By Rev. J.C. Austin
I was talking with a friend recently and he started off by asking, “so, how’s the apocalypse going in Bethlehem? Good location, I suppose.” He isn’t a Christian, nor is his family, so what he knows is from general and popular culture. So I think he just assumes that Bethlehem is important in general since it’s so prominent in Christmas stories. I responded, “no, Bethlehem is where it all begins, not where it ends.” “Well, where does it end?” he asked, half-curious, half-amused. “Everywhere,” I replied; “That’s why it’s the end.”
He snorted as I continued, “But they say the end is going to start in Megiddo.” “Where?” he asked, suddenly curious. It’s interesting how people, even those with no religious commitments or backgrounds, are so fascinated by the Christian narratives about the end of the world. It’s also interesting how most of those elaborate and vivid narratives themselves have little basis in actual Christian Scripture, such as the whole idea of the Rapture, but nobody seems to really care about that. “Where’s Megiddo?” my friend asked. “It’s a place in a big valley in central Israel. The book of Revelation mentions it; the Greek version of the name is Armageddon.”
“Oh, okay,” he said in recognition. “So Armageddon is a real place? People live there?” “Well, today it’s mostly farmland, but yes, it’s a real place.” I said; “I’ve been there 2-3 times myself. Not much to look at today, but it was a strategic crossroads for the entire Middle East back in ancient times. Because of the reference in Revelation, lots of people think it’s where the final battle between good and evil begins, though the text doesn’t actually say that,” I concluded. “Well, the ways things are going, we might find out soon,” he laughed. “Good thing you’re in Bethlehem instead.”
It got me thinking, though. There are lots of towns named about Biblical locations in the United States. Right here in the Lehigh Valley, thanks to the Moravians, there’s Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Emmaus. Across the country, you can find some version of almost any Biblical location you can think of. But I’ve never heard of anywhere named Megiddo, much less Armageddon. So I googled them both, and it turns out there is, in fact, one place called Armageddon. In fact, it is called “Armageddon Place,” and it is located in Arizona in, of all places, the town of Paradise Valley! And, judging from the photos on Google Maps, somebody lives there, because there appears to be at least one house in the little square that bears the name. So yes, right here in the United States, Armageddon is a real place, too, and there is at least one bold soul or family that is not afraid to live there.
But aside from that, nobody wants to live in Armageddon. Bethlehem? Of course. Nazareth? Sure? Jerusalem? Fewer than you might think, but yes. But only one Armageddon. I have to assume that’s because of those elaborate and vivid narratives I mentioned. Those narratives were concocted and woven together in the 19th and early 20th centuries into a new theological system called Dispensationalism. We’ll be generous and say that Dispensationalism is based “extremely loosely” on a literal reading of the Book of Revelation, which is an elaborate allegory deliberately intended not to be read literally, and an imaginative reading of couple of passages from the Gospels and Paul, which were intended to be read fairly straightforwardly.
But, as the saying goes, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” and the Dispensationalist stories were good, or at least captivating. They swept through the imagination of people in the United States in the 19th century along with the evangelical revivals of the time, and by the early 20th century they were not only at least as popular as historic orthodox Christianity, but were arguing that historic Christianity had gotten all this wrong for 1900 years and they were the sole possessors of the truth.
And even as U.S. society became much more culturally and religiously diverse, including a dramatic rise in the last 20-30 years of people like my friend who have no religious background, the stories have seeped into the subconscious of our culture, so that even people who have never entered a church are familiar with stories and concepts like Armageddon, Judgement Day, the Rapture, the apocalypse. There’s even a version of the “Squinting Woman” meme circulating on social media in the midst of everything we’re experiencing right now that depicts a woman with her hands on her knees, squinting intently at something beyond the picture, that says, “Me looking outside to see what chapter of Revelation we’re doing today.”
