Jesus Isn't Coming...Get Busy
River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, January 23, 2000
Rev. Scott W. Alexander
Over recent months, as the new millennium approached with all of its excessive media hype and Y2K hysteria, there was (all across America, indeed all across the world) a noticeable increase in apocalyptic thinking and behavior, with many (especially in conservative Christian circles) apparently convinced that the end of the world was at hand. This is not (of course) a new spiritual phenomenon. For much of recorded human history (and more specifically for our cultural purposes, over the last couple of thousands of years of Jewish and Christian history), uncertainty over (and anxiety about) world events and major calendar milestones have caused people to believe that the end of the world as we know it was rapidly approaching, and that a new, perfect world would be ushered in (even as the old world was catastrophically destroyed). William Dinges, professor of Religious Studies at Catholic University here in D.C. likens the popular belief that the apocalypse is coming to a "low grade fever that flares up at different moments in history." We are apparently in the midst of just such a moment.
It is important that we as religious liberals (who, dare I say, have little spiritual or theological use for apocalyptic thinking, and tend to dismiss those who hysterically warn that the Armageddon is coming) understand such thinking. To prepare for this sermon, I went scrounging back through my old seminary textbooks, and refreshed my memory about apocalyptic thinking...because I haven't thought too much about this religious phenomenon since then. My interpreter's commentary on the Bible observes, "Even at early levels in its development, nearly every [world] religion has some eschatology, [that is a] doctrine of last things, that leans in the direction of apocalyptic ideas..." and then it goes on to describe the three common elements of Christian and Jewish apocalyptic thinking in particular:
Such apocalyptic thinking can be seen throughout ancient Middle Eastern literature that pre-dates Jewish and Christian scriptures, as well as in the early books of Jewish scriptures (Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah) and in the later post-exilic books of Ezekiel, Joel, Zechariah and Daniel (with apocalyptic ideas often flaring up in times which were difficult for the Jewish people -- as when they had been forced into exile or were living under the boot of some despotic regime). So the idea that the world as we know it is about to catastrophically end (to make way for a perfect new one) stretches back at least two millennia.
- In all apocalyptic schemes, TIME is divided into two ages, the present "evil" time (dominated by Satan and his demonic hosts)...and the coming age (in which God alone will reign, and Satan and his demonic powers and allies on earth will be destroyed, and the righteous elect who survive the destruction will enjoy perfect peace and prosperity on a transformed earth...a new heaven and earth, a true and perfect kingdom of God, for all eternity),
- The end of the present "evil" age is to come with dramatic and catastrophic suddenness, and finally
- This end of life as we know it will occur soon, that is, not in some far off time, but in the near future.
But most of the apocalyptic thinking we confront today (as our millennium turns) is Christian in origin, generally arising from what I regard to be the most curious (or if one were less cautious and kind, one might say downright bizarre) book found in Christian Scriptures, the book of Revelation. While some conservative Christians insist that this book was written by the apostle John (which might give it a little more authoritative weight), most biblical scholars believe it was written by someone identified as John, the son of Zebedee, who probably recorded his first (rather wild) vision of the end of the world while doing Christian missionary work for the early church (some 90 years after the death of Jesus) on the island of Patmos, off the coast of Asia Minor (or what is today Turkey). In any case, in the book of Revelation, the author dramatically and poetically describes the apocalypse he foresees:
"The seven angels that had the seven trumpets now made ready to sound them. The first blew his trumpet and, with that, hail and fire, mixed with blood, were dropped to the earth...[and the earth] was burned up. The second angel blew his trumpet, and it was as though a great mountain, all on fire, had been dropped into the sea...[and] the sea turned into blood...and all the living things in the sea were killed and...all ships were destroyed. [Then] the third angel blew his trumpet, and a huge star fell from the sky, burning like a ball of fire, and it fell on...all rivers and springs...and all the water turned to bitter wormwood, so that many people died from drinking it...In my vision, I heard an eagle calling aloud as it flew high overhead, 'trouble, trouble, trouble, for all the people on earth'..."
So in John's vision, the old world passes away, and a new, perfect world comes to birth...I quote again from Revelation:
"...then I saw a new heaven and earth , the first heaven and the first earth had disappeared now, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City and the New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, as beautiful as a bride all dressed up for her husband..."
