The Secular Apocalypse

For the last 100 years the world has been living under the threat of doomsday. From 1914 to 1918 the most devastating war the world had ever seen took the lives of about nine million combatants and seven million civilians. The war was so catastrophic people didn’t know what to call it. Some called it “The Great War,” others called it “The War to End All Wars.” No one called it World War One, because no one could image there could ever be a second world war.

Then, just as the war was winding down a new strain of flu began to surface. One of the first cases was in Fort Riley, Kansas. Seven people died on a remote island north of Norway. Eventually the outbreak became severe in Spain, and the plague was called the Spanish Influenza. Before it was over 20 million to 50 million people had died, including 500,000 in the United States.

In Philadelphia a parade to celebrate the end of the war in 1918 drew a crowd of 200,000. Meanwhile St. Louis shut down the city with a very unpopular ruling. But the death rate in St. Louis was less than half of that in Philadelphia.

When things returned to normal, the roaring twenties followed the decade of death. But then it all came crashing down with the stock market failure of 1929, and the Great Depression followed. The depression didn’t really end until the Second World War, which was ended by the atomic bomb.
But prosperity returned and American factories were running full speed and new suburbs were sprouting up around our cities.

The prosperity and growth did have the side effect of pollution. In 1952 a “killer fog” resembling the biblical plagues in Exodus, and lasting five days killed 4000 right away and another 8000 through lingering illness.

By then the Cold War was in full force. The world had been divided into two spheres, the Communist Block and The Free World. The fearsome weapons developed to end the second world war hung over our heads like a sword of Damocles. Meanwhile, US soldiers, sailors, and marines were sent to South Korea to keep that country free.

The initial success in liberating the South made MacArthur overconfident, and he invaded the North to destroy its army and finish the task of liberating the Korean peninsula. But the Americans were met on a frozen tundra by the Chinese army who had invaded from the north.

The Chinese army was poorly equipped, but they had an unlimited number of young bodies to sacrifice. The approached uphill in wave after wave. Only the first lines and the last were given rifles, the last two shoot deserters. Those in the middle ranks were instructed to take a weapon from their fallen comrades in front of them.

The war in the North ended in a stalemate, and US forces are still there in South Korea and the DMZ keeping the peace.

Then the sixties brought us a serious of shocking assassinations and a quagmire in Vietnam, with protests in the streets and on college campuses. Amid that chaos, someone noticed that rivers were on fire and Eagles were dying. People started paying attention to the Doomsday Clock, which represented how close we were to extinction. It was originally set at 7 minutes to midnight, back in 1947 when it was created. In January of this year the clock was set to 100 seconds before midnight.

For one hundred years we have lived with the threat of the end of human life—and most other forms of life—on earth. The world has been in a secular apocalyptic threat. It’s no wonder that so many have been attracted to biblical texts speaking of the last days or judgment day.

The End of the Temple

In our text for today Jesus speaks of the last days and the end of the age. He is not referring primarily to the last days of the earth but to the last days of the Temple in Jerusalem. King Herod was in the middle of a massive renovation of the Second Temple. It was called the Second Temple because Solomon’s temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians around 586 B.C. A pitiful copy of Solomon’s temple was built after 70 years of captivity. Those old enough to remember the original wept when they saw the replacement.

Religion without a temple was unimaginable in Bible times. The temple for Judaism was a symbol of God’s presence, a place of prayer, a refuge of security. King Herod did a good job of building a glorious temple, and Jesus’ disciples marveled at the craftmanship and beauty. But Jesus told them the days of the temple were coming to an end. They couldn’t imagine the world continuing without the temple, so they assumed Jesus meant the end of the world. So, they asked Jesus a series of related questions. When will this happen? What will be the sign? And what will be the sign that you are coming?

