Theology Sermon #8—Isa 2:2-4; Ps 46:1-10; Luke 16:19-31; Rev 21:22-26
Ted Grimsrud—January 6, 2008—Shalom Mennonite Congregation
Word association: end times, eschatology
Next year, I plan to teach a new class at EMU—I’m calling it “The End Times.” Now, I have to confess that I may be a little devious in doing that. I will be operating a kind of bait and switch. I expect to attract some students who want a class that will discuss the “Left Behind” scenarios—when’s the Rapture going to be? When exactly is Christ coming back? When and how is all that biblical prophecy going to be fulfilled?
Such students, when they take the “End Times” bait might be disappointed when I do a kind of switch and propose a different view of eschatology. The class will indeed be on “eschatology,” the doctrine of the “end times.” But it will be “eschatology as if Jesus matters,” not eschatology as if our fortune telling curiosity matters. I will present a very different take on eschatology than the future-prophetic views so popular with TV preachers and best-selling “contemporary Christian” books.
Remember the basic approach I have been taking in my monthly sermons this past year and a half on “theology as if Jesus matters.” I believe that authentic Christian theology is about gaining clarity on our values—what matters the most for us who seek to follow Jesus? The values that shape our actual lives reveal more than anything else what our “God” is like.
If we look at Jesus’ own life and teaching, we won’t find a clearer statement of his hierarchy of values than his concise summary of the law and prophets: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul—and, likewise, you shall love your neighbor as you love your own self. This love of God and neighbor (and we must keep in mind how broadly Jesus defined “neighbor”: our neighbors include our enemies), this love of God and neighbor is why we are here. This love of God and neighbor is what matters the most. That is to say, the “end” that matters is our purpose for being here not any knowledge we might think we have about future events. Our purpose is to love—that purpose is the eschatological theme that is central if we do eschatology as if Jesus matters.
My main point this morning is that in the Bible (and I want to propose, for us today) the reason for talking about the “end of the world” and the “end times” is not to focus on what is going to happen to the world in the future. Rather, to talk about the “end of the world” biblically points us to the purpose of the world. Or, more directly, our purpose in living in the world.
The word “end”, of course, can have two very different meanings. One is, “the last part, final point, finish, conclusion.” In this sense, “the end of the world” is something future and has to do with the world ceasing to exist. The other meaning, though, is “what is desired or hoped for; purpose; intention.” “End of the world,” in this sense, is, we could say, what God intends the world to be for. Why is the world here and why are we here and what are we to be about? So, the “end times” have to do with why we live in time, here and now.
A long time ago, in the years right after I became a Christian as a teenager, I thought of the “end times” strictly in terms of the future and how things will conclude. I looked for the soon return of Christ—and would have been shocked to be still living in the 21st century. When I was in college in the mid-1970s, I quite seriously contemplated dropping out. Seriously. Why should I work at preparing for the future when the future wasn’t going to come? (I have to say now that I am glad more college students today don’t think this way, because if they did I probably wouldn’t have a job!)
In those days, I basically welcomed the development of nuclear weapons, I welcomed the conflicts in the Middle East, I welcomed the likelihood of war with the Soviet Union and possibly also China. I welcomed wars and rumors of wars. These things all meant that the second coming was at hand. The “end of the world” was coming soon, and in that I rejoiced.
At some point, though, I realized that what I was welcoming, actually, was incredible human suffering and the destruction of animals and plants; what I was welcoming was unprecedented death and bloodshed; what I was welcoming was, in a word, extreme evil. And, I was understanding God to be the agent of this evil. In this view, God’s purposes could only be worked out, I realized, by God killing human beings and all other living creatures on an unimaginable level.
When my eyes were opened, I recoiled at my old worldview. But it has taken many years since then to think through these issues more, and to decide that I don’t need to reject the Bible’s understanding of the “end of the world”, but I need to reject the lenses I had been given as a young Christian for reading the Bible.
I do not fully understand how this view of the “end of the world” as the destruction of the world came to dominate Christian thinking. However, as with many problems in the so-called Christian worldview (such as seeing God as punitive, such as supporting so-called just wars; such as viewing human beings as corrupted by original sin), I suspect that the “Doctor of the Church”, Augustine of Hippo, had something to do with it.
