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Apocalypse or Revelation?

If you weren’t on my search committee or the Vestry, you might not know that I spent about twenty-five years in Silicon Valley, working in communications for many high-tech firms and non-profits. In the latter part of that career, I ended up working mostly on the philanthropic arms of high-tech, as well as non-profits who were using tech to address problems. Way before that, however, at the beginning of my career, I started by selling the end of the world.

The year was 1998, and I had just finished studying Fiction Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. It was, and continues to be, the kind of thing that most parents tell their kids, probably correctly, they really shouldn’t study. Very few people actually make a living writing fiction, and someone with this training usually has to teach, or find some other means of employment.

Anyway, after I finished, I had no idea what I was going to do next, so I moved back to my hometown of San Jose, CA just as the first dotcom era was starting. This was back when Web sites were only a couple of years old, and everyone was still saying “WWW” every time they said a website address. Through a pretty lucky connection through my sister, I got my first writing job with a company that made mainframe computers. I had exactly zero experience in writing about technology, and the writing sample I used to get my first interview was a short story.

The woman who hired me, though, was a reader of short stories, and she hired me anyway. And for almost the whole first year or so of that job, I wrote brochures and Web sites about the coming “apocalypse” known as the Y2K bug. Remember that? The short version is that there was a date error in one of the programs that most computers around the world used at the time. Because of this error, at the moment the year 1999 turned to the year 2000, computers that hadn’t been fixed would suddenly freeze and malfunction. If this happened to your home computer, the consequences would have been pretty minor.

But if it happened to a supercomputer in, say, a bank, or power plant, or air traffic tower, all kinds of terrible things might happen. Bank accounts might reset to zero; or there might be huge, irreversible blackouts; or planes might crash because their navigation systems might have frozen. And so, I wrote a lot of super-scary, end-of-the-world brochures for large companies and government agencies who owned these super computers, trying to convince them to spend a lot of money with our company to fix the Y2K bug.

I was looking through some of those things I wrote recently and noticed that I used the word apocalypse a lot. Like at least once in every brochure. Things like, “Will your mainframe system survive the coming apocalypse?” Or “You might live through the Y2K apocalypse, but will your data?” In recent years, computer experts and historians have doubted whether anything apocalyptic on the scale that I was writing about would have ever happened. The fact is, we’ll likely never know. And we’ll never know if what I was writing in those brochures was total fiction. It wasn’t a fiction I would end up being proud if, however—it played on people’s fears, the worst of their emotions, all in service, really, at the end of the day, of making them transfer huge amounts of capital from one corporate entity to another.

Now, when we read the words of today’s Gospel, we’re tempted to think that Jesus is also talking about the end of the world. After he talks about the coming destruction of the temple—which we’ll come back to—some within the crowd ask him when this destruction will take place. And I think it’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t actually answer the question but instead goes into his long list of terrible things that are going to happen.

Jesus is always doing this, either ignoring a question or answering a question in a way that addresses what the crowd really needs to hear. Remember last week, when the Sadducees asked him about who the woman would be married to in the afterlife? And Jesus' answer told them that in the afterlife our concepts of death and marriage don’t apply? Because the kingdom of God is bigger than both death and marriage? He’s always doing this, telling his listeners—and us—what we really need to hear, not what we think we need to hear.

And so—this is what they need to hear? This long litany of wars, destruction, plagues, famines, and other disasters? It’s a list that makes what I was writing about the Y2K bug look pretty tame. And that’s just the global-scale disasters. Jesus then shifts into naming a number of personal persecutions that his followers will suffer. Those of us who were raised in a certain kind of church were told all of this at a very young age, that following Jesus could very likely lead to these sufferings, even death.

What can happen for us, living in 2022, is when we hear Jesus list of disasters, we can be reminded all too much of our current time. If we read today’s Gospel as a vision of the end of the world, it’s easy for us to think that we, in our current time, are teetering on the edge of apocalypse. From 9/11 to Covid, it seems like a long, twenty-year run of disasters. As one of my favorite bands, Wilco, puts it, “Every generation thinks it’s the worst. Every generation thinks it’s the end of the world.” And just yesterday in the New York Times, Matthew Thompson wrote, “The era we are now in the midst of might be defined, most notably, by the omnipresence of disaster.” Grace, 2022 can sometimes seem like Y2K times a hundred.

