A sermon for Nov. 15, 2015, based on Daniel 12:1-3 and Mark 13: 1-8;
We’ve reached the end of my series on the mysteries of faith, literally: we are talking today about the apocalypse, known also by other technical terms like the eschaton (the last thing or the end) and the Parousia (the return of Christ). I initially wrote this sermon with a bit of a sense of humor; but with this week’s Islamic State attacks in Paris and Beirut, the topic of apocalyptic sounds an eerie note. “Apocalyptic” is the word that one bystander in Paris used to describe the scene at one of the attacked restaurants.
We began this series, revisiting Easter, with Jesus Christ, who is risen to be our eternal Mediator. Then we turned to Pentecost, and with the Spirit who continues the life of the Trinity in us today. We then replayed Ordinary Time, a time for thinking carefully about what the church should do: first, what it means to be holy people amid the upheavals of God’s Kingdom; then, our life of communion and loving fellowship together; and finally, our activity in the world, especially the question of politics which that raises. It’s a lot to digest; too much, really. But we will have more time together. I wanted to introduce myself to you, at least, where I have come as a theologian after a long journey. I know personally that the mysteries of God are hard to grasp; in college I decided I only had time for the historical Jesus, and religion for me was about little else than following a moral life; the Trinity and the divinity of Christ were nonsense to me, and I wasn’t sure why worship was important. Sure, I was young and prideful, and that didn’t help. But what held me back was a problem much bigger than me, and it probably affects you too.
Our ancestors who built this glorious structure didn’t have our problems. They effortlessly saw the world to be under God’s care, redeemed by God’s Son Jesus, and being transformed by the Holy Spirit. They were wrong about a lot of things, let’s not forget. But the world of the Bible was much easier for them to inhabit than it is for us; the Bible and Christian tradition can seem odd and alien to us. Don’t feel bad if that’s where you are; because it’s true: wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. The whole modern era has caused upheavals in religion never before seen. We should have compassion for our own unbelief, and the often reckless reactions to these upheavals that our enemies espouse. No one’s eternal destiny hinges on grasping a difficult mystery.
But I want us all to keep on journeying. It took me years of study to see the wisdom of Christian tradition, buried in the muck and mire of its many flaws. And to figure out how the Bible can today speak responsibly, which means not infallibly, and yet really have something to say that we can’t get anywhere else. And I still have far to go. But I want to show you a world of Christian ideas that is exciting, compelling, powerful, and ecumenical—that is, shared with Christians from many different traditions. I want to elucidate for you a faith that has nothing to fear when confronted with secular ideas and ways, despite my respect for the achievements of secularism. This church is poised to be a great vessel of the Holy Spirit. We have not made the mistakes of the Christian ideologues I talked about last week. What we most need is to be confident in our faith and open to its inexhaustible riches.
The last mystery, the Apocalypse, the End of Things, has been all but ruined by our Fundamentalist brothers and sisters; by the Left Behind series and the ugly mouthful of a pseudo-science that lies behind it, something called “premillennial Dispensationalism.” (Let’s not all say that together.) For all that I have nothing but scorn; it is all a sham. Because there’s no question among serious scholars: The Book of Revelation, with all its signs and numbers, is talking about the Roman Empire of its day. Let’s stop trying to identify in a literal fashion who the anti-Christ is and when Christ will return.
But we cannot ignore apocalyptic. Basically the whole New Testament and many of the prophets are apocalyptic in orientation; they all look forward to God’s dramatic resolution of history. If we can’t find some meaning in this very biblical worldview, then the Bible will forever be odd and alien to us. Now Apocalyptic, all that concerns the End Times, should not be the center of our faith; that is found at Easter. But I want to make a case today that the four weeks of Advent, all the way on the cold, other side of the year from springy Eastertide, is the optimal time to explore Apocalyptic, because Apocalyptic is all about not the Jesus who is here, but the One we await, who is yet to come.
Apocalyptic scriptures have been read at Advent since the fourth century or so. But Advent at that time became also a fast season, like Lent: a time for repentance. To me, that is redundant. Lent is the best time to focus on our personal sin and repentance, but the church has too often talked about little else throughout the whole year: You are a sinner and you need to repent! That’s just one side of who we are and what we need from God, and the Bible has so much more to say than just that. And there’s much more to Jesus than just, he was the one who died for your sins.
So what I propose is that we use Advent as a time to whet our appetite for God’s coming. The joyous feast is Christmastide, the twelve day festival that ends with Epiphany, during which time we celebrate God’s coming to be with us and begin to grapple with what that means. But for Advent, we prepare for this feast by discovering our hunger. I lived in Paris for six months; there I discovered that people often have a bitter drink before a meal to whet or sharpen the appetite, called an “apéritif.” The bitterness makes the sumptuous feast all the sweeter. And so Advent can be our aperitif, our time to awaken ourselves to our need for God.
I hear many people complain that Christmas comes and they don’t feel the joy that hoped to feel. Perhaps we very unrealistically think that, normally, everyday should be joyful, every day should be full of praise and glorifying God. We’re supposed to be happy, right? And if not, we probably need medication. Well, I can’t practice a faith that doesn’t allow me to be honest about life, honest when it is lack that I am feeling. So let us keep the Advent fast in this way: let Advent be our time to be honest that we are still underfed, we need real salvation. And it’s a hunger and a deliverance that only God can accomplish. I predict that if you fast this way, you will be ready to taste joy on Christmas.
