How do we make sense out of tragedy? It seems that we have to deal with this with increasing frequency. If not a bombing, then a school shooting, if not a school shooting, then a massive natural disaster, and if not this then a movie theater shooting, if not this, then perhaps a series of attacks throughout Paris which left 128 people dead and at least 180 people injured. In lesser known news, roadside bombs also rocked Baghdad with at least 21 killed and 60 injured. There were also bombings in Beirut that killed at least 43 people and injured at least 200. All of this in the span of a couple of days. In our own nation, racial tensions continue to boil and it seems that, at any time, things could boil over. So how do we seek to make sense out of this?
Despair is the easiest and fastest response. We can throw our hands up, give up. Stop caring. We can wonder if God is punishing us, or if God has abandoned us. Some will surely proclaim that this is a punishment for sin, that somehow this is God’s wrath being poured out on the world. These are easy responses. They are easy to understand, they are easy to find meaning. These are relatively neat and tidy. Or, it is easy to blame an entire religion or people group, as we in the United States are so wont to do. But we are the people of God, and we must strive for what is faithful, not for what is easy or simple, or what fits with the cultural narrative which is fed to us.
So, while this is an easy response, I wonder if it is faithful, I wonder if it is hopeful. The answer to both is no. Our text today invites us into another way to seek to make sense of this, to seek to find meaning in this, to find a way to try to process this.
Today’s reading is from the so-called little apocalypse in the Gospel According to Mark. Apocalypse is a difficult genre. It is difficult because many of us have encountered gross misiuse of this genre. It is warped and sensationalized in popular works such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, and more recently in the Left Behind series. These are so popular and they are exciting, and we begin to focus much of our faith on these relatively few apocalyptic passages, and then we attempt to do all sorts of spooky, mystical things with the Bible to find out when the end is coming.
And, to be honest, I am always hesitant to preach or teach on these apocalyptic passages, largely because of the broad acceptance of this warped view amongst fundamentalist evangelicalism. But these passages are in scripture and we must allow them to invite us in. And I think that on a day like today, with the shock still fresh, with the blood still warm, with the confusing mixture of emotions still raw, on a day like today, a passage like this is fitting for today, not because it allows us to prognosticate about the future like some cosmic groundhog, but it invites us into hope. And this is what the popular warped interpretation is missing. It is missing the main ingredient in these apocalyptic passages: hope.
Indeed, we cannot forget that the Greek word from which “apocalypse” is derived actually means unveiling or revealing. So while we tend to link apocalypse with death and destruction, this is not actually right.
The literary genre of apocalypse was inherited by Christians from the Jews. We see an example of apocalyptic literature in the Book of Daniel, and we see literature which leans apocalyptic in the prophets. The Dead Sea Scrolls include a fair amount of apocalyptic literature that are not part of the scriptural canon. We see little apocalypses in the Gospels and most famously in the Revelation to John.
In fact, apocalyptic literature is not really about the end of all things. The word that we read as “end” in verse 7 carries with it a sense of completion, of perfection, of accomplishing, it refers to the end goal to which a movement is being directed. It does not at all carry the sense of destruction, which we all tend to assume.
And this is the background of apocalyptic literature, why it is written and why it is engaging. This experience is universal to the human condition. Apocalyptic literature is often the result of external chaos, pressure, the sense that the world is falling apart. This is why the apocalyptic genre has continued into the modern world, with film series like The Matrix, or Mad Max, or films like Waterworld, or The Book of Eli. It continues today with books turned into films like Lord of the Rings and The Hunger Games, or The Postman. This continues because we see the nature gone astray, we see poverty on the rise, we see insane people running countries, and wars that never seem to end, we see bombings and shootings which appear suddenly and leave wide swaths of devastation in their wake.
The world seems to be caving in on itself and we find it hard to make sense of this. What is the meaning in this? What is the point? And this is likely what Mark’s community was struggling with as well. The first century in Palestine was a tumultuous time, it began to pick up again in the early 20th century, but the first century was a time of great conflict between the Jewish zealots and the Roman Empire. Even beyond the biblical narrative, there were a series of wars between the Jews and the Romans, the Jews striving to gain independence. Both revolts were failures, and the result of the first Jewish-Roman war was the destruction of the temple.
So you take this tumultuous context, mix it with the fact that around this time, Christianity was beginning its split from Judaism, it must have seemed like the world was imploding. Wars and rumors of wars, claims of messiahs to turned out to be failures, famines — it must have seemed like fire was raining down upon them from the heavens as their cities and their homes were burned and destroyed.
