SERMON: EMBRACING THE MILLENNIUM, Jan. 2, 2000, John Young, UUCJ
Many people are making excuses today and yesterday because the world as we know it has not ended. Their prophets had foretold doom and/or rapture, Armageddon or the Second Coming, the end time or the days of bliss for the true believers. Many people are captured by the past, and, therefore, are prisoners in the present, and hostages to a future that is already completely decided by their narrow faiths and dogmatic visions.
Many such people will now set new dates for doomsday and continue throughout their lives to foresee an evil end to the attempts of most of the living and to the beliefs and practices of almost all human beings except their own narrowly identified true believers. This stiff-necked bigotry, whether it is religious or secular, remains a central impediment to human, earthly, and, perhaps, cosmic progress.
Unitarian Universalists are, in contrast, hopeful realists focused on the present and the future. We embrace the new eon, but we realize also that we must learn from the past if we are not to be doomed to repeat its worst aspects. As the year 2000 begins, we need to consider the anxieties of others, and to try to make some sense of these prevalent visions of apocalypse, so that we can be effective in facing the human future creatively.
Millennium simply means a period of a thousand years. However, the last book of the Biblical New Testament, Revelation, Chapter 20: proposes a thousand year period during which holiness is to prevail and Christ is to reign on earth. Thus, Christian countries have tended to consider millennial dates magical and to foresee the millennium as a period of great happiness or human perfection for a saved minority and eternal agony for a damned majority.
As I indicated by my Old Reading, these ideas appear to have arisen in Western thought out of ancient Persian ideas. We associate them today with the originally Persian religion, the Zoroastrians. The Zoroastrians believed in an eternal battle between the powers of good and the powers of evil. The Jewish elite captured during the Babylonian captivity brought back to Palestine these apocalyptic ideas. They adopted, adapted, and developed them. They were not found in the normative Judaism of the rabbinical writings of the Talmud or commentaries. There, all revelation was discovered by Moses in the Laws. The apocalyptic ideas appeared in some of the prophets after the exile. Henceforth, they were woven into the histories, prophesies, and even, as in Job, into the wisdom literature of Judaism.
The period between the end of the original Old Testament writings and the editorial gathering of the New Testament [basically between 170 BC and 70-140 AD] was a period in the Middle East which emphasized the impending end of the world and the triumph of good and light over evil and darkness. This literature is called apocalyptic literature, the word in Greek for revelation. A common theme of these end-of-the-world writings are that the sufferings of the righteous are caused not by God but by the afflictions of Satan, who seeks to turn the sufferers away from God. The book of Revelation is the only example in the New Testament, but there were a multitude of examples during that period of history. A number of these appear in what is now called the Apocrypha of the Bible, and a few worked themselves into the canon of the Old Testament, mostly as late additions to existing prophesies, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, more fully in the post-exilic prophets like Ezekiel and Joel, and full blown in the book of Daniel. The Book of Daniel was written at the time of the Maccabean revolt. Apocalyptic literature flourished for two centuries until after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD Oppressed Jews devoured apocalyptic literature, and it enflamed their Zealots of the first centuries BC and AD However, when both the wars of Jewish liberation in AD 70 and AD 135 ended in disaster for the Jewish nation, interest waned among Jews in apocalypticism. However, during the decades of the 1st century AD, it had become a staple of Jewish Christianity, and Christians responded differently to the destruction of Jerusalem. They continued to look for an apocalyptic solution in the newly found Messiah.
Although these many books varied, they shared certain common elements. These were books for bad times. The present time is evil. It is dominated by Satan, but the coming age is at hand, in which God alone will reign. Satan and evil will be destroyed, and their allies on Earth will perish. The elect will enjoy prosperity and peace on a transformed earth, or in a new heaven and a new Earth. The stories varied significantly, but they shared a sense that time was divided into two, that the end would arrive with dramatic suddenness, was expected almost immediately, and that the end of the present evil age would be marked by a period of extreme distress.
