19 November 2006 – Proper 28B
Daniel 12: 1-3 – Mark 13: 1-8 (9-32)
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek – Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills
Christian Apocalyptic Hope
The texts before us are among the most difficult to interpret and the most easily mishandled. Called “apocalyptic,” from the Greek apocalypsis meaning “uncovering,” these texts make the claim that God has revealed to the writer the secrets to the end of the world in the form of a message to the people.
This message is two or three fold (depending on the text): 1) the world is currently a scary place hurtling itself toward a catastrophic end, 2) a hope in God to foster the conviction that God will act decisively to change things utterly and forever for the better, and 3) that it may be possible to read the signs of the coming of this climactic moment.
Points one and two are helpful. It is point three that gets us in trouble every time. By “us” I would mean the church and society. Relatively recently in church history the musings and theological claims of William Miller (1782-1849) in America, and John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) in England are the source of nearly all that passes for Apocalyptic thought today.
The Left Behind series of books and movies are only the most recent texts built on the schemes of these two men which claim to define when and how the end of the world is going to take place. Sadly, the schemes of Miller and Darby and the popular literary musings of Left Behind seem to overlook the primary purpose of apocalyptic literature in Jewish and Christian life: that would be number two, to foster hope in people who find themselves in difficult and scary times.
What ought to concern faithful Christians is the manipulation of these texts of hope into instruments of fear. It is a kind of overblown theology of Santa Claus: you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town. For Left Behind and its ilk just substitute “Jesus” for Santa Claus and you get the point: unless you are very very good, or very very sorry for not being very very good, you better watch out – you are getting padiddle and worse! Such “theology” is foreign to Jesus, and frankly insulting to Saint Nicholas, the man behind the myth.
It is hard to see much grace, forgiveness and love in such a theological rendering of the gospel. This is not good news.
Apocalyptic texts like Daniel, the thirteenth chapter of Mark and the Revelation of Saint John the Divine write against an already existing climate of fear – the kind of fear that empires, regimes, governments, kings and politicians trade in to establish their own right to power. The script goes: the world is scary, trust me to protect you from the scary world – oh, and by the way give me most of your money, and give up most of your rights so I can keep the bogie man in check.
We have been so conditioned by “politics as usual,” wars and rumors of wars, natural disasters and man made disasters, that we are willing to overlook what the texts really are trying to say and accept the doggerel crackpot theories of the fear mongering modern day Millerites and Darbyites in whatever disguise they come in. Note, they most often adopt the tactics of the very people the apocalyptic texts are warning us to ignore.
That’s right, ignore. We have been so conditioned to accept the popularized Left Behind sorts of interpretations that we cannot hear
what Jesus is really saying in the thirteenth chapter of Mark: “Beware…do not be alarmed…do not worry…be alert….keep awake!”
Not to mention that when asked, a little further on, to tell the disciples just when God’s intervention will take place, Jesus replies, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Makes you wonder just what Bible modern day apocalypticists are reading. Not even Jesus knows, but they do?
What Jesus in Mark is saying is something like, “Remain faithful, hold on to your hope that the falseness of this world is ultimately bounded by a more profound truth that shall prevail; God is not content with the sorrows of this world and works for every person, group and circumstance to manifest as much as possible of God’s unconditional love. So remain hopeful and faithful in social chaos and continue to engage in mission!”
I found a modern day analogue in one of the essays submitted for the “This, I Believe” project on National Public Radio. This essay is by one Josh Rittenberg, a sixteen year-old young man from New York, NY. (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5232116)
Tomorrow will be a Better DayI'm sixteen. Last night, I overheard my parents talking about my future. My dad was upset - not about how tough it is to get into a good college, or a great grad school, or the usual stuff that he and Mom and, I guess, a lot of parents worry about. Rather, he was upset about the world his generation is turning over to mine; a world he fears that has a dark and difficult future, if it has a future at all. He had a long list of concerns that sounded like this:''There will be a pandemic that kills millions, a devastating energy crisis, a horrible worldwide depression, and a nuclear explosion set off in anger.''
As I lay on the living room couch, eavesdropping on their conversation, I found myself looking at a picture of my grandfather in his Citadel uniform. The Citadel is a military college and he was a member of the class of 42- the war class. Next to his picture were pictures of my great grandparents, Ellis Island immigrants. I thought about some of the truly awful things they had seen in their lifetimes: a flu pandemic that killed millions; a horrific depression; inhuman segregation; two world wars, the killing fields, Stalin's Gulag, Mao's famine - and a nuclear bomb dropped in anger. But, they saw other things too; better things: the discovery of penicillin; the end of two world wars; the overcoming of the great depression; the creation of the United Nations; the polio vaccine; a man on the moon; a nuclear test ban treaty; the passage of the civil rights laws; even the dawn of the computer age.I believe my generation will see better things too. I believe we will live in a time that will find its own Einsteins, Flemings, Salks, Sangers, Mandelas, Roosevelts, Trumans, Eisenhowers , Kennedys and Kings. I believe we will live in a time when HIV/AIDS is cured and cancer is defeated, when the United Nations becomes more effective, when Arabs and Israelis find peace, when the desperately struggling nation-states of Africa will emerge from the dark ages, when another planet is colonized and power from hydrogen will fuel our automobiles, and, most importantly, when unimaginably good and great things occur, things as inconceivable to me today as a moon shot was to my grandfather when he was sixteen or the internet to my father when he was sixteen. Ever since I was a little kid, whenever I've had a lousy day, my dad would put his arm around me, and promise me that ''tomorrow will be a better day.'' As I listened to him talking, so terribly, terribly worried about what the future holds for me and my generation, I wanted to go over, put my arm around him and tell him the same thing he always told me, ''Don't worry, Dad, tomorrow will be a better day.'' It will. This, I believe.
And this, I believe, is exactly what the Bible’s apocalyptic literature means to give us: hope that tomorrow will be a better day because God in Christ is with us. Amen.