I suppose it’s not all that surprising that the current pandemic has given rise to a new raft of predictions about “tribulation and the end times.” They bubble to the surface occasionally, on late night radio and in social media, and they all go something like this: the day of judgement is nigh… the faithful shall be saved… the wicked will receive their comeuppance… repent and reject worldly evils NOW, before it’s too late! Sometimes the harbinger of disaster is disease or pestilence or climate catastrophe. Or maybe it’s earthquakes or even conspiracy theories about Earth’s impending collision with Nibiru… also known as Planet X (or is it Planet 9?) that will bring about the Apocalypse. I’m not making this stuff up… you can Google it, if you want. Try using the term “doomsday.”
Some folks figure (after “doing the math”) that they can point to a particular date and time that the faithful will be whisked away to the sky leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves here on earth during the coming time of tribulation and suffering. One of my favorite such prophecies was made by a brother named Harold Camping who was, at the time, the president of the Family Radio Christian Network, based out of Oakland California. According to Camping, the rapture would occur on May 21, 2011… at precisely 6 pm, local time… with the ultimate destruction of the Universe to follow, precisely 5 months later on October 21. Of course, nothing came of Camping’s prediction… other than a short bump in network/ cable news ratings… and reports of increased revenues for the purveyors of “doomsday” goods: guns… ammunition… freeze dried food… and the like.
A nurse friend of mine tells the story of how she worked the day shift at the hospital on May 21, 2011. The medical staff had been joking back-and-forth about whether or not the night shift would be around to relieve the day shift after the rapture took place at 6pm. Ha-ha, right? So, the appointed hour came and went, and the night shift all came in together, ready to do their thing. But when they arrived, they found several sets of hospital scrubs lying on the floor and draped across chairs in the nurses’ station, as if those who had been wearing them had simply disappeared. Of course, my friend and he rest of the day shift were huddled in a back office waiting to see the reaction of the oncoming team. And it was an interesting reaction, said my friend: the incoming shift all walked into the station chatting amiably, but then fell silent when they saw what awaited them. They looked around, without saying a word. The silence probably only lasted for a few seconds, but it seemed like a long time. And then one of the night-shift guys said, hesitantly, “Well…?” At which point the day shift could no longer contain themselves and burst out laughing. Friendly laughing… the sort of laughing that happens among friends after someone has “gotten someone else’s goat.” No harm, no foul.
Not so much for Harold Camping, I’m afraid. Poor old Harold was a laughingstock. He had some crow to eat. This was actually the third time he had gone out on a limb predicting the end of the world… and come up short. He died a couple of years later, at age 92. Many called Harold Camping a kook. Me? I think he was an optimist. He believed he was ready for the Second Coming. He believed the world was ready. And I must say that I’m in agreement with him regarding the latter. From my perspective, if the Second Coming happened today, the world would be a lot better off. But that’s my timeline, not God’s. God is patiently working out his plan for the universe, and I have to trust that everything that is necessary to that plan will happen at its appointed time.
So how might this funny story inform our understanding of our Gospel story today? Was Harold Camping ready to meet his maker on May 21, 2011? Maybe he was. Maybe he was so ready he jumped the gun on the timing a little bit, I don’t know. Or maybe he had such a yearning to see Jesus face-to-face that he was willing to take his chances. Luke relates that two of Jesus’ disciples were on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the afternoon of the day of the resurrection. In fact, in their minds, they were former disciples, because they knew that Jesus was dead. That was the end result of being crucified… you ended up irrevocably dead. And they knew that Jesus had been crucified… and then laid in a tomb… which was sealed with a huge stone. That was that… and they had had three whole days to get their brains wrapped around that great catastrophe. Sure, just as Cleopas and his friend were taking their leave of other (former) disciples who would be staying in Jerusalem for a few more days, some of Jesus’ women followers had burst in to the room with a story about Jesus having risen from the dead. But the two probably looked at each other and thought, “Riiiiiiiight… that’s not happening.” And off they went… home to Emmaus. By the end of the day, however, they had learned a little something about God’s timing… and of the true nature of their Master, Jesus of Nazareth… Jesus Messiah.
