Readings for this Sunday:
Daniel 12:1-3 | Psalm 16 | Hebrews 10:11-14 | Mark 13:1-8
Apocalyptic literature tends to be written out of events that reveal the very worst that humans can do. Daniel was written around 160 BCE during a Jewish pogrom by the then Emperor Antiochus IV. A time when according to one historian the “circumcision [of] a boy was marking him for slaughter.”
There are pieces of apocalyptic literature throughout the prophetic writings of Israel. These writings primarily emerge from a time when the Jewish people saw their temple, their homes, their livelihood destroyed, and when they experienced forcible exile to a foreign land.
That perhaps most well-known piece of apocalyptic literature, the Book of Revelation, according to the most widely accepted scholarship, was written during the fierce persecution of a Christian community at the end of the 1st century of the common era.
And these books, this apocalyptic literature, tends to be especially revisited, commented upon, and relied upon during more recent periods of oppression. For example the Book of Revelation became important to those who suffered during the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors in the 8th century, and to the poor communities of Central and South America in the late 20th century. And it will perhaps come as no surprise to hear that apocalyptic themes and images appear in the African American community’s story and song from the founding of our nation onward.
The word Apocalypse means to unveil that which is unseen. Apocalyptic writings in their purest form involve a revelation to an individual and this revelation tells of God as a cosmic force who will intervene in supernatural ways to set things right. They are characterized by dualistic patterns: good vs bad; spirit vs matter; heaven vs earth. These elements are separate, at odds. And in apocalypse they engage in a final battle through which good breaks into human history in overwhelmingly decisive ways to supernaturally destroy what is evil and institute a peaceable way of being for those who were previously on the underside.
The fact that these writings tend to come out of oppressive and unjust situations is important for us to pay attention to. They speak to the extreme powerlessness felt by the writer and their community and they speak to the bone deep knowledge that life was not created to be this way. Not created to be a place where one group has power of life and limb over another; not created to be a place where communities and individuals can’t find what they need to be safe and whole. Apocalypse can be, it needs to be, a form of good news for the powerless and oppressed.
This literature belongs to those on the underside, those who are not afforded an exit strategy from the kinds of suffering that they must endure. We must be careful to remember to whom it belongs and at the same time it is the literature of all humanity.
I would be willing to bet that we all have had apocalyptic wishes of our own. I remember as a child hiding in a bedroom, hiding from a house that was unsafe, and wishing that God would break in, break in in decisive even violent ways, break in and make it all go away. I am sure you have had times when you felt powerless and trapped, times when you have wished for a God who would supernaturally enter in, supernaturally make it safe again. I am more than sure that there are today people in Paris, people in Beirut and Syria, people in so many other violence-torn places who wish with all their being for something, someone to come and set it right, to return their loved ones and make their streets safe. If we pay attention we will recognize our own voices in the voices of apocalypse, we will hear our own cries, our shared cries, for peace and justice and love.
Mark, the writer of today’s gospel, relies upon the apocalyptic writings of his tradition. Images from Daniel and the prophets are all over this piece that we read today and throughout the chapter within which it sits. It is in fact called the “little apocalypse.” by many scholars. It is written out of oppression and violence, a time when Roman occupying forces were attacking Jerusalem and oppressing its people. It tells of a final battle and the violence that will ensue. It sets up a dualism between the way of Jesus and the way of the powers that be. It asks the reader to be on the look-out, to watch for and to follow the one who will come to set things right.
But here is the thing about Mark and about this Jesus of whom he writes. Yes, this Jesus is one who breaks in. Yes, he brings about a new order. Yes, he comes to be with those on the underside. Yes, there will even be a struggle as this way comes to birth but the neat dualities and the violence that we tend to reach for as we look for, yearn for what we know should be, is not what this one who breaks in asks of us.
There is in the life and death of Jesus a testament to a God who does not deal in neat divisions between divine and human, good and bad, heaven and earth. He affirms that these things are real and wants us to know them but he also affirms that they are all of a piece, within our reach, part of our life together.
