Everybody, Look Busy

June 16, 2019


Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Reference: Mark 13: 28-37

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. I was in college. This was big; the cold war was over.
My college delusion, we all have one, my college delusion was Russian. I studied everything Russian for two years. Russian literature, culture, history, language: the whole thing. Dressed in black the whole time and was quite bleak.
So when the Berlin Wall fell, it was personal. Yet, my first thought was not Glasnost or perestroika or Lenin; my first thought was of Jack Van Impe.
Jack Van Impe is a televangelist. He is known as the walking bible. He and his wife Rexella have a prophetic news show. Rexella reads a newspaper and asks Jack, “Is this true Jack? What does the bible say about this?” Mostly Jack Van Impe explains how an event in Detroit or London was obviously a fulfilment of prophecy. “This is the Book of Daniel chapter 7.”
But this was only the set up. For no matter what Rexella read, no matter the event or location in the news it was, in the end, about Russia. Russia was the beginning and end of all the prophecies of the end times. Every event, when read through the book of Revelations or Daniel or Ezekiel or Isaiah, all event took you to Russia. Russia was key to the latter times and Armageddon, the rapture, the judgment. Of this Jack Van Impe was very certain and very firm in his interpretation.
When I watched Berliners of both sides singing atop the ruin of the wall, all that came to mind was poor Jack Van Impe and how certain he was about Russia, how firm was his resolve that all prophecies of doom came down to Russia. All I could think was, what is he going to do now that the Soviets are no more?
It took Jack a few years to find a new focus. He abused China for a while and the remnants of communism. As you might guess Jack and Rexella now offer a clear picture of the end as brought to you by Islam and unitarians and the European union. The end is still firm and certain; it is at hand; it’s just more of a corporate conspiracy.
Jack and Rexella are crazy as the day as long. Yet, they are also very American. They represent a part of American history, a deep part; a part that is apocalyptic. Other cultures have their own stories of the end of time. Whether we like it or not, Jack and Rexella are very much an example of ours.
The pilgrims and puritans were just as firm and certain in their apocalyptic thinking. They came to the colonies not only to escape persecution; they also came to escape the hell fire they believed with all certainty was about to engulf England.
In the decades between the Revolutionary War and the Civil war, America was rife with rapture groups and utopian colonies. There were shakers and barkers and holy rollers; folks charmed snakes and proclaimed the end was nigh beside great campfire revivals.
The largest of these were who were certain the end was at hand was the Millerites. In the 1830s Joseph Miller, a New York farmer, attracted tens of thousands of followers who sold all their possessions believing he had received a direct revelation with an exact date for the second coming of Jesus. Those who were to be saved and drawn up to heaven would be those closest to Miller. On the first date, and there were a few more to follow after the first didn’t work out, on the first date imagine farm fields covered with people as far as the eye could see waiting to be taken up to heaven.
When the first date came without apocalyptic rapture, there was murmuring, but no great defection. After the second date came and went, most grew tired of waiting for a delayed rapture and left. A few who left stayed together. They liked the simplicity they found living without possessions and how they cared for one another. They became the seventh day Adventists. The ones who never left would become the people known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
After the civil war and even unto today, there has been is plenty of apocalyptic groups and churches. Mostly, though, there is deeply held conviction within our culture that Jesus is coming back and there are signs that make this clear. There are people who are firm and certain about what this means, when it will happen, and who will be saved.
We are to be vigilant and mindful. We need to be ready and awake. I have a bumper sticker in my office that says, “Jesus is coming: everybody, look busy.”
It is no use to argue with someone who is an apocalyptic thinker. Telling them this is not the end is a clear sign the end is even closer than they first believed.
At first glance Jesus doesn’t help this much. You know summer is near; you know he is near. Pass away, pass away, pass away, only the word remains. A bit of apocalyptic fuel for the rapture fire.
We know from the letters of Paul that the first generation was expecting the return of Jesus any day. Hence, keep alert, be on the watch, keep awake: this sort of talk made sense. 2000 years later you would think that such a call for staying awake might not strike a chord. In churches all across the country at this very hour you can hear calls, firm and certain claims this is the end. The return of Jesus is certainly soon.
