The scripture lessons for this week come from what we call “apocalyptic literature”. Now, I grew up here in the South where good folks, neighbors and preachers alike, used readings like this to predict the end of the world, to call for “repentance”, to assure the rest of us that “the end is near” and that we better “get right with God” and “to Hell (literally) with everybody else.” And if the billboards around town at Halloween were any indication, this sort of preaching and teaching is still happening here.
Millions of dollars were made and spent on the “Left Behind” series. Lots of sleep was lost over the end of the Mayan calendar. And if you Google the definition of “apocalyptic” you get the answer “describing or prophesying the complete destruction of the world.” But that’s not really what these lessons are about. That’s not even what the word is supposed to mean.
If we go back to the roots of the word “apocalyptic”, we find that the word has roots in Greek “apokaluptein” and actually means “uncover”.
What in the world are we supposed to uncover in readings such as these?
You see, all of the lessons this morning were written in a time of madness, despair, and exile (either literal or figurative).
Daniel was written for the Hebrew people as they struggled through literal exile…a casting out of their land…a land which was central to their faith. It was written to give hope to a people who had lost hope…a literary lifeline “in that time, your people shall be delivered.” Hope for the hopeless.
Hebrews was written to the Jewish Christians living in Rome. They were caught between the crush of empire and the struggle with their Jewish sisters and brothers. Caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Words pointing to a soft spot to land…hope.
The Gospel lesson is no different.
If you consult Biblical commentators (or talk with my internship supervisor Terry Kyllo), you’ll find that most of them agree that that Gospel According to St Mark was written during the Jewish revolt of 67. By that time, Palestine had been under Roman occupation for more than a century. The people’s land had been stolen from under them. The vast majority of the people were poor beyond our comprehension in modern day United States and were forced to make terrible choices: many of them could not both pay their taxes and eat. (So the choice was “how would you prefer to die…starvation or execution?) They wondered “how long can this go on?”
In earlier centuries, the people of Israel had been crushed under still other empires, and during those times of oppression and occupation they developed an idea of an “anointed one”, a messiah. They believed that the messiah would free them from the oppressive empires and lead them to live as God imagined…as God created them to be.
In those days, the people believed that the messiah would come as a mighty warrior who would amass a colossal army. The messiah would over throw the Romans with violence and war and, to fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah, he would paint the mountains red with the blood of their enemies.
Jesus didn’t look like that guy. And so, not all of the Jews came to understand that Jesus is the messiah…the true anointed one sent by God as savior to the people. They waited for another to come. They began to grow weary of waiting. And they began to do the violent work of overthrowing the empire themselves.
But eventually, those who used violence to cast out the Romans turned on each other. Blood ran in the streets as the groups fought to see whose leader would reign in Jerusalem and be revealed as the “true messiah”. All this infighting left the people distracted and weary and vulnerable. By the year 70, the Romans returned to Jerusalem. Over a million people died in the takeover. The temple was destroyed…and so were the hearts of the people.
Once you know the history, the lesson today takes on new meaning….we’ve uncovered another message here. In this story, the writer of the Gospel of Mark is urging his community not to participate in the violence. Neither against the Romans nor against other Jews. “Don’t listen”, he says, “to those who claim to be the messiah. Don’t fall into violence.” Mark is telling us that the way of Jesus, this nonviolent, obedient-to-God-but-not-to-the-world way of living is the only way to life as God envisions for us.
While I was on internship, Terry frequently reminded me that it often feels as though we have to or that we should use force or violence to make the world better. And the human reaction to pain is to wish for someone else to experience it too or more or instead. “An eye for an eye,” we say. But Jesus says, “if you live by the sword, you die by the sword.” Violence leads to more violence, and violence in the name of God makes God into a god of violence. Whatever god we worship, that’s the god we try to live out in our personal lives, and that becomes the kind of society we create. A vison or an understanding of a god of violence can only lead to our mutual destruction and a dog-eat-dog-eat-cat-until-only-the-cockroaches-remain kind of world.
