by Scott Sutton
What a month. Feels like three. At the time of writing this, it appears that this quarantine life will persist through the entire month of April, too. Maybe longer. People are suffering – physically, emotionally, spiritually. Most of us have never encountered a time such as this.
And as we find ourselves thrust into this tempest, the threads of social media weave the tapestry of our collective consciousness, as we process and cope with this new unknown. Threads of levity. Threads of anxiousness. Threads of encouragement. Threads of foreboding. Nearly every day I see a thread that contemplates whether or not we are living in the end times. The apocalypse.
And let me assure you…we are most certainly experiencing an apocalypse.
But let’s take a step back and talk about what ‘apocalypse’ means. In our cultural vernacular, ‘apocalypse’ is typically associated with the ‘end times’ or ‘armageddon’ or the years of global carnage immediately predating God’s final judgment on this world. We associate apocalypse with famines and wars and natural catastrophes, hence the speculation – both religious and secular – about whether or not the occurrences so far in 2020 (COVID-19, economic downturns, rumors of possible US war with Iran, Australian wildfires, locust invasions in East African countries, and large earthquakes in the US mountain region) are signs of The Apocalypse. But ‘apocalypse’ has a slightly different meaning in the biblical sense than it does in the cultural sense, and I think that distinction is important as we navigate this apocalypse and every day until the day Jesus returns.
The biblical book of Revelation as well as parts of Daniel, Ezekiel, and other Old Testament prophets are commonly referred to as ‘apocalyptic literature’. And when you read them you can tell that there is something different about them. The language becomes more urgent. The narrative seems to jump from point to point. Time becomes a fog. There are warnings and judgments. Terrifying beasts. Supernatural catastrophes. And even the writers themselves struggle to complete their thoughts as they try to take in all that they are seeing and describe it using instruments as limited as words.
But the common theme across all of these is the theme of “Revealing” and that’s literally what “Apocalypse” means. Revealing. Revelation. These books reveal to people the nature of their sin, the nature of God, and the purpose through it all. They pull back the curtain of eternity so we can see things that our eyes cannot normally see in a way that our minds can comprehend them. Like when Elisha’s servant awoke one morning to see that the city in which they were staying was suddenly surrounded by the powerful armies of Aram and Elisha prayed for God to open his panicked servant’s eyes so he could see that the surrounding hillsides were also filled with the horses and chariots of God’s forces. Elisha prayed for spiritual truth to be REVEALED to his servant so his servant could see and understand the true nature of their situation rather than the one that his eyes alone could comprehend (2 Kings 6:8-23). This is the nature of apocalypse.
Which brings us to Easter 2020 – where our lives have been turned upside down and Easter Sunday will not involve the typical community Easter egg hunts, family brunches and crawfish boils, or church celebrations. It will feel different. Maybe lonely, subdued, even depressing. But this could also be a time of awesome revealing and renewal for each of us as well. And if we approach this Easter in a time when the world is speculating about The Apocalypse with an expectation that God can use this season to open our eyes and reveal himself to us, it could be one of the most meaning Easters of our lifetimes. Easter in the Apocalypse.
My hope here is that I can provide some sort of a guide for folks to fully experience Easter 2020 by reflecting on what Jesus revealed to us on each of the traditional Easter dates we celebrate.
Palm Sunday (April 5, 2020) – The Apocalypse of Our Yearning. This date in the Easter calendar marks Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem prior to his crucifixion. People were overjoyed at his arrival, expecting him to overthrow the political powers which ruled over them. They laid palm branches at his feet (akin to draping him in an American flag) and cheered his arrival. They yearned and longed for him to restore their nation to its former power and splendor (John 12:12-13). These are the very people who would crucify him a week later when they realized that he longed for them to pursue something completely different.
