John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.'” – John 1:23
Our culture has an infatuation with the apocalypse. I have a lot of theories why, but I believe it comes down to fascination and fear of judgment. That, or the idea that after the apocalypse, somehow, God’s judgment is finished – that God is dead – and those left behind are free to make their own moral code free of God’s natural law, living in something of a metaphysical badlands that the world forgot. Perhaps it’s seen as an exciting frontier, or an amalgam of purgatory and hell where interesting stories happen, free of God’s infringement of any kind of rational order and justice.
Perhaps it’s even seen as an unorthodox utopia – that once God has come and destroyed, and has left the world alone – then finally the Tower of Babel will come to fruition because the laws of nature are broken, and suddenly humanity will be able to construct the society that God never allowed. That humanity will be able to reach perfection through it’s own work and willpower. The things we always dreamed of but could never achieve, now without the restriction of God, can be achieved.
This, of course, illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of God. We believe that God is a man sitting in a chair up in heaven, looking down at the things we’re trying to do and throwing monkey wrenches, here and there, to gum up our plans because he is a spiteful and malevolent God who wants nothing more that to see our plans fail. We get mad with God when our poor decisions lead to ruin.
I like to use the metaphor of a lawnmower. A lawnmower was created to, plot twist, mow lawns. The designer of a lawnmower created that machine to serve that particular purpose. But let’s say that we want to do something else. Maybe, while we’re mowing our lawn, we look up and see that the hedges are quite overgrown. We look down again and see that the grass is also quite overgrown, and the lawnmower is doing an excellent job of rectifying that problem. Assured that we’ve figured out the solution, we pick up the running lawnmower by the undercarriage and haul it over to the hedges, holding it vertically and pressing it into the branches.
Unfortunately, as it does cut some of the branches from the hedge, it also cuts off all of our fingers. With nothing to hold on to, the lawnmower drops and lands on our left foot, breaking the bones. Incensed, we curse at the man who developed the lawnmower, furious that he didn’t make it a better hedge trimmer.
In the case of the physical lawnmower, perhaps a class-action personal injury law firm sues the manufacturer and gets millions of dollars worth of damages rewarded and a label stuck on the side of the lawnmower reading ‘NOT A HEDGE TRIMMER’. But this is a metaphor for this world’s relationship with God. With God, instead, we hate him, because he developed this lawnmower of a world – effective when used properly and devastating when it’s not – in a way we might disagree with. He developed this world with a specific purpose in mind.
We like to think that, when we go against God’s will and things go wrong for us, God is punishing us – that we are the victims and God is cruel and insistent on His own way. However, in the case of the lawnmower designer, when he developed the lawnmower to be a lawnmower, was he punishing those who wanted to use it as a hedge trimmer?
Of course not, that’s just the way it was designed. You certainly are allowed to curse at the sky and scream “Lawnmower man! Why are you punishing me for wanting to do things my way?” but it would be awfully strange to do so, and it doesn’t change the fact that the lawnmower is still a lawnmower.
God never seeks to punish us, but he is also uncompromising on the utility of the lawnmower – the world – and it’s proper use and purpose. God doesn’t insist on His own way. We learn in Corinthians 13:4-5 that insisting on one’s own way is the opposite of love, and in 1 John 4:8 we learn that God is love. The very fact that we were allowed to pick up that garden maintenance tool and destroy our hands with it in the first place illustrates that God won’t stop us from making bad decisions. Yet He still loves us. What God wants is to see us put the lawnmower down, use it the way it was intended, and allow Him to reattach, ice, and bandage our fingers.
However, we still seem to crave an apocalypse. In the media today, rarely do we see references to the first letter of John, or to Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Instead, as a society, the book of the Bible we find coolest is almost always John’s Revelation. We like the idea of the world ending. We like to fantasize and piece together the signs and symbols and portents that John documents seeing, and see if we can figure out when and how and who and where. What is the star Wormwood? Who is the Antichrist? Is it a person? Is it many people? Who are the Horsemen? Has it already happened? Is it happening? When will it happen?
Literarily, we miss out on one big point of the book of Revelation. On a wild hair, imagine with me that it’s March 18th, 1955. You’re in the city of Detroit, Michigan, working in a small law firm as a file clerk. It’s your morning break, and the man on the radio is rehashing the riots in Montreal last night at the hockey game, and you’re sick of it, so you turn it off. You’re a big fan of fantasy novels, because they give you a vessel to escape from the chaos of the world. You’re almost finished with J.R.R. Tolkein’s second Lord of the Rings novel, The Two Towers, released last year, and you’re already eagerly awaiting the final book in the series.
During your break, you finish that second book, and use the rest of your time to imagine what happens in the third book. As you’re imagining, you begin to wonder whether Tolkein would decide to kill off Frodo’s character before the conclusion, or have him succumb to temptation and become like Gollum, and you get quite angry. Furious, you vow never to read another book written by Tolkein, and tell all your friends that he’s a horrible writer and he doesn’t know how to end a story.
Nevermind that you haven’t even read the third book yet.
That’s the way the Bible works. We have the Old Testament and the New Testament. We like to think that Revelation is the “end of the story” but it absolutely isn’t. It’s more like the end of The Two Towers. All Revelation does is foreshadow the big crash ending to the whole story, but it’s not the end of the story itself. Clearly, because we are still in the wilderness. If it was the end of the story, quite honestly, we would know. We will know.
Even worse, some people haven’t even read the first and second books, yet they’re mad at the author for how the story goes. Perhaps they’ve walked through the living room while their family was watching Peter Jackson’s rendition of The Fellowship of the Ring on television and saw the Nazgul and thought, “well, that’s pretty bleak” and went into the other room, and then told all their friends the next day that it’s a horrible story about demons with swords hunting down hairy midgets in the woods.
Before we attempt to guess the ending of the story, let’s make it a point this new year to read and understand the first two books. Without them, any guess we have at the ending is going to be as fruitless as wandering in the wilderness without a compass. Statistically, you’re bound to get lost.