Jesus says we don’t have to live like that.
That’s what we’re uncovering here in the lessons today. We’re uncovering hope and the realization that there is something larger than violence and death out there in the world. That our God is not a god of violence but a God of presence, of accompaniment, of love. That God remains with us in our pain, in our fear, in our weariness, in our suffering, and in our despair. God is bigger than all of those things. And God is present with us in the midst of them.
On Friday, I heard the news of the terror attacks in Paris. And then I heard of the attacks in Beirut the day before. And I’ve watched the last two days as the media has covered the stories with such radical difference. And I’ve learned that there have been attacks on many days last week in several other Middle Eastern countries which received just as little press coverage as the ones in Beirut did. Iraq. Syria. Palestine. Most of my friends on Facebook changed their pictures so that an overlay of the French flag was visible, and that’s not a bad thing. But no one has changed theirs to look like the flag of Lebanon. Or the Palestinian flag…or…or…
I’ve a beloved friend who is Muslim and who grew up in Turkey with a British mother and a Turkish father. We met because our spouses share a vocation, and she is a citizen of the United States now. Her heartbreak, and mine, is that terror is just that: terror. We shared a conversation last night in which she said, “Everytime there is a terror attack, my heart breaks. Every time there is a terror attack in a western country, my heart aches the same way….AND we deal with Islamophibic bigots.” Violence begets violence. Often in sideways kinds of ways. “If I can’t give it to the guy who did this, I’ll give it to the guy who looks like him or worships like him or dresses like him because they must be the same…” That’s not okay. It’s not loving. It’s not Godly.
We can’t afford to give in to violence against our neighbor because she or he bears some resemblance in appearance to the ones who perpetrated these attacks. Violence against us births our fears and tempts us to birth violence. We want someone else to feel and to understand our terror too or more or instead. But that’s not what the gospel writer is after. We can’t give in. Especially to fear and misdirected anger and violence. To quote actor Mark Ruffalo, “Don’t allow this horrific act to allow you to be drawn into the loss of your humanity or tolerance. That is the intended outcome.”
So, then, what?
Mark the gospel writer reminds us that when things are uncertain or scary or there appears to be no end to the pains and struggles and things that terrify us, God is still present in the creation and re-creation of the world.
That’s what these lessons are uncovering for us today.
That’s what those birthpangs are about.
Transforming the world without violence is not easy or pain-free. And it is risky.
But God is in the middle of all this. In the middle of Paris as musicians play memorials at the sites of the slaughter, yes, but also in the middle of Beirut as a father and daughter sacrificed themselves for the sake of the lives of hundreds as they worshiped in mosque, and in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Israel…in all of these places where fear and violence appear to be winning the battle. God is there. Bringing, bearing, birthing something new into the world. As Terry says, “God our Mother continues to push and to breathe until by grace we lay down our silence at injustice and our swords of fear and live in the way of Jesus.”
What does that mean for us? For this little band of believers in Prattville, Alabama?
It means that we take seriously Hebrews 10:24. “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”
Where do you see fear or pain in our community? Where are you called to bear witness to a living, loving God? How can you provoke your neighbor to be active in love and in word and in deed? Where can you bring reassurance of God’s love to light a place or a heart which was or is dark with fear? How can you, yes you, bear witness to a God who is NOT far away but who is in fact dwelling with us in these turbulent times?
We ARE called to bear light into darkness. We are called to walk in a world of frightened, frightening, angry, lonely, hurting people and to uncover the good news for the whole world. Not by doomsday predictions or attempts at controlling or dictating behavior, but by being the hands and feet of Christ in this world. By encouraging or PROVOKING one another into acts of love, works of truth-telling of witness-bearing of non-violence.
We are called to do and to proclaim loudly the works of God in this world.
We are called to uncover hope as the world ends and begins again.
Much content unapologetically borrowed from Rev. Terry Kyllo and Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton. They can be found here and here respectively.