Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Little Apocalypse

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was selections from Mark 13:

We in America seemed to be obsessed with the end of times.  The current craze is to say that the world will end on December 21, 2012, because that’s supposedly when the mayan calendar says it will end.  There are lots of problems with this, and I don’t have time to go into the answers, but simply answer is I don’t believe.  The good news is if I am wrong, I won’t be here for you to complain to me about it.  But we are obsessed with this stuff.   Dr. David Morrison, who is the person who answers questions that are emailed to NASA, says that he spends at least an hour a day answering questions about the apocalypse.   This phenomenon also is strongly an American phenomenon, and has been with us since Columbus and the Puritans, although we also export our ideas very well through movies and television shows.   And then there is our literature  about the end of times, like The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey, and of course there is the Left Behind series, and the fact that Nicholas Cage has signed on to do some of the movies might just be the sign that the apocalypse really is upon us But the one thing I will point out is that while all twelve of the books, and the three prequels, have been on the New York Times best seller list, they were on the fiction list, and there is a very good reason for that, because they are fiction.

Now this is going to be one of those sermon series where I might get myself in some trouble with some of you, because I will be saying some things that might differ from what you might have been taught or heard your entire life, especially if you come from a conservative tradition.  Although it might appear from what we see in coverage of this topic like there is only one way to think about it, and there is only one correct way, and some will say that very thing, I am here to tell you that there is not, and we will look at different ways to interpret what the Bible does and does not have to say about the second coming or the end of times.  I am going to give you what might be considered a minority report that will contradict what we might be used to hearing.  But, if I say something with which you disagree, please don’t come up to me afterwards and try and rebut me point by point, or whip out your Bible and say, in such and such it says this…  we really don’t have the time to do that.  Instead, I simply ask that you keep an open mind, listen to what I have to say and if you disagree then that’s okay.

I also must say that this is going to be one of those sermons in which we are going to be talking about a lot of big, sophisticated words, but I will define each of them for us.  We are going to use these terms for several reasons.  The first is that the church is really good at creating these words, in fact the longest real word in the English language is a word related to the church.  The second reason is that I still have $60,000 in student loan debt to pay from having to learn these words myself and so I have to use them to justify that money.  The third reason is because it is important to know these words, even if you disagree with me, then you’ll know what people are talking about when they use these words in other contexts.  And the final reason is that I will give you something that you can talk about while eating your Thanksgiving meal, and you can say something like, “at church we were talking about premillenial dispensationalism” and perhaps, “you know that’s not really apocalyptic instead it’s eschatological,” and everyone will think you’re really smart and know what you’re talking about.

Today’s passage is known as Mark’s Little Apocalypse.  An apocalypse is a particular genre of literature that was prevalent in the first century in both Christian and Jewish writings.  For us, the best known, and perhaps least understood of these in the Bible, is the Book of Revelation, and it is singular, there is no s on the end, which is also known as the Apocalypse of John.  The Book of Daniel and some other books also have apocalyptic sections in them, although none of the others are full-blown apocalypses.  Just like other literary genres, apocalypses had certain characteristics and traits that people would expect and that they also would understand.

If I was to tell you that Linda and I had gone to the movies and saw a romantic comedy, you would know exactly what that meant even without me telling you any of the details.  Now if I was to say that we saw a romantic comedy and the action scenes and special effects were really spectacular, you might look at me a little strangely, because those don’t go with the romcom genre.  And conversely if I said we saw an action flick and I told you that the romantic story line was really good, that might seem a little strange as well.  We know exactly what these things entail, and what to expect when we see them.  Well the same thing can apply to us when we look at apocalyptic literature because it’s not something we are accustomed to, it’s not part of our normal world view, but it would have been in the first century.  They would have known exactly what the genre entailed and what everything meant.  I think that part of the reason that the Left Behind novels are so popular is because it takes what is incredibly difficult materials and tries to make them easy to understand.

Now the word apocalypse, or apocalyptic, really has nothing to do with the way we use it today, which sort of deals with the end of time, so we refer to movies as apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic.  Instead, apocalypse means unveiling or revealing.  Apocalyptic literature seeks to reveal, or to “explain, earthly realities through visions of heavenly truths,” and they don’t all have to do with the end of times.  One of the most popular apocalypses in the early church, and one that was included in many of the early lists of those books which were canonical, that is they belonged as holy scripture, was the Apocalypse of Peter, in which Peter is shown what happens to people in heaven and hell.  A second type of apocalypse talked about the coming of Christ, or the end of times.  The Book of Revelation happens to do both of these things.  But, again while we apply the word apocalypse to the end of time, the proper word that should be used is eschatology, which means dealing with the end times.  An apocalypse is the revealing of these things, not the thing itself.  If we are to say that there is to be a final battle between good and evil, this is technically not an apocalyptic event, but instead it is an eschatological event.  And if they are talking specifically about the second coming of Christ then they are talking about the Parousia, that is the second coming.

