We’re starting a new Church Year today, Year A in our three-year cycle. In Year A, most of the Gospel Readings come from the Gospel According to Matthew. As usual, on the first Sunday of a new year we start not at the beginning of the story but at the end.
We heard a snippet from towards the end of Matthew 24 today. Commentators sometimes call this chapter the ‘little apocalypse’ (along with the parallel passages in Mark 13 and Luke 21).
If this is a little apocalypse, is there a ‘big’ apocalypse? Well yes, there is; it’s the Book of Revelation. The word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘revelation’.
These aren’t the only apocalyptic writings in existence. We have the Book of Daniel; but two thousand years ago, there were many other apocalyptic books around the place. Apocalyptic was a type of literature, like science fiction, fantasy or historical fiction.
What is apocalyptic writing about. I’ve said that ‘apocalypse’ means ‘revelation’— but what comes into your mind when you hear those words?
Depending on your background and your interests, I’d expect to hear that you thought of
the end of the world
earthquakes and tsunamis
the Holocaust and Hiroshima
a slow death through climate change
movies like the Resident Evil series
the Left Behind series of books
Harold Camping and other doomsday preachers
or even a ‘zombie apocalypse’
The word ‘apocalypse’ has come to mean global catastrophe, rivers of blood, scenes of supernatural horror and evil. It evokes doom and gloom, despair and hopelessness.
So—if an apocalypse is actually a revealing of something, what does it reveal? Is it revealing that God has end-time anger issues? After all, some apocalyptic images are pretty violent. I mean, at one point in the Book of Revelation (14.20) human blood flows for three hundred kilometres to the depth of a horse’s bridle. People are undergoing serious suffering here.
So does a Christian apocalypse reveal supernatural disaster? No, it talks about disaster, but disaster is not the revelation. An apocalypse that is true to Jesus Christ reveals God’s deliverance through suffering, or even from suffering. That’s the revelation.
And if an apocalypse reveals God’s deliverance, then Jesus is the most apocalyptic figure ever. And the cross was an apocalyptic event.
Jesus went through immense suffering on the cross, and he did it as our representative. And Jesus revealed the true nature of God in that suffering—it was for us.
Father, forgive them,
for they know not what they do.
That’s the message of the cross. And that’s what Christian apocalyptic reveals—a God of compassion who is in solidarity with the suffering, and who will deliver them.
Has it ever surprised you that Jesus didn’t know when the end will come? He said,
About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
If Jesus didn’t know, then we aren’t to know. We are not meant to be looking for the end of time. This is the thing: at each moment of time, Jesus is coming to us so that we are faced with a continuing decision. Will we be part of what is being revealed—a God in solidarity with suffering people—or will we be fascinated by the strange, bizarre and bloodthirsty images and try to work out when it will happen? Or will we be repelled by it all, and stick our heads in the sand?
Jesus calls disciples to choose the first way. Jesus calls us also to be in solidarity with the suffering and he does it emphatically. It’s a vocation, not a lifestyle choice. How can I say that? I can take a peek into the very next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25—to the passage that we’ll hear in 51 weeks time, the Judgement of the Nations. What is Jesus concerned about when the end comes?
Did you clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit those in prison? Did you care for the sick, give clean water to the thirsty, did you welcome strangers?
Did your lives reflect the glory of God in solidarity with the suffering?
A Christian apocalypse reveals a God who wants the hungry fed and strangers welcomed, so we don’t need to wait till the end of time for God’s will to be revealed to us. We have to see persecution and injustice wherever it occurs, and help rather than turn away. God is gracious to us; are we gracious to the suffering people of the world?
Soon, we’ll be taking our second offering for mission work among suffering people. One of the people we’ll support from next month is Lisa Elliott, who soon goes to work with Servants of Asia’s Urban Poor in the slums of Kolkata. On 22 December, we’ll be commissioning Lisa and pledging our support for her in prayer also. Supporting Lisa will mean opening our eyes to suffering. We are called to be aware of what is happening in the world, and to act in the name of Jesus.
What does apocalyptic reveal? In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it reveals this:
Good is stronger than evil;
love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours, through him who loves us.
Whatever suffering you or anyone else may face, God is stronger. That is the apocalyptic message. It’s the message of the cross. It’s the Good News of Jesus Christ the Risen–Coming Lord.