Sunday, December 10, 2017

Phil Kniss: “The end is at hand!” (and why we should care)

Advent 2: Let it be so
2 Peter 3:8-15a

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I grew up in the Mennonite church of the 60s and 70s,
with lots of teaching and preaching about “end times.”
It was a frequent subject of Sunday sermons in church.
But revival meetings were also in their heyday,
and the second coming of Christ
was a common topic in revival preaching.
And at least once a year,
our church would invite in a guest preacher for revival meetings,
preaching every night of the week,
always including an altar call,
some appeal to be ready for the return of Christ.

I dug around some old Park View church files a while back,
and found we also did that here during those decades.
Park View often had these revival meetings
between Palm Sunday and Easter,
what we now call “Holy Week” (but we never used that term).
That was before Mennonites ever heard of Advent and Lent.

The late G. Irvin Lehman holds the record
for the most sermons preached in a week at Park View.
One year he preached 9 sermons in 8 days.
Started Palm Sunday morning,
then all seven nights that week,
and ending Easter Sunday morning.
I asked G. Irvin about that some years back, before he died,
and he sort of remembered it.

I would surmise that every one of those services was well-attended,
and every one of those services included
an invitation to be made right with Christ,
as a first-time commitment or a renewal.
Because, we needed to be ready,
since nobody knew when Christ would return.

I don’t speak of this era critically, in any way.
For its time, I think those methods made sense
for how we saw the world,
and for what we believed faithfulness looked like.
And revival meetings often did have good outcomes.
Persons became more dedicated to following Jesus.
They renewed their commitment to mission work,
or service abroad.
They deepened their life in the Spirit.
All good.

But this was also a time when some things,
at least as I see it now, got a little skewed.
That same time period saw the publishing of Hal Lindsey’s books
the “Late, Great, Planet Earth.”
Many of our Mennonite young people and adults ate it up.
Hal Lindsey in the 1970s,
and the “Left Behind” series of more recent decades,
all promoted a literalist, pre-millennial,
dispensational eschatology.
Those are technical terms, meaningless to many of you,
that the church used to argue over, vehemently.
And there’s more where those came from.
I won’t even mention the subsets of premillennialism,
like pre-tribulation, post-trib, and mid-trib
the cause of many a church split.

To say it in plain English, dispensationalists
believe we can divide God’s work in history
into distinct ages, or dispensations,
where God works in different ways,
with different moral expectations of us humans.

It’s a way to deal with the conflicts
between the Old and New Testaments.
It’s also a way to explain
what’s going on in the world now.
Hal Lindsey and others saw the world in 1970
as on the brink of the rapture, and the return of Christ.
Frequent famines, wars, and earthquakes were a sign.
International alliances were a sign.
The Communist threat was a sign.

1970 looked like the beginning of the last dispensation.
That’s the church I grew up in.
Any day . . . any day . . . Christ would come back
in a cataclysmic rapture,
and take the faithful up into heaven, if you were ready,
and then would come a 7-year period of
great tribulation on the earth.
That is, if you were a pre-trib premillennialist.
When I was a teen, our church showed the film Thief in the Night,
showing some Christians being taken in the rapture,
and some being left behind,
with Larry Norman on the soundtrack singing,
“I wish we’d all been ready.”
That film—and I am choosing my words carefully and accurately—
scared the hell out of me . . .
and presumably . . . the heaven into me.

It used fear of being left behind as a primary motivation
to live a faithful Christian life.
And my young mind and spirit were susceptible to this fear.
How well I remember some sleepless nights,
wondering if this would be the last one,
and worrying I might not be ready.

Since EMU’s Centennial history book just came out,
let me jump back a few decades earlier,
and point out that end times theology
was a source of great controversy and conflict
in the early days of Eastern Mennonite College.
Premillenialism was the dominant view, on campus,
and generally, among Mennonites in the east.

