Monday, October 3, 2011

The End is Near? - Kurt Nelson

The End is Near?
1 Thessalonians 4:13 - 5:2
Dartmouth College Chapel, 10/2/11

1 Thessalonians is, perhaps, the oldest piece of Christian writing we have.
Written by Paul to a fledgling community of Christ followers,
who were trying to come to terms with the fact
that members of their community –
beloved aunts and fathers and friends –
are dying.
And Christ – much to their dismay and surprise –
has not yet returned.
It was, to say the least, a problem.
It’s an early letter.
An important letter.
And a transitional letter.
And what we read today,
about meeting the Lord in the clouds,
is the sole basis of the whole idea of “the rapture.”
So these few verses
have spawned dozens of rapture films
and the multi-million dollar “Left Behind” industry,
and more than a few rapture predictions.
So it’s a culturally significant letter.
And, if we’re being perfectly honest, a strange letter.
But it’s by no means unique,
in offering confusion about the world’s end.
The Gospel of Mark, after all, places on Jesus lips:
“Truly I tell you this generation will not have passed away,
until the Son of Man returns.”
The book of Revelation, and Daniel, and 2 and 3 Peter
are full of dramatic visions of the world’s end.
And indeed,
Jesus was, as much as he was anything else,
a preacher of the coming Kingdom of God.
We're certainly, I suspect, more comfortable with Jesus as a wise man.
As a revolutionary. As a teacher and healer.
Jesus as personal savior and historical figure.
But at some point,
we need to wrestle with the idea of the Coming Kingdom.
And I'd suggest there's no better moment,
than during this swell of interest in the end times.

The world is -
in case you had forgotten -
scheduled to end on October 21st,

You may remember the May 21st rapture,
which was something of a bust,
But October 21 was always the day
that Harold Camping predicted the world was actually going to end.
I hope you're ready.
The world is also scheduled to end on Winter Solstice 2012.
We have a bit more time to get ready for that one -
predicted by some strange convergence of the Mayan calendar and Nostradamus -
but still, it's coming up.
I hope you're ready.

Many of you may not remember well,
but the most significant prediction of the endtimes in my life,
was on Jan. 1, 2000.
This time due to computers resetting the year to 1900
and throwing us into chaos.

And of course none of this is especially new.
Israeli politics,
nice, round numbers
all prove fertile ground for predictions of the end of days.

There are websites now,
where you can manage your post-rapture pet care needs.
And transfer power of attorney to non-believers,
who are certain to be left behind.

Even more important in understanding our culture's interest in the End.
is Pop music.
And not just trite lyrics like,
"live like we're dying."
but in real endtimes sort of ways.
Britney Spears is currently encouraging us all to "Dance Till the World Ends."
And, not to be outdone,
Ke$ha's 'Shots on the Hood of My Car'
offers a much more substantial take on the apocalypse, saying
(and I’ll spare you my Ke$ha impression)
" Sometimes I think about if
The world was about to end
I hope I go out with a bang,
and my sickest friends."

Harold Camping and the Left Behind Series
may not play significantly into your Christian lives.
Or maybe they do.
I certainly hope you have better people to look to for inspiration than
Ke$ha and Britney Spears.

But it’s probably a little too easy to treat all such Apocalypes as bad jokes.
Because lingering just beneath the surface of our mainstream dialogue,
is a significant fear and feeling,
that the end of days are coming.
President Obama was called the anti-Christ by a Heckler on Monday
A particularly poignant op-ed from this Monday's New York Times,
highlighted the similarities between today
and the apocalypticism of the 30s and 40s,
surrounding the rise of fascism,
and the heavily centralized government of FDR.
The signs of the end of days,
meant then, like now,
that we should dismantle the government
and as many of its social programs as possible.

Many things push many people to wonder if these are the signs of the endtimes,
and what we should do about it.
And whether such fears and wonderings push one to
take up arms,
or dismantle the government,
or use up all the oil and cut down all the trees,
or do shots on the hood of your car with your sickest friends,
the idea of the apocalypse has implications for our common life.
And has a hold of at least part of our collective imagination.

And if you're anything like me,
when you're not brushing this all off as a joke,
you're perhaps a little concerned about what to make of it all,
especially in light of confusing scripture.

But these passages from Paul and Mark,
we must remember,
are not the final word. But the first word.
The authors of the Left Behind series
seem to have missed the whole rest of the New Testament.
Indeed, Paul didn’t even leave the Thessalonians lingering.
We wrote them again,
sometime later.
And his message is different.
Preparing, it would seem,
for a longer haul.
Instead of, “Don’t worry, he’ll be back real soon.”
he says,
“do not be weary in doing what is right.”
He doesn’t doubt Christ’s return,
but turns his attention to how to live in the space,
of already, but not yet.
And this, my friends,
is a message we still need to hear today.

Indeed, one can read the whole New Testament,
as an evolving response to Jesus’ life and death.
Moving from “Don’t worry…he’ll be right back.”
to “maybe something’s already happened.”
“and we have to figure out how to live into it.”

There is an apocryphal story about Martin Luther.
I don’t know it ever happened,
but I hope it did,
and feel it to be true even if it didn’t.
But the story goes that he was asked,
"What would you do today, if you knew the world were ending tomorrow?"
And he responded,
"Plant an apple tree."
Not spend the day in quiet prayer.
Not spend all his money.
Not dismantle the government and all its social programs.
But, rather he said he would do
that which would be good any other day,
even on that last day.
Because it seems to me,
the point that we’re always living into,
is that we are to really live.
And to live as if it really matters.
The point is that we are living toward something amazing,
because the world will not always be the way it is today.

And so I think we’re called,
not to sit around and ponder if we will be called up, or left behind.
Not to spend every moment in penitential prayer,
not to empty our bank accounts and stop making plans,
but to ponder,
how we think we can live each day into God’s amazing grace -
in our careers, in our friendships, in our families.

So perhaps we should,
as Ke$ha says,
gather all of our sickest friends,
and wonder together how we too,
Can keep from growing weary,
in living into what is good and right.

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