Daniel 12:1-3; Mark 13:1-8 Pentecost 26 Lectionary 33 November 18, 2018
We look for God to end the world. Soon! God’s promises to do that are good news! We can’t wait for it to happen! We yearn for Christ to “come to judge the living and the dead,” because that will bring in the new heaven and the new earth!
That is how to understand the writings in the Bible that are called “apocalyptic.”
“The apocalyptic books report mysterious revelations that are mediated by angels and disclose a supernatural world. They…often [include] cosmic transformation and always involve the judgment of the dead.” Apocalyptic literature is written by God’s people who are experiencing persecution and suffering because of their faith. For them, the message that God will intervene and end all of that is good news!
Our readings this morning include two apocalyptic writings – in verses from the book of Daniel and the gospel of Mark. The book of Daniel was composed about 200 years before Christ was born. The gospel of Mark dates to about the year 70 after Christ was born. But these writings come from similar experiences of persecution and suffering that the Roman Empire inflicted on God’s people in Palestine, for centuries.
The apocalyptic chapters in Daniel come out of the killing of God’s people by the diabolical Roman emperors Antiochus III and Antiochus IV. What we read this morning is the first unambiguous reference to resurrection in the Bible, here in the Hebrew Bible. (Remember, this is 200 years before Christ was born. By the time of Jesus, many of his listeners knew there would be a resurrection, because the Pharisees had been teaching them that.) We read, Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. The Jews really didn’t have a concept of “heaven” and “hell,” so there are many questions that we could explore in a Bible study. But here’s the point for us this morning: this resurrection will happen after the angel Michael swoops in to win cosmic victory over the evil of the Roman Empire. There shall be a time of anguish such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. Well, this is what the people are experiencing, around the year 175 BCE! And so, they wonder: is that resurrection about to take place? Is this the end? Is this God’s deliverance? Is this the beginning of the new heaven and the new earth? How joyous that would be! How we are hoping for that!
Do you see how to understand apocalyptic writing in the Bible?
In the same way, we read the 13th chapter of the gospel of Mark. The 13th chapter of Mark is a collection of apocalyptic teachings as from Jesus himself.
As [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Well, that had already happened by the time the stories and sayings in Mark were collected and edited and composed! If you have been to Jerusalem, perhaps you have seen those stones that the Roman army threw down when it destroyed the walls of the temple. After the 1967 war, Jewish archeologists were able to excavate the area around the temple, and they uncovered these gigantic stones. (The Romans really wanted to destroy the temple in Jerusalem, when you consider how much work it would have taken to demolish the walls constructed of these massive stones, and to have thrown them down from the mount upon which the temple was built.)
So, people in the year AD 70 were wondering: is this the end? Is this God’s deliverance from the evil and suffering we’re experiencing? When [Jesus] was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 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. “
Do you notice that Jesus is telling his followers to notice all these terrible things – wars, earthquakes, famines – but not to think God is ending the world right now? “[D]o not be alarmed,” Jesus says. “[T]he end is still to come.” “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Could it be that Mark’s community was too focused on the end of history; too preoccupied with figuring out when the end would come? These words as from Jesus are saying, “Yes, there are signs that could be interpreted as signs of the end. But step back from your anticipation a little bit. Relax a little bit.”
Apocalyptic writing looks towards the end of time with hope for God’s deliverance. Apocalyptic writing comes out of God’s peoples’ experiences of great suffering. There is so much evil! We so much need God to fulfill God’s promises!
During these final weeks of the season of Pentecost, anticipating the season of Advent, we encounter apocalyptic writing in the Sunday morning lectionary and, especially, in the Daily Lectionary. It strikes me, as I read this stuff, that there are always God’s people suffering what these writings describe around the world, and even in our country. Think, for instance, of the Daily Lectionary passages from Joel this past Monday and Tuesday, and of our fellow Americans in California, suffering end-of-the-world catastrophe. Listen:
Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes…. To you, O LORD, I cry. For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flames have burned all the trees of the field. Even the wild animals cry to you because the watercourses are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness. Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. You have seen video of this, this week, in the TV news reports of the devastation in California!
Is this the end? Is this God’s deliverance from the evils of the age? That’s what apocalyptic writing asks – in hopefulness!
We read apocalyptic writing during these final weeks of the season of Pentecost, as a lead in to the season of Advent. It’s the flow of the liturgical year. Think of it this way: there is so much suffering. There is so much evil. There is so much reason to yearn for God’s new heaven and new earth. And so we move into Advent two Sundays from today. Advent is the season of anticipating God’s deliverance, of hope. Then, four weeks later comes Christmas: the joy that God has intervened by becoming human flesh. Even though God is born into this world of continuing hatred and violence, in Jesus the Christ, the new heaven and the new earth has dawned. God promises the fulfillment that we pray for each week: “your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”
We know that that end is coming. We know that it will bring God’s deliverance! What do we do to prepare? We do the work God gives us to do.
Where do you have opportunity to witness to God’s new heaven and new earth – by doing acts of mercy, bringing compassion, doing the work of justice? Where can you join with others in this work?
We work. We watch.
In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Andy Ballentine
 Apostles’ Creed
 John Collins, “Apocalyptic Literature” in Paul J. Achtemeier, ed., Harper’s Bible Dictionary, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), page 35.
 Joel 1:15, 19 – 2:3