Apocalypse Now

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, November 17, 2019.

An American university commissioned a sculptor to create a statue of President Lincoln to remind students of the highest ideals that our leaders should exhibit. Each day the sculptor made progress, chipping away at the stone and revealing more and more of the face and the figure of the President. There was a cleaning woman in his studio who took great notice of his work. Each evening, she swept up the fragments of marble that lay below the block of marble.


When the statue was almost finished, she deliberately stayed overnight in the studio, and when the sculptor arrived the next morning, she praised him profusely. Then she said, “I want to ask you one question. ‘How did you know that President Lincoln was in that rock?’”


This is a question that all of us are apt to ask the true artists in our midst. How did you realize the potentialities that others could not see? Artists are often the ones who truly see, and we are the ones who merely watch. We are thus the great benefactors of their ability to see.


The Gospel of Luke has done for me what the sculptor did for the cleaning woman when he released the figure of President Lincoln hidden within the marble. This morning, I would like to try to do something similar for you because of what Luke’s Gospel has done for me.


You have to know at the outset that the 21st chapter of Luke’s Gospel which we read today is a particular genre of writing called “apocalyptic literature.” These passages have to do with end times, that moment in time when the curtain of history is drawn and history as you and I know it will undergo a radical change.


These Biblical passages use dramatic and highly symbolic language. You just heard about how the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed.  Jesus said, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place…” He said, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” Listening to that makes me feel as though I have just read the entire Sunday New York Times!


The Bible frequently speaks about end times. There are certain kinds of people who revel in these passages. When I was in a chaplaincy training program, a patient told me that his favorite book of the Bible was the book of Revelation. He told me, “I love it, because it talks about the end of the world.”


Folks like this make me nervous. They love to speculate how and when the world is going to end. Church history is full of people like this. Just one generation after Jesus died, there was a group of people who believed that the world was going to end, so they quit their work, became idle and did nothing.


In our lesson from Thessalonians today, St. Paul wrote harsh words to say about them, warning, “Keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they have received from us.” Later, a group called the Montanists believed that they alone knew when the end of time would come, and so, they ceased from doing their normal duties. It’s like your high school son who refuses to take out the garbage or clean his room. Perhaps he secretly believes that the world is about to end and doing these chores will make no difference.


In every generation, persons have predicted that the Messiah would return and the world would end. Some people find the idea of the world ending exceedingly attractive. I must confess that their approach to religion has never appealed to me, because I find it to be a distortion of what the rest of the Bible would have us believe.


As a result, I have rarely preached about apocalyptic passages. Trying to make sense of these texts has been as futile to me as imagining what human figure might be hidden in a block of marble.


But then I heard about an article by C.S. Lewis, who took a line from a poem by John Donne and wrote an essay, “What if this present were the world’s last night?” In this essay, Lewis grappled with the whole notion of the end time and why it really matters to Christians. Lewis, as he has done for so many over so many decades, allowed me to see a President Lincoln emerge from a block of marble, where I had seen nothing of value before.


What Lewis did was to compare this idea that apocalyptic literature talks about with something that he had witnessed a few weeks before. He had gone to London to attend the opening night of a new play, and it was a great success. There was thundering applause at the end. Finally, the author himself appeared on the stage, and the applause grew even louder.


Lewis said that seeing this happen made him realize that this was essentially what all of the authors of apocalypse had in mind. There is going to come a time when the author of this drama that we call life will return to the stage. Seeing the live author on the stage made him realize that what they had witnessed was not just a jumble of thoughts and events but rather something that had unity and purpose and came from the mind of the playwright standing on the stage.


It was a reassurance that they had been experiencing something intentional and meaningful, and this is what writers of apocalyptic literature are trying to say to us. They are suggesting that history is not just a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing, but rather a coherent drama that originated in the mind of God and all of history is under God’s control.


Therefore apocalyptic literature is not meant to distract our attention to some distant future but rather to call us to a deeper participation here and now in the drama that is unfolding around us. The meaning of the apocalypse is that what we do with our days and our nights truly does matter to the author of the play, and when the curtain finally comes down, the author will want to know how well we played our parts.


Our physical body is not permanent. My oldest parishioner in my last church lived to 110. I attended her 110th birthday party and not long after I officiated at her funeral. Our bodies will wear out. What the Country Music song calls, “This old house,” is not a permanent abode. Death bats one thousand. All of us will reach our expiration date one day, and we simply do not know when that will be.


Hence, we should not live like Rip Van Winkle, who slept through the American Revolution. When he fell asleep, King George was upon the throne. When he awoke, another George was leading this nation as President, and Rip Van Winkle had missed all of it. That is the opposite of what apocalyptic literature is calling you to be for God did not mean for you to speculate about the future or to sleep through your life, but to come, enjoy and fully participate.


Yesterday, hundreds of Greenwich High School student, Christ Church members, and many folks from Greenwich came out to clean all the trash and debris around Tod’s Point in honor of 15-year-old Luke Meyers, one of our parishioners, who is fighting the fight for his life with a brain tumor. Luke is co-president of the Environmental Club at Greenwich High School, and he championed the idea of a great beach cleanup. Everyone who took part could feel the soul of Greenwich and the soul of Luke, who inspired this event to help the environment.


And the message of C.S. Lewis is that these apocalyptic writings are meant to awaken in us the importance of the here and now and to call us to be about the real business of living. The one thing that we are here to do is to learn how to love. Love is where we came from. Love is why we are here, and love is where we are going in the future. When the author of life steps on the stage, the author will be love incarnate, and the author will not care how many cars you have collected or how many trophies you have won. The one thing the author will want to know is have you learned how to love God and how to love your neighbor and how to love yourself.


And if anything deflects us from that, we are missing the point of why we were put here in the first place. Let me ask you, can you believe that love is at work all around you, even in ambiguous circumstances or when life doesn’t look very promising? Can you trust that God’s mysterious grace is embedded in your life?


For we can use every occasion to learn how to bear the beams of love. When the author of life steps on the stage, that’s what author is going to want to know. My son, my daughter, how fully have you learned to love. Love is what truly matters. That’s the President Lincoln in this rock-like passage that we heard this morning. Amen.