Monday, November 3, 2014

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.  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 end of the world.  In just the past decade there was the whole Mayan Calendar thing, and Harold Camping’s two different predictions, and then Hal Lindsey and Pat Robertson both said the end was coming in 2007, or maybe it was 1988, or 1985 or 1982 or 1980, which were also predictions made by them, and this week in my mail I found this flyer talking about prophecy and the end of time.   This is a strongly an American phenomenon, 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 is now staring in them may be the most obvious sign that the end is upon us.

Today we begin a new series looking at apocalyptic literature, and in some ways this is a return to our series on questions that people had asked me about, because I was asked in that to talk about this, in particular the book of Revelation, and so for the next few weeks we will be looking at these passages and how we might interpret them.  Now what we normally here is that there is only one way to view these works, but I can tell you that that is not the case and I am going to be giving a different way to view these texts, a sort of minority report as it were.  For some of you this might be refreshing and for others it might challenge what you have heard or been taught, and we’ll talk more specifically about that starting next week.  But here are the two things I ask.  The first is that you don’t come up to me after worship with your Bible in hand to try and refute me point by point, and the second is to listen with open minds to try and hear a different way of approaching these texts, and if in the end you don’t agree with me, 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 because, as many of you know, 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 second 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” or 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 at the time they were written.

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.  We know exactly what these genres 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 how to interpret what was being said or portrayed.  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, although I would point out that while all the Left Behind novels have been on the New York Times best seller list, that they were in the fiction section, and we need to keep that in mind.

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, but that people need to endure to the end.  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, and he uses imagery from Daniel’s apocalyptic passages about the coming of the son of man, and says to the disciples that not one of the stones will be left upon another, but that all will be thrown down.

You can see some imagery of the size of the stones of the Temple and what this would have meant when he was talking about them.  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 is 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 to 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 not fearing 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.  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 what will be say to Christ when we meet him?  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. (communion table, hope out of the darkness, we are an Easter people.)  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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