Sexist imagery perhaps, but lovely in its earthy primitiveness, don't you think? And then the author goes on, describing what happens to the righteous elect that has not been destroyed, as they enter the new world:
"[God] will wipe away all tears from their eyes, there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness. The world of the past has gone...now [God is] making the whole of creation new."
Now...as a Unitarian Universalist minister classically trained in biblical scholarship) I have always taken all this fanciful stuff from the book of Revelation the way I (and most serious scholars) believe it was in fact written to be understood...metaphorically...that is as a stern spiritual warning written by a early church leader (in poetic, literary form) to warn the faithful that God was displeased with human sin, arrogance and wrong doing, and that humanity must mend its evil ways or face eventual destruction. But much to my surprise (and honestly, my chagrin) apparently many modern day Americans are taking this stuff as a literal prediction of precisely what is going to soon cosmically happen to the world as we know it. I, of course, have always understood that there are a few religious extremists out there (like various fringe doomsday cults who believe this stuff so literally that they're willing to die for it -- like that deadly Heaven's Gate cult a few years back whose members tragically took poison together so they would be ready for the space ships that they were sure were going to transport them to the new, perfect world that was coming). But I was nonetheless shocked to read (in the January First edition of the New York Times...which is when I decided to preach this sermon, in fact) that an increasing number of mainstream Americans believe the second coming of Christ (which is the event, according to conservative Christian theologians which would announce the apocalyptic destruction of this broken world, and usher in God's perfect new one) will actually occur before the end of their life times. Here are the numbers...according to a recent New York Times poll, nearly one-in-threeChristians in the New York Metropolitan Area (one-in three!) believe they will personally witness Christ's return in their lifetimes. Asked the same question four years ago, only one-out-of-five Christians in the same region believed they would see the end of time. I quote from the article,
"In an apocalypse that Dawn Rivette (a mother of three in Hyde Park) expects to see in her lifetime, Jesus Christ rides to earth on a while stallion, sweeping believers up to heaven while calamity swallows the faithless left behind...For Jeffrey Case, 32, (who manages a beverage store in Poughkeepsie), chemical and biological weapons will unleash massive destruction in an all-out war, as heaven opens the only escape...Ingebor Luckner, 73, a retired hairdresser and bank clerk said she watches Billy Graham on television, and believes she will see the second coming by her 80th birthday...Mrs. Luckner [who grew up in Hitler's Germany] imagine[s] the second coming could resemble the destruction she saw during the allied bombing that ended World War II."
On and on the article went, describing various New Yorker's graphic, literal images about Jesus floating down to our troubled earth to usher in the end of the world so that God's perfect new one can begin.
Now there is no way (or reason) for me to be coy or obtuse here...I have to be honest with you. All this apocalyptic thinking by otherwise normal Americans leaves this Unitarian Universalist scratching his head in spiritual incredulity. Do millions of people living in the New York Metropolitan area really believe (literally) that Jesus is about to swoop out of the sky on a white horse to escort the righteous directly to heaven (even as he allows fire and brimstone to engulf billions of others?) This is SO FAR from my thinking about the future of our world that I have to wonder what is spiritually and psychologically going on here? As I have already mentioned, religious and cultural historians tell us that apocalyptic, doomsday thinking always bubbles up during difficult and anxious human times. So the most obvious explanation for this (to me at least) surprising survey is that as the new millennium dawns, many are feeling increasingly anxious and fearful about our globe's future. There is, of course (now as always in the turbulent history of our world) much to be anxious about. Global warming, ethnic cleansing, environmental destruction, the unchecked and rapidly spreading global AIDS epidemic, nuclear weapons proliferation, war and civil war everywhere on the face of the planet - to name just a few things rational and concerned human beings should worry about -- these are not (surely) the most reassuring of times. The media flood our consciousness with graphic images of our world's problems and dangers -- and there is much (surely) that humanity must get busy about if we are to avoid the degradation (even the eventual destruction) of human life on this planet. But what spiritually amazes (and frankly saddens) me is that many people apparently think things are SO BAD here on earth that the old, broken world must be entirely swept away, in order to make room for an absolutely pure and perfect new order. It is this spiritually perfectionist thinking (this idea that the world as we know it cannot be fixed, repaired, redeemed or saved) that makes no sense to me. I fear, spiritually speaking, that such "end time" thinking could lead us to a dangerous neglect of our world just when it needs so much more rational and pro-active care, attention and fixing!