Augustine’s great fifth-century book was called The City of God. He grafts Greek philosophy onto biblical theology and comes up with a notion of heaven (the “city of God”) as something outside of time and history, future, other-worldly. This city, “heaven”, is sharply distinguished from the world we live in, from historical life in the here and now (the “city of man”). For Augustine, life in history is characterized by brutality, sinfulness, and the struggle for power.
This disjunction between heaven and life in the here and now, the split between heaven and history, led to a notion of Christian hope that focused, in effect, on the destruction of this world. Genuine salvation requires an escape from this life to heaven and eternity and something totally different and separate.
Life on earth is nasty, brutish, and short. The end of the world is coming (thank God), and the sooner the better. It is tragically ironic that the worldview which looks to the future for salvation and achievement of heaven, in the present tends to justify violence and punishment and domination—and uses the Bible to support all of this. This worldview fosters the self-fulfilling prophecy—since we believe that life in the here and now is nasty, brutish, violent, and short, we act to make it so—as Augustine and so many other Christians since have in supporting death-dealing violence toward heretics, pagans, and criminals.
Well, (to borrow Howard Zehr’s metaphor) what if we change our lenses? What if we look at the Bible and at the world differently? I discovered a Freudian typo a while ago. A typist somewhere thought of a different metaphor in a published bibliography, citing Howard’s book as “Changing Lanes” instead of “Changing Lenses.” I think that image also works, though. To push the metaphor, what if we changed lanes and exited this six lane interstate of the Western, anti-creation worldview. What if we got on a local road where we could see the world more how it really is and realize that our key question is not about the future destruction of the world but about our purpose in the here and now?
I am believing more and more that the biblical worldview was corrupted by the Augustinian fusion of Greek philosophy and the Bible. The biblical worldview has much more in common not with our modern western worldview but with the worldview of the very cultures western civilization has sought to stamp out.
This other worldview has been identified by recent writers variously as “primal”, “aboriginal”, and “indigenous”. In the primal worldview, the world has purpose, the world is full of the grandeur of God. We don’t need a future destruction of the world to experience God’s presence, to know the beauty of creation, to be in harmony with the creator. What we need is a new awareness of God in the here and now, a new awareness of the purpose of the world. This world is where the action is.
What if we look at the Bible with new eyes, looking for what it tells us about the purpose of the world rather than looking for how the end times are now—and what this means for people of faith?
Three of the texts I chose for our reading today provide a glimpse. Psalm 46 was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, favorite passage in the Bible. We can see why. God is our strength—and we need not fear even though “the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.” God is present; God’s city is in history. For the people of God, wars cease. God destroys the weapons of war. The “end times” are the times for God’s city, the people of God, to embrace the ways of peace.
Isaiah two also presents a picture of the purpose (or “end”) of history. God calls together a people to form communities in history, in this world. This people witnesses to all the nations of the world. God’s people must teach genuine shalom, genuine justice, genuine mercy. Isaiah’s vision promises that when God’s people truly teach peace to the nations, swords will be transformed into plowshares, nations will learn war no more.
This same vision is repeated in Revelation when John of Patmos sees a vision of heaven and earth transformed. The city of human self-will and domination, called “Babylon,” is transformed. It becomes a new city where God truly is worshiped. And the nations and the kings of the earth join in this worship. Those who had rebelled against God are healed—through the witness of the Lamb and people of faith who follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
These three passages unite in insisting that the “end times” of healing are for now. People of faith are called to make the “end times” present in this world, in this history. People of faith are called to serve the God who makes wars cease.
In today’s passage from Luke 16, Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus, at least in part, to say that all his listeners need to know about what matters in life has already been revealed. They don’t need some apocalyptic terror—they don’t even need someone to return from the dead. In fact, if they don’t learn from Moses and the prophets what matters most, they likely won’t recognize any other revelation for what it is. What do Moses and the prophets teach? Love God and neighbor. That love is our true end—and we can, we must, practice such love right now, in this life—because it is as people living in history that God loves and heals us.
Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer-poet-essayist, has as good a sense of the purpose of the world as any native English-speaker I know of. I will close with his poem, “The Wild Geese” –
Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end. In time’s maze
over the fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.
Let us pray: We thank you, dear God, that you do dwell among us; that you created each of us good; that you created the entire cosmos good—and that you have never left the world, you have never abandoned the world to mere chance and necessity. Empower each of us to embrace this vital, creative, life-full world that you have made, that you love, that you purpose to grow, to become whole, to be at peace. Allow us to find peace within ourselves, among ourselves, and with the rest of creation—as our true end.