Matthew 24 records the same incident, and Matthew makes it very clear that Jesus is speaking of two different events. He referred to Christ’s Second Coming to make the world right as “that day.” He referred to the end of the temple and the events surrounding it as “these things” and promised they would be fulfilled in “this generation.” He gave clear signs of “these things” that would happen in “this generation,” but said no one knows when “that day” will be.

Luke is primarily concerned with the end of the temple and the events that will precede it. Since we are following Luke’s Gospel this year, we will try to focus on his concerns. Let’s begin with the opening verses in today’s text:

5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” (Luke 21:5-6)

WHY DID THE TEMPLE HAVE TO GO AWAY?

The temple was only a temporary provision. It was a concession to the needs of the people. They couldn’t imagine worshipping God without a solid, stone temple in a central location. They could not imagine praying to a homeless God. In the book of Genesis, the ancestors followed God from place to face and worshiped him wherever they were. Sometimes they built a simple altar or some other memorial. Then they moved on. In Exodus, they followed a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and worshiped God as he led them on the road to freedom. Moses did give them blueprints for a portable tabernacle, a “tent of meeting.”

But when David established the capital in Jerusalem, he thought a portable tent wasn’t good enough. So, he prayed and offered to build a house for God. The Lord was pleased at David’s offer, but would not allow David to do the work because his hands were stained with blood. The killing he did may have been justifiable and necessary, but still the Lord wanted his house to be a place of peace and built by a peaceful king.

So, Solomon undertook the work. The Lord accepted it and agreed to meet the people at the temple and hear prayers from there or said while facing that place. But there are hints throughout the Old Testament that the Master of the Universe did not really need or desire a stone temple.

The real place God desires to dwell is the human heart.
Until people could get used to that idea, God allowed them to think of him as dwelling in a room in an edifice—as long as they remembered he is not confined to it. The Lord inhabits heaven, he fills the universe, but when God’s people remembered to humble themselves and pray, he would hear their prayers from heaven and reveal his gracious presence in the House on earth. But that was only a temporary provision.

God’s plan was for the dead sacrifices offered at the temple to be replaced by the offering of praise, by the joyful living sacrifice of hearts filled with the goodness of God. God desires for the whole earth to be his temple and every human heart to be a holy of holies, the inner sanctuary of the temple. As Paul and Peter put it, we are living stones in this living temple.

Corruption in the Temple

The community who moved down by the Dead Sea made that migration because they knew the temple establishment was corrupt. It wasn’t the foreign armies that defiled the temple this time; it was the priestly establishment who controlled temple activities. Jesus agreed with them when he drove the money changers out of the temple courts.
Herod’s building project was ongoing when Jesus and his disciples walked by.

In fact, the project was not completed until A.D. 64, just six years before it would all be destroyed. Just about that time various factions in Jerusalem and Galilee became so violent, civil war broke out. Then the Romans sent in the armies to put it down and bring their version of peace. What God had intended to do peacefully and naturally was now going to be done violently by a pagan army.

And so it happened. Christians who remembered the teaching of Jesus fled when they saw Jerusalem surrounded by armies. Those who remained in the city suffered horribly. Jesus wept at the thought of all that suffering. It is true that the leaders of Jerusalem brought it on themselves and their people. That does not make the suffering any less awful.

There were signs such as Jesus mentioned. Earthquakes, famines, strange meteorological phenomena, the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum. The end of the temple era came. The General Titus ordered his soldiers to spare the temple. But one drunken soldier set it on fire. The Gold that crowned the building melted and ran down into the cracks between the stones. So, the soldiers dismantled the stones to get to the gold. Just as Jesus had predicted, not one stone was left on top of another.

The temple had to come to an end, but the people didn’t have to suffer the way they did. Their leaders failed to listen to the teachings of Moses and the prophets, and the Galilean teacher who came to their courts.

But the end of the temple itself is good news. It means that Christianity is a worldwide faith. It is not limited to one place or one people. Every nationality, every tongue, every tribe, every individual can be a holy place, a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

I miss touching and greeting my brothers and sisters face to face today. But we are bound together by a spiritual bond that is not broken by physical separation.

