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September 15, 2019: “Ages and Dispensations”

In the 1920’s, Clarence Larkin set out to map the various eras of humanity — “ages” and “dispensations” — and our role in making them happen.  It may just be one of the most influential ideas you’ve never heard of from the last century.

Sermon “Ages and Dispensations”   Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

I came across an article recently that intrigued me so much, I want to share a paragraph from it, even though in doing so I might lose you right at the very beginning of sermon.  the article was written a couple weeks ago by Daniel G. Hummel, a Christian scholar and author of Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations

He wrote, “Most Americans—the vast majority of whom do not subscribe to any formal “end times” scenario and certainly not the Christian one that includes a rapture, an antichrist, and a Battle of Armageddon—find it hard to appreciate just how deeply this one view of the end has permeated our shared culture. Its formal name—premillennial dispensationalism—is hard to say five times fast and is even harder to exhaust as a source for American discourse. It is like communism, or Puritanism, or Mormonism—an identifiable tradition but one that has been invoked, denounced, marketed, and repackaged so many times, by so many people, that any attempt to grasp its essence is futile. Its origins date to the 1830s, to the writings of a disaffected Anglo-Irish cleric named John Nelson Darby, who would go on to help found the Plymouth Brethren movement. Darby’s teachings found a permanent home in North America, a continent he only visited for the first time at age 62. He offered a novel Christian reading of the Bible that posited God working toward world redemption with two groups: the Jewish people and the gentile church. The implications he drew from his reading of the Bible included a secret and sudden rapture of all true Christians, a future for the Jewish people in the land of Palestine, and the rise of not one but two temporal, political antichrists (one Gentile and one Jewish). After the Civil War, some Americans adopted parts of Darby’s teachings, though always in service of their own ends. Since then his ideas have become a driving force shaping the unique character of American evangelicalism.

Dispensationalism, in a nutshell, is the belief that God has a plan that he isn’t sharing with humanity.  To the casual observer, it may look a little chaotic and like he’s changing his mind as time goes on regarding his plan for our entire planet, but he’s really just revealing bits of the plan as they unfold.  This ideology allows God to appear imperfect, even tempestuous, without ever really changing.  Thanks to Dispensationalism, god remains perfect … just unknown or misunderstood by very imperfect humans.   

Except some humans claim to know God more than others.

Clarence Larkin set out, in the 1920’s, to chart God’s plan, and break them down into what he called “ages” and “dispensations.”  You can see the chart, what you can make out of it in such a small image, on the cover of the Oder of service.  

I’ll be honest.  I had every intention of studying this chart at length this week, but with everything else going on, I just didn’t have time to explore any of the vast library of reading on the topic.  A cursory search of only the  videos online reveal an enormous collection of lectures and tutorials on the subject.  I don’t want to misinform you, and I certainly don’t want to claim any kind of expertise on this subject, but here’s the bit I’ve been able to figure out.  I think.

On the right is the Alpha, the beginning, an eternity of creativity and on the left is the Omega, the end, an eternity Larkin calls the “Ages of the Ages.”  The two opposite eternities are so vast they makes humanity seem like a blip in the history of the universe.  In that way, dispensationalists and scientists are in agreement: our history is practically nothing compared to all history.

In between is the time between the eternities, the dispensations, descriptors of God’s dealings with humanity and the ways in which he dispenses rewards and punishments.

Starting on left, you can see the “Antediluvian Age,” the time when God created the earth as a paradise, lost by Adam and Eve.  This is the period of the early part of the Bible, when god is moody and almost chatty in his communicating with his people, sending tablets, demanding activities, burning bushes.  It ends when he destroys the world in great flood, saving only Noah and his family, vowing never to do such a thing again.

Moving right, to the center, you can see in the middle of the Present age a cross, representing the life and death of Jesus, with most of the Old Testament on the left of it, the largest of which is the Legal dispensation, the laws created to make clear how humans are supposed to behave with God and with each other.  On the right of the cross is the ecclesiastical dispensation, the formation of the Christian Church, and it’s breaking down into smaller and smaller churches, some more favored than others, ending with the tribulation, our current era, which has lasted well over a thousand years.

The little mound, “the Olivet” is the Revelation, the second coming that ushers in the third of the times between the eternities, the Age of Ages.  The Dispensation of grace is when, it is said, the Holy Spirit will live in Believers as a great comfort, while apparently avoiding non-believers, who churn in the agony of the growing social discord among them. this is the Millenial age, the idea being that we were supposed to be in this era a while ago.

To the right of that is the dispensation when paradise is restored, when Jesus returns to separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak, when all of humanity, everyone that has ever lived or died is judged, based on not just action, but belief and faith in Jesus.  This is the ultimate dispensation, when the true believers go into the Omega — eternal joy — and the rest …. don’t.

You’ll notice in between grace and restoration, there is something that looks like a bomb.  It’s called by Larking the Great White Throne of Judgement, and if you’re curious, yes, the racism was intentional for Larkin. This is the moment of rapture. Rapture.

