Sermon: How to Survive an Apocalypse

Luke 21:5-19

On the morning that I had set aside to begin this sermon, I kept not getting to it because I kept getting news of people dying. One was Kent Barnes’ father, who death was somewhat expected and was, in many respects, a mercy. But another one was Karen Bennett’s brother-in-law, who had gone into surgery for a minor operation and died a few days later, for reasons that are still unclear. He was 68. I had met Mike when I officiated Karen and Peter’s wedding and at the memorial service for Karen’s father. Mike was a physically big man with an even bigger presence, the kind of presence we call “commanding.” I told Karen that I couldn’t remember his face, but I remembered how much energetic space he took up during the reception after the memorial. “That’s Mike,” Karen said. And she paused. “It’s implausible that he’s not here anymore.” 

I think every death is an implausibility. My experience is that even when someone dies expectedly as opposed to unexpectedly, even when you know their death is going to happen and have been praying for this mercy, when they actually die, you say to yourself,  “What just happened? They were here and now they’re not? That’s implausible.”

I took these two deaths on the morning I was going to begin this sermon as a sign that it would be good for us to begin reflecting on this Luke passage from this place of contemplating the implausible. Because that is where Luke begins. In the first verse of the passage,  people around Jesus are talking about this grand temple in Jerusalem, which also has a commanding presence, admiring it, saying how awesome it is. Now, Jerome and I have this pet peeve — we believe the word “awesome” is way overused. We were recently at a gala for a non-profit that our friend is on the board of, and there were lots of speeches, during which we heard perhaps two dozen uses of the word “awesome.” It was awesome that people had donated a red velvet cake to be auctioned off and it was awesome that someone paid $1000 for that cake and it was awesome that that $1000 was going towards this really awesome program. You get the picture.

But, the temple that Jesus’ friends are talking about really was awesome, as in truly awe-inspiring. It had recently been completely rebuilt by Herod the Great, and it was an architectural marvel of the ancient world. According to writer Debi Thomas, its retaining walls were made of stones forty feet long. It sat on a platform four times bigger than the Acropolis in Athens. It’s said that Herod used so much gold to cover the outside walls that anyone who looked at them in bright sunlight risked blinding herself. I think even we would find that building awesome. Salesforce Tower? Whatever. Those dancing people at the top? Whatever.

So, people are admiring the grandeur of the Temple and Jesus says, “You see this awesome building? The day is going to come when not one stone will be left upon another; it is all coming down.” This would have been completely implausible to the hearers of this. It would have been like being in New York City on any day before Sept. 11, 2001, and looking at the Twin Towers and saying to the person beside you, “The day is coming when those towers will be gone, they will fall to the ground, destroyed completely and there will be a hole in the sky where they were.”  What are you talking about?  Like us, Jesus’ followers see the commanding presence of these awesome structures and see permanence and glory. Jesus, as Thomas says, looks at the commanding presence of these structures and sees “Fragility, not permanence; loss, not glory; change, not stasis.”

Jesus, like all prophets, has apocalyptic vision. It’s sort of like x-ray vision or night vision — it’s a superpower, one belonging specifically to prophets. Now, I’m not saying here that Jesus has the ability to predict the sort of end-of-the-world apocalypse we often think of when we think of that word. In our popular culture, apocalypse brings to mind to zombie hordes or a post-nuclear wasteland or that Marvel Comic dude who kills half of the earth’s population. 

In the Bible, apocalypse means something quite different — it means a revelation, a disclosure, an unveiling. It means to see what’s really happening underneath the illusions a society holds. It means to see what is in the shadows, where few people can see or even think to look. What Jesus sees with his apocalyptic vision is that this temple, which seems so permanent, is actually as vulnerable as anything else built by human hands.  And in fact, that Temple was completely destroyed by the Roman army in 70 A.D.; Herod the Great’s great temple only stood for about 60 years in the end.

We live in apocalyptic times. I don’t mean the zombie hordes are coming, and I don’t even mean that the end of the world is coming. I mean that we live in times when something is being revealed, unveiled, disclosed; when what was in the shadows for some of us — especially those of us who are more privileged — is being brought out into the open. More and more of us are seeing that our economic system is built on exploitation of people and the planet, that it is not sustainable and that something has to change if we don’t want a world of endless wildfires and endless encampments of the unhoused. More and more of us are seeing the foundation of racism and white supremacy that our country was built on and its continuing impacts and the repair that needs to happen if we are to be healed. More and more of us are seeing that materialism and consumerism and individualism and technology are not giving us “the good life” but are instead making us spiritually disconnected and empty and addicted. Oddly enough, a lot of this unveiling is happening because of the person in the White House, who is — I believe — the personification of the collective shadow of this country writ so large that we can’t help but see this shadow aspect of ourselves. We are receiving the gift of apocalyptic vision.