The Anti-Solomon

Most of us have heard of the wisdom of Solomon, exemplified in his adjudicating the custody dispute of two women over a baby. The women were roommates who both had recently had newborn babies. One baby died in a tragic accident, and then both women claimed the surviving child was hers. Solomon said “cut the baby in two,” and one woman agreed; the other said, “No, let her have it.” Old King Solomon ruled that the one who would give up the baby to let it live was the true mother.

A couple of centuries later, King Jehoram in Israel faced a problem no wisdom could solve. The capital city of Samaria was under siege from Syria and people were starving to death. A woman cried out to the king, “Help my, my lord!” and he said, “How can I help you. Let the Lord God help you.” Then he asked what her problem was.

The two women each had a son, and the previous day that had agreed they would eat the children, one day, and one the next. “So, we boiled my son and ate him. But now, she has hidden her son and won’t give him to me!” The king had no wisdom to solve this one. He tore his clothes as a sign of mourning and cursed the prophet Elisha, whom he assumed could have helped. Elisha did show up later, and said the siege would soon be over and food would be available again.

There are tragic, horrible situations in life, where people have to make desperate decisions. In this case, perhaps if the two women had waited, it would have been alright for all of them. But there was no way they could know that. Maybe all four parties would have died had they not chosen to sacrifice the one child. Maybe the other mother was wrong to break her promise—but we can’t fault her loyalty to her child. Life is even more sacred than a contract or a promise. Who was right? What was the right decision? Even the king couldn’t decide.

There are tragic situations in life. Sometimes they involve pregnancy. When women for social, economic, medical, or emotional reasons are convinced they cannot handle an unwanted pregnancy, they usually seek an early abortion. Most abortions are done at around 8-10 weeks into pregnancy. I believe individuals, charities, churches, and other groups can offer alternatives to women faced with a difficult pregnancy, and the number of abortions can be reduced. I think there are even support services the government could provide that are truly pro life.

About 1% of abortions occur after 21 weeks of gestation, and a very small number closer to full term at 40 weeks. The thought of a fetus at a late stage of development being destroyed is gruesome and disturbing. It is understandable that people are outraged at the idea. But do they ask, “why would a woman want to go through an abortion at this late stage?”

The answer is disturbingly simple: severe medical abnormalities that present a grave threat to the life of the mother or the prospect of a baby that is born that will gasp for a few breaths and then die, or perhaps grow up without any chance of having a fully human life. Or maybe a baby that will grow up completely dependent on 24-hour care and deprive siblings of their mother’s attention or the income she could bring in for the family.

Legal minds want to know: what defines severe and life threatening? What kind of disabilities are you talking about? Maybe a better question is, “Who is qualified to answer those questions?” Would we rather have a king decide, or a judge, or a politician? Who best understands the total context and the needs of the family?

Some states have recently decided these are questions best decided by the family: the mother in consultation with the best medical advice and the advice and support she may seek from family and friends.

I still believe the government and private organizations and individuals can offer alternatives. No one should have to make a heart-rending decision for financial reasons. It would be expensive to guarantee a lifetime of medical care to a person born with severe defects. But if we are a pro-life nation, we have to do that. I know there are people willing to adopt a severely handicapped baby. But if that option is available, there has to be a framework for it to happen and to let people know about it.

A woman who carries a fetus 21 weeks wants to hold a baby in her arms, wants the child to live. Think of how heartbreaking it must be when she receives the bad news. We can provide options. But who is best qualified to make the final decision?

Why Religion? By Elaine Pagels

That was the question her parents asked when young Elaine announced she was going to enter Harvard Graduate School to study religion. A few years earlier her secular father was furious to learn that she had gone forward at a Billy Graham crusade and given her life to Christ.