For that matter, the apocalypse has been one of the most popular genres of books, television, and movies for decades at this point, so popular that it has its own sub-genres. There’s the zombie apocalypse; there’s the comet/asteroid hitting the earth apocalypse; there’s the alien invasion apocalypse, the nuclear holocaust apocalypse, the infectious disease apocalypse. In fact, films in the infectious disease apocalypse subgenre became some of the most popular movies on Netflix during the height of the COVID-19 quarantine. That seems pretty weird until you realize two things.
First, those movies almost always end in about two hours with a successful containment and cure of the disease in the third act of the film, which is pretty appealing to watch when you’re stuck somewhere in the first or second act in real life. And second, the point of apocalyptic movies, or at least the good ones, is not simply the dramatic plot but how that reveals the inner nature of the characters: the loser who is revealed to be successful at saving others; the powerful person who is revealed to be a coward; the eccentric whom everyone dismissed who is revealed to have been the only person who knew what was happening; the former lover rejected as unreliable who is revealed to be the only one who can be counted on in the crisis.
Oddly, it’s this aspect of apocalyptic fiction that is closest to the Biblical understanding of it, and to what’s significant for us today. The word “apocalypse” comes from a Greek word that literally means, “to uncover or reveal.” It doesn’t mean a particular place, like Armageddon, or a particular time or event, like the Last Judgement. It doesn’t mean things like the sun going out or the oceans boiling or the moon falling out the sky or the earth being consumed by earthquakes and volcanos. It certainly doesn’t mean zombies, or aliens or, trying to blow up a comet headed towards earth by teaching oil drillers how to be astronauts with nuclear weapons. (While I have to admit that I think the film Armageddon is one of the most entertainingly stupid films ever made, it still has nothing to do with what the word “apocalypse” means.)
In Scripture, including right here in the first letter of Peter, it means to reveal the fullness of Jesus Christ’s power and glory; the name of the last book of the Bible in Greek is “The Apocalypse of John;” that’s where we get the English title “Revelation.” Those dramatic images in Revelation and a few other passages are an attempt to dramatically and imaginatively convey the experience of Christ coming in his full power and glory, but they are not the point of the story. They are the background, the scenery, of the real drama: the full revelation of Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
That is what Peter is talking about when he tells his listeners, “set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.” Again, the word there is a version of apocalypse: revealed, uncovered. For Christians, the apocalypse is as opposite of bad news as you can get. Notice what Peter says here? He’s not talking about destruction and suffering; he’s talking about hope and grace, because the truth is his audience has already been experiencing plenty of destruction and suffering under persecution for their faith.
Now, when we think of early Christians suffering persecution, we tend to think of the popular images of the Roman Emperor demanding that they renounce their faith or be thrown to the lions in Coliseum and such. But while there were periods of official Roman persecution of Christians, those were well after Peter’s letter was written. It seems to be much more likely that this was disorganized persecution; not directed by a formal government edict, but arising from religious and social and cultural contempt for Christians in the Greek-speaking Gentile provinces located in modern-day Turkey. While it was therefore spontaneous, not orchestrated or planned, it was still prevalent and intense, taking different forms depending on who was expressing it and how much power they had.
Given the kinds of advice and descriptions that Peter offers throughout his letter, though, we can deduce that while the persecution might be spontaneous, it was not random. Rather, it followed particular patterns that Peter himself indicates by given them instructions throughout the letter on how they should respond to them. Those patterns include verbal insults, false accusations of wrongdoing, social ostracism, economic disadvantaging, physical beatings, occasional mob violence, and even abuse by local law enforcement. None of those things require an official sanction or instruction to take place on a regular basis.
And they don’t require a large number of people to engage in such things for those who are being persecuted to experience them on a daily basis. All they require is a society that thinks such things are justifiable, or at least permissible, or perhaps simply unfortunate but inevitable exceptions rather than well-established and widespread patterns of behavior. All they require is a minority group that at least some of the majority despises or fears enough to feel justified in using them, and that the rest of the majority allows themselves to be ignorant or indifferent enough to let it happen.
