Apocalypse--the Sermon that Wasn't and the Hope that Is
28B, Readings found here
I had a lovely sermon all planned out--Hannah’s song, the themes of thanksgiving and praise; the liturgical role of Hannah’s song and my own awe that the existence of this piece within the canon makes clear the early Israelites’ understanding of God’s interest and investment in the lives of women.
In that other, lovely, sermon I was going to invite us to explore how we use prayer--how prayer allows us to engage with God within the context of our own lives and experiences.
It was a lovely sermon...
We were going to talk about God and how we as the church have an opportunity to engage God in our own narratives--and how the gift the church offers is the forum for making those connections between the world, our lives and our God.
I think that you would have liked that sermon...
But then, this is not that sermon. Because, once again I find myself praying into the depth of disaster. Beirut, Baghdad, Paris...and I wonder how many of you have come here today wanting to talk about God in those places and God in this place.
I wonder, how many of us long for a means of understanding these terrors in light of our claim, as Christians, that love will win and that death will give way to life.
I wonder, what those claims mean in light of both global and personal catastrophe.
And, from this, I engage again with Hannah’s song--a song in which the feeble grow strong and the weapons of the mighty are broken.
That will be the day...and, in that day, lies the hope of which we speak.
Our peculiar hope--out of death, life. An apocalyptic hope, is it not?
Apocalypse our hope? Apocalypse as comfort? I’m not entirely sure I want to sign up for that sort of bedtime reading!
Or, do I? The other day, I was engaged in a conversation with a member of this congregation. In jest, I joked about how useful I would be “come the zombie apocalypse”--“I can apply pressure and pray at the same time!”
While I am not exactly sure why we started talking about zombie apocalypse (I’m guessing it was my fault), what I do know is that as we, as human beings in this culture and this time, jest about such things in response to our collective anxiety, our fear. Fear about the fate of this world and our seemingly precarious place within it.
So, when we jest about zombie apocalypse-reading books like World War Z and avoiding the detours around Minneapolis’ popular Zombie pub crawl--we are experiencing our culture’s efforts to make sense of what seems to be impending doom by placing it within a mythic construct. Or, rather, we are writing our own apocalypses in the here and the now.
And in these apocalyptic texts there is a comforting demarcation between good and evil. You, you over there--you’re evil, you, you over there, you’re good--the zombies versus the humans How much simpler would the world be if such things were clear!
There is a well known song that uses this trope as a means of unifying humanity against those forces of evil...
“Darkness falls across the land
The midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood
To terrorize y'awl's neighborhood”
Yes, I did just quote Michael Jackson’s song “Thriller”...but, did so with good reason. In this lyrical text, the human speaker depicts the impending approach of an evil horde of zombies as a means of solidifying alliances with another human being.
Humans versus zombies--can good and evil be more obvious? And this desire to paint with broad brush strokes groups as either all good or all bad, while understandable, has horrific implications.
In our search for sides we fall into the trap of vilifying others--dehumanizing them and denying their dignity. An us and them, where the goal is the destruction of the other and not the reconciliation that can give birth to new life. Destroying our brothers and sisters is not our goal or our hope as Christians--our hope is new life and the inbreaking of God’s peace into the world.
I am called to remember that into the midst of conflict amongst the disciples Jesus reminded them of their priorities by placing a child at the center--lifting up the most vulnerable and placing their needs at the center of the disciples calling.
And, so I wonder, confronted as we are with this text, can apocalypse in scripture do a similar re-centering?
Can we read what's known as the "little apocalypse" in the Gospel of Mark and find at its core a re-centering on new life in Christ?
We'll begin by looking at the center of religious life in Jerusalem, the Temple. The fall of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. was an unimaginable catastrophe--an example of impossibly exacting craftsmanship. It was built of stones weighing an average of 10 tons apiece--no mortar was used, rather the Temple was bound together by the laws of physics and the care of its builders. The Temple, built upon the Temple Mount, towered over Jerusalem--both literally and symbolically. The Temple’s destruction was not only a physical act of aggression, but psychological as well--inspiring terror amidst a community that had been shaped by its reality. And, so as the Gospel invites the listener to consider the destruction of what seems indestructible, it does so to an audience who already knows of the destruction that will come to pass and is trying to find meaning within it.
Those addressed by the Gospel of Mark would have wondered what it meant to them, as first century Jews and Christians, to live in this time of wars and rumors of war. And, so, the genre of apocalypse takes the landscape of the ruined temple and places it within the context of a cosmic battle,
“Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
So, let us re-center ourselves, as Jesus invites us to in this passage--step away from the wars and rumors of wars, stay calm and consider, Jesus has once again put a child at the center. If there are to be birth pangs there is to be birth. From sorrow to rejoicing, from death to life.
The terror that comes by night is not the center of the story--the birth of a child is.
And, so we gather to celebrate life in the midst of death. The powers of darkness cannot win when we stubbornly insist upon holding life and love at the center.
Let us pray, for all of us,
"O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us, unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." (BCP)