Peter came home from college on Monday, but he had to go back again Friday. He had one more shift to work in the music library, and tickets to a concert, and then for last night he had an invitation to a party: a Judgment Day Party. He hadn’t decided whether to stay for it, so as I said goodbye, I made one request. “If the Rapture happens, please call me.” And a light twinkled in his eye as he answered, “If the Rapture happens, I’ll see you up there.”
I liked his confidence, for both of us, but I have a feeling we weren’t on that list.
I didn’t see signs here, but in Boston and other big cities, they have been on billboards and hanging from overpasses, announcements that the end is coming, or rather *was* coming. We seem to have escaped this prediction, just like all the other famous ones. And I could take some time to talk about how I wish people wouldn’t make being Christian seem so silly, but what I really find myself wondering is this:
Why do people find the end of the world desirable? And is the desire to predict the end the same as the desire *for* the end?
I don’t think so. My guess is that the desire to predict the end of the world is entirely about power and control, about one person’s delight in getting other people to do whatever he suggests is right. In this particular case, a conservative Christian radio broadcaster, Harold Camping, used the Bible to calculate, by his own system, the oncoming end of the world. He is not the first person to make a specific forecast about the end of the world, to name a date and a group of people to be seized up and saved by God, nor is he the first to get a lot of people to believe in such predictions, even though Jesus said no one but God could know the hour when the end will come. It wasn’t even Camping’s first attempt. When his prediction did not come true in 1994, he ran the numbers again. And while we may sit here wondering how he got people to believe he might be right this time, when he wasn’t the first time, he’s clearly meeting a need.
People want answers now. And God has a frustrating tendency to not be so specific.
Harold Camping’s true believers had to have a reason for wanting the world to end. And I wonder if it sounded preferable to the tension of trying to live and believe in this world as we find it, flawed and complicated and challenging.
If you’ve ever wanted to get out of something uncomfortable or unsatisfying or just plain too hard to handle, you know how they feel. They just want it to be over, the striving of life and the struggle to make other people understand. I think they’re hoping for what the Jews of the 1st century craved, a Messiah–a God–who sweeps in and cleans it all up at once, showing those other people once and for all just how wrong they were about everything.
We may think we want it, too. But that is not what we have. Not then and not now.
So how do we live, left behind? How do we live, not left behind by the rapture, but left behind by Jesus?
That’s the question the disciples were asking Jesus on their last evening together. What will we do when you leave us?
In John 14, Jesus delivers a speech we often hear at funerals, intended to comfort those left behind both about the fate of our loved ones and about our own future after death. Jesus is giving an assurance that he will expand later on, saying that even though they won’t see him for a while, they will see him again. He’s going ahead to prepare a place for them. In his Father’s house there are many dwelling places…many mansions…many antique farmhouses and homespun cottages and solar contemporaries and converted lofts in old knitting factories…enough room for everyone.
And you know the way, he tells them, you know the way to the place that I am going. He’s rhapsodizing, painting a picture of another realm, but the disciples bring the words back to Earth. God bless Thomas, because he is willing to say what everyone else must be thinking. “I have no idea what you are talking about! What the heck!” Thank God for Philip, asking for the proof everyone wants, “Show us this Father you’re always talking about!”
What will we do when you leave us behind, Lord? You haven’t told us how to get where you are going. You haven’t even proved your connection to God. That’s what they’re saying to him.
And despite Jesus’ consoling words, the disciples will be left behind to deal with drama up to and including the stoning of visionaries like Stephen, as described in the Acts passage we read today, and arrests and crucifixions of their own. They know they’re in trouble. They may not know exactly what’s going to happen later in the evening, but they do know Jesus has been at the Temple raising …Heaven… and the authorities have tried, more than once, to get their hands on him. They are naturally anxious about the future, especially their immediate future.
Even today, we remain anxious about our future as a church and The Church.
Everything we don’t want seems to happen fast, and making the changes we do want takes too long and the way things used to work is not the way they do nowadays, and frankly some of that is good and some of it is grievous. No one wants to go back to times of exclusion and discrimination, not if we understand the love of Jesus to call us to a broader sense of community and care. But would we take back the days when there was nothing else to do on Sunday morning except go to church?
I’m thinking we would. We can’t help thinking about the numbers and wishing for the good old days.
Sometimes it feels like the end of the world, at least the world the way we knew it.
Sometimes having it be all over seems easier.
Sometimes we want to grab onto the words of Jesus and say, hey! *I* understand him, and if you agree with me, let’s form a group and close out everyone else who doesn’t agree with us!
Oh, that makes us feel powerful, at least for a little while. We like certainty.
But remember, the ones who were with him had questions, too.
Even as he consoles them, Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know what you mean!”
Even as Jesus declares himself “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” Philip asks to see the Father. Give us more, they demand!
We want to know, too. We want to see, too. It would be so much easier that way.
How do we live, left behind by Jesus? It feels complicated. It makes us anxious. How do we know we’re right?
What we won’t get is a direct communication from the Almighty.
What we do have is Jesus, the one whose life shows us God. And so we remember the next chapters in John’s gospel after the ones where he talks all evening long to his disciples and then goes out across the Kidron Valley to pray.
We remember that despite arrest and trial and torture and death, Jesus rose from the tomb and returned to his friends and left us the Holy Spirit, that other manifestation of God’s presence.
We remember that his early followers risked everything for him, and if that gets us wondering whether we’re willing to be slightly inconvenienced for the sake of our faith, it’s probably a good thing, even if we don’t particularly like having the thought cross our minds.
We remember the stories from long ago and we remember our own stories, the moments when light breaks through, and we have a sense of the Spirit, and we know the love of the One who forms us into communities of faith, drawn together by his story, by his life and death and resurrection and even by our questions.
And maybe as we piece together the things we believe, we may discover that God is patient, willing to wait with us until we come closer to getting it right, not interested in bringing things to a conclusion just to end the tension. That’s a human need, to choose up sides, or to reduce the beauty of God’s love in Christ Jesus to calendar math.
Peter decided to come home instead of going to the party last night, and as I left for the bus station to pick him up at 5:59, I kissed Lucy good-bye, you know, in case of Rapture. She jumped up from the piano bench to join me, and we put Hoagie in the car and pulled out of the driveway just about 6:01. We didn’t believe anything would happen, but just the thought of the end of the world gave us a few uncomfortable moments of perspective on who matters to us, and why, even while we joked about it.
I hope that can be the message we all take from this non-event, that our God is Love, a love left behind with us and for us, for all time and until the end of time … whenever that may be. Amen.