And that is all right. God bless them all. The problem is not believing that Jesus will return. We say these words at every communion service: Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again. The problem is not in believing that Jesus is coming (hence the call to look busy); the problem is claiming to know the hour, to say this is the time, to proclaim with certainty, now is the moment.
Although I am a big fan of John Calvin, I blame him for our apocalypticism, the American fascination with the end of times. Calvin described faith as a firm and certain knowledge. I became a Presbyterian because the church encouraged me to think and understand as much as I believed. It’s not the knowledge I have come to question; it is the firm and certain part.
It’s okay to look at the world through the prophetic work of Ezekiel and Revelation. They are tremendous works of poetry forged in a fierce beauty. They can open the mind and the heart to mystery and wonder and dimensions of life that are far beyond the mundane. They are fantastic. And that is good.
It’s not good when Isaiah and Daniel and Jesus’ talk of fig trees and midnight are the place where we seek determine our future. They are not a place of firm and certain knowledge.
The prophecies of Daniel were never meant to inspire assurance and certainty about what will happen this week. The prophecies of Isaiah are meant to challenge what you hold as firm and certain. They are there to expose a false confidence. No one believed the temple would ever fall until it did.
This is what Jesus is trying to say to us when claims, not even the Son knows. Never a good thing to get ahead of Jesus.
There are many signs that spur on the rapture minded apocalyptic thinker today. The greatest sign of our age, though, is a positive one. True, there is enormous global warming and with it ominous signs. Yes, there is a sense of globalism that stokes fear of world domination. Such signs keep conspiracy folks up all night. There are profound changes and migrations of peoples and cultures and religions. You can watch your television 24 hours a day and a swirling tempest of chaos and danger.
The greatest change today is not a sign of doom. The greatest sign today is of the kingdom of God coming near. The greatest sign is humility
The greatest change today is humility. With so much information, we know there is no way to have knowledge beyond doubt. We see our failure so clearly; we know there is little we achieve that lasts or helps all. With so much wealth, we can see the tremendous poverty of the world. Those who would seek to lead us rant and rage and pontificate, but we know the meek shall inherit.
In our humility we are alert to arrogance; in our meekness we can see our false confidence because we are awake to it. We know that we do not know. And this says Socrates is the beginning of wisdom.
I want to finish with a word about fathers and Father’s Day. Like I mentioned with Mother’s Day, our definitions of icons like mothers and fathers is changing, or as Jesus says, passing away. There are so many definitions and long held beliefs, once firm and certain, that are passing away. Some of the changes are a breath of fresh air; some of the changes are toxic.
I believe the changes to our definitions of fathers is different than the changes to mothers. I believe the change for fathers, the change I feel, is a freedom. The father as always strong, or the need to be in the right, to be the heavy is passing away. In the place of this false confidence is the freedom of humility. It’s the freedom to be wrong; it’s the freedom to be merciful and patient.
Sometimes in the place of false confidence there are clumsy attempts to have and trust emotions. My daughters tease me that I started with three emotional crayons, but I am now up to sixteen.
That fathers can value emotions is good. Yet, what is truly powerful today is that we can value humility. To be meek is not to be weak. To be humble and meek is to find a new source of strength, a new kind of power and energy.
I want to grow more and more unto this kind of father. Perhaps I have lived with enough failure that I must now abide in humility. But this is more than age. It is freedom. The freedom is moving beyond the false confidence that I know all things with a firm certainty. The longer I live the less certainties I have. In the end I am certain of friendship, certain of hope, certain of mercy and compassion. I want to be such a father and such a human being.
Jesus will come. And we should look busy. Russia will continue to fascinate as will ominous signs we do not understand. I hope there comes a day for Jack Van Impe and Rexella when prophecies of doom give way to the hope of humility. There are many more beginnings than ends. For you and me: we should live unto the freedom of humility. Be honest and awake and vigilant to guard the dignity of all, to be ready to welcome and rejoice. We should be vigilant about love and compassion and forgiveness. These are the parts of life that should be firm and certain. For just about everything else, let the rest pass away. Amen.


Bible References

  • Isaiah 64:1 - 12
  • Mark 13:28 - 37