When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately saying, “Tell us when this will be and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
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You will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of birth pangs.
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So if they say to you “Look! He is in the wilderness,” do not go out. If they say, “Look He is in the inner rooms,” do not believe it.
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But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
– Mt. 24
The 1976 film adaptation of Logan’s Run depicts a dystopian society in which all 30 year olds are required to submit to a process called “renewal.” The “renewal” process is part of a semi-religious ceremony called Carousel, in which the participants float up into the air only to be disintegrated in a fiery burst.
Some resist the mysterious super-computer that manages society. These “runners” try to escape the confines of the city where they live to find a place called Sanctuary – where they will presumably be safe, happy, and free.
Carousel, it turns out, is only a glorified death. There is no reincarnation. No renewal. Only oblivion. There is no Sanctuary, either. Instead, we discover that their city has been built among the ruins of Washington, DC after a nuclear holocaust. Outside there is only a familiar world waiting to be rediscovered. At the climax of the film, Logan, a runner who has sought out Sanctuary and discovered that it is a myth, is interrogated by the computer. Asked to provide the location of Sanctuary, he repeats the same, eerie, phrase over and over again:
There is no sanctuary!
Unable to accept this assertion, the computer self-destructs, and the inhabitants of the city wander out into the daylight. The progenitors of a new Humanity, they are forced to begin, together, to build a stable, safe society in a familiar world.
The film’s critique of religion is not very subtle. But, if I had my way, it would be required viewing in seminary, because – in the midst of all of all the 70s sci-fi cheese – it offers an important message.
Religion, in its best form, helps us to shape society into a better place. In its worst forms, however, it makes us complicit with its ills (Renewal) or hopeful that we can avoid dealing with them altogether (Sanctuary).
That is why, like the disciples in Matthew 24, many of us still love to hear and tell stories of apocalypse.
For them, the apocalypse looked something like this: Someday, we will rise up, and God will be on our side, and we will destroy those filthy Romans, and then, it will just be us. They won’t be around anymore. Only question is…what’s the sign going to be that its time to pick up our weapons and fight? Maybe we’ll hear that a war is starting? Maybe there will be an earthquake somewhere? Maybe floods or famines…something to show that God is on the move?
Cryptic though this passage may be, it is clear to me that part of Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question is to warn them that…no, if we give into the vision of apocalypse, it’s the Romans who will get us. Things will only get worse before they get better.
As James Alison has pointed out, dreams of apocalyptic glory go on today. Sometimes they are political/military: kill this person, torture that group, demonstrate a flash of “shock and awe” in this war, and then they will leave us alone and it will just be us. Sometimes they are instead visions of divine “shock and awe” – a warning of a cataclysmic end for all of them, leaving us to enjoy an eternity in our own version of Sanctuary.
The important thing is we don’t have to work things out with them. There is a way out – by violence or escape or even a nasty Carousel-like marriage between faith and institutionalized injustice. We don’t have to all get along. One way or the other, we will soon be rid of them.
By contrast, Jesus’ characterization of the “end of the age,” which is the subject of the second prong of the two-part question posed by the disciples, has little to do with the violent ends that characterize our apocalyptic narratives. They are, as Jesus puts it, not an end, but the birth pangs of a new beginning.
The “end of the age” is a day of judgment and wrath to be sure – for those that oppress and destroy the earth, and for those who are in cahoots with the empires that commit these atrocities. But for the rest of us – for those who seek to live in peace with each other and with Creation – it’s a day of realized dreams, of great anticipation. It is a fulfillment of the things we strive for in the here and now.
Not long after Jesus told the story that re-shaped the apocalyptic visions of his day, the disciples were cautioned not to waste their time staring at the sky, but to simply be assured that God would act again in God’s time. It was time for them to focus on the world around them; to go about the hard work of shaping it into a place where there is no longer an us and a them.
Today, we, like them, have been reminded about an important truth. Like Logan’s eerie scream, we can almost hear the words ringing around the net and in our conversations with friends:
There is no apocalypse!
Not like the disciples expected. Not like many of us want.
Time again to stop staring at the sky and to roll up our sleeves. There is much work ahead.
The Creator has not given up on his world, nor has he given up on us. Or them.
Praise be to God.