Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Language of Apocalypse

Sheespcott Community Church November 15, 2009

1 Samuel 1: 4-20

Mark 13: 1-8

The Language of Apocalypse

I would like to start with a poem of Robert Frost’s, one most of us are familiar with: “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

There’s great pleasure in simply reading the poem for the narrative because we in New England can easily picture the setting and imagine ourselves in the poet’s situation. I can imagine David O’Neal pulled off the road in his plow truck on the crest of the hill at the Old Sheepscot Road turnoff on the Alna side of the bridge, looking down toward the Village as the snow falls.

Or Alden Davis and Chuck Reinhardt in those same moments standing under a tree in their yard and looking down and across the field and pond toward Donna Krah’s, Bill and Sonnie’s and the Hill Church. That would of course be before the snow began falling so heavily they couldn’t see their hand in front of their face.

The poet is successful in his unspoken invitation to the reader, and we, and David O’Neal and Chuck and Alden, all of us stop, as we probably did on the fifth of this month, to watch the snow and have the long thoughts that such watching brings. Having set up a vivid visual picture that we can identify with, the poet concludes with the evocative lines:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Again, the simple narrative is satisfying, but the lines do resonate at a deeper level, do lead to those long thoughts of how much time we have before we enter those dark, deep woods, where the snow falls, and falls on that cold ground. How much time have we have left to do what we are here to do: to learn to love, to become ourselves seats of reconciliation, to discover our gifts, and in that discovering to learn to share those gifts––whatever they might be––with the larger community, which I believe is the Body of Christ.

In a few words, there is a literal level of the poem, which, if successful, leads the reader to the figurative level, where indeed the deeper meaning is. I offer you that by way of introduction to today’s gospel, which contains some of Jesus’ apocalyptic warnings to the disciples about future events.

The gospel opens with a disciple’s comment about the magnificence of the Temple in Jerusalem. “What massive stones!” the disciple exclaims. Indeed, they were massive stones. The Temple, which Herod built for the Jews, was one of the wonders of the world of its time. The building was begun between 20 and 19 B.C.E. and was still not finished when Jesus lived. The historian Josephus wrote that some of the stones used in the building were 40 feet long by 12 feet high by 18 feet wide. It would be just those stones that would move the disciples to such amazement that they commented on them to Jesus.

Imagine their surprise when he countered with the statement that with regard to the buildings made of stone, not one of those stones would be left on another. Every one would be thrown down. To the disciples the Temple seemed the height of human art and achievement, so vast and solid that it would last forever, so we can understand their amazement at Jesus’ statement. They were filled with curiosity about when it would happen. We know what that’s like because we’re just the same way. If we hear about a prediction, we want all the details.

Jesus explained to them that others would come in those days in the time of the destruction of the Temple, claiming to be he, Jesus, the Christ. He warned them not to be deceived. He told them that there would be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, nation rising against nation, and so on. These latter matters are almost commonplace and occur in every generation, but when Jesus spoke about them, his disciples were hanging on his every word because Jesus was presenting as future fact these events as a sign of his coming and of the end of the world, which he expected to happen before that generation had passed away. That seems to be an indication of him being fully human, not understanding the complete and larger picture.

The Temple was destroyed for the second time in 70 C.E., as Jesus had foreseen. There are other items on Jesus’ list, but we don’t hear the long list this year before the beginning of Advent, as we usually do. Still in chapter 13 of Mark, verse 24 ff.: “But in those days following that distress,/’The sun will be darkened,/ and the moon will not give its light;/ the stars will fall from the sky,/ and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’”

These lines are directly from the book of the prophet Isaiah and qoted in Mark. I mention that because the language Jesus is using when he describes those end-times is poetic language, figurative language, not to be taken literally. The underlying reality of the so-called Second Coming of Christ, the appearance of God at the end of history, will be like nothing they have ever seen. That’s the point. The pictures Jesus used to communicate the size and impact of the day of the Lord, or Judgment Day, and the Second Coming, which are inextricably woven together in the scripture, are meant as impressionistic pictures, a seer’s visions that aim to impress on the minds of human beings the greatness of the future event.

