Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the Old Testament writer Daniel how Michael who will guard over the people. Michael will come at a time of great distress but he will spare all those whose names are written in the Book. Additionally, many who lie sleeping in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus foretold a time of distress: “the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” But Jesus then tells his followers that they will see “the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory; then too he will send the angels to gather his chosen from the four winds, from the ends of the world to the ends of heaven.”
Many of us know this but the church year does not begin on January 1st and end on December 31st. We begin our year on the First Sunday of Advent, normally the last Sunday of November or the First Sunday of December and it ends the week before. This year our liturgical year will end on December 1st and the next year begins on December 2nd, the First Sunday of Advent.
This matters to us because the readings in the last few Sundays of the current year focus on readings described as “apocalyptic literature.” Most of Scripture describes previous events (this is what happened) or what we should do (love your neighbor) but apocalyptic literature tells us what will happen (when the Son of Man comes, this is what he will do).
All parts of Scripture matter and we should read all Scripture with an eye toward how we should live our lives. Unfortunately, for several reasons, many Christians pay too much attention to these readings at the expense of the rest of Scripture.
In fairness many of us were told from our earliest days that the Bible gives us the roadmap to Salvation: do what it tells you and you’ll get to heaven. Don’t do what it tells you and you’ll spend eternity in hell. When the stakes are that high, can you blame anyone who pushes aside what he believes doesn’t matter and focuses on what does?
So here’s my problem with apocalyptic literature: we’re not reading it in the correct context and some “scholars” either to exercise power over others or gain wealth.
I know this is a bit of a diversion but bear with me: I’m a fanatic reader. I read all sorts of stuff: history, biographies, historical fiction, current fiction, etc. but I have to confess that I don’t like to read mysteries. They annoy me because the entire book serves only as a prologue to the last few pages: when I do read them I feel like I could have skipped the first 150 pages because they only served as the crescendo to the last 10.
Scripture matters from the first word to the last. When we ask “what do we need to do to be saved” we shouldn’t flip to the back of the book for the answer while ignoring everything before.
Apocalyptic literature speaks to us in times of suffering and darkness. Daniel, Revelation, and other books (including today’s passage in Mark) were written to give us hope in despair. This type of literature promises a brighter future that will not depend on our own actions or strength but on God’s promise to act.
When will this happen? Jesus’ answer is pretty clear: “But as for that day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, or the Son; no one but the father.” I see this as Jesus telling his followers (to this day) that what we do matters, and there will times of great suffering. But that God is in charge and we need not worry.
But from the 1960s with the book The Late, Great Planet Earth to this century’s Charting the End Times: A Visual Guide to Understanding Biblical Prophecy, writers have claimed that Scripture is replete with clues that they can unlock (and so can we if we buy their books). In other words, believers need not pay attention to the rest of Scripture, only unlock hidden clues and we’re gold.
So what can we learn from these readings? Our first reading from Daniel was written during a time when the Israelites were dominated by and oppressed by a conquering group. Jews of the time endured horrific pressure to stop practices unique to them (e.g. circumcision) and conform to the Greeks. Daniel was written to encourage them to stay true to themselves and preserve their identity.
In Mark’s Gospel Jesus foretold of a time when things were going to get bad. During Jesus’ lifetime they were under Roman rule and it was often brutal. But between Jesus’ lifetime and Mark writing his Gospel, it got much worse. In the year 70 the Romans brutally put down an attempt at independence and destroyed their Temple, the center of their lives, not just their worship.
Thousands of years after these readings, we are far from unaware of suffering that we did not cause or deserve. These readings allow us to be people of hope, even when there is little cause for optimism. As I write this, our world contains approximately 25 million refugees who have been driven from their homes and face an uncertain future. As I write this we see wars in Yemen and Syria (among others) where larger, wealthier nations pour in money and weapons at the expense of those caught in the crossfire. As I write this several countries are led by men whose loyalty lies with a select group of those who look like them at the expense of the poor and marginalized.
As followers of Jesus we are called to work diligently for justice but we are also called to recognize that God loves all of us without exception and will make things right in the end.