Describing the crusade she attended with friends in California, she said the evangelist spoke of the national sin of racism and mentioned that the USA was the first and only nation in history to use a nuclear weapon. Although her personal religious perspective changed over the years, she never criticized Graham, and expressed gratitude for the world the experience and Evangelical Christianity opened to her.

She continued to attend a weekly Bible study with her evangelical friends throughout high school—until tragedy struck. Her close friend Paul was killed in a car accident, and her evangelical friends told her he was in hell because he was Jewish. A curious reminder of the atmosphere in which she grew up, Jerry Garcia was part of her circle of San Francisco friends and was riding in the car and injured in the accident. She believes his reaction to surviving the accident was reflected in the name he chose (from the Egyptian book of the Dead) for the new band he formed shortly after the tragic event.

Tragedy is the theme of the book. I don’t need to give a spoiler alert, because she mentions in the introduction the tragic deaths of her son and husband. The details are heart wrenching.

Reading those details was uncomfortable for me, but her main theme, her religious journey, was disquieting for me. She describes sexism at Harvard (she was first denied admission to the program because they didn’t believe a woman could persevere and complete her research), and sexual harassment by her adviser, who was not named in this book, but was in some of her earlier writings. Nevertheless, she did persevere.

Her research centered on the newly published Nag Hammadi texts, Coptic translations of secret or lost Gospels. She described her findings and those of her colleagues in the book The Gnostic Gospels. Her approach to the history of early Christianity is popularized by Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code. She believes the Gnostic Gospels represent a faith free from dogma, a faith that emphasizes free inquiry and looking within for the truth.

Professor Krister Stendahl, professor and later dean at Harvard, was one of the good guys in her story. She described telling him at her admission interview she wanted to explore the essence of Christianity. He asked her, “What makes you think it has an essence?” The group of researchers she joined came to describe various diverse Christian movements in the days before a defined dogma suppressed diversity and dissent.

I have long believed that Christianity will always be in need of renewal and reform; but I have also believed that the resources for that renewal will always be in available in the traditional sources: primarily the New Testament Scriptures, with some guidance from the church fathers, the Apostles Creed, and support from the Old Testament prophets. The numerous recent failures of various Christian leaders and the followers makes me wonder if the traditional resources are enough.

Professor Pagels is a good story teller. I listened to the audiobook version, and I had several driveway moments waiting to finish an episode. The reader was pretty good, but not perfect. She didn’t always pronounce the words correctly and sometimes paused prematurely. When Pagels spoke of a beautiful “Reformation hymn,” the reader said “re-formation.” But audiobooks are great for someone who spends much time in a car.

The Constitution as Written

The creators of the Constitution wanted to create something: a more perfect union. They wanted to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and future generations. So they wrote a constitution. The Constitution should be interpreted according to the goals it was created to accomplish.

Is the Constitution a living document? If you are averse to metaphors, no. The constitution was written on the skin of a dead animal. After 200 years the parchment is probably pretty stiff and dry; it’s not very flexible.

But the drafters of the Constitution wanted to accomplish something for future generations. They understood that there has to be some flexibility in the interpretation and application of the provisions they created.

So they wrote the Ninth Amendment: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people. The constitution does not create our rights, nor does it create an exhaustive list of them. For example, the right to privacy is not listed as such, but it is assumed by the Fourth Amendment: the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects. The protection against homeowners being required to quarter soldiers in time of peace assumes the same right.

The eighth amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.” This is an appeal to a community standard. They did not define cruel and unusual. They knew that such standards would change over time. Public flogging is no longer common; it would now be very unusual and considered cruel.

The constitution is a broad and general legal document. It was meant to be interpreted and applied by people who shared a commitment to its goals of liberty and harmony, people of good sense and judgment, people with the flexibility to understand how changes in conditions, attitudes, and knowledge call for changes in the law.

Entitled and Privileged

Kids should have the privilege of going to school without being murdered. The are entitled to that.

