It’s admittedly a little hard to know how to take this Matthew passage. Should I be reading it as some sort of an encouragement? Sounds more like a threat. What does it mean? My son Simon says it means we should avoid going anywhere in twos, and as much as possible aim for odd numbers instead (!)
This passage bugs me a little; because this is the first Sunday of Advent and this passage doesn’t necessarily fit in with what I understand and experience Jesus to be. It certainly doesn’t seem to set the tone for a sweet baby in a manger. I’m with Ricky Bobby in Talladega nights: there are definitely times when I like the 8lb 6oz baby Christmas Jesus best.
You may know that the fancy word for what we find in the Matthew passage is known as apocalyptic writing. We find apocalyptic writing in Old Testament in books like Isaiah, and Daniel, and Ezekiel, and even Job. The most familiar apocalyptic book for many of us is the New Testament book of Revelation. Apocalyptic writing in the Bible does not actually mean we’re supposed figure out the nastiest way the world might end, and then make a scary movie out of it. Or write the Left Behind series of 16 best-selling novels that Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins did. According to Wikipedia, the series has been adapted into three action thriller films, and inspired the PC game "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" and its sequel, "Left Behind: Tribulation Forces." ‘Nuff said.
So if that’s not the point of this apocalyptic stuff, what is? The word apocalypse, as used in the bible, means “unveiling.”The point of biblical apocalyptic writing is to enable readers to view their present situation from a completely (emphasis then on completely) different perspective.
In apocalyptic writing, we are being offered the alternative perspective of God’s own view. So perhaps apocalyptic writing should bug us a little, or at least give us pause.
My trusty Oxford Annotated NRSV makes the connection in our Matthew passage to other biblical apocalyptic writing, but then points out that what Jesus actually meant, however, is uncertain. Great - that’s very helpful.
As luck would have it, however, providence intervened. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s book The Contemplative Pastor. The book is on our reading list for the MCEC Tending the Soul retreats. In this book, Peterson argues that the three adjectives he thinks should clarify or modify the noun “pastor” are unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic. Hmm; unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic. Each one of these adjectives is a sermon in itself; but I want to think a bit about the adjective apocalyptic with you this morning in the way that Peterson thinks about it, because I think it gives us some insight into this scripture passage, which in turn (I hope) might give us some insight into our lives as we enter the advent season.
Two bits of clarification before we begin.
One: I think that Peterson’s adjectives - unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic - do not simply apply to the noun “pastor”. I think they apply to each one of us here, regardless of age or occupation. When I read Peterson, I applied them to “teacher.” You might think “parent” or “counselor” or “student” or “business owner” or “retiree” or “spouse” or “friend.”
Two: 2a) This will not be a hellfire and brimstone sermon, which I’m guessing might be of relief to some of you, and a mild disappointment to others. 2b) Point 2a does not mean it shouldn’t make us squirm a bit. It is arguable, after all, that we have gotten a bit comfortable with both a faith and a God that is rather ‘safe.’
Many of you are familiar with scene in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, where Susan asks the Beavers if Aslan, the great lion ruler of Narnia, is ‘safe.”
Mrs. Beaver says, "If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly."
Lucy asks, "Then he isn’t safe?"
And Mr. Beaver says "’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you."
‘Course he isn’t safe.
Peterson confesses that the adjective apocalyptic is not commonly found in company with the word pastor. In fact, he can’t remember ever hearing them in the same sentence. Pastors are supposed to be sort of comforting. Apocalyptic has a wild sound to it: an end-of-the-world craziness; a catastrophic urgency. The word is used when history seems out of control and ordinary life is hopeless … the word is scary and unsettling (p.39).
What’s this stuff doing in Scripture anyhow? Isn’t this exactly what gives Christians a bad name? Peterson points out that early church Christians believed that the resurrection of Jesus inaugurated a new age. They were in fact – but against appearances – living in God’s kingdom, a kingdom of truth, and healing and grace. This is apocalyptic by definition. Peterson argues that “Pastors are the persons in the church communities who repeat and insist on these kingdom realities against world appearances, and who therefore must be apocalyptic.” I would take that a step further and argue that we must all be apocalyptic people.