Jesus’ incarnation, his presence with us as a human reveals a God who wants us to see the divine as part and parcel of the human experience. And who brought the kingdom of God to earth, made matter holy, and did not keep the sacred distant and separate something we cannot get to, cannot touch.
And as for good and evil, well we just have to look at the people Jesus hung out with, the people he cared about. Jesus’ followers in Mark were folks who wanted to know God, gave up everything to know God better, but at the same time did some misguided things at best, and some terrible things at their worst. They misinterpreted Jesus’ teaching, they argued over status, and ultimately they betrayed and abandoned the very one they needed and loved. And those we would so easily cast as the bad guys: the greedy, the thieves, the corrupt religious leaders, even the occupiers. These he touched and tried to reach. These he looked on so often with compassion, he forgave, he welcome them, he engaged them, and longed to draw them like a mother hen under his wings. This Jesus, this revelation of God did not neatly separate out good and bad but knew that in us and amongst us both realities in fact operate.
As Jesus’ revealed to us a God who knows all of this complexity he also revealed to us that violence and retribution were not the way to peace. Standing up for justice, standing firmly and strongly in a way that says no to that which hurts was and is absolutely the way of this God revealed in Jesus but standing in a way that gives space for the other to work out who they are and what they want, that honors the ability of the other to choose how to be in relationship is also part of the deal. Offering oneself in a way that offers life to all even and especially that part of others and that part of ourselves that would deny life is also part of the deal. We say no, absolutely we do and we set boundaries and we take care of those who are being hurt but there is always room to come back, to turn around, to return to the good that we are made for.
And this way inevitably brings struggle. It did for Jesus. He was met with rejection and violence. You see when we speak to complex situations, when we ask each other to look at the ways we hurt each other and our joint complicity in these ways, when we reject the rush to violence and retribution offense often ensues and difficulties and struggle can and usually do ensue. But this violence is our way, not God’s way. We stand up to it, we name it, we together call it out and ask for things to be different, we protect the weak from it but we do not return it.
Please don’t hear me say in this that the kind of apocalypse that we are used to seeing for example in Daniel and the book of revelation, the kind that rains down violence and retribution is not to be uttered. In the dualities and the violence that it uses we hear deep pain, deep God-given needs, and deep truths that there is a force that is for us that does not want the types of horrifying circumstances that gives rise to such literature. It is sacred writing, a holy cry and it is to be honored and listened to.
What I am saying is that the God who responds, and this God does respond, takes us beyond the dualities that it names, beyond the violence and retribution that it calls for to the life and peace that we all really need.
Jesus is Mark’s apocalypse. Jesus is our apocalypse. He and his spirit in us, in others and in the church is the response of God to a world that cries out in pain, that cries out for relief. The church, Christ’s body in the world is in turn to be this kind of apocalyptic force.
A force that trust and acts in the way of Jesus.
A force that stands with those who suffer, that tells the stories of injustice, that gives our resources and our hearts to those who need them.
A force that trusts in the power of reconciliation, that believes in forgiveness, that makes space for complexity and holds for each other and for any who need it the space needed work out who they are and what way they will go.
A force that keeps people safe, says no to ways that harm and abuse people and the planet but does not separate itself out from the human condition, that does not separate people into neat groups of good and evil.
A force that names the complex realities that oppress and knows that most likely we are complicit in these realities but names them nonetheless.
A force that honors matter as heavenly and bodies as sacred.
A force that looks for the divine in all of those we meet.
And a force that can expect a struggle - struggle in ourselves, struggle in others and most likely some opposition as we take this way.
In Jesus’ action in the world as revealed in the man and that continues in the Spirit; in Jesus action in a church that follows his way in the world, God continues to break into human history. God is with us bringing healing and hope amidst the very worst that humans can do. God is present responding to the apocalyptic cries, the apocalyptic wishes of those who are brutalized and losing hope. God is acting shepherding us beyond the violence to what we really need – compassion, justice and peace. And in this God we are each of us already saved.
Thanks be to God.
St. Andrew Sermons