In 1968 Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were both assassinated. A serious debate about gun control started that year, and it looked like something was going to happen. In the fifty years since then, nothing has happened. And while nothing has happened one and a half Americans have died from gunshots.

A million and a half! I can’t fathom that number; and I can’t fathom the attitude we all have, “well, there’s nothing we can do.”

I used to think a million murders constitute a genocide. I guess it’s not, because they were not singled out for their ethnicity. A disproportionate number have been poor or minority, but mostly they were random victims.

So we can’t call it genocide, but what can we call it? An atrocity? An outrage? A measure of apathy and impotence?

I know some of my fellow Christians will say, “Well there have been 45 million abortions; and that’s a holocaust.”  I will say two things:

1. I try to be consistently pro-life. I don’t think the supreme court is going to overturn Roe v. Wade, but there are things we can do to reduce the number of abortions. We can support comprehensive healthcare including pre-natal and post-natal care for mothers and children, better education including sex education, better support for adoption. These things have been proven to reduce the number of abortions.

I understand that some abortions are medically necessary. And I suppose I understand why the court ruled the only one qualified to make the decision is the mother, in consultation with her physician.

You can be pro-life and pro-woman, and pro-child, and nonviolent. You can do practical, positive things to help.

Still, I support the right of anyone to organize, march, speak out, vote, protest, get out in the streets to support causes they consider important. The first amendment is a wonderful thing. After so-called pro-life people murdered a physician in Emporia, I no longer want to be associated with confrontational movements. But I am still pro-life and pro-peace. I am against war, capital punishment, and the murder of our children, the murder of our young men, police brutality, the rejection of refugees, singling out anyone for hate and exclusion.

2. Here is my second point: it is tragic when some women feel they have no choice but to terminate a healthy pregnancy. Sometimes it happens when the developing fetus is capable of feeling pain, of responding to voices, and other human activities.

But there is no comparison between abortion and the holocaust. Fetuses may feel pain, but they don’t feel the terror of being herded into death chambers. Parents may regret the choice of an abortion, but still feel it was they right choice. They don’t watch helplessly while someone else murders children they have come to know and love. They are not deprived of their human agency by a brutal military power.

I hate to have to spell out the obvious. The holocaust and every genocide was forced on people by a military or governmental power. It was an act of state sponsored terrorism for no reason other than hate or political power. Our government upholds the constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court. It does not force anyone to have an abortion.

The murder of children and teenagers, a dozen or so at a time, the massacre we seen in school shootings is an atrocity. It is a part of a larger atrocity. The murder of young black men is an atrocity. The death of children in drive by shootings is an atrocity. And we still accept the lame rationalizations. We should feel entitled to stop it.

A million and a half!

Why are we not out in the streets?

There is something we can do. The supreme court says we can’t ban handguns and congress doesn’t have the will to ban assault rifles.

There is something congress can do. They can’t regulate guns but they can regulate gun owners. They can require rigorous training, background checks, photo ID, proof of citizenship, and licensing. Law enforcement can enforce well-designed laws. Every citizen is a member of the militia. The militia is to be well-regulated.  If you say you cannot regulate gun users, you are denying the constitution.

Congress is addicted to money from the NRA. They will not do anything.  You can guarantee it. But the voters can.

We can get out in the street and demand that congress regulate the citizen militia. And we can fire those who refuse. We can make this election about one pro-life issue: separating deadly weapons from dangerous people. We may have to let some pot smokers out to make room for those who violate reasonable gun-user control laws.

Growing Up Conservative, 2

Here are the rest of my reflections on my Bible college education.

Yes, we were taught a conservative view of the Bible and the Christian faith. We were taught that the “social Gospel” was dangerous. We were taught our primary mission was evangelism, winning people to faith in Jesus so they could go to heaven, rather than building schools and hospitals. We were warned about liberal theologians who were basically atheists that used religious language as metaphors. But we were not taught hate. Overall, my conservative religious education was positive and wholesome, and made me a better person.

