Countering America’s Complacent Apocalyptism, or Resurrection People in an Ecclesiastes World

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Jerusalem#/media/File:La_nouvelle_J%C3%A9rusalem.jpg

John of Patmos watches the descent of New Jerusalem from God in a 14th century tapestry. Image taken by Gribeco.

“He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching.” (Mark 6:1-6)

After running the Palestine circuit performing healing and other miracles, Jesus and His disciples stop in His hometown of Nazareth to do ministry there.

And He gets the door slammed in His face. The people with whom He grew up working alongside and attending the synagogue have no ears to hear His teaching. These people are His family, and in a surprising turn of events, they’re the people with whom His teaching is the least welcome.

One unfortunate feature of American Christianity is that the vague notion of Jesus has become so familiar to us that the substance of what He taught and modeled for us in the Gospels has become dangerously easy to ignore and subtly reject. Churches can become the hometown in which the teachings of Jesus are not welcome. But why?

It could be that the average North American church does not believe in the future. They pray, sing, and lamely preach religious niceties with minimal conviction. For all of the hours they put in, there is beneath it all little hope that it’s  heading anywhere. There’s something in the Christo-American consciousness that tacitly joins the secular culture at large in sluggish disbelief in the reality of a hopeful future. For a variety of reasons, something in us knows the world is ending.

So at our best we carry on in the work of ministry without any real, motivating hope that our work matters. All is vanity. There is no hope. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. The end is near.

It’s a deadening hopelessness that accounts for much of the lethargy that has restrained the American Church and kept it at bay in the face of growing darkness. So we don’t believe in the future. We see ourselves exclusively as exiles. We celebrate that “this world is not my home,” or, on the other hand, resign ourselves to trudge along with the current of  what we could call our culture’s complacent apocalyptism. We detach from emotional involvement regarding the consequences of our political goings-on. Like the world from whom we obtusely pride ourselves in separating, we choose leaders who promise to represent our interests over against those of the ever-threatening other.

We abandon the clear call to counter-cultural holiness as a consequence of the gospel, because from the vantage point of complacent apocalyptism the transforming initiatives given by Jesus in the sermon on the mount are unrealistic at best. We slide into sinful patterns of behavior because they come naturally to us and in the absence of a future to hope in, opting into the counterintuitive lifestyle of hopeful self-denial is simply not a live option. “Don’t you know the world is ending?” One might say, “You might as well get your rocks off.”

Except that nobody would ever say these things. This complacency about the future is tacit, not explicit. Our contemporary detached apocalyptists can still be ambitious. They may still climb the corporate ladder or become president or start a non-profit or drop a bomb on Hiroshima. They may talk a big game about delayed gratification and hard work and old fashioned values because in the absence of hope for the future they’ve at least constructed a hopeful narrative about the past.

The good ol’ days. The golden age. The best generation. The Christian nation. The Garden of Eden. America is built on “Fall” narratives.  There were days when all was well and the world wasn’t ending.

Interestingly enough, the biblical worldview, which sees the entropy of the universe as a product of a primordial Fall, leaves absolutely no room for these small-scale, decentralized Fall narratives we construct. There’s no space for Fall narratives about America (or Europe, or Rome) because Total Depravity has always worked itself out through systems, and we’ve always been a prime example of it.

America was never great, so we’ve got no reference point to get back to. The golden generation still consisted of emotionally bankrupt sinners, mired in debauchery. The Christian Nation was plenty pagan. The good ol’ days were good for a nauseatingly small portion of the populace. Our decentralized Fall narratives don’t work.

And they can’t. Because the point of the doctrine of the Fall is not that all was once as it should be but now we’ve gone and lost it. The point is that the good ol’ days are ahead of us, not behind us. It’s not a coincidence that our book, which opens in a garden, concludes in a metropolis. In the book of Revelation, John writes:

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son … And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed … And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rev. 21:5-27)

There’s no return to Eden in sight. It’s quite the opposite. John envisions an in-breaking of God’s reality to ours. Rather than obliterating everything that was and taking us someplace far away where nothing was ever wrong, He overlays the sin-spoilt streets of Rome with silver and gold and seas of crystal so forth and makes our little world into His big world, to borrow a phrase from Walter Brueggemann. So history is heading somewhere.