There are a few important differences, though, between what I was writing about Y2K all those years back and what Jesus is telling the crowds. First of all, Jesus' words weren’t fiction. The destruction of the temple by the Romans that starts off this whole passage did, in fact, happen in 70 AD, after the death of Jesus and before the Gospel of Luke was written, which was probably somewhere around 80-90 AD.

This is a bigger deal than it might sound at first, and I don’t want to make too much of a detour here, but Luke wrote his Gospel, and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, partially as books of hope and instruction for the early church. For them—and us—to read after the fact that Jesus foresaw the destruction of the temple means Jesus saw clearly what kinds of disasters his followers would suffer. Luke including this moment gives Jesus and his Gospel credibility.

Another important difference—and this is one of the most important things to take away from this morning—is that when Jesus spoke apocalyptically, he wasn’t speaking of the end of the world. He was speaking in terms of what the word apocalypse really means, which is revelation. Other translations say apocalypse means “that which is uncovered.” Jesus was uncovering the things that would happen not to scare us, but to reveal something important to the followers who would someday become the church, to the disciples that would become apostles.

One of the things that Jesus uncovers, that’s revealed to us today, is that what we think of apocalypse, these disasters that seem like the end of the world, have always been with us. We can get really tired holding onto the idea that our generation is the worst. And we sometimes feel we have the right to think that, especially after the last few years. Between Covid and the killing of George Floyd, and political unrest, and climate change, we really want to believe that no one has had it as bad as we do. But Jesus reveals to us, reminds us clearly, that most of these things are the natural consequence of what humans are always doing. They are doing what the prophet Jeremiah says humans do—they build things up and they pull things down. These constructions and destructions have always been with us.

And if that’s all Jesus revealed, we might still feel a little hopeless, a little despairing. But in the last lines of today’s Gospel, Jesus uncovers the Good News in something we find so easy to forget: that even in the midst of these disasters that are always with us, we endure. Grace, we endure. In fact, that enduring is grace. And just as our experience has shown us that certain disasters will always be with us, our experience has also shown us, even over the last few years, that with God’s help, we do endure.

Together, as a church, we have endured a lot. The closing of our doors during Covid, the departure of many of our siblings in Christ. Some of us have even wondered if one stone of this building, the church, would be left standing upon another. Yet, through it all, as Jesus said we would, we have endured together.

And this togetherness, this emphasis on enduring as a community, is one of the things I love about the Episcopal Church. We are in this thing together. We read the Book of Common Prayer in thousands of churches every Sunday together, and we learn how to be a church from the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles together. We hold differing theological and political views and still gather under one roof to say Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts together.

And, I have to confess that this emphasis on community ironically sometimes makes me feel a little alone. It may be that little Evangelical boy that invited Jesus into his heart all those years ago, but I sometimes want to know that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit care about me and my sufferings in a personal way. Away from church, away from the community, when I’ve gone home on Sunday afternoon, and I look at that picture of my father who passed of Covid waving at me through the nursing home window, I want to know that God is there with me in my grief, that God is helping me endure the pains that no one else can see.

And this is where I find another amazing bit of Good News tucked away in another small phrase near the end of today’s reading, the phrase that says, “not a hair of your head will perish.” Ah, that’s good news! That’s Good News that the God who helps us endure wars, and famines, and pandemics is the God that sees us closely, personally, even every single hair on our head. And not just sees us, but loves us, and is with us, in all of the particular detail of our particular lives.

God’s love zooms out and then it zooms in. God’s love covers all the angles—yes, great wounds like wars, and pandemics, and all manner of natural disasters, but also our private losses, our grief over those who have died, our failed dreams, our broken relationships. God’s all-angles love is big enough to hold each of us individually and all of us as a community, and globally, as God’s creation.

Grace, alongside the disasters that have always been with us, Jesus tells us what we really need to hear.

Jesus reveals that this is not the end of the world, we are not the ones who have had it the worst.

Jesus reveals that our ancestors endured the destruction of the temple, even when one stone was not left upon another.

Jesus reveals not only that we will also endure, but we are made to endure, together. And when we find ourselves apart from each other, God still watches over every single hair on our heads.

Let us pray.

Living and loving God, we thank you for your son, Jesus. We thank you for the opportunity to gather together and learn how to be his disciples. In the midst of our worry, remind us that this is not the end of the world. Remind us that your love has all of us covered from all the angles. And remind us that, like your children that have gone before us, we will endure.


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