Tuesday’s Enquirer carried a number of letters to the editor regarding people’s responses to the health care bill passed just a few days before by the House of Representatives. Here are some voices of those who spoke out against bill:
“If the government takes over health care with everything else it now controls, the free market will not be able to compete (and) the government (will make) us taxpayers pay for its follies and mistakes. Our Constitution is stealthily being eroded.”
“So the House has passed legislation called health care reform. This is a 2000 page misnomer. The real name should be health care control. Wake up America! Your freedoms are being stolen right under your noses.”
“This is just the sort of big government our Founding Fathers sought to avoid. Today they would, like I, fear for our rights and our Republic.”
Several weeks from now, on December 6th, world leaders will gather for the United Nations Climate Summit, in Copenhagen, to discuss how nations can better address issues of climate change.
Here is a quote from a person speaking on behalf of the Global Climate Campaign which is organizing to urge world leaders to act quickly on this matter: “The current financial crisis does not absolve world leaders from their responsibility towards the literally billions of people, mainly from the world’s poorest communities, who are likely to perish if climate change remains unchecked. Frustration is boiling over at the years of failure to achieve meaningful international action on climate even as the evidence that we are on the brink of an unprecedented and irreversible catastrophe mounts. On Saturday December 5th, people from all around the world will be saying that the time is now for world leaders to take decisive action to avert a global calamity” Link HERE
I’m going on a hunch here, but my guess is that if these global warming activists and the health care protesters were to get in the same room that they wouldn’t agree on a whole lot. In fact, it could get ugly, fast. But from their comments on these two separate important issues, there is a common thread that at least brings them together on a most basic agreement. Did you hear it? Our Constitution is being eroded, I fear for our Republic, must take action to avert a global calamity. There is a shared sense that the world as they know it and love it, is in grave danger. A sense that the fabric of society, or even creation, is stretched to the point of almost tearing, perhaps holding on by just a thread which could break any minute. If we listen to both deeply enough, we’ll find a common conviction that we are on the brink of disaster and that there must be an intervention to stop the whole thing from falling apart.
Lots of people can agree that we’re living in apocalyptic times, we just have different thoughts about what are the signs of the apocalypse.
What I’d like to do is to start from the assumption that this intuition is a correct one and that we are indeed living in apocalyptic times. What if these times, our generation, this point in history, is an apocalyptic moment and we find ourselves right in the middle of it all? I want to try it out and see what things look like if we 1) accept that we are living in apocalyptic times, and 2) let go of what we think that may mean and open ourselves to rereading scripture to listen for what in the world it may say about such a time and such a life. This will be a theme that keeps coming up as we move into Advent and the texts that prepare us for the coming of Christ into the world and the apocalyptic preaching of John the Baptist, so today can be an introduction into life in the apocalypse!
Apocalypse has come to be another way of saying the end of the world, the end of life as we know it, by some cataclysmic event of nature or human initiated war and destruction. I looked up some recent movies that have apocalyptic themes like The Matrix, Deep Impact, and Armageddon and realized that they were all released in the late 90’s, so maybe the apocalypse already happened ten years ago on a Hollywood stage set and we somehow missed it. Although it looks like this new movie 2012 is reviving the theme, so maybe we’re just a little over two years away from apocalypse.
The shaking of the heavens and earth is a part of where apocalyptic thinking has come from, but involves quite a bit more than that.
Between the years 200 BCE and 300 CE, approximately, the Jewish world produced various documents that we now call apocalyptic literature. What this literature holds in common is that it is being written by a minority group experiencing persecution, to the point of being overwhelmed by the forces arrayed against them. The experience of oppression and was so strong that the only hope for salvation was a divine intervention that would overturn the order of the present world and set things in order as they should be. General historical progress toward a better world was no longer an imaginable possibility. Evil would be defeated, unjust kings would be destroyed, and the righteous would be justified in their faithfulness to the ways of justice and the right path. The mind of the ancient imagination connected the great power of kingdoms and tyrants with the power of the stars and the sun, the social order mirrored in the cosmic order, so the shaking of the thrones of the powerful also meant the shaking of the heavenly bodies. Isaiah 24 has apocalyptic words, “On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth…Then the moon will be abashed, and the sun ashamed; for the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem.”
One of the early apocalyptic writings, the book of Daniel, rose out of Jewish persecution under the 2nd century BCE Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes who desecrated the temple. By this time the Jews had lived under the reign of the Babylonians, who exiled them, the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks. It was not a short, temporary loss of national sovereignty as had been hoped for. It was centuries. Generation after generation. In a dream, in chapter 7 of Daniel, Daniel sees four beasts, each corresponding to one of these empires. Each beast is stronger than the one before it and each more destructive. After seeing the beasts, the text says this: “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being (a son of man) coming with the clouds of heaven, and he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To this one was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” So right in the midst of his apocalyptic times, which had been ruled by beasts, Daniel envisions one like a human being who is given the thrown – coming with the clouds of heaven. Sounds sort of like thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. The beasts are defeated, God intervenes by raising up one with a human heart, who humanizes the systems that had been oppressing people, and this is the one who reigns for ever and ever. And soon after, in the same chapter, Daniel identifies this Human One as the righteous of Israel, the holy ones. In the midst of empire ruled by beasts, Daniel assures the people that the Human One, the son of man, is coming.
Writings like this continued on up to and beyond the life of Jesus. If you want to know more about apocalyptic literature you should take John Kampen out for breakfast sometime and ask him what all he has learned in his studies of this! Jesus was living in apocalyptic times, only this time the hope of Daniel had been delayed and yet another empire, another beast, had risen up, this time the Roman Empire. And again Jews found themselves as a persecuted minority. The book of Revelation is part of this apocalyptic literature and kind of picks up where Daniel left off in some ways and talks about this new beast of Rome that is now the source of so much hardship for the people of God.