Surely you have all seen or heard the cute and popular bumper sticker slogan (I was in a shop this summer than had hundreds of T-shirts emblazoned with this saying: "JESUS IS COMING...LOOK BUSY!" Now you laugh, but I don't think there is anything really very funny (at least spiritually speaking) about apocalyptic, doomsday, "all that's left to do in this evil, old world is wait for the judgement day" thinking. The spiritual slogan I would like to slap on the bumper of my car is this: "JESUS IS NOT COMING...GET BUSY!"
Look...let me be very clear here. I mean no disrespect to the religious ideas of others. While literal apocalyptic thinking makes absolutely no sense to me (and my job as your minister is to tell you what makes no sense to me, as well as share what DOES make sense to me), people are (of course) free to believe about life and the universe what they will. I cannot and would not change the apocalyptic thinking of those who imagine the world soon coming to a violent end (as unbelievable and irrational as I think it is). But what I would suggest POSITIVELY to you this morning (by way of affirming our faith rather than merely criticizing what others believe), in this Unitarian Universalist church, is that everything about our faith tradition says that our spiritual job in this time (as in every human time) is not to sit back and wait for the end of the world...our job is to get out there, get wisely and compassionately busy in our desperate and imperfect world...and do what we can to help build a better world where all humanity will survive with a quality of life worth having.
Unitarian Universalism (always a fiercely "this world," practical faith) morally and spiritually asserts that we cannot spiritually afford to be waiting around passively for some perfect, next world to take care of things. We are not (as a human family) helpless pawns in this world, we are (if we have the wisdom and courage to choose it) actors and agents, co-creators (if you will) with God or with the laws of nature depending on your theological bent - capable co-creators of this world who have a responsibility not to LOOK BUSY (so that a place in heaven will personally be reserved for us) but GET BUSY, to work selflessly with others of good will in helping to create just as close an approximation to heaven as we can on this eternally imperfect earth.
Look...all religions, when you think about it, are perfectionist enterprises. All faith groups (ours included) are vulnerable to the excesses of pie-eyed, perfectionist thinking. Religions are idealist constructs...they tend to dream of perfect persons, perfect communities, perfect worlds - where everything is true and right and good (and thus reflects the purest and highest attributes of creation). Even our own rational, practical, scientifically-orientated tradition, Unitarian Universalism, has (at times) imagined rather fanciful things about the human future. Back in the middle of the 19th
Century, for example, Unitarians and Universalists were intellectually and spiritually swept up in the cosmic enthusiasms of the Transcendentalist era, which imagined humanity capable of creating heaven on earth...literally! Any number of utopian agricultural and social communities were established -- like Fruitland and Brook Farm - as models of perfect human harmony and purpose. Listen to the introductory statement of the constitution of Brook Farm, established by George Ripley and others in West Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1842:
"The Association at Brook Farm has now been in existence for upward of two years...our belief in a divine order of human society has in our own minds become an absolute certainty...we do not hesitate to affirm that the world is much nearer the attainment [of this perfect, divine order] than is generally supposed...We believe that humanity, trained by these long centuries of suffering and struggle, led onward by so many saints and heroes and sages, is at length prepared to enter into that universal order...the salvation of all civilized countries - lies in the reorganization of society according to the unchanging laws of human nature and of universal harmony...we can never doubt...that human life shall yet be developed, not in discord and misery, but in harmony and joy, and the perfected earth shall at last bear on her bosom a race of men worthy of the name."
This idealistic commune, of course, given human nature and the vagaries of human associations, collapsed in economic and social disarray in short order, as did all
the high-minded, perfectionist utopian communities begun in that era by idealistic religious liberals. My point here is (I believe) as simple as it is important. As we enter into our new millennium, we must not expend any spiritual, moral and intellectual energies IMAGINING PERFECT WORLDS THAT ARE PROMISED OR IMAGINED TO COME...not the apocalyptic kind (with Jesus and God floating down to finally "make things right"...not the utopian kind with humanity suddenly discovering perfect behavior, absolute wisdom, and pure living)...NEITHER IN MY VIEW IS EVEN VAGUELY LIKELY! Where we must expend our spiritual, moral and intellectual energies is not in "LOOKING BUSY" to impress Jesus, or God (or even one another) but in GETTING BUSY
(with others of good will) to create a tolerable, livable, hopefully positively-evolving world, which is in my spiritual view more than vaguely possible!