This end-of-the world literature has various explanations. Perhaps such a literature is understandable among people whose social realities contrasted so much with the legitimate expectations of their faiths. Coming utopias would correct current injustices. Perhaps, they were coping devices for tribal, pre-literate people confronted by literate, technically powerful enemies, like the Romans. They may have been collective flights from reality, or unrealistic reactions to overpowering political realities, or attempts to explain change for people who seemed to belong neither to the visible past nor the realistic future. Certainly, they were and are a way for many people to provide a transition to some new sacred identity, which seems so much more acceptable than a present which appears to be overpoweringly negative.
The Book of Revelation in the New Testament may have been written as early as 70 AD It almost certainly was not written by the author or authors of the Gospel of John, but by another or others. He probably was a Jewish Christian who still thought in Aramaic, since his grasp of Greek is imperfect. Yet, he probably wrote the book from a Greek prison island and seems to have been a leader among the Christian communities of what is now Turkey.
The book is a book for martyrs and is a testament to resist all worship of the Roman Emperor. Rome is symbolized as a great harlot, drunk with the blood of saints and martyrs of Jesus. Rome will be destroyed, and the Emperor and his forces will be conquered by the risen Christ. Christians will form a community of redeemed people from every national group by the sacrificial death of Christ. The redeemed will have the seal of God on their forehead and will thereby be saved from the plagues facing the pagans. The God of Revelations is portrayed as an oriental King, and the Christ of Revelations holds the keys to death and hell. He is the Lamb of God, and often not distinguishable from God. Yet, he is portrayed as a warrior on a white horse, clad in a robe dripping with blood, followed by heavenly armies and engaged in a hard-won and ultimately successful battle. The John of Revelations represents Christianity as a moral religion, condemns idolatry, theft and falsehood and stresses loyalty, faith, and zeal. But there is NOTHING of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus. Nothing is said about loving your enemies. On the contrary, there is hatred, bitter and unalloyed.
In early Christian history, most Christians believed that the Second Coming of the Christ was imminent. This is often called premillennialism because they thought Christ was returning long before the millennium, and questioned the existence of a 1000 year reign of Christ on Earth. This view dominated the first 200 years of Christian history, but it began to fade thereafter. Then, the doctrines of heaven and hell took over Christian thinking. St. Augustine said that the city of God and the city of man exist side by side and are indistinguishable. Thus there are no signs of the coming of the end of time, and the thousand year reign of Christ is identical with the historical church. This view made the year 1000 AD into a major trauma for Christian history. But despite wars and plagues, time continued. History seemed unchanged. Seventeenth century Puritans revived some millennial fever and urged their members to study Daniel and Revelation as closely as the Gospels. During the Enlightenment, there was an optimistic millennialism saying that Biblical prophesy reflected the progress of civilization in overcoming evil. Jonathan Edwards was a leader of these ideas, and Seventh Day Adventists, the Mormons, and the Jehovah Witnesses were organized responses to this point of view. A third perspective are the amillennialists who argue that scripture is not clear on questions surrounding the end of time. Unitarian Universalists have been and are almost entirely amillennialists.
We should not underestimate the power of the apocalyptic elements of the Christian scripture. They continue to shape an immense amount of Christian thinking. People look in each age for the signs of the end: [Matthew: 24] wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, famines, earthquakes, plagues, false prophets, deception, hate, iniquity abounding and love waxing cold. These things happen in each age, and many see them, and believe that the end is near. James Reston, Jr. remembers [in a 1998 article in GEORGE magazine] how in 1981 Billy Graham explained solemnly in an interview that he could identify 22 signs of the end time at that very moment. Reston explains how Jerry Falwell reacted to the end of the Cold War by declaring that there were new enemies within, and that Pat Robertson has amplified those in the 1990s into a litany of communists, feminists, and homosexuals, a New World Order in which the United Nations becomes the great Satan, and the US government becomes dominated by Shiite Muslims and terrorists. The Roman Catholic Church has taken a contrary tact, emphasizing the Jubilee, seeing the Book of Revelation as an embarrassment, and saying that all time belongs to Christ.