If the the whole idea of rapture seems familiar to you, even though you may not be a biblical scholar, that shouldn’t surprise you.  It really has permeated every corner of American culture.

In his article a couple weeks ago, Daniel Hummel went on to explain that “While much of the dispensational world has been white, evangelical, and politically conservative, various components of dispensationalism have been adopted by African Americans, Pentecostals, and smaller Christian groups like the Seventh Day Adventists.”

The Scofield Reference bible, first published in 1909, influenced Clarence Larkin and lodged itself deep into the apocalyptic thoughts of Americans, who, like every generation of every culture in human history has thought of itself as being uniquely close to the end of times.  

In the United States, we’ve seen portrayals of the apocalypse in everything from Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth in 1970, to Tim LeHay’s Left Behind Novels that have sold 80 million copies.  We’ve seen a form of the apocalypse portrayed in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series and lived out in the Republic of Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, both of which are absolutely terrifying in their portrayal of how we got into the mess we’re in and what this is could possibly turn into.

You know, when I first read the Handmaid’s Tale back in the 1980’s it seemed impossible, like we were so far past our puritanical roots, so grounded in feminism and working to repair the damage we’d done to the planet that we could never go to the Republic of Gilead, where environmental devastation causes widespread sterility that leads to the subjugation of women, where they have no rights.  Not even to their own bodies.

But now, I’m not so sure.  Gilead seems possible. Partly because of the dismantling of all the environmental protections that have been put into place beginning with the Nixon administration and fracturing of reproductive rights that have existed for just as long.  but I also worry that a Gilead like republic is possible when I hear the Republican president, in his pride over his Chinese trade negotiations calling himself “the chosen one” to the applause of his supporters.  I worry that a Gilead like republic is possible when I read dozens of articles by evangelicals who call him a “King Cyrus Leader,” referring to the patriarchal dispensation when men who displayed little or no godliness — or even sense of decency — were chosen to do great things.  I worry that the great things things they are hoping the current president will do are expediting the end of this era, then 

Here’s the thing though.  None of us should be worrying about the end times and we surely shouldn’t be working to make them happen.  Especially not Christians.

think about what Tony Robinson said about how the Bible ends.  It’s a story that demonstrates “what it means to be people of faith—to be still waiting, still watching, still hoping, still listening for God. Fiercely waiting.”

The teaching of the rabbi Jesus, and his disciples, wasn’t about forcing an ending.  It was about waiting.  Patiently.  Forever.  

Waiting patiently forever means being with each other in times of temptation and testing…accompanying one another until the end, celebrating lives of love and service and remembering each other when we’ve passed. We’re tempted to rush to the end, to come to a conclusion that seems foregone, but may never actually be.  We’re constantly testing humanity, god even, to get to that end, to declare with certainty exactly what the ending is, and to reveal the ways in which we are the winners.  Whoever we are.  We all tend to see ourselves as the winners, the good ones, and others as the losers, the bad ones.

I don’t want to see all evangelicals as the bad ones.  And fortunately, my reading points me in another direction of movement for them that is very different from apocalypticism and dispensationalism.  More and more of them are claiming a kind of inclusive, generous theology that I would call liberal.  While young evangelicals who are fighting for the rights of women and LGBT inclusion and an end to racial oppression wouldn’t necessarily call themselves theologically liberal, they are claiming political positions that we who do call ourselves theological liberals would agree with.  there’s a growing trend toward younger evangelicals claiming liberalism, and many pollsters, pundits and bloggers are claiming that it’s as much as 25% or even 30% of all evangelicals.  

It’s so large that Boston University School of Theology’s Center for Practical Theology created web-based resources to support what it calls a large, growing and underserved religious community, whose emergent voices include Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessel, Jen Hatmaker and Nadia Booz-Weber, all of whom I’ve quoted from theirs pulpit — positively.  

And this community isn’t made up of only women.  There’s also Matthew Vines, Brian McLaren, and Peter Enns to name a few. If that seems impossible to you that people like them exist, or if you’re convinced they are only powerless young bloggers, just think of one person you do know.  Jimmy Carter.  there’s a man who knows his job is to wait fiercely. 

Right now, at the end of a week like the one I just had, spending time with sick people, being with Marj and her daughters as she died, learning of Richard’s solitary death, I don’t want to be thinking ahead to some end times that may never happen.  Despite just a bit of fear that the dispensationalists have enough power to bring about the end times, I want to engage in the radical act of fiercely waiting.

I want to ground myself more in what it is that we Unitarian Universalists strive to do best, and often succeed at.  And that’s living in the here and now, being present to the people who are right in front of us, celebrating their successes, bearing witness to their suffering, and honoring their lives when their lives have ended.

I want to live under the beacon that shines bright and clear, guiding hands and hearts and spirits into faith set free from fear.  I want to do that in memory of people like Marj, with whom I so often disagreed AND loved dearly.  I want to do it for people like Tieghan and Duncan And August and Caleb and Maura and Marlene and all the other children and youth among us who could be the next great voices of theological liberalism that saves us from creating armageddon on our own.

May it be so.