Are you saved? Do you believe in the rapture? These are questions that are incredibly common in some part of the Christian experience. Known as decision theology, this way of thinking about faith involved us making a choice and sometimes saying the correct words of allegiance to the gospel message in order to insure our ability to be among the chosen who survive the apocalypse to come.
This theology is both fear-based and focused on human’s ability to do the right thing in order to be saved. These were two of Luther’s least-favorite concepts. He rebelled against the theology of the time that put the church policy before Scripture and preached a fear-based understanding of judgment and death based on fear. That’s why he spoke out against the concept of collecting indulgences that the Catholic Church was practicing in order to raise money for a new building in Rome, the Sistine Chapel.
Luther also spoke out against the idea that humans had to earn their own salvation through their works or any decision. Luther believed that the church should be all about Jesus — not about a building, but our relationship with Jesus Christ. Salvation was a gift, and that was good news that the church was meant to share with the whole world.
How we respond to God’s grace
We have control of some things in how we respond to that grace, so when we give, we give out of gratitude. When we love our neighbor, we don’t do it out of fear or because we are told we need to. We love because God first loved us. We let God’s love take over and become Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
Texts like the ones we read today about the end times have created a lot of fear. The possibility that God will come back and judge things doesn’t seem like good news at first. Most people have a fear of the apocalypse they hear so much about through Christian radio and movies, but we Lutherans speak out against the predominant understanding of the rapture. At the height of the popularity of the Left Behind book series, they began a film version of the books, starring Kirk Cameron of the tv show Growing Pains. My friends were starting a company called Old Lutheran that sold Lutheran-themed books and gifts. One of their best and funniest ideas was sweat pants that had “Left Behind” printed on the left buttock. Great when you are jogging past someone, I’m sure.
A lot to lose?
Luther was an apocalyptic thinker. He imagined that the end of the world was near. That helped him not fear death, or the threats facing him, or the world. That is how these texts about the apocalypse should be understood. The Apocalypse of the new testament was not something to fear. It was Good News for its audience. When we hear about the apocalypse, we fear the change it describes. We have a lot to lose. But I worked with the homeless in Seattle. How do you think they hear the word that God’s justice is coming, and those of true faith will be recognized? How do you think those stuck in refugee camps would hear it? It’s actually good news for those that are suffering from the injustices of the world.
The original audiences of the Book of Daniel and Gospel of Mark were much more like the homeless and refugee populations than an audience in a suburban church. We are called to understand that mindset through passages like these. Daniel was written at a time when the Jewish religion had been banned by authorities. After Alexander the Great’s Empire was broken up the new Greek ruler Antichus took over and sought to suppress the Jewish faith and cultural identity, burning Scripture and repressing worship in synagogues. The Gospel of Mark was written after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, bringing Jewish identity was into question — their homeland in ruins, as most became refugees and spread out into other nations.
Calling out for justice and change
These were people calling out for justice and change. Jesus’ answer is that it’s not coming as soon as they want it too. Jesus tells them that there will be many signs, but to not trust those that tell them the end is near. When Jesus returns, they will know. We will know it’s real because Jesus will be there, but for now we experience the birth pangs of the resurrection to come. Those that suffer, like those that lost everything in the recent forest fire in Paradise, California, are like those in the communities that first heard these texts. The message is that God has not abandoned them and God is not punishing them. God is with them in times of suffering and persecution.
New life will find us
The Book of Daniel for instance is full of stories of God’s presence when people would left behind, beat up, or judged. Remember any of these Sunday school stories? Of Daniel and the lion’s den, the young men who survived the fiery furnace. God’s message for us is that new life will find us, even when we see the world around us as unjust or all that we know falling apart.
I work with a nonprofit called Renegade that is dedicated to social-entrepreneurial disaster response. It was formed after Hurricane Katrina. One of the things we focus on is the idea that the experience of disasters is often like a new birth. People have lost so much, maybe everything that they’ve known. Their normal
When we think about the end times, for ourselves it is the fear of this loss that comes to mind or the fear of death. We each have a personal judgment day in front of us. Christians believe that we are baptized into Christ death and resurrection and that means we do not need to fear this day or that experience. As Luther was able to be his true rebellious self in the face of death, we too are called not to fear death or any end-time scenario. We trust that God’s love for us is eternal and Jesus will be present with us to get us through any hardship.
When I think of the experience of death and resurrection I don’t think we are meant to understand all the details ahead of time. The experience that I think we can compare it too is one that we all have been through, but have forgotten. When Jesus says these are birth pangs I think we should take that literally. While the labor process toward birth may feel like an end-times scenario for the mother doing the pushing, and the other’s witnessing it, but think about what that experience is like for the baby.
The world you know — that you have depended on — the cozy womb room where the food comes to you through a hose would have seemed like the whole world to you. And then suddenly things start changing! The walls started caving in and they are starting to push against you. The world is ending! The end is near! And then suddenly you are in a different place. You see your existence in a new light. You breathe new air. You cry your first cry and suddenly, new life — resurrection from certain destruction.
A new creation!
When we imagine what death and resurrection are like, I think it will be something like that experience. What we know will pass away and on the other side — new life, with love and community to greet you that you didn’t understand until then. And with Jesus as the midwife and the deliverer!
We do not need to fear this unknown, or any other changes, but hold onto the promise that God is with us in hard time and end times. With Christ the end is a new beginning, as new life is born!
Daniel 12: 1-3
“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
Hebrews 10: 11-25
And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
“This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds,”
he also adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.)
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Mark 13: 1-8
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.