Bible prof C. K. Lehman was one of few a-millennialists
that did not buy into that popular time-line.
Harold Lehman could tell you more about his family dynamics.
As some of you know,
we live in the house on College Ave that Harold grew up in.
His father, professor and Bishop D. W. Lehman,
was a premillennialist.
And did not see eye-to-eye with his fellow professor . . .
and brother who lived next door, C. K. Lehman.
So the arguments didn’t happen only on the EMU campus.
They found their way into family gatherings,
probably around the table at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

These were not just abstract theological arguments.
They could determine how people prioritized their lives.
The belief that Christ would return in the near term,
before the millennium,
gave these early Mennonites strong motivation
to engage in mission work and evangelism,
and service overseas.
It was an act of compassion, not only to feed the hungry,
but to see that souls were saved before it was too late.

I imagine if it were not for this premillennial motivation,
some Mennonite hospitals in India,
may never have been built, over 100 years ago,
and inner-city mission churches in Chicago and Philadelphia
would not have been founded,
which gave us rural Mennonites a head start
on bridging some of divisive racial hostilities,
that boiled up in cities during the Civil Rights era.

So in today’s more enlightened way of thinking,
we might want to congratulate ourselves
that we’re not being so foolish anymore.
We’re not arguing and dividing the church over silly things
like whether we get raptured
before, during, or after the Great Tribulation.

But what if the way we look at the end,
actually did make a difference in how we live right now?
If so, how should we look at the end? And how should we live?
That seems like a worthwhile question.

And it’s precisely the question the writer of 2 Peter
was posing to the church of that day.
Did you hear this, a few minutes ago?
“Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way,
what sort of persons ought you to be?” (v. 11)

In 2 Peter 3, that question shows up
in the middle of a section describing the end times—
“How, then, shall we live?”
And the writer summarizes,
“Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things,
strive to be found by him at peace.”

The date and authorship of 2 Peter are disputed.
But no matter when it was actually written down, and by whom,
the writer clearly intends us to read it as a letter
from the apostle Peter, in the mid-60s AD,
just before Peter was martyred by Nero.

The church during the time of the apostles
believed that the return of Jesus was just around the bend.
As in . . . maybe in a few weeks or a couple months,
but very, very soon.
They had good reason to think that.
They had a living memory of Jesus.
Jesus’ own words were still ringing in their ears.
“I’m coming back.”
Not only that,
they were suffering a time of severe persecution.
The sword of the Empire and the power of religious leaders
were pressing in.

So the idea that Jesus was about to come,
and whisk them away from the horror that was life on earth,
was a compelling idea, as you might imagine.
Their view of the end, determined how they lived.
Since the end was coming so soon,
some of them quit their jobs,
some of them walked away from marriages,
some of them sold homes and possessions,
and just hunkered down to wait it out together.
It was a reasonable response
to their time of suffering,
and their belief that the end was near at hand.

The letter of 2 Peter is specifically trying to change that mindset.
No, he writes, it’s not time to hunker down and wait it out,
and forget about your other responsibilities.
It’s time to keep discerning how to live faithfully,
and be at peace with your neighbors,
and with holiness and justice and righteousness NOW,
not just in a future age.
The Lord is not slow, as we regard slowness. (v. 9)
With the Lord, a thousand years are like a day,
and a day is like a thousand years.
God is patient.
So should you be patient, Peter says.

Things are going to get worse before they get better. (vv. 10-12)
But there will be a new heaven and a new earth.
The timing is not clear to us.
But God is moving, and is on a trajectory.
God is moving toward our salvation,
and the salvation of all whom God loves,
not wanting anyone to perish. (vv. 9 and 15)

Peter exhorts the church,
“This is not a time to pull back from engagement in the world.
This is a time to engage.
This is a time to live in holiness.
This is a time to be found blameless and at peace.”

The more I thought about these words to the early church,
who believed in the imminent return of Christ,
the more I saw parallels to our own context.
No, we don’t live with a day-to-day expectation of being raptured.
But think about this.
The world today is in turmoil.
And the church is under duress.