Contrast this to Jesus’ first public sermon, which he kicks off with the Beatitudes as a way of introducing himself (Matthew 5:5-10). He calls the people in the crowd ‘blessed’ because he will fulfill their longings. The mourners who long for comfort will find it in him. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will find that righteousness in him. Some of the things we yearn for we will find in him; some of the things we yearn for have never been part of his plan at all. I yearn to live comfortably. I yearn to die healthy at the age of 100 peacefully in my sleep. I yearn to provide my kids with certain opportunities. These things aren’t necessarily bad, but in this apocalypse I am seeing how much of my mental and physical energy is spent on pursuing these things at the expense of pursuing the longings that actually matter.
On Palm Sunday, spend some time praying and reflecting on the things you long for and ask God to reveal to you which things are frivolous and which actually matter in the scheme of his eternal kingdom. You can use an actual palm leaf, cut strips of paper, or some other similar object (you could even draw it on paper or with chalk) and honestly reflect on the things that you desire for your life – a top 5 list, if you will. Then, fold it into the shape of a cross (you can find tutorials and videos online for how to do this if you don’t know how.) As you fold it, pray for God to conform your longings to his. Then, celebrate him for who he is in his fullness!
Good Friday (April 10, 2020) – The Apocalypse of Our Sin. Jesus revealed the sin of our world. He did this gently with people like the Samaritan woman at the well. He did it forcefully in pointing out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the money changers at the temple. On Good Friday, we remember the day on which Jesus was crucified, where he bore all of that sin upon himself. In this quarantine of 2020, we are forced to confront many of our sins – either because from our quarantine we can no longer indulge them or because from our quarantine we can no longer escape them. Either way, this is a time to reflect on our sin.
When I converted to Christianity, it was into the Anglican tradition. On Good Friday, the service was held at dusk. The world outside darkened as the service inside progressed. During the service, the pastor would carry this heavy wooden cross draped in a black veil from the back of the sanctuary to the front. He didn’t carry it over his shoulder the way Jesus carried his cross; instead the pastor carried it in front of himself and every few feet would let it drop so the bottom crashed into the ground. You could feel the weight of that cross in your chest and in your ears as the boom reverberated throughout the sanctuary. It was a powerful image of the weight of our sin.
On Good Friday, a few minutes before dusk, take some time to meditate on your sin and the darkness that accompanies it. Ask God to reveal our sins to us, confess our sins to him, ask for his forgiveness, and commit to walk away from that sin (seek accountability from a fellow believer if it will help). Sit in the darkness for a few moments and allow yourself to feel what it means to long for the light.
Easter Sunday (April 12, 2020) – The Apocalypse of Our Hope. The story doesn’t end on Good Friday! That’s just the middle. The ending is FAR more glorious than we could ever imagine! On Easter Sunday, we celebrate the fact that death and sin could not keep Jesus in the grave. God’s desire is not for us to die forgiven and then cease to exist. His desire is relationship with us – FOREVER! This is why there is resurrection. This is why the gospel is called “good news” and it is what we celebrate on Easter Sunday.
One of my favorite passages in scripture is from Jeremiah 29 where he talks to the Jews who were recently sent into exile from their motherland by the Babylonians. They trusted that God would bring them back to Israel and the temptation was for them to disengage from the pagan cities to which they were exiled as they eagerly awaited the go-home order. But God revealed to Jeremiah that their exile would be long. And he gives them the word, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Church, our days on this fallen earth will be long. Trials will come. We will never totally feel at home until we are with God in his kingdom. But we cannot disengage because of how difficult it gets here or because we begin to believe that Jesus will return any day now so we can disengage from this world. Indeed, he will come back any day now. Our exile will come to an end. We will see his face; see him on his throne. But for every day until then, we must continue the work he has called us to – advancing his kingdom on earth.
On Easter Sunday, plant something! A tree, a vegetable, a flower. Whatever. Plant something and reflect on the new life of that thing and the new hope and life we have in Christ because of Easter. Reflect on the mission he has called us to on this earth, and pray for the strength and faith to walk boldly into it.
I hope this Easter is a season of revealing for us all and that we can emerge out of it with renewed focus to seek God and to lead others into life with him. Happy Easter in the Apocalypse!