Do you like watching disaster movies?
One of our children was devoted to the film ‘The Towering Inferno’. I lost count of how many times we saw all those different people escaping from that sky scraper! There are other lots of other films about these smaller disasters, caused by ships sinking or aircraft crashing. Then some of the most popular science fiction films, like The Day of the Triffids, and Independence Day and Judgement Day predict the end of the world coming as a result of something arriving from outer space. There seems to be something in human beings that enjoys being scared silly by contemplating the awful things that might happen to them unexpectedly.
A look into the Bible and other ancient writings will show that such ‘disaster stories’ are nothing new. In Jewish extra Biblical writings we have passages in Ezra and Enoch, in the Old Testament we find them in the Book of Daniel, and in the New in the book of Revelation, and some parts of the epistles attributed to Paul. Today’s Gospel reading, and the rest of chapter 13, and the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke, like those writings, speak about the awful trials which will come at some time in the future, in The Last Days, or The End Times or The Day of the Lord, as it is variously known, when the world as we know it will be destroyed. Similar stories are found in Muslim writings, in the Koran and the Hadith, with descriptions of the troubles that will announce the Day of Judgement, and the great final battle. Some commentators think these writings are what drives Islamic State.
Prophecies about the End Time are part of a theme that runs through the Scriptures, a theme which pictures the world being created in perfection, then being spoilt by the Fall; then a long period of moving towards redemption, with the coming of Christ at the centre; and, finally, a period of great trials and testing before the faithful are saved, creation is transformed, and God makes a new heaven and a new earth.
The technical term for these disaster scenarios is ‘apocalyptic’, which means revelation or unveiling. The apocalypse reveals to the faithful what is to come, in order to strengthen them to endure the tribulation, in the sure hope that right will eventually prevail, the righteous will emerge triumphant, the evil people will get their just deserts and the good will be rewarded.
Biblical scholars are divided about whether Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, who actually spoke these passages, or whether they reflect the views of the early believers, who saw Jesus’ death and resurrection as ushering in the End Times and the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Whether they were spoken by Jesus or not, they were not meant to be crystal ball predictions, or a timetable to help us spot when the end of the world was coming. Unfortunately, some Christians have tended to treat them this way; Many of us will have heard several announcements that the end of the world is going to happen at a date in the near future. These have become so common recently, that someone on Facebook suggested those of us who have survived all these ‘apocalypses’ should be entitled to some sort of badge or loyalty reward!
What these passages actually describe is not the future, but the present reality for the persecuted community, be it the Jews of Daniel’s or Ezra’s time, or the Christians of the post-resurrection community. The purpose of apocalyptic is not to allow believers to predict the exact time of the coming of God’s Kingdom, but to strengthen them to remain faithful no matter what happens.
Mark’s description of war, famine, rebellion, killing, the destruction of holy sites, and the preaching of false prophets reflected what was happening in his community’s time. But they are things which happen in every age, including our own. Think of Syria and Iraq and the Lebanon. Think of Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, Nigeria and Kenya. Think of Paris. The message of New Testament apocalyptic passages is not just meant for the believers of the post-Resurrection community, they are meant for us too. What do they tell us?
Hebrews assures its readers that the destiny of those who are faithful to God is already decided. Rather than using the metaphor of battle that we find Mark, it uses the imagery of the sacrificial system, which was used in the Jerusalem Temple to put the people right with God. It compares the daily sacrifices made on behalf of the people by the human High Priests, with the one, perfect sacrifice made by Jesus through his death, which gains access to God’s presence, not only for himself, but also for all who follow him. Again, the image of warfare comes in, when Jesus is envisaged as a favoured companion of God, waiting in glory with him until the last enemies have been destroyed. Because of Jesus, Hebrews tells us, we can all look forward with hope, no matter how bad things are now, since he is already in the place where we are destined to be.
