Year B, Proper 28 November 18, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
Daniel tells us, “There shall be a time of anguish, such has never occurred since nations came into existence.” Then Jesus continues in that vein, speaking of “…wars and rumors of wars…” Earthquakes, famines… And these are just the beginning of the birthpangs, the Braxton-Hicks contractions… what is full on labor going to look like?
Big chunks of the Book of Daniel and this little section in St. Mark’s gospel are a genre of literature called an apocalypse. These eight gospel verses are referred to as Mark’s Little Apocalypse. That’s almost cute sounding, “Look at that little apocalypse…”
The intent of apocalyptic literature is poorly understood by both those who love it and those who distinctly don’t. When most of us think “apocalyptic,” it’s the end of the world as we know it, predictions of that demise; the trials and tribulations of those Left Behind. That is certainly a popular idea amongst certain Protestant sects, one that has been tacitly accepted by most, maybe especially those who don’t share that worldview. You want to make a bunch of Episcopalians or Congregationalists uncomfortable at a Bible study, just mention the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine, also known as the Book of Revelation. We shouldn’t, though, be too quick to write off apocalypses.
What does the word apocalypse mean? (I just gave a clue). A revelation. An uncovering. A disclosure. It is not about predicting anything, but it is rather about showing the reality behind, beyond what we can see. “All that is seen and unseen,” we say that in the Creed every week. We, as Christians, understand that there is a lot more going on than we can see. A lot more.
Apocalyptic literature reveals God’s hope in the world, hope in the world especially in the midst of catastrophe and ruination. These stories were told by and for an oppressed people. Daniel was likely written in Babylon. Israel had been conquered and one good way to control a vassal state is to carry off the educated, priestly, wealthy and leadership classes of a nation. That’s the Babylonian captivity. It was terrible for Daniel. Mark was written in 66, maybe just after 70… There was a devastating famine in Palestine in 50. Between 61-2 Vesuvius destroyed Pompey and blackened the skies across the Med; earthquakes destroyed cities. And then between 66 and 70 there was revolt in Israel and the Roman sandal pressed down on their necks, hard, culminating in the desolating sacrilege, the destruction of the Second Temple where not one stone was left standing there upon another. That is the context of Daniel and Mark, of Revelation. It was terrible. Terrible.
How do you keep going when it is that terrible? How does a person of faith keep going, make any sense of the world when it is so bad? How does a people of faith remain a people, a community with any sense of communion beyond the realm of human plight and suffering? How do we maybe not answer but deal with the questions Victor Frankl was asking post-Holocaust in Man’s Search for Meaning?
The purpose of apocalyptic literature is to assure us that God’s hope is behind human disaster and fear. Not causing them, disaster is not divine pedagogy, lesbian witches did not cause 9-11, Mr. Falwell. That was a tragedy of our violent imperialism crossing their violent fundamentalism. God’s hope is behind the cataclysm, meaning God is in the midst of these disasters, not causing them, heavens to betsy no, that is regressive theology, not biblical. God is in the midst of it all, here, for us, with us, helping us cope with the loss. The base lesson is that do not lose hope: God is still involved. No matter how bad it seems, you are not alone. For an oppressed people, a shattered people adrift in the world, that hope is life itself. (However since we are not an oppressed people [Mr. Falwell], we need to be careful with these stories. One commentator writes “When this is co-opted however, by a traditional ruling class, it can lead to a troubling triumphalism and voyeurism in the coming ‘they’ll get theirs’ attitude of those who love the Left Behind theology.”) These stories reassure us that God is here and in the end, God will triumph.
So why do people get all riled up or weirded out by apocalyptic stories? Well, what they are really doing is relating heavenly secrets about earthly disasters. The very idea of heavenly secrets entices some and repulses others. Apocalyptic literature is trying to tell us that everything that happens on earth, particularly the big, bad things, hegemonic imperial oppression, famine, plague, drought, human and natural disasters of every form, that those trials are a reflection on earth of “a larger, heavenly struggle between good and evil.” Struggle between good and evil. We don’t talk about that kind of thing much. Apocalyptic literature tells us that earthly disasters have cosmic significance, they correlate with the battle between the forces of God and good on one side and the forces of Satan and evil on the other. I can hear all the left-brain synapses on high alert, whispering “this doesn’t make any sense.”
A heavenly battle between good and evil… that sounds pretty wild; for some of us kind of tingly wild and some of us a kind of off-putting wild. But really, I don’t know that this interpretation is that far off. Much of scripture is an attempt to describe the true nature of things, and metaphor is a powerful tool. A battle in heaven, that’s dramatic, human sized, graspable. Maybe think of it as an anthropomorphized dramatization of a more abstract condition that our ancestors knew of and described as they could, like maybe it is a telling of the story of the struggle between entropy or chaos and order; between the inertia of staying still and the inertia behind us once we are moving. The Laws of Thermodynamics are all about struggle for balance. What about life and death? Is there not a cosmically significant struggle going on between life and death? There is. Fundamentally there is a constant struggle to live. Walk through a forest and witness the battle for sunlight, the endless moisture wars. Our plant neighbors are locked in mortal combat. Or our chicken yard where someone has been nibbling at the chicken buffet (maybe a bobcat). Mortal combat to survive. On a positive note, Sir Timothy Runs-a-lot, our intrepid and amorous rooster has made it so far, but his two rooster colleagues have fallen in this campaign. There is a battle and there is hope in telling that story, or maybe is telling that story. And these apocalypses tell us that story nearly as perfectly and completely as an old abandoned parking lot tells is. The grass growing up between the cracks, that’s the lesson of an apocalypse: Life wins. Beauty wins. Love wins. All alternative ways of saying that in the end, God wins.