So what do apocalyptic people look like or do? Does the apocalyptic person get a sandwich board (or a Facebook site) and predict the end of the world? Do they read (let alone write) “Left Behind” novels? No. Ironically, when Peterson “lets the energy of the apocalyptic” define him as a pastor, his life simplifies into “prayer, poetry, and patience.” (p.41-42)
I want to spend a few moments to reflect briefly on each of these three characteristics of an apocalyptic people.
Peterson says “if we have even an inkling of apocalypse, it will be impossible to act like the jaunty foreman of a home-improvement work crew that is going to re-landscape moral (or immoral) garden spots. We must pray. The world has been invaded by God, and it is with God [that] we have to do” (p.43). I think Jesus’ words in Matthew get at this idea of invasion of kingdom realities, of being on the boundary of something utterly other. Another way to say this might be: Don’t sleep, work, shop, text, or otherwise anesthetize your life away; we must live in the awareness that there is much more to life than meets the eye.
Peterson goes on to say that the apocalyptic person “reads and assimilates the scriptures, (s)he reads and feels the impact of the daily news. But neither ancient scripture nor current event is left the way it arrives on (her) doorstep; it is all turned into prayer” (p42). In the book of Revelation, John did exactly this; “he lived at the boundary of the invisible world of the holy spirit and the visible world of the Romans; and on that boundary, he prays. Praying is a joining of realities, making a live connection between the place we find ourselves and the God who is finding us.”
Prayer is not passive or helpless or escapist. Instead, prayer is the most thoroughly present act we have as humans, and the most energetic: it sockets the immediate past into the immediate future and makes a flexible, living joint of them. We pay attention to God and lead others to pay attention to God. It hardly matters that so many people would rather pay attention to their standards of living, or their self-image, or their zeal to make a mark in the world. Apocalypse opens up the chasm of reality. The reality is God: worship or flee (p.44).
As we move into this advent season, I wonder if God might be calling us – personally and communally - to more deliberate acts of prayer and worship.
In addition to being people of prayer, apocalyptic people are patient. This seems counterintuitive ; if everything is falling apart (or going to hell in a handbasket), why not cut and run? Why not eat and drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die?
“Patient endurance … the hanging in there, the sticking it out – is one of the unexpected but most notable achievements of the apocalyptic.” (p.47)
I was listening recently to CBC and heard an interesting analysis of Canadian personal debt, which is now becoming more and more like our American neighbours by the minute. In other words, it’s bad. One could even say “apocalyptically bad.” According to the analyst our growing debt is the result of a basic lack of math knowledge and the inability of the average Canadian to understand (let alone calculate) simple and compound interest.
The teacher in me likes that answer quite a bit. But I suspect that might be a surface answer to a much deeper problem. Peterson suggests that “Apocalyptic that has no parentage in biblical sources or gospel commitments promotes “progeny of irresponsibility”. Hmm. Is it possible that our culture is producing offspring that cannot predict or appreciate long-term consequences of their current choices and actions? Are we beginning to develop a fundamental inability to take the long view, or see the big picture? If you ask me, this is way more disturbing than a lack of basic math skills (as bad as that may be).
In contrast, says Peterson, real apocalyptic vision – the ability to see things from God’s perspective - grows communities that are patient, courageously committed to witness and work in the kingdom of God no matter how long it takes, or how much it costs. In the book of Revelation, John is terrifically urgent, but he is not in a hurry. (p.47)
The reason St. John insists on patience is that he is dealing with the vast mysteries of God and the intricacies of the messy human condition. This, as you can imagine, is going to take some time. Apocalypse ignites a sense of urgency, but it quenches shortcuts and hurry, for the times are in God’s hands. Providence, not the newspaper, accounts for the times in which we live. (pp.48-49).
The Good News is rooted in language. God spoke a creation into being; our Saviour was the word made flesh. The poet, like God, is a person who uses words not primarily to convey information but to make a relationship, shape beauty, form truth. This was John’s work in that apocalyptic book of Revelation; this is all of our work. Peterson points out that if John’s Revelation is not read as a poem, it is virtually incomprehensible (a point the Left Behind authors may have missed).
Peterson acknowledges that not everyone writes poems or speak in rhymes, but we should treat words with reverence, stand in awe before not only the Word, but words, and realize that language itself partakes of the sacred (p.44).
