Dr. Halford Luccock taught at Yale Divinity School in the early part of the last century. In his book, Unfinished Business, Luccock tells the story of Flagstaff, Maine. Residents learned that their small town was to be flooded as part of a dam project. Soon they stopped all improvements and repairs to their property. Gradually the town fell into ruin. “What was the use of painting a house,” one observer said, “if it was to be covered with water in six months? Why repair anything when the whole village was to be wiped out?”
Luccock concluded: “Where there is no faith in the future, there is no power in the present.” Of course, the reverse is true as well. Faith in the future means power in the present. I hope you will take that thought with you today. Faith in the future means power in the present.
We Christians are future-oriented people. “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” Alice asked the Cheshire cat in Wonderland. “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. “–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation. “Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
Lots of folks and forces want to tell us where to go. Chiefly they use fear as a way to steer us. We should always be suspicious of anyone who leads by fear. Jesus warns us against them. “Many will come in my name,” Jesus tells us, “and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” Don’t be alarmed, Jesus tells us. Don’t worry about what you will say or do.
“The content of revelation is the reality of heaven,” Pablo Richard writes, “that is, the transcendent world of the presences of God in history. The opposite of revelation is covering up,” he continues, “what today we would call ideology. Ideology serves to conceal injustices and legitimize domination. Apocalypse un-conceals the world of the poor and legitimizes their struggle for the reign of God, which is life and liberation. This liberation is therefore,” he concludes, “good news for the poor” (page 37).
When an ideological system perceives challenges and threats to itself, it responds first with falsehood. I can’t help but think of the pseudo-messianic claims of the previous president, for example. “I alone can fix it,” he declared in 2016. I live in a neighborhood where there is flag promoting the candidacy of that former president in 2024 with the slogan, “Saving America Again.”
A threatened ideological system will seek to displace the blame for problems on to outside agents and structures. Every autocrat needs a credible and demonic enemy or two. “Wars and rumors of wars” are useful for maintaining the level of anxiety necessary to keep people from risking resistance.
Jesus is the Lord of the future. We dare not be taken in by those who promise peace and power at the price of tyranny. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we are called to resist the attraction of big buildings and big egos and big empty promises.
This is the danger–worshiping the gifts of God rather than God the giver. David Lose puts it this way: “in times of confusion, challenge, and distress, we will not only be overly impressed by the symbols of power around us…but we will also take many of the delights and gifts of this life and seek to find our security in and through them rather than in the One who gave them to us in the first place.”
There’s no future in the worship of power, security and safety. If we follow that road, it doesn’t matter where we go.
Faith in the future means power in the present. Of course, for Christians our faith is not in just any old future. Later in Mark 13, the gospel writer declares that God will triumph over sin, death and the devil in the end. Jesus will return triumphant over all the powers of destruction, despair and darkness. We see that future fulfilled in Jesus’ cross and resurrection. That is the future we expect in faith.
The proper response to that Good News is to know that the proper time is now fulfilled and that the Kin(g)dom of God has drawn near. Jesus calls us to “change our minds” and put our trust in that Good News. If apocalyptic is an uncovering of what’s really going on, then the ability to see, hear, and understand what’s really going on requires that changed mind, which goes by the humble title of “repentance.”
The Markan composition is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That Good News can only be appropriated by a change of mind that puts living and dying trust in that Good News. The “old order” is dissolving, sometimes slowly and sometimes in the suddenness of catastrophe. It takes trained and formed eyes to see and ears to hear the rustles of the beginning that is really closer to us than our own breath.
In my parish ministry, I learned that whenever a crisis of meaning or identity faced the dominant culture in the United States, one or more parishioners would approach me and ask, “Pastor, do you think we’re in the End Times?” In my pastoral youth, I discounted such questions with overly long disquisitions on the nature of apocalyptic and our hope in the gospel. I wasn’t necessarily wrong, but I was neither pastoral nor helpful.
