sync that with chestnut’s roasting on an open fire, or even Christmas-program-shepherds dressed in bathrobes? This is the preacher’s dilemma in Advent. I’ve pretty much waved the white flag.

This is about more than Advent

“It is hard to stand on your tiptoes for two thousand years.” That’s not original to me, but I think it conveys part of the challenge for Christians. How to be eager and vigilant for two millennia? We see a gradual making peace with time and a dimming of apocalyptic expectations in the well-known statement attributed to Martin Luther. “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” We may like Luther’s sentiment, but it pretty much dampens any apocalyptic energy.

As 21st century Western people, we simply are not hopeless enough or weak enough to appreciate apocalyptic views. Apocalyptic energy is like reggae music. We say we like it. But it isn’t for us or from us. It is the voice of the rebel, the desperado. I think I’m okay with the mighty being thrown down from their thrones, and I’d like to see the hungry fed. But the rich being sent away empty sounds like a bummer of a Christmas.

An apocalyptic outlook is arduous, sometimes fanatical. It demands do-or-die decisions. When I read some of Jesus’s words I want to respond “easy for a 30 year old bachelor to say.”

I hear bombastic preachers trying to tap into apocalyptic energy. “A mighty reckoning is on its way. The ax will fall. A bright light will shine into the darkest, filthiest corners of our society and our hearts…” But it rings a bit hollow when you’re adding on to the church building, consulting your broker, and planning next summer’s vacation.

Last September, here on The Twelve, during the tumultuous Cavanaugh hearings, Jason Lief sounded about as apocalyptic as I’ve heard. Riffing on the prophet Amos, Jason wrote things like, “The time has come for our politics to die; it has become too sick and twisted to save. Our politics have become infected with privilege as the rich and famous dance on the backs of the poor.” When we become despairing enough, we turn apocalyptic.

But being who we actually are, (powerful and privileged) within minutes we’re encouraging others to write to their congressperson, improve our education system, or sign this or that petition. We can’t quite shake our incurable hope of progress and improvement.

Apocalyptic outlooks give Christianity energy and urgency, but probably some instability too, and after 2,000 years maybe there is also a tinge of insincerity.

Counterpoint with Wisdom

For me, the wisdom tradition serves as a helpful counterpoint to apocalyptic energy. Wisdom values the small and the everyday, the beauty and goodness of the common. It offers patience and contentment, if perhaps making space for complacency too. It gives us practical advice for a meaningful life. “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.” Jesus’s beatitudes carry a wisdom tone, even if they are buzzing with apocalyptic reversals.

Last Palm Sunday on The Twelve, Joshua Vis shared a challenging post, “The End of Triumphal Interventions.” Josh sounded similar to biblical scholars who contend that over time Jesus himself became disillusioned with his own apocalyptic hopes. Jesus then tried to almost force God’s hand into an apocalyptic intervention by his brazen, rabble-rousing entry into Jerusalem. But to no avail.

From this Josh concludes

Stop hoping that God is going to intervene and make it all okay…We have to face unknowing and sadness and suffering, and, choose to affirm life anyway. And we should affirm life! Life is incredible!
We should reject the idea of a fantastical and mercurial God who occasionally breaks into our world to save someone from pain and suffering…not because God has abandoned us, but because God has empowered us. God will be experienced through acts of justice, graciousness, kindness, mercy, and love. Through everyday acts that celebrate life-as-it-is and seek the flourishing of all peoples, God becomes manifest in our lives.

This sounds more like a refutation of the apocalyptic than a counterpoint. Of course the Holy Week story ends with that most apocalyptic of all ideas—resurrection—the innocent are vindicated, martyrs given everlasting life.

A whimpering conclusion

I detest the inevitable, insipid endings too many of my freshmen use on their essays. It goes something like, “Both sides are needed so that a good balance may be found.” But folks, I’m well over my word limit here and I’m not going to resolve this today. Sorry. You won’t either. At different times it confounds me and dispirits me. It preoccupies me. But it can also console me and give me hope.

