The Rev. Peter Faass
You can tell we are approaching the season of Advent by the apocalyptic stories in Daniel and Mark. Daniel was written during the brutal persecution of the Jewish people by the Seleucid emperor Antiochus Epiphanies during the second century BCE. In this passage, the Archangel Michael tells the people, “There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.”
In Mark, the writer reflects on the Jewish revolt against Rome in the seventh decade, CE. Jesus says, “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.”
Well, I say, let the good times roll!
As we enter the holiday season and want to sing about Glad Tidings of Great Joy, the mid-November scriptures talk about famine, war, earthquakes, and a time of unprecedented anguish. Between Syria, California, Indonesia, global warming, and our nation’s political dysfunction, Daniel and Mark have pretty much described our own time. Maybe we are in an apocalyptic era.
Perspective, though, is important when we consider that possibility. Every age has experienced events that were thought to be the end-of-time apocalypse. Christian millenarianism – the belief that the tumultuous, chaotic end, preceding Christ’s second coming, would occur at a century or thousand-year mark, has frequently come in and out of vogue. Yet despite how awful world events have been, we’re still here.
Remember Y2K on New Year’s Eve in 1999? Y2K (“Year 2000 Bug”) was the belief that computer technology could not handle the switch into a new millennium. Experts feared that all computer systems would crash, sending the world into chaos. That wasn’t a potential theological apocalypse, although the way computers have become gods to us, we might have thought so. We were terrified of the potential havoc Y2K would bring to our world. And we’re still here.
Currently, we have a right to be worried, even fearful. Many feel a sense of despair and hopeless. Things are not good.
A few of our Wednesday morning Bible Study participants felt that the way the Gospel ends by saying, “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs” exacerbated those feelings. The phrase seems to indicate eternal labor with no resolve in a baby’s birth. I have never delivered a baby, but I suspect women who have will attest that the prospect of eternal birth pangs is a pretty awful thing to contemplate.
When this passage is compared to other sayings of Jesus, as well as other Christian Testament texts, this is not what the passage intends. It is not a hopeless ending.
Mark’s text reflects the social upheaval and civil strife that engulfed Judea during the Jewish revolt against Rome. That included that insurrection’s eventual defeat and the subsequent diaspora of the Jewish population. It also included the total destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, whose grandeur the disciples fawned over a few verses earlier.
In response to their awe of the Temple, Jesus says: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” No matter how grand, secure and indestructible buildings or institutions may appear, they can all be overthrown, they all can come tumbling down.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Buildings and institutions often outlive their usefulness, at least in their current iteration. How many of us thought that the venerable American institution Sears would ever go bankrupt?
Sometimes institutions become corrupt, even evil, serving their self-interests over people. They need to go. This was the case with the Temple. Jesus repeatedly condemned the self-serving religious institutionalists who manipulated religious laws to their own benefit, but to the detriment of the people they served. The Temple and the religious leaders became corrupt. Jesus knew the Temple will fall as a result, and he told the disciples this. I’m sure they were astonished. How could the massive and influential Temple complex ever come down?
Yet, systems that become evil must be torn town. This even includes our religious, government and business institutions.
While the Temple’s destruction was seen as an apocalyptic disaster that made the Jewish people feel hopeless, it released the Jews. It especially released those of the lower castes from the abusive system that corrupted the Temple. It was an evil system that needed to come down. Looking back on history, we see that this is often true.
In John Meacham’s “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels,” does this brilliantly. He examines the various apocalyptic times in American history, like the Civil War. For many that war was a time of hopelessness. Yet, Meacham shows how the tearing down of corrupt, immoral systems, ideas and institutions – like slavery – created new opportunities for a better way of life. Doing so always resulted in a more hopeful and salvific future.
With the Civil War, America moved from slavery to emancipation, because growing numbers of American people realized how evil slavery was. They made a choice in the face of an apocalyptic time to do something about it. While full equality and civil rights were not achieved in that moment, it was a significant move forward in resolving injustice.
Meacham quotes Eleanor Roosevelt: “The course of history is directed by the choices we make and our choices grow out of the ideas, the beliefs, the values, the dreams of the people.”
Christians can chose the values and beliefs of Jesus, or the values of empire. We can choose between hope or hopelessness.
In the moment, apocalyptic events seem as if they will be endless. Yet, it is critical to remember that the Bible tells us God is redemptive, even when it does not appear so in the moment or this life. We dimly see through a mirror. Hope in the midst of despair can be hard to see. Yet, it’s there. We must hold fast to it and make choices.
In Daniel, despite the Archangel Michael’s prophesy that there would be anguish like has never been experienced, he also says that in time, “your people shall be delivered.” That’s God’s message of redemption in a time of hopelessness.
That redemption is a tenant of our faith, which will get us through the worst of any apocalyptic time. That knowledge may not completely mollify the pain or fear, but it invites a wider, more divine understanding of that pain and fear in our lives and world. That’s what we profess happened in the crucifixion.
In the crucifixion, the pain was unbearable.To the witnesses who observed it, it all seemed utterly hopeless for Jesus and his disciples. It was a moment of intense apocalyptic disaster.
But then Resurrection happened. Hope rose from the ashes of destruction. Death itself – that most fearsome and hopeless of all apocalypses – was trampled down. A new, better way of life came into being. Both the Daniel and Mark passages invite us to hold fast to the redemptive promises of God in the midst of our own apocalyptic trials at the micro and macro levels.
We are called to be faithful and trusting disciples during apocalyptic times tp proclaim the Gospel of hope. The apocalyptic times are not the end. In fact, if we choose wisely, they are the beginning of something new and better.