Mark 13 also uses the Jerusalem Temple as a symbol, but not a symbol of the place of encounter with God. Rather it symbolises a system where religion is allied with wealth and power. He tells his disciples that before the End Times arrive, and the Kingdom of God is fully established, that alliance of religion and power must be destroyed. That is a significant message for us to hear today.
When religion gets mixed up with secular power systems, there is a tendency for them to adopt the secular ways of persuading people to conform, including physical force and persecution. Jesus demonstrated in his life and death that this was not God’s way.
The Bible passages we heard show us that what people of faith should be relying on to counter evil is not war and violence but Jesus’ path of self-sacrifice, non-retaliation, forgiveness and loving to the utmost. The way of the cross is to abandon power, absorb pain and violence and to engage in the work of reconciliation, rather than retaliation. Non-violent peacemaking is the only way of life that brings us into the right relationship with God that Jesus enjoyed and demonstrated. It provides a sharp contrast to the power plays of the world, but it is something which has been all too rarely demonstrated by the Church.
These apocalyptic passages urge us to take the long view and preserve confidence in the way of the Kingdom which Jesus taught, rather than taking a short cut by using the worldly solutions of force and violence. This is a lesson the Christian church has to learn again and again. It is particularly relevant as we face terrorism and violence from individuals and groups rather than attacks by foreign nations. It is also something to keep in mind as we commemorate the damage done by warfare at this Remembrance season.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, wears as his epsicopal cross a Coventry Cross, formed from 3 nails. This stands both for the nails of the cross of Christ, and also for the nails retrieved from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, and formed into crosses which were sent by the Cathedral to the cities of Kiel, Dresden and Berlin as symbols of forgiveness, reconciliation and hope while World War 2 was still being fought.
Justin Welby was once part of Coventry’s ministry of reconciliation, which continued from its war time beginnings to become a network of partners all over the world, committed to working for peace and reconciliation in some of the world’s most difficult and longstanding areas of conflict.
The Centre for Reconciliation is also committed to resourcing the church in the practical outworking of reconciliation as an integral part of Christian worship, witness and discipleship. We may not be in a position to do very much except pray about reconciliation in the large political conflicts of these ‘End Times’, but all localities and human institutions have their conflicts and power-plays, and, as followers of Christ, we are called to walk the Way of the Cross to bring reconciliation there too.
This will mean accepting that the old situation in which the church had an established and respected place in the community, both physically and traditionally, is no more. Our fine constructions of stone, like the Jerusalem Temple, are being broken down, and we have to find a different way of engaging with the people who need to learn about Christ’s way of peace, love and reconciliation. We can no longer expect them to come to us, nor to learn about our beliefs through the public education system.
We are being challenged, many believe, to try new ways of living the way of the Kingdom without the security of buildings and support of the state and traditional culture. That will mean not just exploring new ways of teaching and worshipping, like Messy Church, but also thinking again about what is the real core of the Christian message, and how that can be expressed in the language and concepts, and through the media in which the majority of people nowadays are at home. We cannot speak peace to our communities unless we are part of our communities, both physically and theologically, and in order to do that, we will almost certainly find ourselves having to let go of things that we value, or at least see them gradually take up fewer resources than those things which speak to those who need our ministry. There may need to be changes not only in the way we do things, but also in the way we express our beliefs, in the concepts we use and the way we interpret scripture, if our faith is to be of use in this post-modern world.
The people for whom the authors of Hebrews and Mark wrote were waiting eagerly for the End Times, expecting God to intervene in history in some dramatic way, with legions of angels, and geological and planetary disruption.
I don’t think many people expect that sort of End Time any more. We know now that we are always living in the End Times, and that if the conditions of the End Times –violence, killing, deceit, famine and so on – are ever going to cease, it will only be when we live as Jesus showed us how to live – generously, lovingly, sacrificially, so that we and everyone else can experience that life in all its fullness which is the life of the Kingdom over which Christ the King reigns.