The Sunday Sermon: Rethinking Apocalypses

Rev. Richard Hogue Jr.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
11/28/2021

Good morning, and a happy church new year! This is the first day of the church’s new cycle of readings through scripture, as Penny described in her sermon last Sunday. For those who aren’t familiar, we are now in the season of Advent, a period of a month that is the season prior to Christmas. And yes, the Christmas season begins on Christmas day, and lasts for the following 12 days until Epiphany on January 6th. Don’t let the commercial retail world confuse you!

Advent marks the beginning of the new church year, and since we are entering Year C, we read through the Gospel of Luke more than any other, and we hear a great deal from the prophets of Hebrew Scripture. But Advent isn’t merely a time of liturgical change-over. You can hear it in our readings this morning, a sense of something, something changing. Certainly, in Jesus’ words from this passage of Luke’s gospel, you even get a sense of apocalypticism. But I want to be clear that when I use the words “apocalyptic” or “apocalypticism” we aren’t merely talking about the catastrophic end of the world. I do mean the end of the current cosmic order, but it’s not necessarily bleak, because the end of one dominion can lead to restoration, of relationships, or power dynamics, and even healing.

In my first sermon with you all I described my experience growing up in a school that was Biblically fundamentalist, believing in the inerrancy of Scripture, and its turn in my time toward Pentecostalism. This was also the period of heightened popularity of literature like “The Left Behind” series, which was all about theological projections like the rapture. The rapture is the idea that when the end is truly nigh God will take up all the truly faithful instantaneously  and without warning to spare them the desperation and despair of the earth’s final days. In the imagination of some it looks like people utterly disappearing, leaving behind a neatly folded pile of clothes, or something the like. Never mind that none of this is spelled out in Scripture, either by Jesus or the oft quoted and baffling book of Revelation.

These ideas permeate our popular culture and get expressed in interesting ways. Often when we hear the word “apocalypse” now it occupies the same space in our brains that a Michael Bay movie might. There’s thunderous explosions, cataclysmic destruction, and utter devastation. Millions of people disappear in an instant, and then a few survivors become heroes as they scramble to survive. It’s abrupt, uncontrollable, and resets the world order. That last point, the resetting of the world order, is straight to the point of what Jesus’ might be saying in our Lukan gospel passage. The rest would merely be signs of this rebirth, rather than harbingers of doom.

Still, in my youth, portions of scripture like this were used to debate the sequence of events by which we would know the end is near. There is an entire cottage industry of work on this, as you may be aware. There’s even investigation of “the Bible code” which seeks to use Scripture as a sort of Rosetta’s Stone for anticipating future events, treating Scripture more as a crossword puzzle than a spiritual literary collection. I remember watching videos about during a particularly lazy Bible class we had one morning, and part of the validation for this “Bible code” is that somewhere you can circle the crossword and can translate the phrase, “Hitler, bad man” from the ancient Hebrew.

This isn’t mere theological horse play though, as there are entire segments of our fellow Christians who believe in this so much that they use it as a method by which to engage society, be it at the voting booth or in personal financial decisions. For instance, back in 2003, it was clear for those I went to school with that the invasion of Iraq, regardless of its efficacy in terms of foreign policy, was part of a domino to fall in the march towards the rapture and the end of the world. Therefore, whether the initial reasons for going were valid or not, it was a sacrosanct duty.

For my part, this was never something I trusted in, and certainly wouldn’t make any life altering choices based of the much anticipated end. My nascent understanding of the climate crisis and the still looming possibility of nuclear holocaust were enough. These realities required no divine meddling for the end to come. Though I remained faithful to the Episcopal Church and certainly was deeply engaged with Scripture, I came to a sort of agnosticism in my high school years. I did not reject faith, and I certainly said the words of the Nicene Creed Sunday-in-and-Sunday-out. But my God at the time felt distant, if at all knowable, and instead I found meaning in community, being fed spiritually by the eucharist as a form of self-renewal rather than as an act of faithfulness. To be sure, they are not mutually exclusive, I just wanted no part of any perceived divine plans.