So the moral of the apocalypse is… we know who wins: God. Daniel says, “At that time…” terrible things will happen. “But at that time your people shall be delivered…” Jesus speaks of wars and rumors of wars… but… “this is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” Birth is traumatic, it is painful, bloody, dangerous and it is the narrow gate through with all of our lives emerge. Life, Love God wins.
That is good to remember. As a Christian, it is maybe the most important thing to remember, but we are not with Daniel in captivity. Roman soldiers aren’t patrolling our streets, burning our churches. We are not, most of us, the oppressed. Though now that we know that even Amazon someday will fail, we can’t be too prepared! Seriously, the hubris of that, Mr. Bezos “admitting” that someday Amazon will go the way of Sears… The sun will fail someday. But really, as much as the sky is falling right now, as much as there is a struggle between good and evil playing out before our eyes in both in heaven and on earth, it is not that dramatically bad right now for most of us. It’s that bad for the guys living on our back porch. It is that bad for the folks who were on 8th and Oak and are now on Highway 99 or are back in the shadows. No good solution there, they couldn’t stay there, really; and there is nowhere for them to go, really, not how we currently organize our society. So it is that bad for some of us, and it will, on the way to the fullness of time, be that bad for all of us, some day. So we are going to need these texts some day. How do we use them? How do these texts help us prepare for that day? Cope until it comes? Or maybe even (and this is a best case scenario) help us keep from slipping in a traditionally apocalyptic direction in the first place?
There are three basic lessons that I think are helpful in Jesus’ little apocalypse in Mark. (And is must be important, there are versions of it in Matthew and Luke as well).
The first lesson is that what looks permanent, isn’t. Even Amazon. The story starts with the disciples commenting on the temple, “…what large stones and what large buildings!” All is perishing is how St. Paul puts it. Nothing is permanent. What we think will protect us, will not. What we think we can rely on, we can’t. We are not in control. I am not saying that God is writing the screenplay of your life, but neither are you, not in a real way, not in a who lives and who dies and when kind of way.
Ask yourself, “what do you count on to keep you safe?” What do you need to live? What is sufficient? What will it be like if all of that (when all of that) fails? What looks permanent, isn’t.
The second is do not be led astray. We, humans, seek leaders. We need leaders, someone to take on some of the responsibility of being for us, on our behalf. Leaders are necessary, I think, but are a moral hazard for our species because we are willing to give up a whole lot in order to have someone in that position. That is the story of the 2016 election, good people making moral compromises because they sought leadership, someone who would take care of things. So we are easy picking for false prophets, for charlatans and grifters, for adopting reality TV for realty, for accepting opinions we agree with (and hope are true) over what actually is true. Don’t forget that MSNBC is making a fortune with Mr. Trump in the White House. We want someone to save us, we want to believe it when someone says “I can fix it!” but that too often melts into “Only I can fix it.” Do not be led astray.
The third lesson is do not be alarmed. I joked about the Braxton Hicks birthpangs at the beginning. That is focusing on the beginning of the birthpangs, on the glorious trauma of childbirth, of the pain that will come between now and the big Then. How about focusing not on the trauma, but on the fruits of the trauma: life. “This is but the beginnings of the birthpangs.” And after that, is life, is God. So the lesson, the deep spiritual lesson to take into your hearts is do not be alarmed, yes it likely will be hard, devastating hard, probably, but God always wins. We know how it turns out.
One commentator joked about the whole Bible story. The Bible starts, “In the beginning God…” created the heavens and the earth and the rest of it. And its ending, in Revelation could be summed at, “In the end, God!” The rest of it just gets us from there to here, back to the beginning. “But O! How far have I to go to find Him in whom I have already arrived.” Exactly, Frater Louis. Do not worry. Do not be alarmed. In the end, God wins.
Maybe Rob Reiner and Mel Brooks sum it up best. The 2000 year-old man, have you ever seen that improv bit from the early 60s? Reiner interviews a 2000 year-old man, Mel Brooks. It is great. In one, Reiner asks how religion began. Brooks tells him that in the beginning, everyone worshiped Phil. Phil. Phil wasn’t a God, per se, but was the biggest, meanest caveman around and everyone did what Phil said. “Did you pray to Phil?” “Yes, it was ‘No! No, Phil! Please stop, Phil! Phil. Please!’”
“That sounds terrible, not like our God. How did that change?” (I am taking liberties with the story, preacher’s privilege). “Well,” the 2000 year-old man replied, “one day there was a terrible thunderstorm, and Phil stood out in it because he wasn’t afraid of anything. Then a bolt of lightening crashed down and burnt him to a crisp. On that day we learned that there is something bigger than Phil.” (There is always something bigger than Phil).
In the end, God! When you are in the world, doing the work of Jesus Christ, relieving the suffering of the suffering, preventing that suffering to begin with, giving, giving of the principal, being grateful most for what you have to give, you, you are a manifestation of God in Christ right in that very moment. You make God alive in this world. You are on the side of God and good in that great war in heaven between the forces of life and the forces of death. What looks permanent, isn’t. Do not be led astray. Do not be alarmed. We already know who wins: God. AMEN