When my friend called to ask about how the apocalypse is going, he was right about one thing: the last few months have been a kind of apocalypse, an uncovering or revealing of truth that had remained hidden or ignored or at least woefully underestimated by most white Americans. Despite all those movies, most of us believed that our country was capable of handling a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, or at least more capable than countries with significantly fewer resources and much weaker institutions that have still coordinated far more effective responses with similar risk levels. And far too many of us have believed that racism is a problem for certain individuals, or certain regions, or is the driving force behind certain regrettable but isolated incidents, instead of a pandemic of its own infecting every corner of our society and its systems, beliefs, behaviors, institutions, and individuals.
And the church is no exception. While it is a minority of white people who despise or fear black people and other people of color enough to engage in behaviors like verbal insults, false accusations of wrongdoing, physical beatings, occasional mob violence, and even abuse by law enforcement, the rest of us have allowed ourselves to be ignorant or indifferent enough to let it happen. As more than one person has said: “racism isn’t getting worse; it’s getting filmed.” Which means that this apocalypse that we are now living through, while disturbing in in many ways, is also unveiling or uncovering things to which none of us can claim ignorance any longer. The question for us now is simply whether our response to this dual pandemic is acceptance of it, indifference to it, or action against it.
Peter is clear about what the Christian response should be. Before he reminds them to set all their hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring when he is revealed, Peter tells his listeners, “prepare yourselves for action; discipline yourselves.” What he literally says is, “gird up your loins and be sober of mind.” Now, “gird up your loins” is a lot more vivid than just prepare yourselves, isn’t it? That expression specifically refers to what people had to do to prepare themselves for battle or intensive physical work.
Traditionally, people in the Middle East have worn long and flowing robes to protect themselves from the sun and be more comfortable in the heat; think of the robes that you sometimes see people wearing still today in Arabia or North Africa. But while those might be best for normal life, they would prevent you from moving quickly or freely in battle or manual labor. So if you were doing one of those things, you would take the ends of robes near your feet, pull them up, and “gird your loins” with them, or tie them around your waist and hips and between your legs so that they didn’t get in your way. Then you were ready to go into battle or get to work. As for being “sober of mind,” that’s also more vivid than simply saying, “discipline yourselves.”
Because Peter doesn’t mean just stop drinking wine or even “get serious.” He means the mental version of girding up your loins; preparing yourself for battle or hard work by eliminating distractions or impediments to your thinking so that you can focus on the difficult and important work before you. So: prepare your body and your mind for the hard work of living and sharing the gospel in a hostile world. Your body and your mind, your preparations and your actions, play a vital role in what Christ is doing in the world today, Peter says. There is no sitting on sidelines or in the stands in this time, because the need has been revealed, the mission has been revealed, the challenge has been revealed, and it is time to get to work for Christ’s kingdom; even and especially in the face of powerful resistance and opposition.
There is no doubt that the work of following and imitating Christ in his ministry of healing, of compassion, of inclusion, of justice, of peacemaking, is hard. It is hard in terms of knowing what to do; it is hard in terms of knowing how to do it; it is hard in terms of doing it day in and day out in a world where illness and indifference and exclusion and injustice and conflict are so powerful. That is why preparation is important, preparation of body and mind, preparation to do this vital ministry together over time against resistance to it. That is what we are doing now as a congregation; preparing through education so we can better understand the problems, girding up our loins in body and mind and spirit so we are capable of doing the work to address them.
But it is also important to remember that while our own courage and perseverance and capacity are crucially important in this work, its success is not dependent on us. Rather, we set our hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring when he is revealed; the grace that Jesus Christ is bringing here and now whenever he is revealed through the Holy Spirit in the work of ministry that we do and in the Christlike ways in which we do it. For that is the big reveal of Jesus Christ, the apocalyptic uncovering that is already at work in the world, already bringing healing and hope and grace and love, already revealing to the powers of hatred and suffering and fear and division that their time, that their power, is coming to an end. So gird up your loins; be sober of mind; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ is bringing as he is revealed. For his grace is more than sufficient for us, for this work, for this time.