Apocalyptic thinking is dangerous because it distracts people from the core moral and human duties that lie before us as a species of this preciously vulnerable creation. It may not surprise you to learn that in many conservative Christian churches which teach apocalyptic (end of the world) thinking, they also teach that things environmentalist (our human efforts to recycle, reduce pollution, preserve land and save the environment) is pointless, even a dangerous distraction, for the earth is soon going to be destroyed by a vengeful God anyway, so why bother to be wise stewards of the planet. Such churches also teach that the United Nations is unnecessary (possibly even an evil institution) for why (they spiritually reason) work on world peace, regional stability, global respect and understanding, and ending religious and racial conflicts, and eradication of diseases like HIV/AIDS when this broken world is just going to be swept away anyway? Apocalyptic thinking is spiritually and morally dangerous because it gives people permission to GIVE UP on the imperfect world we have, while they FANCIFULLY WAIT for some other, pure and perfect world to arrive.
As I have said, I know that I cannot control or change the apocalyptic thinking of those in our culture who are spiritually allured by visions of an absolutely perfect world that is at hand. All I can do (as a Unitarian Universalist) is to respectfully say this to them (as I do now, to any who might stumble across this sermon on our website or in other venues - and by the way, that does happen, I recently received an e-mail from a fundamentalist Black Baptist pastor from the Louisiana Bayous who had been to our website and wanted to respond to my sermon on "Stealing Jesus", we had a wonderful conversation) in any case, what I want to respectfully say to any and all who are consumed spiritually by apocalyptic thinking is this: In my faith tradition too we have (from time to time) spiritually dreamt of a world filled with perfection, holiness and peace...we have spun out visions of life and creation unblemished and pure...and every now and again we still spin out dreams for the human family that might be irrationally large...but we have never, never, never permitted ourselves (nor will we, now that the new millennium is here) the easy out of giving up on the world we have. As imperfect and broken as our world often appears, as filled with tears and tumult as it often is...it remains at its essence a creation of stunning beauty and worth...to use theological language, even amidst the obvious rubble of human folly and failure there is so much of God and goodness here that we must love this world still, and work...with faith and forbearance to bend it (ever so slowly) heavenward. We, like you apocalyptic thinkers, are a people of faith who weave in our dreams pure visions of a world made right and good, just and kind, noble and pure...but those dreams don't lull us into lying back spiritually waiting for some perfect world which Jesus (or anybody else) might bring. Our dreams of a better world than the fractured one we now have challenge, chide and cajole us to open our hearts...roll up our sleeves, and get busy, BY JESUS, and do what we can (with others) to cudgel a kinder, holier creation into being. Yes, these are dangerous and tenuous times, many are our frustrations with the persistence of this world's tragedies and tears, and everyone knows this next century will be anything ideal and idyllic. But we Unitarian Universalists will cast our lot, thank you, with this old, flawed world, and all of God's imperfect children who fill it. We will (with gladness, diligence and heart) work here...now...with all our eternally imperfect human resources...to sketch as much of the outlines of heaven as we can along the old, weary face of earth.
So, my apocalyptic friends...spiritually stay here with us. Don't sit at home alone waiting for the rapture to carry you away from all the messiness of this world. Don't waste time gazing out your windows looking for the first sign of Jesus riding down on a pure white stallion to sweep all this away. He's not coming. He's already here in the message he left humanity during his lifetime...he's already given us everything he had to give: a fragile-but-universal vision of human dignity, decency, compassion and love that requires our participation if it is ever to bloom across the landscape of human life. Now it's up to us. Please don't spiritually withdraw waiting for something more. GET BUSY WITH US! Work with us (bringing us your worthy, time-tested Christian principles of compassion and care) to the scarred face of this tired old planet as we strive (all of us together) to fix and finesse, patch and protect, heal and help what we can. Let's get busy (hand in hand, even across our vast theological differences) to save and sanctify this holy imperfect world which has been so miraculously put in our hands. Please...see with us that (amidst the world's chaos and corruption) there is plenty of God and goodness right here...plenty. Please...believe that this old world - creaking as it is - still sings with abundant holiness and health. Please, get busy with us to save this astounding world...it's all we have...and it is holy.