We are not free floating into undetermined waters. The voluminous streams of history will converge one day in a hopeful future that cannot be overthrown. The future is both determined and not. So when the kingdom comes in its fullness, it is a “new Jerusalem” made of redeemed people – those whose whole selves, their interests included, have been redeemed and brought back into relationship with God. The artist will likely remain an artist, and the engineer an engineer. Very possibly, the kingdom is a canvas painted on by the contributions of all of its citizens. A kingdom without definite form, open always to improvement and culture shift because its culture is enriched by the creativity of its inhabitants, through whom the creativity of God is fully expressed, the sovereignty of God fully extended, and the character of God fully embodied. A bringing together of all that can be and could be within the covenant community of God. That the Kingdom is coming is unshakable, but it’s substance is the product of our creative collaboration with the God who brought us into covenant with Himself. The Kingdom is what God wills it and we make it.

Nowhere is the Biblical hope some sort of ethereal bliss in a disembodied heavenly realm. Our hope is not in escaping this world and spending eternity in “a better place,” but in God’s act of reconciling this world to Himself, that Heaven and earth might be forever brought together in a marriage of sorts, and that God and His people would dwell together in a kingdom that will not end. It is a kingdom of rest for everybody involved. Those who are tired find their rest here. Those who are bruised and beaten up by the machinery of this world are invited to come and be nursed to health. Some theologians of old imagined it as a place where everyone might find their perfect happiness. They’re probably right. In the fullness of the Kingdom also lives the fullness of Joy.

It is not merely that we won’t need our pets or our loved ones to be happy, but that we will be joined together with the Source of Joy and happiness. We will dwell forever in the substance that cast their shadow. Whatever community we had in this life finds its completion in the fullness of God’s presence and kingdom. Far from abandoning the things that bring us pleasure and enjoyment today, I imagine that in the fullness of the Kingdom we will also find the fullness of fun.

It’s also a place of real freedom. We are a disfigured humanity, and there’s no rescue to be found within ourselves. The world is cruel because we are, oppressive because we are, broken because we are. We’re the villains of this story. But in Christ, God has made good on His promise to rescue us from our own disfiguration, and the disfiguration of the world we created in our image. For the person rescued by Christ, the whole of their experience in this life is restorative; no trial is punishment, no suffering is retributive. Every experience in the life of the Christian is designed to grow them in godliness. Jesus is creating for Himself a people that reflect His own compassion. One day the whole world’ll look like love.

Which brings me back round to complacent apocalyptism. If the golden years are ahead of us rather than behind us, I have good cause not to give up working toward them. We don’t build the kingdom, but we live on its terms together, surrounded by people who are homesick for it. We’re resurrection people in an Ecclesiastes world. But it doesn’t come naturally.

Few motivators are more powerful than the desire to do nothing. For all of my talk about pursuing justice for oppressed people, I am fundamentally inclined toward complacency. I reach the height of my creativity when I am manufacturing reasons to mind my own business and allow great social ills to persist that I have the power to positively affect. The truth is that I don’t have to buy coffee beans picked by children who were kidnapped and forced into slave labor when there are a multitude of products to choose from and I have access to resources that help identify which companies have been busted for unethical overseas labor practices.

I don’t have to be content as a bystander while politicians determine the fate of families who come to America illegally to create a better life for their families in the absence of a naturalization process that is both timely and affordable because as a voter I can gather sizable groups of like-minded voters and demand that my representatives make immigration reform a priority. But actually doing any of these things requires me to betray my chief motivator: complacency. Bringing about any change in the structure of things presses against the currents of human depravity. But God.

So like scripture is the eyes through which we read the past ans present, it’s also the tool by which the risen Jesus turns us into the hands by which He writes the future. We’re placed here as the chief means by which He brings about the reconciling of all things in Himself, because in first century Palestine, a Roman soldier could force a Jewish peasant to carry his heavy pack for up to one mile simply because he was Jewish. So there’s a new Jerusalem coming. Because In North Korea, millions are systemically abused and oppressed by a power hungry government whose cruelty seems to know few bounds. So there’s a new Jerusalem coming. Because in various parts of Africa, rebel group raid villages and kidnap the children to make them into bloodthirsty soldiers or exhausted sex slaves. So there’s a new Jerusalem coming. Because in modern day America, minority men and women have to go about their day to day lives in the knowledge that in every convenience store they walk into, a racially charged confrontation may await, and the justice system may not treat them fairly. So there’s a new Jerusalem coming. Because there is a deeply rooted brokenness in the world that needs not to be transcended but confronted, which we need not to be released from but rather to overcome and to chase into oblivion. So there’s a new Jerusalem coming, specifically, through the work of Jesus, as he ministers to the world through the resurrection people whom his Father called forth from our Ecclesiastes world. There’s a new Jerusalem coming so, by the Spirit, we swing against the grain of our culture’s complacent apocalyptism.

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