With this gift of apocalyptic vision comes awareness of the impermanence of the Temple of our current technological civilization. Some of us are beginning to see how fragile it is, how it probably won’t and can’t last forever or even for very much longer. And some of us are wondering “How will we live if those walls are thrown down, when not one stone will be left upon another?” 

Fortunately, the Bible is a handbook for how to survive through times of collapse. As I said two Sundays ago, the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures is a story of a people coming to grips with the fact that their world collapsed when their sacred city of Jerusalem was destroyed, and they were forced into exile. And much of the New Testament is written after the second collapse of the city of Jerusalem, when Herod’s Temple was destroyed. In fact, this book of Luke was put into its final form post-collapse, probably about 15 years after the Temple’s destruction.

So what advice does Luke give us for living through tough times? The first and most important lesson: “Do not be terrified.” “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified,” says Luke. One Scripture scholar I like to consult translated “wars and insurrections” more accurately, he thought, as “polemics and disorder.” When you hear of polemics and disorder, do not be terrified.” Polemics and disorder — isn’t that just what we’ve been living through the last two years? Interestingly, the Greek word for “terrified” used here comes from a root that means “to fly” or to “flutter” — like when someone who is scared “flies off” into unrealistic, irrational behavior; when someone becomes almost disassociated, psychologically detached from reality. To be terrified in this way suggests the opposite of apocalyptic vision — instead of seeing reality clearly, terror makes the person flee from that reality into unrealistic behavior. 

So don’t, says Luke, be led astray and follow after imposters who “preach alluring gospels of fear, resentment and hatred.” (Thomas). Be prepared for the fact that some people close to you might lose it and betray you, as they give in to the polarization and hysteria of the times. When you are called upon to testify to the truth as you see it, don’t prepare in advance what to say to defend your truth but allow the Spirit of wisdom to guide you in the moment; trust that that Wisdom will give you the words with which to speak. I hear this advice as meaning that instead of “armoring up” with carefully thought through defenses, we are go to into these conversational battles intellectually unarmed, ready to be guided by a greater Wisdom. I think of how many of us may be facing these sorts of conversations as we gather with family soon over the Thanksgiving table. There’s a real giving up of control there that is hard for many of us to do in any time.

Thomas summarizes the advice from Luke: “Expect things to get hard. And then expect them to get harder. Endure even when they do. Know that God is near, no matter what the world looks or feels like. Speak the truth, trusting that God’s Spirit is alive and present in our acts of bearing witness. Be faithful until the end, because God is still — always and everywhere — a God of love.”

When I read that, I thought of a story my friend Ann told me about a recent conversation she had with her neighbor, Pat. Pat had a brother who was a bit of a drifter, who never held down a steady job, who didn’t eat well or take good care of himself. He was living in her basement for years and, for years, she worried about him, his finances, his health. Their parents had died and there weren’t any other siblings, and so his life was in her hands. And her mind would go to all sorts of worst case scenarios about what might happen to him — he might have a stroke and she would end up being his long-term caregiver and how was that going to work with her work and family life? How could she plan for that now? What could she do to avert it happening? 

And then, one day, Pat’s brother died suddenly of a heart attack. He was here, and then he was not. Pat told my friend that she went through an intense period of grief — not just because he had died but because she realized how much time and energy she had wasted worrying, living in fear of all the “what ifs.” She told Ann, “I wish I had quit worrying and just loved him more.” 

I think that’s a great summary of this advice from Luke about how to survive an apocalypse, an unveiling: Worry less, love more. Yes, we live with a large amount of uncertainty, impermanence. We don’t know what the future will bring — a loved one might go into surgery and not come out; that building might fall; the fires might continue to burn; our systems might collapse. Worry less, love more. Love those God has given you to love — your family, your friends, this community, the neighbor far away and the stranger near at hand. Love your dog; love the land on which you live. Love that tree. Love those people dancing at the top of the Salesforce Tower. Find what you love specifically and then think of ways to love it even more. May our love also be what is unveiled in this time of apocalypse. Amen.