If Robert Frost tells a story we can easily follow in “Stopping by the Woods,”where image and line present a clear picture but hold and hide a deeper meaning, Jesus does the reverse. He presents the fantastic of apocalyptic poetry and expects his listeners to extrapolate from that language the fact of the great events of the Last Judgment and the Second Coming, like nothing ever seen.

This kind of apocalyptic language, as used by Jesus and by some of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, was familiar to the Jews of that time, which is why Jesus used it. The Jews never doubted that they were the chosen people, and they also never doubted that one day they would occupy the rightful place in the world of such a chosen people of God. They had fought and fought again to hold on to the Promised Land, but the lived history of successive defeat, oppression and captivity indicated that that was not going to happen except by the intervention of God on their behalf. So there grew up this language and literature of the all-powerful God who would interrupt history on their behalf, on behalf of his chosen people.

That day of intervention was referred to as “the day of the Lord.” The terror and horror of that day is repeated again and again in the prophets. From the prophet Amos: “In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! Alas’! They shall call the farmers to mourning, and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentations, and in all the vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through the midst of you, says the Lord.”

From the prophet Joel: “The day of the Lord is coming... a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness... I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire, and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” You get the picture, and I can’t help but mention again the Wizard of Oz. People like to be frightened for some reason. They respect what scares them more than what holds them in an embrace.

Jesus would employ this language about his Second Coming, which, as I mentioned was inextricably textually interwoven with the so-called terrible day of the Lord, he would employ this language because it was familiar to the people. The religious literature of the time that pictured God breaking into history on behalf of his chosen people was called Apocalypse, from the Greek apokalupsis meaning an unveiling. The books of apocalypse were dreams and visions of what would happen when the day of the Lord came and in the terrible time preceding it. Old Testament imagery was used, supplemented with new details as history and circumstances unfolded. Apocalyptic literature was meant to paint the unpaintable and speak the unspeakable. It was poetry, not prose; visions, not science; dreams, not history. It was never meant to be taken prosaically as timetables of events to come.

I think all of us have heard contemporary commentaries especially of the Book of Revelation that try to squeeze into a precast form of understanding the meanings of the prophetic sayings in the book. While the Book of Revelation does contain truths for all times, including ours, it’s important to remember that it is apocalyptic literature, written at a moment in history especially for a people in that moment who would have had the cultural tools to decode the intended meaning.

Jesus always worked with what the people knew so that he could get his message across in the limited time he had. As we know from the gospels, he taught through parables, stories that employed the commonplace of people’s lives at the time. Think of the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the sower of the seed. These were everyday images the people would understand. The lost coin, the yeast in the bread. Just so, Jesus employed the extant apocalyptic figures, which the people would understand from hearing them in the synagogues. They would have taken in these stories with their mother’s milk. That was the language he chose to get across to his disciples the importance of his Second Coming. At this juncture in the gospel, he is in Jerusalem and about to undergo his passion. He is setting the stage for what the disciples would later recall to each other after he had died and was raised up.

This is for all intents and purposes, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Next Sunday we will celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, the break between this apocalypse we consider today, and the four Sundays of Advent before Christmas. It’s a heady brew, this mixture of end and beginning, destruction and preparation, but that is the way of our liturgical year, ‘round and ‘round.

What can all of this apocalyptic talk mean for us? The fact is all times are end times for us individually. The world as we know it ends for us at death. That is our personal end time. Meanwhile God is communicating signs and portents to us through everything and everyone around us. If we will open our eyes, our ears, our minds to that voice that is the poetry which informs our lives of the deeper meaning of those lives, we will hear and see God, not with the physical senses, but with the listening spirit within. Christ is always coming in us and to us. Might we, illuminated by the Spirit of Christ, be ourselves the Second Coming? Now there’s a thought to keep you awake tonight. Amen.

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