It wasn’t until I was in college, free of the theological moorings I had grown up with in the classroom, that I really got to learn about the shape of my faith. We had a great religion department at Wabash College, a small, all male, liberal arts college in Indiana. While Wabash is a secular institution, it is indelibly marked by it’s Presbyterian heritage, with a pioneer style chapel that is unadorned and unassuming inside, its beauty was one of simplicity. And, we had several presbyterian ministers and theologians in the department.

Say what you want about John Calvin and Calvinists, but I respect the Presbyterian tradition for its willingness to fully engage scripture critically, and train their ministers to think deeply and take nothing for granted in their study of Scripture. This was true in our department, and it extended to teachings on church history and theology. My first semester I remember taking a class with Dr. William Placher, who would later be my faculty advisor, who was himself an ordained Presbyterian minister. I don’t remember how exactly, but he led me to my first true theological love: Origen of Alexandria.

What I found in Origen was a kindred soul in the earliest centuries of the Church body. His own first love was Scripture, and he came up with at least three ways to interpret every passage of Scripture. I want to be clear on one point before I say anything else, Origen is still considered one of the greatest theologians to ever have lived, and to some extent, was really the first true theologian of the church. All who have come after him, whether directly or indirectly, live in his foundations. But even in his own time he was questioned about his orthodoxy, and still is by many today. While he’s never been named a heretic, he’s not been named a “father of the church” either. Just skimming Origen’s Wikipedia page will give you a sense of that. His mind was massively complex and held so many things in balance that there is still an issue to this day of some aspects of his beliefs being emphasized at the expense of others.

To wit, I’ll name what I discovered and still love most about Origen: he was, in his own particular way, a universalist. This means he believed God would redeem everyone, and not just every human, but the totality of Creation, even Lucifer himself, total universal salvation. Origen felt this would occur through God’s own will, and that the world would begin and end continually until everything and everyone chose to come home to God. He gave this continuous cycle of creation and destruction moving towards oneness with God a name: ἀποκατάστασις. It is one of a number of Origen’s theological positions that got him in a bit of trouble with those we do deem as “church fathers.”

I loved this concept, both for its cosmic imagination but also for its willingness to see the world and God’s movements in it as continually regenerative, since death is never the last word in this framework. Indeed, I find a great deal of solace when I think about the words Jesus speaks in our gospel passage for today, as it sets on a course for renewal rather than destruction. It makes Jesus’ message of the fig tree feel much more meaningful, as cycles of decline and rebirth aren’t finite, but perpetual. And it makes the disciple who is listening actually contemplate the part they play in all this as an active participant, rather than as a mere object without agency in the face of the universe.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Jesus is asking us to pay attention, to be alert, to be praying and living in a world where we might encounter Jesus at any time. Indeed, Advent is the symbol of just such a time. As days get shorter and nights get longer here in the Northern hemisphere, and we enter a season of holidays which often bring sadness for those who have lost loved ones, you can feel the heaviness of it. Despite the constant upbeat commercials blaring Christmas music unseasonably early, we know that no amount of saccharin retail therapy can ever completely fill the holes in our lives we all feel so acutely at this time of year.

And yet, this is also a time of hope. Advent isn’t just about the end of the things we know; it is about the possibilities of what’s new coming to life in the ashes of the old. It’s not like a phoenix, because a phoenix is the same bird. What Advent points us towards is the astonishing newness of possibilities with God. In many ways, Advent is the seasonal sign of the ἀποκατάστασις, God attempting to reach us over, and over, and over again.

And let’s not forget where and when Jesus is saying these things in the Gospel of Luke. He’s at the Temple in Jerusalem, a day or two before Passover begins. Passover itself is the marking of the end of one order of the world and the entrance into something new, which can be scary. The Israelites fled the armies of Pharoah through the Red Sea to find themselves searching for food in their freedom.

As our individual lives and our societal lives continue to experience endings and new beginnings, one era passing into another, let us never forget that this a process of renewal that follows decline, and that God creates hope in the unlikeliest of places. New things must gestate in darkness, how else would something vulnerable grow into something amazing and wonderful? May we be alert enough to see and hear what new things God is doing in us and around us!

Amen.

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