Apocalypse. What a scary word! For me, when I first hear it I think of fire and brimstone. I think of the END of everything as we know it, and the weeping and gnashing of teeth that we heard about a few weeks ago. And the apocalypse is a popular theme in our culture. A quick search on Amazon results in over 50,000 books that one can buy related to this theme, with titles like “Edge of Collapse: A Post-Apocalyptic EMP Survival Thriller” and “Badlands: A Post-Apocalyptic Journey” and “Searching for Refuge.” There are entire companies that rely on our fears of an impending apocalypse that sell bunkers, and freeze dried survival food and other tools that they are sure we will need. There are countless TV shows and movies that have made millions of dollars around the theme of living in a post-apocalyptic world. And I must admit that I find myself thinking whether I would be able to survive like those characters do.
But what if this idea of an apocalypse, of something that should be feared, isn’t how everyone understood the idea of apocalypse in the scripture of the Hebrew bible and New Testament? What if the idea of an apocalypse was something that was looked forward to, and even hoped for?
In Isaiah 51, we are entering a world after the Babylonian exile and a return to Jerusalem after it’s destruction. The words of Isaiah are directed to a people that have lost the Temple–the center of their faith life–and are searching for a way forward. As a people experiencing exile, Isaiah was speaking to a people who had been overwhelmed by the powerful. They were living at the bottom rung of Babylonian society. In that environment, it would have been a natural response to focus only on one’s immediate needs for survival. Thoughts of the past or of the future would seem distant and disconnected from reality. What did dreams of a better future contribute to putting food on the table? How would telling stories of one’s heritage help the exiles live to face another day?
When focusing only on the here and now, it would be easy to lose hope for any alternative future. Any possibility for a life in which existence wasn’t a daily struggle to survive. But to make this switch, this change in perception, there needed to be an outside voice that proclaimed an alternative, that wasn’t only based on the future and new possibilities, but was rooted in the Israelite’s past. Isaiah’s words are a word of comfort and encouragement to a people who on their own didn’t have the bandwidth to imagine that Eden.
While I don’t know who among us has had an experience of being exiled in the manner of the Israelites, I am sure that among us there are people who have had experiences of having to leave their home at a time that they weren’t planning. Whether that was because of a fire or natural disaster, or having to go to a retirement home earlier than planned, having to leave one’s home can impact a person’s sense of identity. Almost 1/3 of all renters in Minnesota are at risk of being evicted because of not being able to pay their rent. While there are always “reasons” for these exiles – the home no longer being safe, not being safe for one to be on their own, or not being able to pay rent – these justifications still hurt.
For people who have had to leave their homes, it doesn’t matter if there is a plan to get everyone affordable housing in the future, or if they had always been able to pay their rent before. All that matters is finding housing in the here and now.
Yet in scripture, we are constantly reminded of the ways in which God has acted in history. Isaiah reminds those in exile that God is reliable. It is at the time when God’s people feel most defeated that this reminder is most necessary. So Isaiah goes back to the beginning of the Israelites, to Sarah and Abraham. They had been hoping for a child, in a desperate place, feeling defeated. They had all but given up on ever being able to have the child they hoped for. And yet, God followed through with the birth of Isaac. Just as God took Sarah and Abraham who had been as a barren desert, God blessed them with their Eden in their son Isaac.
And for those living in exile, the desert that would turn to Eden, could be understood to mean all of the places and ways in which their lives had been dried up and desolate, that God would be present there and bring abundance. And this abundance for the people who had been living in exile, it was not only for them alone, but was to be shared with any who desired it. This transformation, this inversion of desert to Eden, wilderness to garden–This is an apocalyptical vision. It is imagining the current experiences of injustice being overturned and replaced with God’s desire and will for justice for all of creation. This revelation from the prophet serves to reassure the people that trust and faith in God are well put. It is the prophet recognizing that the situation for those in exile was bad, that something was wrong, but that through that all the God who made many of Sarah and Abraham was with them still, and was working toward this.
In a world that is filled with experiences of desert and wilderness, it can be easy to forget the ways God has brought abundance in the past, or to imagine a future beyond that which is right in front of us. Yet hoping for that apocalypse, that inversion which allows us to imagine the wilderness transformed into Eden is exactly what we are called to. We are called to hope because of prophets like Dr. King, who during uprising for civil rights in the 60s would shout “How Long?”, and those around him would answer “Not long!”
Through our living into a hope and trust in God’s action and reliability in an apocalyptic deliverance, we are called to listen and share in living lives that “go with the grain of God’s salvation.” We are called to live into, to lean into the pattern of God’s deliverance.
As followers of Jesus, the messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, we have an example of how God entered into humanity, and demonstrated how to live confidently toward God’s purposes. As we heard in our gospel lesson today, as the church, we are all called and instructed both to bind and loose. While this can seem like lofty instruction, it is something the whole church, the assembly is instructed to do. As a Christian assembly, we lean into the pattern of God’s deliverance through naming those things that work for and against God’s dominion. Through our naming those things the things the church is for as well as the things the church is against, we live into our baptismal call to bear God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.
While it seems strange to say that we can hope for apocalypse, maybe that is what we need in our lives? Maybe we need an experience of deserts being transformed into gardens. Of wilderness being transformed into Eden. And though God promises us God’s presence in this process, and that it will be, there is no reason we can’t work for this renewal in how we live out our lives, to hope for some apocalypse. Amen.