Clearly, the disciples in today’s Gospel story did not begin their day as optimistic about the future as was Harold Camping. But they loved Jesus… and were devastated that he was gone. They had been his friends… with him at the height of his earthly ministry: on the road and out in the countryside, healing all manner of illnesses in body, mind and spirit… preaching and teaching in the Temple and in synagogues. Jesus had told them what was going to happen to him… and why… but they just didn’t get it. And so, Jesus told them again as they walked down that long, dusty road to Emmaus, “interpret[ing] to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 24:27b), explaining why everything had had to happen the way it did. And still… they couldn’t quite grasp it. Until Jesus was at table with them, and took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Only then, were the scales were lifted from their eyes. And <poof> he was gone… leaving two very reinvigorated, very recommitted disciples to carry out the continuing mission of Jesus Messiah in the world. If any of you have ever wondered why Episcopalian doctrine and liturgy is so Eucharistically focused, there you have it. It is only through participation in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood that we are able to be his hands and feet in the world. We must never forget that.
So how about you? If Jesus fell into step beside you as you went about your daily routine: tending livestock or your garden, teaching class, pushing a cart up and down grocery store aisles, seeing patients, or chipping your way out of a sand trap… would you recognize him? Would you be ready? A couple of decades ago, it was not uncommon to hear one Christian ask another, “How’s your walk with Jesus going?” or sometimes simply, “How’s your walk?” That comes from today’s Gospel story, you know. You don’t hear adults use the phrase much anymore… to some, it’s become kind of cliché. But you hear it at Camp Mikell… on New Beginnings and Happening weekends. “How’s your walk?” And the answer typically changes from the beginning of the weekend to the end. Many young people arrive at the weekend skeptical about the program. They are often dissatisfied with their lives… and sometimes, with themselves… and in need of emotional/ spiritual renewal. “How’s your walk?” “Um… OK, I guess.” And so it goes, around the room. “OK, I guess… OK, I guess…” and on and on. I wonder how many of us might say the same? I wonder if that’s why we’ve stopped asking the question? Two days later, however, after an incredibly intense weekend of Bible Study, singing, sharing and Eucharist, most of the young people’s response to the question, “How’s your walk?” has changed to something along the lines of “Oh. My. God. I had no idea….” Kind of like Cleopas and his friend, don’t you think? Sometimes we forget what a wonderful thing it is to “feel our hearts burning within us.”
So here’s what I want to leave you with today: don’t give up on the world, or on your own lives. Try to stay hopeful about the future. I’m not saying you have to go out and join a rapture cult tomorrow, or anything like that, but I urge you to trust God and his plan for the world. And neither am I saying that all of the trials and tribulations of this life are part of God’s plan. We do hurtful things to ourselves… and to each other… but that’s on us. God does not punish. God loves us and wants the best for us. And here’s the best part, the part that gives me hope and allows me to remain confident about the future: That which is not of God, God can redeem. I’ll say it again: That which is not of God, God can redeem! All of the hurt and brokenness we inflict upon one another… and on all of God’s creation… all of that… God can make whole and Holy. God never wastes anything.
So, hold on to that. Despite the darkness and despair with which we are all pummeled throughout every hour of the daily news cycle, be of good courage; hold fast that which is good; render to no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honor everyone (even those folks with whom you disagree) and spend some time thinking about your “walk.” As cliché and childlike as it may seem, it’s the only thing that matters. The only thing. If you get that figured out, everything else will fall into place. No kidding. And who knows when we will all be called to account for the lives we’ve lived and the people we’ve touched, for good and for ill. Maybe it wasn’t May 21, 2011, but it could be tomorrow, or the next day, or whenever… Jesus isn’t saying. But I guarantee you this: on that day of days when you meet Jesus on your own appointed road to Kingdom Come, you’ll want to be as ready as you can be.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, you made us in your own image and have had a plan for our lives since before we were born. Grant us confidence in your gracious Providence and give us grace, we pray, to do the good works that you have set before us. We ask this in the name of your son, our Savior, Jesus Messiah who is our strength and our redeemer. Amen.