Extinction and God's Revolution: A Covenanter Sermon by Kevin Annett
Our complete vision and program are found in our foundational declaration called Here We Stand: Summoning God’s People in a Time of Judgement, at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1974273474. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org . According to God’s purpose, Amen.
God’s Revolution: A Radical Reading of Scripture for Refugees from False Religion
First Sunday in Advent: December 1, 2019
Matthew 24 – Judgement is Near
Synopsis: Just when we had our Sunday hymnals and halos neatly arranged, the Good News turns out to be Bad. Divine judgement means exactly what it says: That’s All, Folks!
You may have noticed a global protest movement called Extinction Rebellion. It’s hard not to notice it, considering the instant mass media coverage it’s secured for its well-funded hysteria concerning so-called global warming and the end of the world. The slogan of this youth-led, fear-driven campaign is “We’re terrified!”.
To my aging eyes, Extinction Rebellion is a strange harkening-back to the climate of the 1980’s, when a renewed arms race and cold war had my youthful generation equally as terrified about a sudden nuclear Armageddon. For that matter, I could also compare the Extinction Rebels to the European Christians of the year 1000, who actively prepared for the end of the world and the return of Christ. Millenarian extinction thinking is as old as the Bible and as inherent to our Bible-derived culture as our fear of punishment from an all-powerful authority. Perhaps that’s why the Extinction Rebels are not very rebelliously calling on people to simply lobby their own governments to stop climate change and “save the world”.
The ending of the world is also the subject of today’s Gospel reading, taken from Matthew chapter 24. Jesus is in Jerusalem, chatting with his disciples who are overawed by the size and majesty of the Temple there.
“You see all this grandeur that impresses you?” Jesus says. “It’s all going to come down.” Bible scholars usually claim he’s prophesying and foreseeing the destruction of the Temple and all of Jerusalem in 66 AD by three Roman Legions. But there’s more to it than that. Jesus is forecasting an impending disaster for all of humanity. For he goes on to describe to his disciples the signs of the coming end of the world:
“You shall hear of wars, and rumors of wars … Nation shall rise against nation, there shall be famine, sickness, earthquakes”. And raining on their parade even more, Jesus warns his friends that rather than being honored, they’re going to be vilified and hated by everyone, and arrested and killed, and that betrayal and false prophecy and the growing cold of love will be the norm among all of humanity.
In other words, everything and everyone is going to fall apart.
In the face of this announcement, Jesus’ prescription and advice to his people is very real and personal: He tells them that if they endure to the end despite all this collapse, they will be saved. But first they must flee to the mountains, not tomorrow but immediately. Get out of the cities. Don’t stop for anything, just go, now. Nothing can save the world. Most important, they’re not to be fooled by anyone, by any false saviours or experts. For extinction is coming, not later but very soon, although no-one can know exactly when. The sun will grow dark and the stars and the moon will fall and even heaven will be shaken. The cosmos – a Greek word for “the world”, but which means everything and everyone everywhere - will be extinguished.
This personal advice from Jesus is for a reason. He tells them that he is going to return and gather the ones he has chosen, a few people he calls his Elect whom he will redeem, and with them will give birth to a new reality – something he calls the “kingdom of heaven”.
That expression is how it translates from the Greek words basilea tou theo. But in Jesus own Aramaic language it means “the realm of eternity”, which is the final joining of God with humanity, of heaven and earth.
That’s the essence of the Matthew 24 message: the world and all those in it will be destroyed and replaced by a new harmonious world seeded by a few pure, redeemed souls. There’s nothing to protest or rebel against, because it’s ordained, it’s a done deal. All people can do is get out of the system now and pray they’re worthy enough to be chosen for the new world. But that decision is not in their hands but caused by the free choice and grace of the mystery we call God.
When you think of it, this is a strange message with which to begin the official Christian year, which starts this Sunday, December 1: the first week in Advent. In fact, nothing of this message from Matthew 24 will be heard in any Christian church this Sunday. Instead, only a nicer, edited snippet at the end of the chapter will be read: the verses that say nothing about destruction and ending.
The Lectionary Gospel reading contains only verses 36 to 44, a brief “p.s.” that simply urges people to be faithful and to stay alert in order to receive Jesus. Like some autocratic medieval pope, the church leaders will allow their people to hear only that sanitized version of Mathew 24. No doubt they want to reassure the donors in the pews with a comfy message rather than talk of the end of their world. But you can see how easy it is for the church to distort and censor the truth: not only about its own crimes but even about divine truth.
You know, for a long time, and especially during my perdition years in seminary, I could never figure out this thing called the Christian Lectionary: those officially approved Bible readings for each Sunday, plucked randomly out of scripture by some clerical bright boy. If you want to understand the Bible, why not instead simply plow through it, one chapter after another? That approach, of course, would require taking scripture devoutly and seriously, on its terms, rather than selectively, on our own.
