Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I'm a big fan of disaster movies. They're always terrible, but they're too much fun not to watch. The cheesy dialogue, the over-the-top special effects, the hilarious pseudo-science, the heroic character who recognizes the signs just in time to save the human race – yes, whether there's a volcano under Los Angeles or an ice age bearing down on New York, you can count me in.
But I haven't had a chance to see the most recent big-budget disaster movie, 2012. Maybe some of you saw it when it came out in the theaters (because, you know, the special effects always look best on the big screen). Even though I haven't seen 2012, I've heard plenty about it. It's hard to avoid – there seems to be a lot of talk these days about the Mayan calendar ending. And, so the argument goes, when the Mayan calendar ends on December 21, 2012, so ends the world.
The end of the world. There's something fascinating to us about the idea of the end of the world. That's why disaster movies make so much money, after all. There's something in us that loves to hear about the world coming to an end. We listen with a sort of horrified fascination to these stories.
Of course, for many people, they're not just stories. I recently stumbled across a website that eagerly proclaimed to me that the world is really and truly going to end – but not December 21, 2012. The real end of the world, according to this website, will be May 21, 2011. That gives us about 9 months to set our affairs in order. Now, they claim that they have Biblical evidence for this date, but they seemed to be a little fuzzy on the details, and I couldn't figure out how they had decided on May 21, 2011 for the end of the world.
Certainly May 21, 2011 isn't the first time the end of the world has been predicted. Back in the early 20th century, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (forerunners to the Jehovah's Witnesses) predicted the end of the world for 1914; when 1914 came and went, they revised their prediction several times. Charles Wesley, the Methodist, believed the world would end in 1794. Martin Luther, back in the 16th century, was convinced that the world would end before his death. And so on. It seems that in every generation, there are those who believe that the world is coming to an end.
So what do disaster movies and end-of-the-world predictions have to do with our readings this morning? It's right there in the gospel reading from Luke. “I came to bring fire to the earth,” cries Jesus through the writer of the gospel, “and how I wish it were already kindled!” He predicts division and conflict. He refers to the sign of the times: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
This kind of language is referred to as “apocalyptic.” Now you all will have to bear with me for a little teaching moment. “Apocalyptic” comes from “apocalypse,” the Greek word that means “revelation.” So the book of Revelation in the Bible is called “Apocalupsis” in Greek. So remember: “apocalypse” equals “revelation”. We usually think of “apocalypse” as the end of the world, but its basic meaning is revelation – specifically, God's revelation. In the centuries before Jesus, some Jews came to understand God's revelation – the apocalypse – as the catastrophic end of the world. God would appear to bring judgment, punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous. A new age would be inaugurated in which all hopes of the righteous would be fulfilled. A new world would replace this broken, irredeemable world. And all this would happen very, very soon. Apocalyptic thinking and writing is always filled with a terrible urgency, with the conviction that there is no time left.
These ideas of the apocalypse certainly persisted in Jesus' time, as well as the time of the writing of the New Testament. There are strains of apocalyptic thinking in the gospels. We find the most obvious example in the book of Revelation, whose very title is “Apocalypse” in Greek. And apocalyptic ideas have lasted beyond the Biblical period. In fact, the ongoing predictions of the end of the world show us that apocalyptic thinking has its adherents in every generation.
What are we to make of such thinking? When we look at the predictions that the world would end in 1914, they may seem comical. When we hear predictions of the end in our own time, we may dismiss them as nonsense – or we may feel a shiver of fear.
And what about the predictions of the end of the world in the gospel of Luke, in our very reading today? In our reading, Jesus says he has come to bring fire to the earth – but there's no historical record of such fire. Jesus says he brings division within households – but what generation doesn't see division in households? The text is full of the urgent sense that the end is near. So what are we to make of this text? I have to be honest with you. When I read Luke's apocalyptic language, I wonder to myself, “Was Luke wrong? Was this just another crackpot end-of-the-world prediction?”
We believe that Scripture is inspired by God, that God speaks to us – here and now – through these ancient writings. Yet reading Scripture can be a difficult task, at times frustrating and disheartening. When I read predictions of the end of the world in the Bible, I can't help but wonder if they're just plain wrong. How can God speak to us through these apocalyptic texts? What is the Holy Spirit trying to do here?
But I do believe that God has something to say in this text. I do believe that God can speak to us, even if Luke felt an impending sense of doom that didn't come to pass. The apocalypse is the revelation of God. The revelation of God. God revealed. Perhaps that revelation doesn't come to us with end-of-the-world special effects. Perhaps God chooses to reveal God's self in other ways.
Indeed, God does reveal God's self. Though it does not come with the special effects of the blockbuster disaster movies, God's revelation is both surprising and dramatic. The revelation of God is Jesus Christ. God is revealed to us, to all of humanity, through Jesus Christ. That's why we call Jesus Emmanuel – God With Us. We proclaim this revelation, this apocalypse, every time we recite the Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.” We believe that we encounter Jesus here at the table, at communion. Jesus is the apocalypse, the revelation, of God. In Jesus, we find God; in Jesus, God is revealed.
The writer of our gospel text today expected the apocalypse, the dramatic end of the world and the coming of God's judgment. What actually happened was a different kind of apocalypse, the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. God has a way of surprising us, of turning our expectations upside-down. We find story after story in the Bible of God's unexpected, surprising revelation – whether at the burning bush, in the manger in Bethlehem, or in the tongues of fire that descended at Pentecost. God, it seems, loves to surprise us. God reveals God's self in the ways we least expect.
And what about you? I will venture to guess that most of you have not seen a burning bush. But I would be willing to bet that God has surprised you. Maybe God has appeared to you when you were hurting, in the face of a caring friend. Maybe God has appeared to you in the guise of a homeless person asking for help. Maybe God has appeared to you in your own heart, in a powerful emotion or sudden idea.
God does not always come to us in thunder and lightning and fire. God does not always appear in some kind of end-of-the-world disaster. On the other hand, God does not always come to us with a gentle word of comfort. Sometimes, God has a message of division, not peace. Above all, what we discover as we try to follow the living God, is the wonderful unpredictability with which God meets us.