So how should a stressed and wounded church
live in a broken and desperate world?

Maybe, as in the days of Peter and the apostles,
what we believe about “the end”
will make a difference in how we live in turbulent times.
In our anxiety and fear,
do we get reactive and defensive
and lash out at those who threaten us?
Or, in our feeling threatened,
do we pull away from society and hunker down?
shutting out the pain of the world,
as if we were in some underground bomb shelter?
Or, do we say the only thing that matters is our spiritual wellbeing,
so just ignore the world that is falling apart around us,
and stay focused only on our personal relationship with Jesus,
and live in joyful oblivion?

Those are choices people make,
influenced by what they think about “the end.”
And those choices all seem to be either fight or flight.
I think there is a better choice than fight or flight.
Call it transformative engagement.

And it comes from a different way of thinking about “the end.”

I admit my sermon title has a slightly devious hidden meaning.
I did not mean “the end is at hand” as in,
Chicken Little’s cry that “the sky is falling,”
or that the world is about to blow up.
I mean “end” as in “purpose” or “agenda” or “mission.”
I mean God’s trajectory, where things are pointing.

That “end” is “at hand.”
It is here. It is knowable. It is accessible.
Scripture makes clear what God’s trajectory is,
what “end” God has in mind.
That end is for the restoration of all that God loves,
for the salvation of all that God created.

So if we stay focused on God’s ongoing agenda for us and all creation,
if we stay focused on God’s promise
to bring about new creation—new heaven and new earth—
and if we no longer obsess over a timeline for our escape,
I think it will lead us toward a more healthy engagement
with a deeply wounded and violent world.

2 Peter 3 asked the early church, “How do we live now?”

We have the same question.
How do we live in a dark world
where violence and all manner of evil continue to hold sway?
where the powerful oppress the vulnerable,
and get away with it?
where sexual and other forms of violence
are tolerated, excused, denied?
from the commander-in-chief to obscure state legislators
from clergypersons to public radio personalities?

I don’t need to repeat the litany of expressions of evil
that fill our newsfeed every hour of every day.

What I’m longing for, so desperately these days,
is a way to hold anger and hope simultaneously,
in creative tension with each other.

I want a way to maintain my righteous anger,
to name things for what they are,
to refuse to normalize evil behavior and evil systems.
At the same time, I want to live in the sure and certain hope,
that God’s end, God’s trajectory, is already at work now,
and moving toward its fulfillment, praise God!
And we, the church,
are invited, even urged, to join in this movement of God,
as 2 Peter 3 says,
“waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.”

Sitting it out is not a faithful option.
Hoping to escape it all is not what we are called to.
Rather, living lives of holiness, and peace, and justice,
participating in God’s work of “making things right”
is how we wait for, and hasten, the day of the Lord.

So let us be angry when evil rears its ugly head,
wherever it shows up,
and in whomever it shows up.
Let that drive us to acts of resistance against that evil,
and work for truth and justice and compassion.
Let us work in ways that lead to transformation.

But let us also rest in a deep trust in God’s unstoppable purpose,
God’s promised end,
God’s intention for this world that will one day be made new.

Let us be angry, but not lose ourselves in despair.
Let us lament, but not give up a life of joy.
Let us work hard, but not without rest and peace.

Because God is here now, and God is moving us toward his end.
Or as C. S. Lewis put it, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,
“Aslan is on the move—perhaps he has already landed.”

This work of overcoming evil is God’s work.
And our fervent prayer is, “Let it be so!”

Turn in the green book, Sing the Journey 54 —
Longing for light, we wait in darkness.

This song gives voice to our longing,
our dissatisfaction with the way things are,
and calls out to God to come with God’s light.
But it holds together our work and God’s work,
in a beautiful way.
Make us your people, light for the world.
Make us your living voice.
Make us your bread, broken for others.

—Phil Kniss, December 10, 2017

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