VIEW VIDEO Well, I was in Dallas this past week to speak to a pastor’s conference and according to a sign I saw on the way from the airport to the event, the world is ending any day now. The sign said Jesus is coming back. The sign didn’t say where he had been, but it did say he’s coming back, that he’s mad, and it isn’t going to be pretty when he returns. I would have taken it more seriously, but the sign appeared to have been there several years and the sense of urgency somewhat diminished. I’m not sure how you remain Christian if your entire theology is predicated on Jesus coming back next Tuesday and he never does. Personally, I would be discouraged. I’ve got to hand it to the people who still believe these things; they are persistent, if nothing else.
We’ve been talking about the tenets of Christianity in light of Christian Nationalism. The retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn gave a speech last week in which he prophesied that a cosmic battle would soon occur in which the forces of God would vanquish the evildoers, by which he meant the liberals, and America would again be a righteous nation led by the pure of heart, by which he meant himself. There were several hundred people at the speech, and they clapped and cheered. I saw a picture of them. They were mostly old and overweight, so if they are the forces of God, I think God might lack sufficient manpower. Say what you will about the liberals, they have youth and vigor on their side.
It’s been my experience that two kinds of people look forward to the end times. The first kind are the folks who think they’re going to be in charge, that God is going to give them a bump in pay and power, from mere mortal to celestial ruler, governing with Jesus. I have the feeling Michael Flynn and certain others are angling for those jobs, if in fact such jobs exist. I have my doubts. These are the folks who take a perverse delight in the suffering of others. James Sibley, recent head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s mission to the Jews, said in an interview, “As terrible as the Holocaust was, it will fade into insignificance in comparison to God’s future judgment. There will be the Holocaust of all people who don’t accept Jesus.” To agree with James Sibley is to accept the notion that compared to God, Hitler was a nice guy. I have little patience for people like that, folks who are in it for the reward, hoping for personal glory. Jesus said in Matthew 6:2 that people who toot their own horn have already earned all the reward they’re going to get.
But as I said, there are two kinds of people who look forward to the end times, and it is this second group for whom I feel sympathy. These are the folks who don’t have anything in this life. No power. No resources. No nothing of anything they need. The folks who can’t catch a break, who get paid a pittance on Friday and are out of money by Saturday, whose lives are one miserable moment after another. I had neighbors like that growing up. It seemed like every day was tainted by struggle, hardship, and bad luck.
They talked incessantly about Jesus coming back, and I’d walk away thinking they were crazy, but now I realize they were desperate and overwhelmed and hoping for one single day free of strife and pain. They just wanted the sun to cast a little light on their lives, which it never seemed to do. Their lives were always clouds and rain. We ought not mock these people, or dismiss them as simple-minded. We can doubt their theology, but we dare not mock them for wanting just a dab of what so many of us have in spades. From the day I was born, I’ve gotten all the justice I’ve needed, all the resources I’ve needed, all the support and encouragement I’ve needed. I dare not mock someone who pleads with Jesus to return so they can have just a taste of the banquet I’ve feasted on for years. Wouldn’t that be cruel and unkind for me to do that? Of course it would be.
The language of end times we encounter in the Bible is found primarily in three places—the book of Daniel, the 13th chapter in the gospel of Mark, and the book of Revelation. Those passages have something in common, they were each written during times of great persecution, when the people of God were suffering greatly at the hands of unscrupulous rulers. They were written to provide hope to their readers, to remind them that as bleak as things seemed, God would triumph, their suffering would end, the clouds of injustice would part, and the sun of righteousness would once again shine. Apocalyptic literature is never written to, or by, people at the top of the heap.
It helps to think of apocalyptic writing as the Biblical equivalent of the Black Lives Matter or Me Too movements. It is people crying out for justice, calling upon God, needing to be heard. That its language has been manipulated, misused, and monetized by corrupt preachers and politicians does not lessen the sincerity of those people who desperately yearn for and deserve better times.
While I don’t believe apocalyptic literature is a sound foundation for public policy─I wouldn’t for instance advocate ignoring the debt ceiling in hopes of hastening a global economic collapse and speeding up the return of Jesus—I do believe the longing for justice that underlies end time language is something we cannot and should not ignore. The moment we tune out the lament of the poor and oppressed is the same moment we stop being decent human beings.
If poor people gather in their church and sing and pray for Jesus to return, it is not our place to ridicule their lack of theological sophistication. It is our place to ask them how we might lessen their burdens, how we might bring a little feast to their famine.
I don’t know if Jesus will ever arrive on the clouds in celestial majesty. I tend not to think so. I think he’ll come back like this dog I saw at the airport on Friday night. A storm had blown up and our flight was delayed three hours. People were cranky and hungry and tired, complaining, cursing American Airlines under their breath. Children were crying. Mothers and fathers were exasperated, and here was this dog, whose trainer had fallen asleep, the leash had slipped from her hand, and that dog started making the rounds at Gate C39, stopping at every knot of people, shaking hands. It appeared to know only trick, shaking hands, but if you only know one trick, that’s the right one to know. It’d shake hands, then lean up against people, and within about ten minutes we’d gone from surly to smiling, talking with one another, patting the dog. It was a miracle dog, a loaves and fishes dog. It took a little smile, turned it into laughter, and had twelve basketfuls left over.
I suspect that’s how Jesus will return, not in some cataclysmic burst of fury, but bit by bit, multiplying the good we so timidly offer until all around us is laughter and joy and community with plenty left over for everyone. I had an old theology professor in seminary who was very proper, and if I had told him the second coming of Jesus was like a dog, he’d have given me an F. But he died last year, so now has learned that Jesus is like unto a Border Collie at Gate C39, moving among us, rubbing against us, and leaving us better.