What Apocalyptic literature wants to say is that when things are at their very worst is that we should not give up hope, that God is ultimately in control and God will redeem the righteous and the wicked will be punished.  In today’s passage, Jesus is talking about the destruction of the temple, a common theme for the prophets, and we’ll look at what biblical prophecy means next week.  This is actually the second Temple, after the first one had been destroyed by the Babylonians, and it was one of the true wonders of the ancient world.  But what we must also understand is that at the time that Mark is writing his gospel, Jerusalem is either under siege and awaiting the invasion by the Romans who will destroy the temple, or the Temple has just very recently been destroyed.

The Jews in Judea had risen up against the Roman army, and after giving the Romans one of their worst military defeats, Rome, under Nero, sent to full force of the imperial army against Jerusalem, sending somewhere between 60 and 80,0000 soldiers.  On their march to Jerusalem, they sacked cities and burned the fields, causing widespread famines and starvation.  Within the walls of Jerusalem, which were considered impregnable, the jews battled amongst themselves for who would be in control and how to approach a solution.  After a four year siege, some Jews began calling for a peace settlement, and some tried to flee, but they were executed, and then the zealots set fire to the storehouse of food supplying the city to let everyone know that there could be no retreat leaving people to eat shoe leather, their belts, and according to some accounts each other.

Finally the Romans broke through the walls, and as they made their way to the temple, three different Jewish groups fought and killed each other for control of the temple, until the Romans conquered it, destroyed it, and carried the treasurers back to Rome, where Titus was given a triumphal arch commemorating the event.  In the end it is estimated that 1.1 million Jews were killed during the revolt, and another 100,000 were taken into slavery.  It was nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, there were rumors of wars and actual wars, there were famines, and there were earthquakes, and just a few years later Vesuvius would wipe out Pompeii, so all of this had true import and meaning for those who had survived and were suffering.

But notice what Jesus says, and I think this is crucial to understand not only what Jesus is saying here, and what John also says in Revelation and what Daniel says in his own apocalypse.  “This is but the beginnings of the birth pangs,” Jesus says.  That means it will probably get worse, but is that what we focus on when we talk about birth?  Women might talk about how long they were in labor for, and how much it might of hurt, but what almost always follows at the end of it?  It was all worth it.  That’s because we don’t focus on the pain, but we focus on the end, we focus on the birth of the child and what a wonderful thing that is.  In France when a woman announces that she are pregnant, or it become obvious that they are, people say “I congratulate you on your hope.”  I congratulate you on your hope.  Apocalyptic literature is not about what is or might happen, it is not a blueprint about what the end of the world will look like, instead its purpose is to reveal to us that God is ultimately in control and that if we persevere through our pain and suffering that the end result will be so much better, it is to provide us with a sense of hope, a sense of purpose and a sense of assurance of God’s presence in our lives.

“About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”  Here is one thing I feel pretty confident in saying, if anyone tells you they know the day or the hour that Jesus will return, they are lying.  If Jesus does not know, how could they possibly know?  What I also think Jesus us trying to tell us is that when we focus on the birth pains, or the things that lead up to them, that we are being distracted from what and who truly matters.  Our focus is not to be on the interim, it is to be on the end, it is not to be on the suffering, especially sort of reveling in other’s sufferings, our goal is to be on the hope and on proclaiming that hope.  Ours is not a gospel of fear and terror and torture as some people would like to proclaim, ours is a gospel of love and forgiveness and fearing not because there is eternal hope because God is in charge of the world and God, not the power and principalities of this world, will have the final say in our life.

In a few moments as we gather at the table we will make the eschatological claim that Christ will come again, and on that we might all agree, although maybe not on the details.  But he could  come in ten minutes, ten days, ten years or ten thousand years, people have been speculating about that, and giving timelines, for the past 2000 years and so far they have all been wrong, but here is the most important piece.  Whether Christ comes tomorrow or in 10,000 years, at some point we will meet Christ, and the question for us is what we are we doing to be ready, and I strongly encourage you to read Matthew chapter 24-25, which is in this week’s recommended readings, because Jesus says what we must do to prepare for the questions that Jesus, or the master might ask of us.

Story of Steven severely burned, teacher goes in, nurses ask what she said, and I thought if they were sending me someone to teach me that there had to be hope….

And that will lead us into next week’s message when we will look at the Book of Revelation and seek to answer the question, “Is this the end?”  which I think you can already guess the answer to.  Apocalyptic literature is not about fear and terror, instead it is about hope.  Hope for me, hope for you, hope for the world, that God will write the final chapter and that God will provide the final answer.  May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

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