Preaching from Apocalyptic

William Willimon

Something Is about to Happen

“Apocalyptic” (apokalypsis, “revelation”) refers to the biblical literature that deals with the eschaton, or last things. From Amos onward, the prophets of Israel depicted a three-part drama to be played out in the future: evil will escalate and it shall elicit divine judgment (Amos 5:10-17), the terrifying Day of the Lord (5:18-20), and then a new age of peace and prosperity will arrive (9:11-15). Wolves will lie down with lambs (Isa 11:1-9) and children, great hope for the future, will be born in the New Jerusalem (Isa 65:17-25).

Sibley Towner, in a good article on apocalyptic (The Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, ed. W. Willimon and R. Lischer [Westminster John Knox, 1995]) lists these biblical texts as apocalyptic literature: Isa 24-27; Zech 9-14; Joel 2:28-3:21; Dan 7-12; various passages in the epistles, including 1 Cor 15:20-28; 2 Thess 1-2; 2 Pet 3; as well as the “little apocalypses” of the Synoptic Gospels: Matt 24-25; Mark 13, Luke 21:5-36; and, of course, Revelation.

Many scholars have noted that the appearance of apocalyptic fervor seems linked to periods of poverty and persecution. In dark, difficult times, disenfranchised and dissident people who found no likelihood of justice in this world clung to the hope that God would intervene to set things right. This world, for all its beauty and goodness, still needs God, and still yearns for fruition.

Paul Hanson links biblical apocalyptic literature and the protests of the oppressed in the period following the restoration of the Judean community from exile in 538 BCE. (The Dawn of Apocalyptic [Fortress, 1979]). Taking Zech 9-14 as his guide, Hanson believes he can trace an increasingly intense sense of apocalyptic fervor among the spiritual descendants of the Isaiah of the Exile (Isa 40-55), who opposed the priestly establishment in Jerusalem. Their fervor matures around 420 BCE in the short “apocalypse” of Zech 14, wherein hope for the reform of this world yields to a vision of its replacement by a fundamentally different one.

In his kingdom parables (Matt 13:24-53), Jesus’ expectation of the nearness of the kingdom of heaven is developed. In the “little apocalypses” in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus renders an apocalyptic vision of the coming (parousia ) of the Son of Man in clouds of glory to judge the world at the Last Day.

The nearness of the kingdom provokes a crisis-demanding decision. We must “watch.” Life is terminal; history does not roll on pointlessly forever. There is a time, a rising tide in human affairs that requires action, decision, and commitment. Towner encourages preachers to struggle with apocalyptic.

“First, the lectionary occasionally calls for readings from apocalyptic texts, usually for a few Sundays at the end of the Pentecost season. Portions of the Book of Revelation are to be read on Sundays eight to thirteen times over the three cycles, which means that worshippers might hear an exposition on a lection from the Apocalypse one Sunday out of fifteen or twenty.

“Second, because of its deep confidence that the just and good God will not be mocked, biblical apocalyptic literature is sometimes offered as encouragement for those who are crushed under the weight of oppressors. The literature certainly functioned that way in the past and it continues to do so in places like Latin America. However, this approach misses the need of many Christians, particularly in western Europe and North America, to be confronted with the ineluctable call of apocalyptic to turn their own lives toward God’s future even though they are not at the moment crushed and hopeless. The apocalyptic vision of God’s triumph over spiritual evil here and throughout the cosmos is not simply a last-ditch theology for hard times. It is also a literature for good times, though we who sit contentedly in our armchairs are at risk when we receive the message that God will not be mocked. That message may be our indictment!

“Third, some interpreters search the apocalyptic texts for a timetable of the future, confident that with the keys to proper understanding of these cryptic writings, they can discern the “signs of the times” and prepare themselves for the Day of the Lord. Perhaps it is in revulsion against this way of reading apocalyptic literature that many other preachers have abandoned it altogether…. Yet, to abandon biblical apocalyptic literature—this magnet that can draw us into the future with images that inspire courage and hope—is a mistake.”

The millions who put down good money for the drivel that is served up in the many Left Behind books prove that apocalyptic continues to capture people’s consciousness. Still, the popularity of these books may be judgment upon a church that has abandoned its people to apocalyptic kitsch. Contrary to the smug, self-confident way that the Left Behind books treat apocalyptic expectation, biblical apocalyptic texts do not answer questions of “when” but “who.” They do not give us a timetable for God’s redemptive work among us. Rather, they give us a God who is active, who moves among us, and who is on the side of justice and righteousness. Apocalyptic good news for the poor may be bad news for the rich and self-satisfied who, having not been left behind by the goodies of this world, quite naturally assume that they shall be heirs of good things in the next. The rich may not find too hopeful a word in biblical apocalyptic. This may account for the reason why many of us preachers find apocalyptic difficult to preach. It is not because apocalyptic is strange, archaic, and irrelevant, but rather because we who bed down with the rich and drive Volvos, find the judgments of God upon us in biblical apocalyptic.

We mainline Protestant preachers who preach in an atmosphere where God is thought of as empathetic, but essentially inactive and uninvolved, will also find a challenge in apocalyptic texts. Many of our people may believe that God is good, but do they believe that God will ultimately bring all things to their fruition? Do they really want a message that says that God will ultimately lift up the downtrodden and put down the executives of Enron?

We live in a “self-help” world. Wesleyan social holiness too easily degenerates into self-help anthropologies of this and that. If good is to be done, it is up to us to do it. Apocalyptic literature has the courage to assert that there is much good that needs doing in the world which is quite beyond our capacity. Even after our best human efforts, there is still too much injustice, too much unfairness and evil left. What about that? Apocalyptic says that God’s good work, begun in creation, will be brought to its good completion.

Thomas Long, speaks well to the matter of apocalyptic in a recent sermon. He tells a story of a man in a local church who answered an emerging question from a church school class, “Why stay in the church? ‘I’ll tell you,’ he said, ‘what keeps me coming to this church,’ and every head turned in his direction. The sudden rush of interest made him hesitate, uncertain of his own thought, but he pushed on. ‘It is strange, I know, but I get the feeling here, like nowhere else, that something is about to happen.’

“The feeling that something is about to happen. A strange notion, and yet, the earliest Christians would have recognized it instantly as one of the truest marks of the church. They were convinced they stood on the precipice of history, and that something, indeed, was about to happen. For the world, time lumbered on, day after wearisome day, moving toward who knows what, but, for the early Christian community, something was about to happen. As time crept forward, a great, though yet unseen, future had stirred and gathered itself, and now was sweeping toward time itself on a course of inevitable collision. Something was about to happen.

“What was about to happen? Their attempts to describe it strained the boundaries of their language as surely as they strain our contemporary imaginations. ‘The kingdom of God is at hand…The stars will fall from heaven…The night is far gone…They will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory…this age is passing away…Come, Lord Jesus.’ The church lived on tiptoe, straining their eyes toward the horizon. Something was about to happen” (Shepherds in Bathrobes [C.S.S., 1987] 9-10).

Posted Apr 01, 2003