Perhaps it’s too similar to Luther’s “plant a tree” maxim, but I’ve always loved Bruce Cockburn’s claim, “If this were the last night of the world, what would I do that was different? What would I do that was different, unless it was champagne with you?”

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

8 Comments

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Spot on words of challenge, truth, and hope. Thank you.

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    Thanks so much for this essay.

    It is such an exhilarating challenge to live this daily tension, when we experience both that the Kingdom takes its own sweet time to ripen into fullness, and that it is also on a trajectory toward a dramatic reveal event of the King’s return. Does our extra money this month go to to our 4-year- old’s college savings plan, which is built upon a reasonable optimism for her future? Or to the Chicago Community Bond Fund, to help someone else’s urgent needs to get back to work to provide subsistence provisions for their own 4-year-old in coming months? Or 50/50 split?

    How do we reconcile a “take no thought for tomorrow” epigram with economic recommendations that we make prudent and reasonable steps for our own (and our offspring’s) future provision and well-being? Like you said, this question is very hard to answer while living in an already but not yet era of Kingdom life. And it demonstrates the extra responsibility and difficulty of attempting to be Jesus followers while existing as part of a social class who endeavors in our weekday agendas to enter and remain within the top 10% of the world’s wealth-wielder population.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Really good.

  • Sarina says:

    I needed this today. Thanks.

  • JoAnne says:

    “As 21st century Western people, we simply are not hopeless enough or weak enough to appreciate apocalyptic views.” I think many of us are there, in the face of impending climate change, the dismantling of our democracy, free license to pollute our air and waters, and oppression of all those who are not rich white men. Count me in as someone for whom apocalyptic despair and hope in God resonates.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for this article that expresses a reality that is hard to admit for Christians. The apocalyptical aspect of Christianity is indeed hard to swallow. And of course, many strains (groups) within Christianity downplay or deny such a reality now or in the future, while others within Christianity will play it up. “Just wait. It’s coming, big time.” And of course Western non Christians look at such a teaching as totally unrealistic. Such apocalyptical teaching doesn’t contribute to the evangelistic endeavors of Christianity.

    But there are many other such Bible teachings that cast doubt on the Christian endeavor. Yes, Steve, how about the soon return of Jesus Christ from heaven? “Soon” and “2,000 years?” Wasn’t the apostle Paul thinking of soon as during his lifetime?

    What about the ascension of Christ to a present reign in heaven over earth and the church? Really? Is our present reality what the apostles were looking for as Jesus’ reign? Couple this with the Old Testament prediction of God’s offspring defeating Satan. Doesn’t God’s confrontation of Satan in the garden indicate Satan’s defeat at the death and resurrection of Jesus? Isn’t that claimed as a victory over Satan? Some would say that, as to Satan’s defeat, Jesus’ first appearance was a bit of a fizzle. Satan is as active and mighty as ever. And are Christians still expecting a real and physical antichrist?

    What about prayer? Christians have to do a lot of rationalization to make prayer something other than what Jesus emphasized in regard to prayer. “Ask and you will receive.” From experience, we know the odds of that happening are pretty slim, unless we are asking for the obvious. So we define prayer differently from what Jesus taught, even though much of our praying (including congregational prayers) are more petitionary in nature than anything else. And so the likelihood of answered prayer is as likely as if we never prayed. And so we continue to pray, even though little happens.

    So it’s not just the apocalypse that is hard to swallow. For those looking in from the outside there is much about Christian teaching that is questionable. If our teachings are hard for us to swallow, think how difficult it is for outsiders. Thanks, Steve, for raising questions.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Your apocalyptic post makes me apoplectic. Can’t we just keep epiphany for Advent and use apocalyptic when we read Left Behind?

  • Mark Kornelis says:

    Great post, and I always love seeing a reference to Bruce Cockburn’s lyrics. Thanks!

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