Saturday, November 12, 2016

Apocalyptic Boogie

Apocalyptic Boogie
Jesus enters Jerusalem, the City of Peace, of Shalom. Shalom means more than just a quiet peacefulness, but in biblical terms includes justice for all people. No Justice, No Peace – Know Justice, Know Peace reads a once popular bumper sticker. In the midst of the old city, high upon a hilltop is the Temple, the center of cultic religious sacrifice, the center of the universe. It is believed that God touches the earth on that holy mount to keep the world still and safe.

Yet, already upon entering the city Jesus has been confronted with resistance, and signs of corruption in the Holy City of God’s Shalom. His first order of business had been to root out the corrupt practices in the Temple Business District. His authority is questioned, he is told to silence his disciples, the trick question on taxes, questions about resurrection – against all of which he issues warnings and tells parables designed to challenge the resident powers of the city who were collaborating with the Roman occupation. It has been a chaotic, difficult and threatening few days as he brings his campaign for God’s Kingdom into the city of shalom.

His followers, many of them farmers and fishermen from the north country surrounding the Galilee Sea are suddenly in awe at the very sight of the Temple. Many of them we can assume had never seen it let alone anything at all like it. “Look at how powerful, majestic and beautiful it is, adorned with precious stones, gold and silver!” they seem to say. To which Jesus replies, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." [Luke 21:5-19] His words must have seemed unimaginable despite the historic fact that it had been destroyed once before.

By the time Luke is giving his account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ of Nazareth Jesus’ words have become reality. Those reading or hearing Luke’s Gospel for the first time lived among the ruins, in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of all of Israel. Nothing was left of the Temple after 70ce. All that remains to this day are a portion of the retaining walls that held up the Temple Mount itself, what we now call The Western Wall, a center of prayer for all the peoples of the earth.

Luke’s audience lived in the post-apocalyptic world being described in this 21st chapter. The kinds of persecution being described was already under way against Jews and Christians alike. Attacks on the people of God, on the people of the land right down to the poorest of the poor, Jew and Gentile alike, were already a fact of life.

Professor John Gettier in my religion classes at Trinity College always reminded us that the Bible is history, literature and theology all in one. The scene described in Luke is history; it really happened; the archeological evidence remains. The kind of literature in the Bible that describes such scenes is called apocalyptic – describing violent and catastrophic events. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it deals primarily with the Exile to Babylon. In the Christian Scriptures, it addresses the foundational event that gave rise to modern Rabbinic Judaism as we know it and the Christian Church, for the record is clear that until those days in and around the year 70ce both early Christians and their Jewish sisters and brothers continued to go to the Jerusalem Temple day in and day out. Its destruction was a catastrophe of enormous psychic as well as physical proportions. Where do we go from here?

That is precisely the question Apocalyptic literature seeks to answer. It is not about prediction; it is about survival now that the catastrophic present surrounds us. It is meant to both comfort and be instructive at the same time: God is with you in the midst of this catastrophe and means to restore the community. It is what we hear in the prophet Isaiah chapter 65 coming near the end of the Babylonian Exile: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

And we know this did come to pass. The New Jerusalem and New Temple are the very city Jesus and his companions are looking at several hundred years later. We can be certain that they would look to the words of Isaiah to sustain their hope of one day returning to a new and revitalized homeland. The text in Luke seeks to give much the same assurance in the midst of the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem. The difference for the early Christians is that although it is also a time of intense persecution, it is also post-Resurrection. That is, they have the assurance that Christian faith and hope and love is stronger than the grave!

So, when Jesus is heard to say, “By your endurance you will gain your souls,” they, and we, have the example that this is so. This is no mere pep talk, but rather is a known reality. A reality that was known to Paul as well – Paul who met the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus -  as he writes to the struggling community in Thessalonica, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”

Be not weary. Endure. Do what is right.

We often find ourselves in the midst of one catastrophe or another. Such events paralyze us, wear us down and tire us out. The temptation is to give in and give up. But we are those people who have a history that tells us that ultimately the troubles of this world are bounded by a greater truth. We are those people who have a literature and a narrative that has sustained God’s people through all kinds of catastrophe throughout the ages. This literature sustains our virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity – or what our modern translations say Faith, Hope and Love.

It will be through our Love and Charity to one another, and especially to those who are most at risk among us, that the virtues of Faith and Hope shall be sustained. For we have the examples of those Exiles who returned from Babylon and generations of captivity to build a new life and a new Jerusalem. We have the examples of those early Christians like Paul who despite persecution, imprisonment and the sword emerged from the fire of catastrophe with a stronger and more enduring sense of Faith, Hope and Charity.

Be not weary. Endure. Do what is right. Faith, Hope and Charity, abide these three; the greatest of these is Charity. Amen. 

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