The temple was supposed to stand forever, especially this one which was far grander even than the first. This was probably the most amazing thing that they had ever seen. Not long after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the Romans come in and destroy the temple. Did the Romans defeat God? Was this all a hoax? How could this happen?
And so, this is the soil in which apocalyptic literature grows — it seeks to provide a meaning for the sufferings that one is going through, and it places it in the context of a conflict — a struggle — between good and evil. Every modern-day apocalyptic work also follows this. The Matrix, The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings, and so forth. There is a cosmic struggle between good and evil and that is the reason for the sufferings and struggles which we experience.
And this, I think, is the gift that we can glean from apocalyptic literature. This is not something in which we are abandoned and lost, this does not mean that we have necessarily done something wrong, this is not necessarily signs that God is angry with us. This also does not simply mean that we are on a long march to destruction and oblivion. Because when we become taken away by all the sensational things in passages like the one that we read this morning, we miss two key things.
Lets listen to the first part of verse 7, “When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed…” (emphasis added). Do not be alarmed. Do not be disturbed. This may be the cognate of the common biblical line, “Do not be afraid.” Do not be alarmed, Jesus tells us. Secondly, verse 26, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” You see, this does not lead up to a destruction, but to the coming of the Christ who will bring restoration and redemption to all creation, who will set things right, where evil will finally be destroyed and where the good will reign.
So perhaps apocalyptic literature isn’t so much about the future, as it is about the now. This helps us us to try to place our experiences within a meaningful framework, to help us to make sense of it. To help us to see that our experience does not mean that all is lost. This allows us to continue to operate in the world, to continue to follow Christ, to continue to live into the calling that God has placed upon us, while the world seems to crumble around us. It helps us remember that ultimately God is in control, that ultimately God’s purposes will prevail, and that we need not be disturbed or alarmed, or afraid, by what we see around us.
Perhaps it is big things like the wars which never seem to end or the famines which continually plague the earth. We can continue to work for peace and justice and wholeness even in the midst of this turmoil because we can trust that there is more at work that we can see, and that God is not absent from the world. And this is the problem with seeing apocalyptic literature about the future. That we spend so much time looking to the future that we forget that the point of this is to help us to live in the present.
So perhaps our alarm, our disturbance, is large scale. But perhaps it is small scale. Perhaps this can help us in our church as well. Most of you are well aware that our church is but a shell of what it once was. It seems to be crumbling. Many have left, some have felt that we should allow it to crumble. But what are we to do? Are we to fear? to be alarmed? to be disturbed? Or, are we to trust that our church, our lives, our world, is not headed for destruction, is not left to flounder, is not meaningless or pointless, but we are all within the grand narrative of the life of faith. We ought to stay awake, yes, we ought not slip into a hopeless and disillusioned state. But we are to continue to live into our calling, to be transformed in mind and body, in heart and action — indeed, in all of life — because this is not random, this is not pointless, this is not meaningless. Things don’t always make sense, things don’t always seem right, things don’t always happen as they ought, but we can trust that ultimately, all things will lead to the redemption and restoration of all things.
In the year 66-70, when the Romans finally destroyed the temple, did they defeat God? No way. Was that all a hoax? Of course not. And we can know that the difficult life of discipleship does not mean that God has been defeated by the enemy, nor that God is not powerful, but rather, perhaps something else is going on that we cannot see or understand.
And so, Jesus comes to us and counsels us not to be alarmed, not to be disturbed, not to be afraid. Do not be led astray, but continue on the narrow path, through the wicket gate. Because it is in this that all of creation will find its completion, its goal in cosmic restoration and redemption.
And it is this hope, that allows us to continue to live faithfully in the world. To continue to work for justice and peace even when it seems like a lost cause. Hope allows us to grieve, to feel shock and pain and sorrow, and it allows us to remember that “[t]he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
A couple of days ago, I watched an interview from a few years ago between Bill Moyers and the theologian James Cone.
JAMES CONE: So, you can look anywhere. There’s always a little bit of good and bad mixed up. The question is, does the bad have the last word?
BILL MOYERS: And?
JAMES CONE: It does not. There is always hope. Anybody who loses hope and gives up in despair, they die.
And this is that into which this text invites us. It does not invite us to fear or to despair, or to closing our eyes to avoid the pain of the world. No, our text today, with all of the scary sounding stuff, invites us into hope.
This is the root of such apocalyptic literature. This is the way that we are to make sense of tragedy. We are to look to the light that shines in the darkness and remember that the darkness has not, will not, cannot, overcome it.