Dave Delaney, Salem, VA

Warm-up Questions

  • 1. What’s the most impressive building you’ve ever seen or visited in person? What was the effect on you? Why do societies build such big, solid, expensive, and ornate buildings? 
  • What’s the giveaway signal that someone is trying to sell you a dubious story  – a politician or a sales spokesperson or even a teacher? Why are some people drawn to believe fantastic claims that really should raise people’s suspicions? When do know to trust rather than doubt what someone is saying?
  • How worried or confident are you about the security of your own future? Many young adults are hesitant to get married and start families because they believe that the future of humanity and even the earth itself is uncertain. What is your outlook on life for the next 50 or 75 years?

  Apocalypse Now?

President Putin of Russia has recently claimed that he will not employ nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but even clear-headed analysts are not completely convinced. Furthermore, our own President Biden has said that we are closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. 

All of this, in turn, has elevated the anxieties of the American public to a point that has become noticeable by people who study these things. Peter Kuznick, a history professor and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, also compared the present situation to that tense standoff almost exactly 60 years ago between the United States and Soviet Union, when the latter country’s leaders secretly placed nuclear warheads in Cuba. Kuznick observes, “And that was short-lived. This has gone on for months now.” 

A Reuters-Ipsos poll conducted on October 10th concluded that “58 percent of respondents said they fear the United States is headed toward nuclear war.” Furthermore, the Spring 2022 “Stress in America” survey by the American Psychological Association and the Harris Poll found that 69 percent of respondents believed they were watching the beginning of World War III. 

This recent escalation of nuclear rhetoric has gotten the attention of scientists who maintain the so-called “Doomsday Clock” – a symbolic “clock” that since 1947 has represented an estimate of how close humanity is to extinction from its own actions. 

How serious is this phenomenon of worry in the United States? Amir Afkhami, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the George Washington University, notes that older adults have enough historical experience and perspective to put it all in context, but also adds that his patients actually seem more concerned about midterm elections and the economy than the specter of nuclear conflict. “We have a new generation that has never experienced that potential for Armageddon.” So it seems that if nuclear war doesn’t destroy us, politics and economic catastrophe will – or at least that’s how it seems to a growing segment of younger Americans. 

Discussion Questions

  • What do you think of people in our own day who use “apocalyptic” language to describe the possibility of something devastating, like climate change, economic collapse, or World War III? Are they just using extreme language to get people’s attention for political purposes, or are they really speaking the truth?
  • Where are the positive or uplifting messages coming from in our society today? What signs are there that people inspired by love and respect for each other can work to reduce the fear that so many people experience?
  • There is a story about Martin Luther – probably just a legend, but it fits with his views – that when asked what he would do if he knew the world would be ending tomorrow, he said “I would plant an apple tree.” Knowing that Jesus tells his followers that in the face of certain doom, “This will give you an opportunity to testify,” what signs would *you* give that you trust in God’s care for how everything ends?

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Malachi 4:1-2a

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Luke 21:5-19

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have sections where Jesus makes dramatic predictions about things that will happen in the future. Because these things seem to be hidden from general knowledge and are being revealed as special information to Jesus’ followers, they are called “apocalyptic” sayings. These terms “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic” are Greek words meaning “uncovering” or “revealing.”

The way they get used now, they often imply mass destruction or catastrophic changes in the world (like large-scale nuclear war), mainly because the Book of Revelation (“Apocalypse”) in the Bible contains such scenes of cosmic devastation. These sections of the gospels are often called “Little Apocalypses” because they are much shorter than the whole book of Revelation, but still match its tone, depicting sometimes terrifying events, in contrast to much of the rest of Jesus’ teachings.

The bottom line of the Bible’s apocalyptic passages is not just a call to be alert to big powerful changes on earth and in heaven, and certainly not to wield private information as if it were a tool to use against those we consider unfaithful.  Rather, they provide all people with promises of hope, justice, and God’s steady presence in the face of frightening historical events. 

Discussion Questions

  • Jesus’ disciples speak for us all when they ask for some advance warning when the strong and familiar structures they’ve relied  on are about to come tumbling down, whether they be buildings or governments or other social systems. In response, Jesus warns against trusting in anything but God’s solid protection, and especially against trusting anyone who claims to know exactly when things will be disrupted. Who are the people in your life whom you trust to remind you of the good news of the gospel when the temptation to panic is strong?
  • Notice how quickly Jesus turns people’s observations about the beauty of the Jerusalem temple into, first, a warning about a coming destruction, and then into a comment about maintaining a witness when our faith is challenged. He says not to worry in advance about what you will say, because when persecution or ridicule happens, the right words will come to you. This suggests that he has so fully prepared his followers that words of love, justice, and forgiveness, and trust in God will flow naturally from what they have heard and internalized. What regular practices do you have (memorizing scripture, singing Christian songs, praying for your enemies, watching for God’s inbreaking activity all around you, etc.) that are so much a part of you that they would just naturally emerge when you are confronted?
  • Being “hated by all because of [Jesus’] name” in our own day can mean supporting those who have been isolated or ridiculed or bullied or denied justice because they are vulnerable or different. Sometimes young people suffer because their family identity or sexual identity doesn’t match the majority, which makes them easy targets for those seeking power or popularity. Would you, in the name of Jesus, befriend such a person, even if it cost you your own safety or status? Befriending someone who is hated by others, and then being ridiculed for it, will, in Jesus’ words, “give you an opportunity to testify.” What promises and teachings of Jesus would you draw on for support in such times?

Activity Suggestions

  • Jesus frequently uses physical images and objects to guide his disciples into a deeper understanding of God’s grace and love (sheep, buildings, coins, water, bread, salt, etc.). Challenge each other to think of how any object in the room you’re in can be used to represent or describe the reign of God. Use your imagination!
  • Invite a senior member of your congregation (someone perhaps 70 or older) to visit with your class and describe what it was like to live with the fear of nuclear war in the 1960s, and especially ask for how their faith in God helped them stay resilient and have hope for the future.
  • Look in the topical index in the back of your congregation’s hymnal for hymns about “Hope.” Are any of them familiar? Invite each person to select one hymn and note what phrases or verses are especially comforting when we as Jesus’ followers begin to worry about the state of the world or potential disasters.

If the class is ambitious, check out other “apocalyptic” passage in the Bible. Some examples are Isaiah 24-27, Ezekiel 38-39, Zechariah 12-14, Daniel 7-12, Matthew 24-25, II Thessalonians 2, Jude vss. 14-15, and Revelation 4-22. These passages are characterized by vivid symbolic imagery, the presence of heavenly beings, catastrophic predictions, and conflict between good and evil on a cosmic scale. How does studying such passages help strengthen our faith?

Closing Prayer

God of hope and history, we rejoice and find peace that you hold all things in your care, including the future. Bless each of us as we strive to be good witnesses to your love in the face of opposition and let your Spirit calm the hearts of those whose worries threaten to disrupt their lives. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.