In fact, even the most religious people – and especially them - use the Bible for their own ends. Like any corporation, the Church’s bottom line has always been self-maintenance, not truthfulness. And so it’s hardly surprising that this cataclysmic message of the collapse of a Temple has been castrated and reshaped into some blithe advice that makes the End Times almost palatable. After all, what’s the frigging point of anything, let alone funding a church, when a final judgement and ending is about to descend on us? Better instead to begin with an upbeat, “positive” message for all those tithe-givers who keep today’s Temple running and themselves primed for the approaching mammon orgy called Christmas.
As one of my Vancouver School of Theology profs advised our first-year class of credulous seminarians,
“Like it or not, your job as clergy will be to maintain the church first and worry about everything else second”.
Some things never change - especially in Christendom. In the same way that Canadian church lawyers spun the Christian mass murder of Indian residential school children into a few mild cases of “abuse”, this Sunday the faithful flocks will be reassured by the modified reading that a final judgement will never happen to them: instead, they can make it through Armageddon if they just “stay alert” and wait for Jesus! Of course, whether “staying alert” simply means to not doze off during prayer time, or something more than that, is never explained. But one can’t be too specific when it comes to messages – or massages - for the pew sitters.
Okay, I hear you saying, big surprise: the real Biblical message has once again been edited down to nothing by the Official Christians in order to suit themselves. Hypocrites One, God Nothing, right? In fact, none of that matters, ultimately. For the Bible isn’t about humanity. It’s about the Eternal, and something my early Protestant ancestors called the Sovereignty of God. That’s really what’s at the heart of the complete, spiritual message in today’s reading from Matthew: people aren’t in charge at all. God is. And God’s way is not our way.
That’s a reality not obvious to many of us, since we’re numb to the truth from its being entombed in convention. God’s status as Number One is something everyone pays abstract and routine lip service to, and not just in church. Even the Canadian constitution boasts that the country is “founded on principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law”. I guess I missed something, eh?
In practice, God is treated by his alleged followers like the doddering Grandfather at the far end of the dinner table who everyone pretends to respect but in fact treats with a condescending indifference. That’s why one can almost hear an ironic snicker in Jesus’ voice when he announces in the full reading of Matthew 24, Hey guess what everyone! The old coot is about to kick over the entire dinner arrangement!
The simple fact about today’s Gospel message is that God has decided to end everything, and that ending will hit us when we least expect it: when all our arrangements seem fine and under control.
If there’s a single theme in the Bible it’s this: God holds sway over everything, including the worldly powers - over every king, every “pope”, every ruler, and over all their laws. God is the only sovereign: a fact that makes every human ruler and institution a rival to God and hence, a blasphemous power that cannot be obeyed or taken seriously by any Godly person. We owe our allegiance to God, not man.
Even more difficult for worldly people to stomach is that God’s sovereign governance is accompanied by an absolute liberty: God is free at any time to remake any arrangement, any Commandment, any religious dogma. We certainly get enough proof of that freedom when we look at the Bible in its totality and witness how God wipes out an irredeemable Sodom and Gomorrah one moment and then speaks of forgiveness and love in the next. In any one of us, that kind of behaviour would be labelled a dissociated neurosis. But divine justice has little if anything to do with our morality, any more than lightning chooses to strike only the evil doers.
God’s absolute freedom is not exactly good news for church goers, who are perched in the pews on Sundays not for God on God’s terms but for God on theirs. For example, I once asked my Port Alberni parishioners during a Bible study whether God would ever renege on his promise of salvation through Jesus Christ. The suggestion either shocked people or compelled them to emit a resounding “Never!”.
“But why not?” I’d say. “Something that’s living always changes. Only a dead idol doesn’t”. But my point eluded my congregants. They seemed to know the mystery better than it knows itself.
It’s always been that way when it comes to religion and its practitioners: reducing a living, divine presence like God, whose nature can never be understood, represented or manipulated, into an unchanging object. That kind of idolatry is something Jesus continually confronted and challenged, even violently, but especially in Matthew 24 when he blew apart the confident and idolatrous self-assurance of his disciples by announcing an impending divine judgement on God’s terms, not their own.
In the final analysis, there’s nothing wrong with endings: especially the ending of that which is wrong, corrupted or dying. But being raised in a culture that denies death and change, and resists both, we usually become hysterical when we see our own ending approach: like today’s desperate Extinction Rebels who seem capable of only one thing, being terrified. But of course, fear is always the first stage of dying, followed closely by denial.
I have seen this same process at work, whether at death beds or in our wider culture when I first exposed our homegrown war crimes. We have become the death we have inflicted on others, and yet we fearfully deny the evidence in front of us and within us. Eventually the truth will no longer be able to be dismissed, and we will have the chance to learn to accept a higher truth, that our time as a sick and destructive society is over. The ending is upon us now. All the Temples are falling and will fall.
Can something of the best in us survive the destruction that is upon us? Today’s Gospel reading says yes, possibly. But that choice is not in our hands, but in God’s. What matters for us is not surviving and being safe, but being true, and remaining true. And that of course is the hidden and higher purpose behind every personal or group cataclysm: that we can come to know the truth, and we can be changed by it.