After a while, I began to answer the question with a qualified “yes.” While I take seriously the reminder that eschatological calendars and timetables are both a waste of time and bordering on heresy, I also know that we often find ourselves at “the end of the world as we know it.” The Millennium Bug, the Iraq War (either version), Hurricane Katrina (or others), the 2008 financial crisis, the election of Barak Obama, Antiracism protests, Covidtide, and a dozen other events have produced the question – and for very good reasons.
After more of a while, I began to answer the question with “I hope so.” This is the Good News of Christian apocalyptic discourses. It is not that we are about to experience the Rapture or Armageddon, to ride with the Four Horsemen or to flee to the mountains beyond Judea. Instead, I hope we are always witnessing a fresh outbreak of the Kin(g)dom of God drawing near. I hope that we are always, as Jesus followers at least, changing our minds and putting our trust in the Good News.
What does this mean for us? “Apocalyptic discourse provides the resources for Jesus’ followers to form and maintain their identity as those who proclaim the gospel in the context of a hostile environment and who live self-sacrificially even in the face of death,” Ruth Shively concludes. “Mark gives the audience eyes to see what human vision would otherwise miss about the experience of rejection, suffering, domination and power, in order to shape a new community, inspire it to hope, and compel it to action” (pages 402-403).
Identity is perhaps the fundamental field of struggle in American culture at this time. What does it mean to be a “real American”? What does it mean to be a “real Christian?” What does it mean to be a “real man” or a “real woman”? People have been asking those questions for the last hundred years or so in a variety of venues, but there is a particular and sometimes violent urgency to the questions these days.
Will we White American Christians, for example, continue to assert that being White American Christians (with a firm commitment to fixed gender identities and roles as well) is the definition of and norm for what it means to be fully and authentically human? That has been the perception and perspective of our community for the last five hundred years. But it seems that this perception and perspective are passing away – or at least that they should be passing away.
Will we economically privileged Christians assert that a capitalist model is the only way to describe and organize what a faithful congregation looks like? Will we maintain our idolatries of numbers and real estate, of “profits” and success at the expense of love for God and love for neighbor? So far, that is the order of the day. But Christian bodies that maintain these perceptions and this perspective are passing away, and some are doing so rather quickly.
Will I embrace the likely discomfort and perhaps even the suffering that real changes in perception and perspective will produce for me? Am I ready for life as I have known it to pass away (and good riddance)? I’m not at all sure of that. I think I am continuing to look for the community that will help me to find that identity. But will I take yes for an answer when I find it?
In the film, Men in Black, James Edwards has just witnessed the reality of aliens living among humans on earth. Kay, his recruiter to MIB, is explaining the situation as they sit on a park Bench in Battery Park. “Any given time, around fifteen hundred landed aliens are on the planet, the majority right here in Manhattan,” Kay lectures. “Most aliens are decent enough, just trying to make a living.”
“Cab drivers?” Edwards asks. “Not as many as you’d think.” He pauses thoughtfully and then resumes the lecture. “Humans, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Don’t want one, either. They’re happy. They think they’ve got a pretty good bead on things.”
Edwards is beginning to grasp the situation. “Why the big secret? People are smart,” he argues, “they can handle it.”
Kay shakes his head. “A person is smart. People are dumb. Everything they’ve ever ‘known’ has been proven to be wrong. A thousand years ago everybody knew as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, they knew it was flat. Fifteen minutes ago, you knew we humans were alone on it. Imagine,” Kay murmurs, “what you’ll know tomorrow.”
Faith in the future means power in the present.
The truth is, as Douglas John Hall notes, that the world is full of pain, and God loves the world. The Cross uncovers that Truth and calls us to announce it and live it. Fifteen minutes ago, I was able to ignore that truth. I wonder what I’ll ignore tomorrow…
References and Resources
Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.
Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. Fortress Press, 2003.
Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.
Shively, Elizabeth E. “What Type of Resistance? How Apocalyptic Discourse Functions as Social Discourse in Mark’s Gospel.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 37.4 381–406. Web.
Men in Black movie script: https://sfy.ru/?script=men_in_black.