Now: why apocalyptic, and what is it? The best way to understand what apocalyptic is to see where it came from. Much of the Old Testament teaches that God rewards the good with blessings and punishes the wicked, in this life. (Our reading today in Daniel is just about the only place in the Old Testament that shows a belief in an afterlife). So when Israel was overcome by its enemies and sent into exile in Babylon—a terrible crisis—some tried to teach that this was God’s punishment for sins. But others balked. Many challenged the idea that acts of suffering are a punishment from God—Job, Ecclesiastes, and the prophet Habakkuk, who along with some of the Psalms, challenges God outright to step up: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? …Why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (You see, if we read our Bible carefully, we’ll find it’s ok to be angry with God. It’s ok to protest the way of the world. We don’t have to always look for the silver lining.)
But several centuries later, when the Hellenistic empires desecrated the rebuilt Temple in Israel, setting up an image of the emperor, who called himself “God manifest,” in the Holy of Holies, and when Jews were martyred trying to stop them, no one could any longer teach that their deaths were God’s punishment for unfaithfulness. (And Jews and Christians in the 20th century reached the same conclusion about the Shoah or Holocaust.) They died precisely because they were faithful. But prophets like Daniel could not let go of the idea that God is in control of history. And so Daniel predicted that soon God would destroy the evil Hellenistic empire in a battle led by the mysterious “Son of Man.” And then the dead will be raised, and the righteous will enjoy everlasting life, but the evil will be judged.
Daniel is the best example of apocalyptic we have in the Old Testament, but if you ever root around in the Apocrypha, found between Old and New Testaments in some Bibles, you will see other vivid examples. By the time of Jesus, apocalyptic was quite prevalent; Jesus himself quotes Daniel. John the Baptist is a textbook apocalyptic preacher. In general, apocalyptic Judaism believed that God is ultimately in control of history, but not yet: The world right now is under the control of evil forces, demonic beings, or just Satan—all created good by God, but fallen into evil, or at least godforsakenness. All of it will be judged by God, and the Messiah will re-establish God’s reign on earth.
There’s a lot in apocalyptic that I think we need to rediscover, but with care. You won’t see me out on State Street holding a sign saying “The End in Nigh.” But there is a realism to apocalyptic that I respect. It doesn’t try to sugarcoat our problems; it doesn’t cheerily maintain that “everything happens for a reason.” The world is seriously messed up, it’s controlled by godless forces, and seriously in need of redemption. God is not casually presiding over the chaotic chain of events unfolding around us—the mayhem, the violence, the callousness. God is preparing to enter into a struggle, a battle with all the forces aligned against God. In the meantime, God seems absent, and we don’t know why.
It’s not because God respects our free will too much to intervene. That’s how we modern people like to explain why God allows evil. We see this life as a testing ground for how we use our free will. This is sensible; but where’s God’s grace in all this? Apocalyptic is very different; it sees the world as a cosmic struggle of massive forces, God against the demons and Satan. Salvation is up to God’s power alone; our faithfulness or good behavior amounts to very little in the cosmic scope of salvation. According to our Mark passage, all that we can do for this coming cataclysm is to be on guard, to be alert, and to pray for the strength to endure the trials.
Apocalyptic does not think much of our freedom; it thinks much more about God’s election. A little later in Mark, werse 20 reads: “If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days.” We are at best tenuously clinging on to faith, but the world is very much under the sway of great powers, and many will be led away under their delusion: “Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.”
Carefully reading the Bible is most useful when it challenges our conventional wisdom. I think Apocalyptic helpfully challenges the individualism of our day. We are enamored of our freedom, our ability to chose our own destiny. No doubt, we live in a society that permits very little coercion, especially compared to some other societies. But we are probably not as free as we think we are.
Sure, we are free from obvious government intrusion. You are free to buy what you want, mostly, so long as you have money. But try being free to completely overcome alcoholism. Or to set things right in a broken marriage or with an alienated child—how many gadgets would you trade for that freedom? Or try to be free of racism and its effects. Or to be unaffected by entrenched poverty. Or to watch anything on any major media that isn’t really about trying to sell you something. Try to be free to teach your children that Christmas is really a deeply spiritual holiday, not a commercial blitz that begins in October. Heck, I’ve joined the rush, haven’t I—I’m preaching on Advent and it’s not even Thanksgiving yet! We often mean well with our little freedom, but entrenched systems, habits, and interests hem us in. Some of you probably long to believe in these great doctrines and mysteries I’ve been talking about, but we struggle vainly to do so in the wake of centuries of religious upheaval, a history we barely understand, but one that has affected our very ability to believe as we would like to.
The coming birth of Jesus will remind us that our hopes are not founded on nothing. God has come to the world that God created and reclaimed it even in its lost state, its fallenness. Jesus will once again begin to call us, and to teach us, and to do things wondrous and unpredictable. But for now we are invited, like the prophets and matriarchs and patriarchs of old, to give free reign to our desperate hopes for the coming of God. Take a minute and reflect: what are you captivated by? By what are you and the whole world oppressed? What Pharoahs, what Babylon, what powers enslave us all, so that only a King of Kings could deliver us? If you come up with something you want to share with me, write it on the card in your bulletin and put it in the offering. Consider it your wish list for that Christmas gift that only our apocalyptic God can give us.