Brother Wilson had been the founding professor at Ozark Bible College. He celebrated his fortieth year while we were students there. There was also a new, younger professor, Knofel Staton there. He was known as a dynamic speaker. He spoke nearly every weekend in different churches or conferences throughout the area. Sonja and I both enrolled in his “Introduction to Bible Study Class” our freshman year. It was an amazing class. This was before I had enrolled in the official hermeneutics class, but it was a seminar in historical and contextual interpretation.

Professor Staton’s favorite theme was unity. The church was to be a community of unity. He loved to explain agape, the Greek word for God’s love. Agape is “seeing a need and moving to meet it.” The church is a community of unity, the body of Christ through which his love flows to a hurting world. Feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, helping single mothers, sponsoring alcoholics anonymous, fighting racism, all these works of love were as valid as evangelism. He led us through Romans 16 and pointed out all of the women who were active in ministry. He mentioned Deborah in the Old Testament and called the theory that God chose her only because there were no strong men available “poppycock!”

I did a lot of reading beyond course requirements. Whenever I found a good author I ready several books by the same name. One of my professors liked Elton Trueblood. I read his book on Philosophy of Religion in conjunction with a course on the subject. A statement in that book surprised me for its direct and simple logic: “You don’t have to believe anything that is irrational.” Specifically, he was talking about Christian beliefs about hell. The statement struck me. I had somehow believed we have to believe some things that don’t make sense, as a test of faith, or because God is smarter than we are. But here is a Christian thinker who says, No, you don’t have to believe things that don’t make sense.

Along with several of my friends, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, which emphasized genuine repentance and obedience to the words of Jesus Christ. We didn’t know much of the historical background. We thought obedience meant being faithful in prayer and church attendance, avoiding pornography and alcohol, the traditional sins for conservative Christians. We didn’t realize the book was written in 1937, three years after Hitler seized power, and that for Bonhoeffer, obedience meant resistance to the ideology of Arian Nationalism, white supremacy, the idolatrous worship of a strong leader, and the compromise of the churches in endorsing “German Christianity.” Later I would make a more detailed study of all of Bonhoeffer’s major writings, especially his Letters and Papers from Prison, written while he was paying the personal cost of his following Jesus.

You had to be there in the late 1960s and early 1970s to appreciate Francis Schaeffer. He had a ministry in the Swiss Alps called “L’Abri Fellowship.” Wandering hippies and students on a Wanderjahr and young people needing a few days of detox would crash for a day or a month and think deep thoughts and have deep conversations with Francis and his wife Edith. These vagabond seekers experienced genuine Christian love and heard answers to their deepest questions, while being challenged with new questions. Occasionally Francis would tape record a lecture and put it in an archive. He also collected recordings from other visiting lecturers, such as Os Guinness.

Francis Schaeffer had long hair and wore Lederhosen. His voice was high-pitched and always reminded me of Truman Capote. Friends would gather his recorded lectures and transcribe them into books. And the books were eloquent. Schaeffer critiqued modern literature, philosophy, and theology, along with art and politics, and presented faith in the living God as the alternative to modern despair; He spoke of “The God Who Is There,” as a reality not just a metaphor.

There has often been an element of anti-intellectualism in conservative religion. We valued the positive contributions of Schaeffer’s thought. But he also gave us “permission” (if we needed it–yes, we needed it) to attend to great art and literature and to think serious thoughts.

At the other extreme of intellectual stimulation was a satirical journal called the Wittenberg Door. Reading it helped keep my perspective in balance. The magazine regularly lampooned icons of the evangelical subculture. But it also included serious interviews. I was introduced to Martin Marty, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and many other serious Christian thinkers and activists. A cartoon in the Wittenberg Door characterized what kind of magazine it was: a young man standing at a news stand was surreptitiously looking at its pages hidden under the cover of a Playboy magazine.