Our New Reading was a scientific paragraph from John Updike’s article in THE NEW YORKER issue of November 29, 1999, on "The Future of Faith," recommended to me by several of you. John Updike is a church-goer, mostly Lutheran, although I happen to know that an early wife was the daughter of a Unitarian Universalist minister, and that he, therefore, attended some UU services. Updike seems somewhat ashamed of his own church attendance, and his argument for faith seems to be that people end up needing it, and that it is mostly rather harmless in its more modest contemporary varieties. He notes that probable church attendance continues to decrease, but that spiritual interest increases, with religious book sales, for instance, rising 50% in the last 10 years.
Updike argues that "faith is not so much a binary pole as a quantum state, which tends to indeterminacy when closely examined." Many models of human rectitude do not attend church, and many who do attend are not at all outstanding. The 20th century had the Holocaust at its center; so God’s invisibility, his apparent indifference to the torrents of pain and cruelty are more apparent than his presence. The company of believers tries to follow the vector of love in a world which makes this path seem perilous. Religions tend to be conservative, and the dispassionate developments of science tend to wound and weaken the traditional ideas.
Yet, John Updike is still a believer. He has had transcendent moments when he felt, even in the midst of despair, a sense of transcendent unity, the presence of an active and benevolent universe with which he could cooperate. He makes forays into the works of contemporary scientists who remind us that the incredible, overwhelming series of scientific coincidences that give rise to life and to human beings suggests what some of them call the anthropic cosmological principle. It appears that the universe was designed to create us. Updike at once retorts with his customary irony: "this does not explain why an omnipotent God would choose to breed an intelligent species in such a lengthy, wasteful, and cruel method of evolution. Theistic exercises in science and logic, from Aristotle to Acquinas to Deism, may fortify the already persuaded but will not convert disbelievers."
Most of us Unitarian Universalists live our lives and attend our congregations, not to escape reality, nor primarily to repeat traditions, but in order to: 1st, discover what Creation is really all about, 2nd, to share the wisdom that we have learned and experienced, and 3rd and thereby to build, in the microcosm of our congregations, communities which help to create the City of God on Earth, or, if you prefer, the beloved community of humanists actually learning to be humane. This is so far from the bigotry, dogmatism, and fervor for the damnation of most people and the heavenly triumph of the self-righteous elite held by the religious majority, that our faith is often not considered a religion, both by its enemies and by its friends. We are amillennialists, refusing to predict an end to time, but we should take time seriously. And, we need to take the past a bit more seriously, and learn what the majority are in fact struggling with, how they are, in particular, prisoners in the present, and hostages to their dogmatic pre-ordained futures. How else can we help them, if we do not know them and understand them. So, read Revelation, not as truth, for I think the book is largely nonsense as fact or prediction, but as a story that has millions in its grip, and if we are to loosen the evil implications of such falsehoods, we must know the story, understand its power, and develop empathy for those held in its grasp.
Perhaps, then, we can explain to them that these ideas came from ancient Iranians, and that those Iranians themselves thought that humans had at least 12,000 years, and that the best scientific evidence today suggests a future of such proportions that it is almost beyond the human capacity to comprehend. Let us read the best of science, and ponder how it is that so many improbable things happened in just the right sequence in order to produce this incredible world in which we live, and, often, flourish and savor. Let us dare to embrace the millennium ahead. Perhaps, it is will be the eon in which humans learn to love, not just occasionally themselves and a few intimates but one another well enough so that we end the murder of human beings by themselves, eventually even to cease the violation of one person by another. Perhaps, it will be the eon in which humans learn to cooperate with nature, to co-create the unfolding bounty of natural evolution in ways that allow the Earth to replenish itself and to be the Garden of Eden which our ancestors imagined.
For us, as Unitarian Universalists, the future deserves to focus upon: 1. cooperation with natural evolution, 2. the affirmation and nurture of the best wisdom of human civilization, 3. the active creation of just and equitable communities which embrace all responsible people, 4. the democratic practice of love among free individuals. Each of us is endeavoring to do justice to the awesome beauties and wonders of life and to help, in our particular and unique ways, to co-create a benevolent universe and to build and to nourish a kind and compassionate world civilization.