Mark 13 is an apocalyptic chapter and is one of the key places where we can take our cues for how Jesus interprets apocalypse not only with his words, but also with his life. Because apocalyptic consciousness was there in Jesus time, he’s not inventing this language, it’s already part of the day’s lingo. So he uses the language of the day to tweek and alter and shape perception of life in the apocalypse, taking it as a given that that generation was living in apocalyptic times – that there were powerful forces working to the harm of the people – forces that needed to be overthrown, or stopped, or defeated in some way. And like anyone trying to wade through the troubled waters of apocalypse, Jesus enters into this conversation carefully but also purposefully and with direction.
He approaches apocalypse in a way that lines up with the root meaning of the world. Apocalypse, apocalypsis in Greek, means to unveil, to reveal. To peak behind the curtain, in a sense, and see things as they really are. Who’s really running the show. So Dorothy and the scarecrow and the tin man and the lion are on an apocalyptic journey in their encounter with the Wizard of Oz. And it’s not as they or anyone supposed.
Mark 13 begins this way: “As he (Jesus) came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’”
Ever since entering Jerusalem on the back of a colt, back in chapter 11, Jesus had been teaching in the temple. His interaction with the scribe about the greatest commandment, and his words about the scribes and the widow that Dustin spoke to last week all happened in the temple. The temple and the area around it had undergone a massive construction project, sort of the economic stimulus of the day, by Herod the Great. It was built to impress and produce awe. Some of those stones from the retaining wall of the temple are still there in Jerusalem at the Western wall, the wailing wall, and they are indeed massive and impressive. We might think of walking through Times Square in Manhattan and being in awe of the lights and towering buildings rising all around us. So when the disciples walk out with Jesus, they comment on the massive stones and buildings all around them.
Jesus then speaks with apocalyptic language. Do you see all this? All this which looks so powerful and dominating and secure? Don’t be so mesmerized. All of these buildings will be thrown down. One gift of apocalyptic knowledge is that we are given the gift of disillusionment. Herod’s temple, Herod’s city, the rule of Rome, the iron fist of the emperor, carried with it an air of immortality and invincibility. This is the potential illusion for anyone living in apocalyptic times. That the system will hold us fast forever, that the structure is too big to fail, that these stones which we carried and formed and set in place with our own hands and our own technology can never be moved or shaken. Worship and faith are energies that we can often direct at things which are not God, and Jesus seems to be saying ‘don’t do it.’ The order of the world is much more fragile than you think. Don’t live under the illusion and the hypnotic trance of such things. I have a better place for you to focus your energy.
Well, since Jesus brings up an apocalyptic kind of conversation the disciples seem all of a sudden eager to go in this direction. OK, Jesus, since you brought it up, when is it all going to go down? When is the fire going to burn it all up, the colliding comet going to blow it all to smithereens, the revolution going to topple the king?
Here’s how this is put in the rest of the Mark 13 passage that was read: “When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
It’s more than a little unfortunate that these words have been taken to mean pretty much the opposite of what Jesus is trying to communicate here. The disciples asked “when” and “what are the signs.” Jesus lists typical apocalyptic imagery and expectations – the wars, the famines, the earthquakes – and basically says “these aren’t the signs.” Do not be alarmed. These things aren’t the end of the world, this is more like the beginning of birth pains than the actual birth of anything. Beware. Don’t be led astray. This isn’t what you’re to be watching for. Stop being mesmerized by the massive buildings, because they’re not invincible. And stop thinking that wars and earthquakes mean it’s the end of the world – that they have some kind of sacred meaning. Let me teach you where to look, Jesus seems to be saying.
This is actually the last Sunday that I’ll be preaching on the Year B lectionary cycle, the Year of the Gospel of Mark. Next Sunday will be Thanksgiving Sunday and people will be sharing their gratitude and the Sunday after that begins Advent, the beginning of a new church year, Year C and Luke’s gospel.
So since we’re finishing up with Mark, I feel compelled to go out with a bang and mention that according to Mark, the world has already come to an end. Mark narrates the apocalypse and its not to be missed. Later in chapter 13 Jesus echoes the words of Daniel – that the sun will be darkened and the stars will be falling from the heavens, and then you will see ‘the Son of Man, the Human One, coming in the clouds with great power and glory.’ And Jesus says to his generation “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” and he ends the apocalyptic discourse by saying “Therefore keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn…Keep awake.” And Mark goes on to narrate the end of the world, the coming of the Human One, the master of the house, “in the evening” when Jesus eats with his disciples and gives them the new covenant of bread and cup, and the disciples fails to keep awake in Gethsemane, “at midnight,” when he is betrayed by Judas, “at cockcrow,” when he is denied by Peter, and “at dawn” when he is tried and crucified, and when the sun is darkened over the whole land, and Jesus dies on the cross.
It’s the end of the world, the apocalyptic moment unveils, reveals everything, and the curtain (of the temple) is torn down the middle and we get to glimpse behind.
So if the world has ended, what exactly is it we’re doing now? If the apocalypse has been fulfilled and the veil has been removed, what is it we’re supposed to see? The nonviolent defeat of evil? The coming of the Human One? Where is it? Do you see it? Are we keeping awake?
In these apocalyptic times, when the structures are teetering, when creation is groaning, we can fix our eyes not just on what appears to be fragile and threatening to collapse, but also on the Coming of the Human One. On the new world that is already coming into being. On resurrection. On ways that the Human One is already coming to life around us, already reigning from the throne. In this generation in these apocalyptic times, already seeing signs of the kingdom of God coming on earth as in heaven.
Thanks be to God.