What do we do when we hear a reading like the ones that we encounter today in Daniel in and Mark? Daniel says:
Michael shall arise. There will be anguish. Many of those who sleep in the dust will awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
And then Jesus describes war and earthquakes and famines and he says:
This is but the beginnings of the birthpangs.
What do we do with apocalyptic Biblical passages? There are lots of them in scripture to choose from. What do we do with passages in which the Bible sure appears to tell us that God is the catalyst for violence, that God requires violence, sometimes that God is an active participant in violence?
This question is more or less inescapable at this time of year in which the lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow from Sunday to Sunday, gives us one apocalyptic reading after another. For many Christians in parishes such as this one, these readings are variously troubling or embarrassing to us, maybe because we associate them with the Left Behind series of books and movies, with the notion of the rapture. Although, like a lot of troubling or embarrassing things, these passages are simultaneously fascinating to us.
Well, here is one of the things I believe. When someone or something leaves me feeling troubled or off balance, repelled and fascinated, that is an invitation to pay attention. Experience has shown me, for instance, that I when I notice feelings of dislike aversion in myself for another person, that person almost always has something to teach me. I remember some years ago asking for a meeting with a former boss – some things had happened since I had left that workplace – and opening my conversation with him by saying,
I knew that I had to talk to you because I really didn’t want to.
Apocalypse is similar. If we have a reflexive “yuck” feeling about this part of the Bible, if we are simultaneously attracted to and repelled by these passages, then maybe that is an invitation to pay attention, to ask:
What does this have to teach me about God and about my neighbour and about myself?
Now, I want to say something early and explicitly: what these passages do not and cannot teach us is that God is in the violence business. The cross makes that clear and irrefutable. Jesus suffers the worst possible humiliation, he endures the greatest possible agony, and after his return he refuses to respond to this violence with violence of his own. The resurrection is not about God coming back and exacting revenge on those who killed him. It is about God bringing new life and new light into the world.
The cross tells me that Richard Rohr is right when he says that the test for an authentic understanding of scripture and, more broadly, an authentic understanding of God is this: if an interpretation, a teaching, an action is less loving than the most loving person whom you know, then that thing isn’t from God.
Jesus coming back to torture or kill all the people who have believed wrong and lived wrong? That’s kind of less loving than the most loving person I know. So that can’t be how to understand Daniel, it can’t be how to understand Jesus when he talks the way that he talks today.
The word “apocalypse” translates into English as something like “unveiling” or as “revelation.” Hence, the final book of the Bible is sometimes The Revelation of John and sometimes The Apocalypse of John. It could just as well be The Unveiling of John.
And what is being unveiled when we encounter violence in the Bible? Well, as the theologian Mark Heim puts it, violence in the Bible is unveiling the truth, it is telling the truth. It is telling the truth about the human condition, about the conditions that lead to bloodshed, and in particular about the old connection between religion and violence.
Because religion, when it gets bent, when it loses sight of God and gets distracted or seduced by what St. Paul calls the world, has ended up in the violence business early and often. Somehow, when Emperor Constantine came along, when the other kings and emperors followed him, the symbol of Jesus – the symbol of the one who is murdered by the government for telling stories of freedom and handing out free food and health care – ended up on the banners of soldiers marching into battle.
There is no way to tell the truth without unveiling these things. As Mark Hein goes on to say, when we complain that the tales of Genesis, that the bloody sacrifices of Leviticus, that the fire for revenge in the Psalms, that Jesus talking about the birthpangs is too much, that these things are too sordid and too human to have any place in a book as holy as the Bible, then maybe we are admitting that these texts reveal the human condition altogether too well.
In Mark, Jesus says that the temple will be torn down, brick by brick. Peter, James, John, and Andrew ask him when this will be. And Jesus, who has elevated the non sequitur to an art form, who often answers questions with statements or stories that, at least at first, don’t appear to answer the question at all, says:
Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he,” and they will lead many astray.
And then he goes on:
When you hear of wars and rumours of wars?
Don’t be alarmed.
Wars and earthquakes and famines – this stuff going to happen. It is part of the human condition. Let’s name that, let’s unveil that. But let’s also, Jesus says – and this is fascinating and maybe surprising – not be alarmed by it.
Now, “do not be alarmed” cannot mean, “do not care,” or “do not take action.” Because we know that Jesus takes action in response to suffering early and often and always, that he calls us as his disciples to do the same. Maybe, therefore, “do not be alarmed,” means, “do not attach theological significance to this stuff, do not imagine for a second that this is something that God is doing or that God wants or that God requires or that proves that God is coming.”
If that’s right, then Left Behind and the televangelists and the door-to-door religion peddlers who love to point at this passage to prove that, well, the end is nigh, have things backwards. Violence isn’t telling us anything about what God is doing or when God is coming. Violence is telling us about humanity and about how far we sometimes stray from leading the lives of grace and mercy and kindness and love and freedom that God wants for you and for me and for everyone.
There is an amazing line that shows up today in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is one of my favourite verses in all of scripture, when I last saw it printed in a bulletin or leaflet I cut it out and pasted it in my journal. It goes like this:
Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.
Not let us encourage one another, not let us teach one another, but let us provoke one another to love and good deeds.
Weird as it is, maybe that line makes perfect sense. Because I think we all know about being provoked to goodness and to love. I suspect that all of us, as young people, received the difficult gift of a teacher or a parent calling us out on our behaviour, telling the truth about our behaviour, unveiling our behaviour and thereby provoking us to be better. I think that all of us, to this day, know about encountering art – several of the artists from PHAME are with us this morning and will be sharing their art with us as part of this service – that provokes us to be better. I think that all of us know about hearing someone’s story, a story of maybe searching or injustice or healing – I remember the woman who came here on a Sunday morning a couple of years ago and who told us about what it was like in Portland to try to function on minimum wage – and being provoked to being better.
And maybe that is what stories of violence in scripture, including stories – maybe especially stories? – that attribute that violence to God are doing. Those stories unveil human violence and they unveil our tendency to project human violence onto God, to make God in our own image, to say that God – who goes to the cross innocent and yet who will not make resurrection into an occasion of revenge – somehow wants and needs our violence. Maybe these stories provoke us to say no! That isn’t and never was who God is. Maybe these stories of apocalypse and there to provoke us into following Jesus, into joining him in building a Kingdom of non-violence, of goodness, and of love.