Brief synopsis of the readings: The Old Testament prophet Daniel he describes a time of great distress where Michael will “guard over your people.” But “[w]hen that time comes, your own people will be spared, all those whose names are found written in the Book.” In Mark’s Gospel Jesus also spoke of a time of distress, “the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling down from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” He then told them about the fig tree, how we can look at the leaves and know summer is near. “So with you when you see these things happening: know that he is near, at the very gates.” “But as for that day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, or the Son; no one but the Father.”
Every year we can tell winter is around the corner because the temperatures drop and the leaves began to change color. In the same way we can tell we are approaching the end of the liturgical year when we read about the end of the world.
Books like Daniel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New Testament give us a sense of hope for the future. In addition to these books we also see hints of this type of writing in the Gospels (today’s Gospel giving us a good example).
We call this “apocalyptic literature” and it’s much misunderstood. The book of Daniel was written during a time when our ancestors were persecuted by the Greeks who wished to assimilate them destroy their identity as those chosen by God. The book of Revelation was written after Jesus but at a time when the followers of Jesus were in danger of dying out in the face of opposition from the Jews and the Romans.
Today Christians populate every corner of the Earth and there are over 2 billion of us and it’s easy to take our existence for granted. Despite the cries of some that we are being persecuted no reasonable person really believes we will cease to exist.
That hasn’t always been the case. In addition to Daniel and Revelation, when the Israelites were conquered and sent into exile in 597 BCE, they feared their end and in their desperation they combined several sources and wrote the first five books of the Bible (Jews call it the Torah and Christians call it the Pentateuch).
So here’s the problem with apocalyptic literature: A few people found a way to turn it into something that brings fear into our hearts. Simply put they reverse the message of this literature and made a great deal of money writing books that support that.
And frankly, it was a ridiculously easy thing to do. As a people we respond to fear, and we respond to fear of our own mistakes. These authors twisted Scripture to proclaim that at some point in time God will collect all the good and faithful people of the world and take them directly to heaven (called the “rapture”). Those left behind will endure great tribulations, and by the time this happens it’s too late to reform your life.
Many of us had experiences in school where we did badly on a test and wished we had studied harder. And we knew better than to ask for mercy because we would have been told we had no one to blame but ourselves.
But a couple of things: First, it’s never too late to ask for God’s mercy. We’ve all heard the phrase “you made your bed, now go lie in it.” But again and again, both in Scripture and in our own lives, we’ve seen stunning examples of forgiveness and reconciliation. And Second, those who worry about this profess enough faith that they probably shouldn’t worry. I can’t tell you how many parents feel they fall short in their duties and say: “I feel like the worst parent in the world.” I explain that the worst parent in the world doesn’t think he is the worst parent in the world. Only good parents worry.
Apocalyptic literature comes to us only out of great despair. For much of the Old Testament God appears to us as a “Commander in Chief” who blesses the Israelites and leads them to victory in battle. We find this in our liberation from slavery in Exodus, but also in the battles on their entry into Jerusalem. When we feel overwhelmed, that no matter what we do we can’t win, these readings remind us that while we can’t win, God can.
You have to know where I’m going with this. These days we can be forgiven for seeing a dark future. Our climate is changing because of our consumption but too many of us deny this and prefer to do nothing. Political parties have become so divided that communication can be seen as futile. We see our opponents not as those who disagree on the path to the same goal but as those who are evil and wish our destruction. They are not rivals but existential threats to our existence.
But as people of faith we have to look beyond this. And we’ve been this way before. In the 14th Century a bacteria caused the death of nearly half of Europe and those who survived must have wondered when this would end.
Here in the United States the year 1968 must have appeared doomed. We were fighting a war in Vietnam and in January our enemies launched an offensive we now know as the Tet Offensive and it made the war much more lethal. A few months later in April we learned of the assassination of of nonviolent prophet Dr. Martin Luther King and several weeks later Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was also shot to death. Many Americans felt our nation was in danger of succumbing to anarchy and all that we valued was doomed.
But we didn’t. We prayed, we did what we could, and we kept the faith. And things got better. The bacteria subsided and Europe rebounded to begin the Renaissance a century later. The war in Vietnam ended and the election of 1968 was close but peaceful.
When things are tough we need to hunker down and not lose the faith. And we need to see that, in the end, God always wins. Our divisions, while serious, do not doom us.
God always wins.