Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent One: Liberating Eschatology (Matthew 24:36-44)

When you looked at the sermon title "Liberating Eschatology", perhaps there was an unfamiliar word: “eschatology”. It is a theological term, a word that helps define the faith. The “…ology” part is easy enough, meaning “the study of”, but then there is that first part “eschat...” that we have to address. Oddly enough, “eschatology” is better translated as “the study of the End”. The early Church had a variety of views on what would happen, and quite honestly, many of the New Testament writers presume that “the End” would happen very soon, that is, in their lifetime, or soon enough thereafter. Two millennia later, we are around, looking at these texts and wondering how to “read” them appropriately.

In the hands of some Christians over the centuries, to speak of the End has become the seedbed for some increasingly bizarre theories about what will happen. Over the centuries, stories of destruction, desolation, and the Devil have framed a way of belief for some Christians. Other Christians look at these texts and consider them less relevant, perhaps the “odd texts” that we skip over as we read our Bibles. Should the church bother with “eschatology”?

I suggest that we must talk of our beliefs about “the End”, but we must recognize that with all matters of interpretation and belief, we exercise a degree of humility. There have been too many instances (past and present) of excessive interpretation and malformed belief, but to say that our faith can be fine without talk of “the End” is to do even more harm to one’s faith and practice. This morning, let me help “liberate” eschatology a bit so we might hear the Gospel text (and others like it) with due reverence.

Let me offer two stories along the way with some commentary:

A few years ago, I was standing in line to check out at one of those warehouse stores like BJ’s. Just behind me, I heard a young woman read aloud the name of a book she picked up. It was the latest volume of the Left Behind books, a series of books about the apocalyptic end and the return of Christ. Ever the curious sort, I turned around slightly to see what she would do next. She read a little bit of the dust jacket’s description of the book, and she wrinkled up her nose a bit, “I don’t need that scary stuff!” She tossed it back where she found it: upon a pile of the same book, five feet high, sitting on one of those heavy wooden palates that require a forklift to move them. I thought, “Apparently, some folks do need that scary stuff”.

My observation is this: anxious times often produce anxious eschatology. The Left Behind series began publication in the years leading up to the millennium. The books reflect a certain take on eschatology, but an undercurrent of fear informs the writers, their plot reflecting a belief that something ominous is coming.  As a friend who takes this line of thinking seriously said, “What good is the future? It will be all over soon!”

Putting my own cards on the table, I am skeptical of eschatology derived out of a place of deep fear, as such interpretations have a degree of resignation creeping in.  Thus, faith becomes an affair of watching and waiting, but with an edge of disregard for much of anything in the here and now. It can be understandable that such a view can be attractive, especially to persons for whom the suffering and brokenness of this world seems to be pervasive, or when world events are reaching critical (or that is your perception). Nonetheless, fear-suffused belief does not ultimately lead in a good direction.
So, what should we do if we wish to claim eschatology as part of our belief but not freight it with the wrong baggage?

Another story to help us along the way:

Once, I discovered a store with a large collection of bumper stickers for sale. While I never use them, I enjoy reading them. The box held a few political slogans here (your choice of red state or blue state politics to skewer), a few stickers protesting or supporting the War in Iraq there, and a few promoting just about every social cause imaginable. In the back of the box of bumper stickers were the ones with religious themes, including one that read: “JESUS IS COMING! LOOK BUSY!”

Eschatology is more rightly concerned with the return of Christ and the drawing to a close of this present age. Rather than trading upon the edge of these texts (especially those of Revelation with its terrible battles), the better path is to go back and question the friend who said, “What good is the future?” A good response is to say, “The future is in God’s hands. What more could we want?”
However, the bumper sticker’s sarcasm highlights the question that goes without asking when people speak of eschatology. Rather than keep up appearances (“look busy!”), eschatology beckons to the Christian believer to take up a way of discipleship that is expectant as well as tethered down to the ground as the body of believers called Church, Christ’s visible reminder of Christ’s reign being at hand. We are called to a faith that says, “Jesus is coming! Live faithfully!”

In this passage from Matthew 24, if you read through the lens provided by AM radio preachers, you see a passage about “the Rapture”, a New Testament idea that the faithful will be taken up into God’s embrace, which has been laden with a lot of modern era interpretation. If you read this text through the lens of fear or anxiety, you miss what Jesus is really saying. Jesus affirms that the “Father” alone knows when the End shall come. Thus, live as if it will come suddenly, but do not try to ask questions or find answers about these matters. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas observes, “Jesus tells [his disciples] how they must learn to wait in this time between the times” (Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Brazos Press, 2006, p. 204).

The friend who said, “What good is the future? It will be all over soon!” misses the invitation to be a disciple living fully in the way of discipleship. To hope for God’s end is part of faith, to wait expectantly is part of faith, but to give up or grow idle or withdrawn is a distortion of faith. It is as misfortunate as the people who spend their time feverishly looking for “the End Times” at hand in the latest headlines of the New York Times or the latest chapter in a book that predicts this political movement or incident is the lynchpin of the doom about to unfold. Hauerwas says,

Jesus is trying to help the disciples understand how they must live when their questions should not have been asked and cannot be answered. Or put differently, Jesus is trying to help the disciples live when his life must shape any questions to be asked. (Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 204)

You and I deal with the various types of baggage that this holiday season (or perhaps just this week alone) seems to have piled on our backs. In the midst of the cacophony of life as we know it, we are summoned to discipleship by the Son of Man, whose very appearance shall be the end of what we know and fear and bring about the peace that eludes us, even in our modern delusion of such things being solved by policies, superior military strength, and power.

We abide by Christ’s call to live the life of faith well, shaped by a belief that Jesus is indeed Lord of our lives. We are called to humility that God alone knows when these things shall draw to a close. We live in trust and abundant hope that when this day comes to pass, we will be found in the midst of the work of Christ, faithful ‘til the End.

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