In the beginning was the apocalypse.
One of the weirdest things in church (and there are a lot of weird things to choose from in church) is that the church year always begins with apocalypse. The long season that we call ordinary time comes to an end, a new church year and the season that we call Advent begins, we start reading a new Gospel (sometimes Luke; sometimes Matthew; this year, Mark), and, regardless of which Gospel we’re in, we hear Jesus talk about apocalypse.
Maybe because of action movies and the Left Behind books, a lot of us have this picture of apocalypse as stuff blowing up. And to some extent that is Biblical – Jesus does talk about radical things happening around us, the sun being darkened, the stars falling from heaven. But to a larger extent apocalypse as explosion and folks being sucked into the sky is a latter invention, kind of like our understanding of hell is less about the Bible and way more about Dante.
The word apocalypse – at least as we find it in the Bible – actually doesn’t mean “everything blows up.” It means revelation or uncovering. So, the final chapter of the collection of books that we call the Bible is entitled The Apocalypse of John or The Revelation of John. We could totally legitimately translate it as The Unveiling of John. When a magician does one of those tricks in which they whip a sheet off of something and that something is changed, instead of
they could say
Now, when something is unveiled sometimes it is like an explosion, sometimes you really do say, Oh no! I’m a fan of horror films, and I know that the unveiling is often the moment when you jump a mile out of your seat. But unveiling is sometimes also the moment when you say:
Here is the American playwright, Thornton Wilder. Wilder says:
This is the way things are. I have always known it without being fully aware that I knew it. Now in the presence of this play or novel or poem (or picture or piece of music) I know that I know it.
That is apocalypse. That is revelation. That is unveiling. Wilder is talking specifically about apocalypse via art, but we would not have to change his sentence at all to make it apply to service, to learning, to prayer, to connective laughter, to grief, to ecstasy, the list goes on.
In the presence of this experience, this encounter, something is unveiled. I know that I know. Apocalypse. Ta Da! Aha!
That Oh no reminds us that apocalypse is not always comfortable or easy. This knowing – this knowing that you know – sometimes it really is like the sun darkening and the stars falling from the sky. The wonderful contemporary theologian David Dark makes the case that we are living in an apocalypse moment in America right now. For a lot of white folks, for instance, we had this vague idea that racism in America was a problem, that Black folks were not imagining things when they told us that were treated utterly differently by the police and by doctors and by banks. But via the Black Lives Matter protests of this year, many white folks were motivated to do work like the Sacred Ground program that Grace is doing right now. And now that we know that we know – or at least, we are beginning to do.
Apocalypse. This unveiling is hard.
Dark gives another example. He talks about when the pandemic kicked in and folks who work at grocery stores got declared essential workers, and he learned that lots of people who stock lots of shelves don’t get sick leave. I am reminded of my own experience, a few years ago, when we hosted a speaker as part of the movement to raise the minimum wage in Oregon to fifteen dollars an hour. You may remember the woman who came to speak here at Grace. She was a Southwest Airlines employee. And prior to that moment, if you’d asked me to describe an airline worker, I would have said: probably unionised, probably pretty good benefits, probably a retirement plan.
The person who came to speak here was routinely choosing between buying groceries and getting health care.
Apocalypse. This unveiling is hard.
One of the things that makes apocalypse hard is that, once the unveiling happens, it’s hard to go back to how you were before. You can try. Even after you learn about how hard it is to get access to mental health and addiction services, about how domestic violence puts a crack in your life that you can never entirely glue back together, you can keep on telling stories about how the people sleeping on the street just need to pull harder on their bootstraps. But after the apocalypse, those stories kind of feel like lies. They feel like lies that you are telling to yourself and telling to Jesus.
And in this respect, the idea that apocalypse is the end of the world suddenly isn’t wrong. When you see this stuff, the world as it used to be is unavailable to you anymore. This is like when you first realise that your parents are fallible, this is like when Adam and Eve bite into that fruit. You can’t go back to how things were.
I have always known without being fully aware. Know I know that I know.
And while that is hard news it is also good news. Slavery comes to an end when there is an apocalypse and too many people realise that they can no longer tell self-soothing lies about how it is a benign or kindly institution. Women get the vote when there is an apocalypse and too many people realise that they are living with institutionalised misogyny. The Berlin Wall falls when there is an apocalypse and a whole lot of people know when they always knew, that the wall wasn’t keeping the invading hordes out but was keeping everyone inside from being free.
There were ways in which all of these apocalypses felt like Oh no moments in their time. Historians remind us that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not all that popular in the 1960s: he was unveiling stuff that people didn’t want to see. But Dr. King’s work and these other apocalypses: they look a little bit like the coming of the Kingdom now.
What apocalypses do we need today? What do we need unveiled? What do we need to see in a way that, once seen, we cannot go back? Maybe we need to see that celebrating as the Dow hits 30,000 while people in this country go hungry is an obscenity. Maybe we need to see that the accumulation of stuff as the world gets hotter and burns is an act of desecration, an act of vandalism against God’s creation. Maybe we need to see that our worship of guns means that we have our fingers crossed when we worship Jesus?
None of these apocalypses are easy. They, all of them, feel a bit like the sun going dark and the stars falling. But if Jesus is with us – and Jesus is with us – then the dark sun never gets to be the last word, Oh no never gets to be the last word. With God’s help, Oh no will become Ah ha which will become Ta Da!
Jesus is unveiling something new.
I started by saying, In the beginning was the apocalypse. But maybe that’s backwards. Maybe what is really true is this:
There is apocalypse. And then. Then things begin.