The Little Apocalypse
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"The Little Apocalypse"
Proper 28b 2003 Daniel 12:1-13; Mark 13:14-23
There is a semi-apocalyptic story about nuns at a football game sent to me in an email. Its setting was in a time when
nuns wore more medieval habits than the more or less modern street clothes habits the good sisters now generally wear.
Sitting behind a couple of nuns at a football game with their habits partially blocking the view, three men decided to
badger the nuns in an effort to get them to move.
In a very loud voice, the first guy said, "I think I'm going to move to Utah, there are only 100 nuns living there."
The second guy spoke up and said, "I want to go to Montana, there are only 50 nuns living there."
The third guy said, "I want to go to Idaho, there are only 25 nuns living there."
One of the nuns, probably the Mother Superior, turned around, looked at the men, and in a very sweet calm voice said,
"Why don't you go to Hell -- there aren't any nuns living there."
Semi-apocalyptic, exhibiting some of the characteristics of apocalyptic literature, such as an admonition and reference
to an end time: Hell. Apocalyptic literature has been problematic for Christians over the years, particularly those Christians
who find in it an apparent emphasis on judgment, damnation, and punishment to the detriment the Gospel Good News emphasis
on God's love, mercy, and grace.
The Old Testament lesson from Daniel and the Gospel lesson from Mark are apocalyptic literature, as is the lesson from
Hebrews to a lesser extent. This is a good time to explore the nature of apocalyptic literature.
The canonical body of apocalyptic literature was created by Jewish writers in the half millennium between 250 BC and 250
AD. In the First and Second Centuries AD Christian writers took up and perpetuated this writing style. Apocalyptic writings
are a record of divine disclosures through angels, dreams, and visions. This includes some elements of prophetic writing.
However, while prophets generally declare the Word of God to their own generation, apocalyptic writers set forth disclosures
to be revealed in a secret text at the end time: "But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the
end of time."
As the Oxford Companion to the Bible (p. 34) puts it, "whereas the prophets see the realization of God's purposes
within the historical process [that is, within chronos, human time] the apocalyptists see that purpose reaching its culmination
not just within history but above and beyond history [that is within kairos, God's time] in that supramundane realm where
Our Marcan passage for today is taken from what is called the Little Apocalypse of Jesus. The two great apocalypses in
the Bible are the books of Daniel and Revelation.
The root word of apocalypse is the verb form of the Greek noun apokalypsis meaning to uncover, to disclose, to reveal
(hence revelation in English). In fact, the first three verses of the Book of Revelation contain the three defining characteristics
of apocalyptic literature:
"The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known
by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all
that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what
is written in it; for the time is near."
In commenting on these three verses, the Anchor Bible Dictionary (I, 279) noted that "the first two verses of the
book of Revelation contain the narrative structure of an apocalypse: a revelation is given by God through an otherworldly
mediator to a human seer disclosing future events. V[erse] 3 contains an added feature commonly found (or implied) in apocalypses,
namely, an admonition."
But having said that, what are the common themes of an apocalypse? In short, beyond what the plain text says, what message
is apocalyptic literature trying to deliver to the people of the first two centuries and to us today?
Again, the Oxford Companion (p. 36): First is the connection between history in both chronos, human time, and kairos,
Gods time. The message is that the whole of history is unified under the sovereignty and overarching purposes of God. But
this whole of history is divided into periods which must run the course determined by God. Only when this course is run will
the end be allowed to come with the dawning of the messianic age -- also called the Second Coming -- when evil will be vanquished
and righteousness established for all time. Any present troubles are only birth pangs, indications that soon the powers and
principalities and polities of the earth will be swept away to be replaced by Gods eternal rule. Revelation's third verse:
"the time is near". And Jesus in Mark's Gospel goes on to say after our reading for today: "So also, when you
see these things taking place, you know that he is very near, at the very gates." (Mk 13:30)
Second is the prediction of a cosmic cataclysm: From our Daniel reading: "The end time shall be a time of anguish,
such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence." Armegeddon is the coming great battle of the nations
at the Plain of Megiddo along the Qishon River some 10 to 20 miles inland from the present day Israeli port of Haifa in northern
Israel. Again, Jesus: "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 birth pangs." (Mk 13:7-8)
Every time there is war in the Middle East, modern day apocalyptists appear predicting the cosmic cataclysm. Jesus may
have been referring to them: "False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray,
if possible, the elect." (Mk 13:22) This has been going on at least since the early rise of Islam and the Crusades.
But in this great final battle, wherever and ahenever it will take place, the powers of evil, along with the evil nations
that they represent, will be utterly destroyed. Certainly in the middle to last half of the Twentieth Century, the struggle
of the Free world against Nazi Germany and the Soviet Empire had at times the taste, tincture, and texture of both present
and imminent Armageddon.
And then comes the consummation: The coming kingdom of God will be established here on earth. In some of the literature
it will be on earth only temporarily; in others the duration is longer. But when this happens all things will be made new,
new as the last day of the Creation, when God rested and saw that all he had wrought was good. The earth is the scene of God's
deliverance of his people.
One strain of apocalyptic consummation speaks of a physical resurrection of the body, a coming judgment, and the life
to come. A hint of this in Daniel: "Many of those who are sleeping the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting
life, and some to everlasting shame and contempt." (Daniel 12:2) A variation of this includes the Rapture and direct
assumption into heaven at the time of the Second Coming
The somewhat two-dimensional Left Behind series of books follows these two strains.
But in any apocalyptic strain, fulfillment is found in God's final redemption when all wrongs are to be righted and justice
and peace are established for all time.
So what ARE the messages of Mark 13?
For the Jewish people of Jesus' day it was a warning about the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jews;
only those who ran for the hills and made it survived the destruction of the city and the subsequent Diaspora, when the Jewish
people were dispersed in small groups all over the Roman Empire, not to be returned to Israel in any significant numbers until
after World War II. It all depends on when you think Mark's Gospel was written. If it were in 65 AD, the earliest considered
date, then it is apocalypticism that contains accurate prophecy about Jerusalem.
If it were written shortly after 70 AD, say by 75 AD, the latest date considered, then it may well be an insertion by
Mark to record what happened, in a reflection of what Jesus felt about the Roman conquest and occupation of Palestine by his
time. In which case it was written to give surviving Jewish as well as Gentile Christians, wherever they might be found, hope
for the future despite their present oppressed, scattered and persecuted condition.
And what for us in the early 21st Century? Certainly it reminds us of the belief in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ
which we express in the Liturgy of Holy Communion in the proclamation of faith: "Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ
will come again." It is the memorial of our redemption. These are the words we say every Sunday at 8 and almost every
Sunday at 10.
By the end of the First Century many of the particular events predicted in Mark 13 had occurred and the end time had not
come nor had there been a Second Coming. Christians had abandoned their earlier expectation of the imminence of the End and
the Second Coming and had realized that they had a new task. They were to live in the world but not of it; in it but live
as if it were to end at any time. Their new focus was not sitting and waiting but to go out and do the work they had been
given to do, each set of Christians in their own time and place. Jesus' warning about false prophets and to be alert took
on a new significance. It also mean that Christians were to look for signs of the God who loves us acting in history, bringing
about those now ordinary miracles that occur in our daily life whether we notice them or not.