At our first Tending the Soul retreat, Wendy Miller invited us to read Scripture not only for information, but for formation – in other words, we must let the text read us.
What does this mean? And why would we want to do this? Well, the Gospels are the gospels – the good news – not because they are a collection of morality tales - a kind of Aesop’s fables for the religiously minded – but because in the gospels we meet Christ. In the gospels, we don’t merely read information ABOUT Christ (although we clearly can do that, and even benefit from that). But the gospels are actually far more dangerous than that. For all of Christian history, the church has known and proclaimed that within the gospels, we come face to face with God, the creator of the universe, in the person of Jesus Christ.
But we like prose and our information and our facts. In our “information age” like might be an understatement. Already in 1989, Peterson could write “We live in an age obsessed with communication.” Communication, says Peterson, is good, but a minor good. Knowing about things never has seemed to improve our lives a great deal. The pastoral task with words is not communication but communion – the healing and restoration and creation of new love relationships between God and his fighting children and his fought-over creation. This, says Peterson, requires us to use words with the creative power of poetry. (p.46)
In the face of a culture and even a faith that has become prosaic, “a dose of apocalyptic stops us in mid-sentence.” We come face to face with “the power of the word to create faith; the force of imagination to resist the rationalism of evil, the necessity of shaping a people who speak and listen personally in worship and witness.” (p.46)
This is not a new idea, but it is a subversive one. Maya Angelou, in her introduction to a collection of James Weldon Johnson’s poetry writes, “I am convinced that the people survived brutish slavery and the brutality of segregation and racial injustices because they were able to write of their despair and even of their hope in songs. They were able to preach of dismay and dreams in their sermons.” (God’s Trombones, p. xxiii)
In 1927 James Weldon Johnson himself wrote “The Old-time Negro preacher … knew the secret of oratory, that at bottom it is a progression of rhythmic words more than anything else … He preached a personal and anthropomorphic God, a sure-enough heaven and a red-hot hell. His imagination was bold and unfettered … at such times his language was not prose, but poetry.” (pp.3-4).
The prophet Isaiah knew this well. His poetic, apocalyptic imagination allowed him to see and speak a reality dramatically different from the status quo – an astonishing vision of global peace that challenges us to this day.
In closing, I want to leave you with one of James Weldon Johnson’s poems called Listen, Lord – A prayer. It is confession; it is prayer, poetry, and patience brought together more eloquently than any prosaic sermon could hope to achieve. I invite you to close your eyes and allow your creative, prophetic imagination to pray with me.
O Lord, we come this morning
Knee-bowed and body-bent
Before Thy throne of grace.
O Lord--this morning--
Bow our hearts beneath our knees,
And our knees in some lonesome valley.
We come this morning--
Like empty pitchers to a full fountain,
With no merits of our own.
O Lord--open up a window of heaven,
And lean out far over the battlements of glory,
And listen this morning.
Lord, have mercy on proud and dying sinners--
Sinners hanging over the mouth of hell,
Who seem to love their distance well.
Lord--ride by this morning--
Mount Your milk-white horse,
And ride-a this morning--
And in Your ride, ride by old hell,
Ride by the dingy gates of hell,
And stop poor sinners in their headlong plunge.
And now, O Lord, this man of God,
Who breaks the bread of life this morning--
Shadow him in the hollow of Thy hand,
And keep him out of the gunshot of the devil.
Take him, Lord--this morning--
Wash him with hyssop inside and out,
Hang him up and drain him dry of sin.
Pin his ear to the wisdom-post,
And make his words sledge hammers of truth--
Beating on the iron heart of sin.
Lord God, this morning--
Put his eye to the telescope of eternity,
And let him look upon the paper walls of time.
Lord, turpentine his imagination,
Put perpetual motion in his arms,
Fill him full of the dynamite of Thy power,
Anoint him all over with the oil of Thy salvation,
And set his tongue on fire.
And now, O Lord--
When I've done drunk my last cup of sorrow--
When I've been called everything but a child of God--
When I'm done traveling up the rough side of the mountain--
When I start down the steep and slippery steps of death--
When this old world begins to rock beneath my feet--
Lower me to my dusty grave in peace
To wait for that great gittin'-up morning