Monday, May 23, 2011

The End is (still) Near

1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:6
Luke 17:31-36
Acts 1:7

The latest apocalyptic prediction has come and gone, and there are some dejected Christians somewhere in the USA wondering what went wrong. It really is very simple: we misunderstand the meaning of Scripture because we are inclined to read literally what we should understand theologically; that is, what connects humanity to the divine. And what I mean by this is that what we read in Holy Scripture can only be fully understood - especially given our human limitations - according to the words written on a page within an appropriate context. Often the theological implications get past us because we tend to apply what we read not to the whole Church Universal but only to our special and specific circumstances. We typically hear what we want to hear, and we typically believe what we have been oriented and taught to believe. Not insignificantly, we also tend to believe what we want to believe.

So there is (or was) a group of Christians willing to believe and follow one man to the ends of the earth to let it be known that according to this man's biblical (and perhaps mathematical) calculations, the Rapture was to have occurred May 21 at 6pm, and that 6pm was to have occurred not simultaneously but rather in each individual time zone. Now I am no biblical scholar and do not claim to know each and every syllable and nuance expressed in all the writings, but I do not recall that there is anything which comes close to suggesting that the Rapture - if that's what it is - will come in stages, specifically in this case at each hour in each time zone across the world. Such, however, is the limited mind of the human person regardless of the measure of one's faith. The trick is knowing where and when to jump off.

This man made a similar prediction back in 1994 but once that date had passed, he simply went back to the drawing board and apparently discovered a miscalculation. He stood by his initial claim, of course, because he also claims to have used similar biblical data to predict the 1948 emergence of the state of Israel. I've not seen his data or his calculations and have no concept of how he could have arrived at such conclusions - and I probably couldn't understand it if it were placed right in front of me, not if it involved algebra! - but there is that one troublesome spot of biblical knowledge I do have. Jesus said, and it is recorded more than once, that this time of certain prophecy is "not for you to know".

In that single yet profound statement is more than just a point of knowledge, however. I think perhaps Jesus is saying much more than just, "It's none of your business." There has to be more to it in order for it to mean something to us beyond mere words on a page, and the nuance or variation between what is written on a page and what is imparted by divine wisdom may be as broad as the difference between night and day. If Jesus is saying something, He is TEACHING something that cannot be overlooked. I think it is that teaching which got past this man and his crew who were willing to believe him so much so that they sold all they had and trekked around the country in their willingness to subject themselves to so much ridicule.

I admit I got caught up in the satire and sarcasm just as I have so often before whenever I encounter some doctrine that seems to have come from nowhere, but upon reflection I wonder if I have diminished what Jesus is teaching us by making fun of someone else's interpretation.

Though we are prohibited from passing judgment on others, we are equally charged with "testing the spirits" and judging what is being put forth by those who claim to be speaking on behalf of the Lord. It is a lot about what I offered in an earlier sermon as it pertains to our religious heritage. Just as we are forbidden to judge others, we are equally prohibited in making things up without at least an acknowledgment of our past. The Lord speaks plainly to Joshua in telling him that all he would need to know has already been revealed in Torah, the Law of Moses. Joshua was told in no uncertain terms that he was not to "turn to the left or to the right" (do not add to or take away from what has already been revealed). The Lord makes the same statement in the Revelation.

I do not know anyone personally who took this man's apocalyptic prediction seriously, and in all news accounts I am not aware of any others outside of his own circle who did believe him. What I do know is that even though a human's prediction based on his own scriptural interpretation was proved to be less than accurate, the Word of the Lord itself remains substantially intact. The Lord IS coming back. Exactly how He will return, whether Scripture can be taken literally, is anyone's guess. The matter and manner of His return is perhaps the ONLY thing we can quibble about because there are passages that describe His return.

It is not nearly as important HOW or WHEN He will return; only that He will; this is the theological implication. And those who will hear Him when He does return will be the "sheep" referred to in John 10, the ones who will recognize the Voice of the Shepherd and enter by the common Gate. And these will be the ones who have been listening all along the way, choosing not to stray from the Shepherd in search of greener pastures each to one's own pleasing and choosing.

But back to this person's prediction. It failed. He was wrong. Or was he? A Christian I am acquainted with commented that if this man had been correct, she would have preferred to have been left behind. It was then when I realized that our having made fun of this man perhaps went a little too far, not unlike his prediction. He was only wrong in timing and his theology is quite shaky in that he believes - or believed - there are "secret" clues or that Jesus was perhaps "wrong" in suggesting "no one is to know", but he is not incorrect in that the Day of the Lord will come and that this Day will be a day of great joy for the faithful! I never got any "gloom and doom" from his or his followers' nuances. They spread the word as eagerly as the apostles did in the early days of the Church. What does this say to us now?

I am not trying to vindicate this man - and I don't think I can - because he went too far in presenting himself as a (false) prophet with knowledge directly from the Lord which was in direct contradiction to what is written in Scripture. But there was a stark difference between his message of hope and deliverance and the messages spread by such persons as Terry Jones and Fred Phelps. They do not speak of eager anticipation except by their belief that some will be condemned. Their theology is more of a "believe it or else" because they both seem to take a very strange and perverse joy in the knowledge that some are destined for condemnation.

In the end, however, Jesus' message about the timing and whether we even need to know stands as a stark reminder of what we have been entrusted with, which is the Gospel. This is the Good News in which Christ invites all of humanity into an intimate relationship with the Holy Father. He came to reveal to us the reality of the Almighty who yearns for a relationship with His creation. And even though the Bible encourages us to work out our salvation with "fear and trembling", we are also called to so much more because it is not about saving one's own cheese. It is about bringing guests to the Heavenly Banquet when the Bridegroom returns for His Bride, the Holy Church. It's the Good Stuff, dear friends, for you and for me ... and for our unbelieving neighbors. To the Glory of the Holy God. Amen.

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