On the genre of apocalypse.
Luke 21:5-9: When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”
And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” (NRSV)
Greetings to you and peace from God our Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Abiding Holy Spirit.
Before we get into the details of our story today, I want to spend a little time talking about the genre of apocalyptic storytelling. Yes, it is a genre just like sci-fi, fantasy, history, or mystery are genres. So let’s start with the word apocalypse, which is a Greek word that means revealing or revelation. That’s why Revelation is called Revelation because the first word of that book is “apocalypse.” So apocalypse does not mean destruction or devastation. And it doesn’t just refer to one big destruction at the end of time either.
Now each genre has an aspect of life that it explores. Fantasy stories explore the use of power, whether it be magic or class or wealth or talent. Sci-fi stories are always exploring the question of where our hope comes from. Does it come from technology or exploration or revolution? Mystery stories explore the tension between order and chaos in the world. And apocalyptic stories explore where God is.
Just as fantasy uses the idea of magic to explore power and science fiction uses imagined future technology or future societies to explore hope, apocalypse uses collapse, destruction, and upheaval to scout out the presence of God. Here’s why: because when everything is going smoothly, when everything is working as it “should” (usually defined by us), or when you’re happy, it is too easy, too saccharine sweet, too hunky dory, to say that God is in the thing that is making you happy or comfortable or rich or successful or powerful or influential. It is too easy to say that God is on my side because things are going so well. God must be at work amidst the things that I care about because they’re great, aren’t they? What kind of good news is that to people who are suffering? Sounds like terrible news, that if God is with you, then things will work out. Sounds like a lonely place to be if your life is falling apart.
So collapse, destruction, upheaval, suffering, and loss becomes the perfect place to explore where God is because there are no easy or trite answers. Not just in one event of collapse and recreation at the end of time either. The genre of apocalyptic literature throughout the Bible helps us to see that there are kinds of apocalyptic events, and they don’t hit humankind evenly or universally. There are international apocalyptic events like what we hear about in the book of Revelation, there are national or regional apocalyptic events like the first destruction of the Temple and the Exile of the Jews in the Old Testament or the second destruction of the Temple that Jesus is teaching about in our reading today, and there are, of course, personal apocalyptic events like Jesus’ arrest and execution for his disciples. It is in those places of suffering and failure that honest, good news can be heard and received. Destruction reveals the truth about God to us like nothing else can.
In our reading for today, Jesus is teaching his disciples about the impending destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. He begins this teaching after he has directed the disciples' attention to notice the poor widow woman who has come to the Temple to offer her last two copper coins. Who is simultaneously being sustained by her faith in God and impoverished by the practices of the religious establishment. Jesus begins his apocalyptic teaching after the disciples’ attention has instead been captured by the beauty of the Temple, the stones and ornate doors and rich colors, funded by who knows how many impoverished widows. In the tension of this moment, of his disciple’s attention being caught in the wrong place, turned in the wrong direction, Jesus starts to teach them about the destruction of the beautiful Temple that they can’t help but notice.
And the disciples immediately want to know when this will take place so that they can prepare themselves. But Jesus responds with a warning not to be led astray by those offering false teaching, bearing false witness about where God is and what God is up to.
Because when things fall apart, people want to know where God is. They are open in a different sort of way to hear the witness, the teaching, the stories of those around them about where they saw God in the turmoil. Was God in this temple? Was God in the destruction? Was God anywhere?
Here’s the interesting thing about this reading, that when Luke’s gospel was finished and circulated, the destruction of the Temple had already taken place. So the people of the early Church weren’t hearing this teaching as some kind of forecast of what’s to come, but as a reflection on a past event. An event that a number of them had experienced for themselves.
So they probably knew from their own experience that when this apocalypse came into their life, there was no way to prepare for how it would change them and the way that they saw the world and God in the world. Apocalypse means revealing so you actually have to be there to experience it. You actually have to see God in the rubble. A God who shows up in the rubble is always unexpected. Then you can testify.
That’s the other characteristic that shows up in apocalyptic literature: the need for a witness. Because if the genre of apocalypse is asking the question “Where is God?”, then by the end of the story someone will have spotted God somewhere. Then they are faced with the question of what to do next. Now that they have seen God in the destruction, what do they do? Do they keep it to themselves? Do they share their story? Does it even matter?
We see that there is a generative connection established between a God who has been seen and a person who has seen God. Tucked into the gaze shared between God revealed and the witness who saw where God was is the invitation, the possibility, of new creation. Of new life. To testify to God in the world, with us in the rubble, in the collapse, in the upheaval, is an act of co-creation with God.
So the genre of apocalypse brings us right back to new creation. Creation is full of endings just as it is full of beginnings. Beginnings and endings that dance with each other, shift back and forth through each other. In the end, I don’t know how foreboding it is for Jesus to teach his disciples that endings, deconstruction, will take place. The collapse is merely the gateway to turning our gaze back to God. To turn our eyes back to the God who stays with us. Not to see a God that left and abandoned everyone, not to see a God that came in righteous fury to bring the world to its knees, not to see that God is confined to, restrained by, our treasures, our dogmas, or our national identities. No, we turn our eyes to God, a God who never abandons us and then we speak a new story into a world ripe for new growth.
The genre of apocalypse teaches us that though buildings may be destroyed, technologies may be lost, nations collapse, the hope of seeing God at work in the world never fails.