PROPER 28 B
Daniel 12:1-3, Mark13:1-8
Today and in the coming weeks you will be hearing some lessons that fall into the category of Apocalyptic writings. Apocalyptic means “unveiling” or revealing, in the sense of revealing something that has been hidden.
Most apocalyptic literature, at least in the Bible, has to do with what Dominic Crossan calls the “Great Cleanup.” This is when God is going to step in and clean up the earth, bringing a new creation where justice and peace reign.
Apocalyptic messages are most often given in the form of visions, dreams, or prophecy of future events, often the so-called end-times or the 2nd coming of Christ and the Last Judgment.
Such passages come to us especially in Daniel, in Mark 13, in the corresponding passages in Luke and Matthew, and most fully in the Book of Revelation.
I know that there’s a lot about the end-times roaming the airways and even the book publishing business these days, and you’ve probably heard various predictions about the world ending on a given date. So let me lay out the issue in broad terms.
Like so much else in the Bible, it seems to me that there are two basic ways of reading these passages. If you read them literally, you will see them as a precise prediction of future events. If you read them as metaphor or as a literary device, you will see them as a commentary on the contemporary situation disguised as the future. This is a long standing literary device used to mask criticism of present powers so that the author will not be strung up.
The literal view focuses its readers on the future and promises that God will fix all that’s wrong in the world. All we have to do is wait and behave so that we will be saved. It also tends to foster some competition between various groups who claim they will be saved, not to mention quite a few false prophets.
The metaphorical view focuses it’s readers on current injustices so that they can help to do something about them. It encourages us to work to change our current society to make it more like the Kingdom of God Jesus described for us.
Both versions do cry out for a world where justice and peace reign. Both should give hope to people suffering oppression.
I used to avoid the Book of Revelation because the visions are so far out, and often so violent, that I just didn’t get it. Then I heard Rev. Steve Shaitberger do a presentation on it that helped me understand it a bit. He used the second approach, looking at it as an indictment of the Roman Empire, written almost in code that the early Christian community would understand but that the Roman authorities would not.
Think of some of the literature we know that functions that way: 1984, Animal Farm, Erehwon, also one or two of Margaret Atwood’s novels. By placing the action in the future or in some other reality, the authors can freely but indirectly comment on the present.
If you want to hear passages like the ones from Daniel and Mark we read today discussed in the literal manner, I suggest you tune in to my favorite televangelist, the Rev. Jack Van Impe and his lovely wife Rexella.
Meanwhile, let’s look at what Jesus is saying in Mark. The disciples are awed by the Temple in Jerusalem, and from all accounts it was massively impressive and stunning to behold. When they comment on it, Jesus replies by saying “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Usually this has been taken to be a prediction of the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. But I think it’s an extremely ‘safe’ prediction. Are not most buildings or any other creation of man eventually thrown down? How many endure for ages, much less forever?
Then Jesus and the disciples go over to the Mount of Olives, from which there is a magnificent view of the Temple Mount. Some of the disciples ask him when this will be, presumably when the Temple will be thrown down.
Strangely, Jesus answers by first warning them against false prophets. Then says, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. . .nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes and famines. . .”
Once again, I have to say that these are rather safe predictions. When have these things not been going on, at least since man became man? Later in this same chapter Jesus does make a specific prediction, After the suffering, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. . .Truly I tell you this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
So Jesus predicts that what we call the second coming of Christ will happen before his generation has passed away. Of course, we know that did not happen, and 2000 years later it still has not happened. Why? Jesus tells us this himself shortly after this prediction. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.”
That’s the basic problem with focusing on the future, or arguing about salvation, or claiming to know what happens when we die. The truth is that no one can know anything about such things for sure. Yes, we all have our opinions, but opinions are not the same things as facts.
And all the predictions and speculations merely keep us from paying attention to the world around us, where injustice is still all too common and where people are suffering, often needlessly, because our systems and institutions are so often rigged in ways that don’t treat everyone equally.
The clearest message Jesus gives us in this reading is this: Do not be alarmed. This is the way the world tends to be, but we can work to change it. God helps in this task by sending the Holy Spirit to guide and help us, and through the teachings of Jesus about how to clean up the world.
As Dom Crossan concludes about the great cleanup, “God won’t do it without us, and we can’t do it without God.” You wouldn’t guess it from the daily news, but there are recent studies that show that worldwide there has been a significant reduction in violence over the last few centuries.
None of us can remake the world, but all of us can participate in moving our society towards less violence, greater justice, and greater peace. Our job is not to worry about the future, but to do what we can today. AMEN