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Apocalypse

Apocalypse. Not a word we often hear in Episcopal sermons. Many of us associate it with catastrophe. We hear it in the word “post-apocalyptic” with images of some Mad Max wasteland. Most of us here grew up during the Cold War under the threat of nuclear annihilation. You might remember the 1980s TV mini-series, The Day After. A few decades ago, there was the enormously popular Left Behind series of novels. Rapture, tribulation, anti-Christ, all that sort of stuff. Don’t be alarmed. That isn’t what this sermon is about.

The word “apocalypse” comes from a Greek word meaning “revelation,” or “unveiling.” It particularly refers to a genre of literature fairly common during Second Temple Judaism in the last couple of centuries before the Common Era and afterwards. It arose during a time when the Jews had returned to the land of Judah and rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple. It had been prophesied that the former kingdom would be restored, but they found themselves under foreign occupation for most of the next few centuries. The exile had ended, but in a sense it still continued. What happened? 

In response there arose this literature in which a person would receive some sort of vision from God, often with some sort of angelic being or other heavenly messenger who’d provide guidance and interpretation. Filled with coded language and symbolic imagery, it would refer to past or current events and speak to what is to come. We find it in later prophetic books in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly Daniel, and in numerous other works written between the Old Testament and the New. It filled the cultural air with an apocalyptic mindset held by quite a number of people, including Jesus himself. In fact, we can’t really understand his teachings or early Christianity without it. 

So let’s now turn to Mark. Jesus has been in the Temple area teaching and arguing with scribes and Pharisees and such. Meanwhile, his disciples, a bunch of guys from Galilee, are in awe of what they’re seeing. This Temple, reconstructed by Herod from its more modest predecessor, was one of the great wonders of the Ancient Near East. To give you some idea, the total complex was about 36 acres. Some of the building stones weighed more than a hundred tons. Some sources say the Temple building itself was about 150 feet tall. Is it any surprise that one of the disciples said, “What large stones and what large buildings”? About 40 years later, it would all come crashing down, destroyed by the Romans. The author of the Gospel of Mark, written not too long after, would have had this in mind when he wrote of Jesus saying, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

We only heard a snippet earlier, but Jesus actually continues for the rest of the chapter speaking about the coming day of the Lord and the tumult leading up to it. This and its parallels in Matthew and Luke are often called the “Little Apocalypse” (the Revelation to John being the big one). Jesus speaks about the coming turmoil and destruction and about the sufferings of the Christian community. But that’s not the end. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. . . . This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” The end, as in other apocalyptic literature, is God’s deliverance of his people, but not to some sort of purely spiritual existence. It’s the coming together of the heavenly and the earthly and the establishment of God’s holy reign on earth. Not even death shall endure, as heard in Daniel, “But at that time your people shall be delivered . . . Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake.” The Resurrection so hoped for by many at that time and taught by Jesus. 

So what does that mean for us? Well, first, let me be clear. I’m not preaching some sort of premillennial dispensationalist rapture and tribulation end times theology. That’s not what I believe. That’s not what the Episcopal Church believes. That’s not what most Christians in this country or around the world believe. Nevertheless, we know full well that terrible suffering and destruction do and will happen. The people of first century Judea saw the Temple, the heart of Jewish worship, destroyed once again. Through the media of photographs and video, we too have seen enormous buildings collapse. We have seen cities and towns destroyed by both natural and human made forces, people either killed or forced to flee. On an even larger scale, we face the existential threat of climate change, the struggle against it sometimes compared to World War II. I even heard on a recent podcast that while some describe it as being like D-Day, the reality might be closer to Dunkirk. 

We see that all human structures and systems change, crack, crumble, even collapse – physical, political, social. Systems founded for good can be corrupted by the powers of greed, fear, and domination. Even the church is not immune and must continually be reformed.

Closer to home, we continue to face a pandemic that has driven us apart in so many ways. For well over a year, we had to hold services online. Luckily, in-person worship has resumed, but look around. There are still some who cannot return or understandably do not yet feel comfortable doing so. The exile has ended, but the exile continues. We face uncertainty in other ways – the political health of this country, the social and economic health in this city, the future of the Episcopal Church, the future of our parish. It’s normal to feel fear about all of this uncertainty. I’d be concerned if any of us didn’t. But the fear is not the end.

I tell you all of this not to bring you down or make you even more afraid. Instead, I hope to remind us that we must face these things head on. Christianity, at its best, does not tell us, “Oh, it’ll be all right. Just look on the bright side of life.” No, ours is a faith that tells us these things will happen, but that is not the end. We have a Savior who turned his face to Jerusalem knowing it would lead to the cross, but the cross was not the end. We have a Savior who says you will hear of “wars and rumors of wars,” but “do not be alarmed.” We find ourselves confronted by the “evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” and sometimes even collaborating with and benefiting from them. Nevertheless, in faith, with God’s help, we “persevere in resisting evil” and whenever we fall into sin, “repent and return to the Lord.” We continue in our call to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,” to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” and to serve as faithful stewards of God’s creation. Do not be alarmed. Ours is an apocalyptic faith, a faith in a God revealed and revealing in the testimony of the Scriptures, the Incarnation, the Cross, the Resurrection. If we walk the way of Christ, we cannot avoid the cross, but the shadow of the cross is not the end. In Christ we look ahead to the light of the Resurrection. Do not be alarmed. The powers of the world will not have the last word. The powers of fear, greed, and domination will not have the last word, and neither will the powers of hate, of violence, of misogyny, of white supremacy, or of all other evils in the world. Even death will not have the last word, for God will remove “the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations” and will “swallow up death forever,” as we heard in Isaiah last week. Next week, we’ll hear about God’s final revelation in Christ’s coming in glory. Indeed, the last word will be the first word, the Word of creation. The Alpha and the Omega. The one who is to restore all things, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Do not be alarmed.