The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
The readings appointed for this part of the liturgical year are known as eschatological writings. Their authors thought that they were living in “end times.” They also looked to a new world that they believed was about to be born. They exercised great faith in the midst of chaos.
The book of Daniel was probably written in the middle of the 2nd century BC, when Israel was in an unprecedented historical crisis. At this point in their history, they were living under Greek dominion. The Greeks had taken over the temple in Jerusalem and outlawed the Jewish religion. They forbade circumcision, sacrifices in the temple, and all other public expression of Jewish culture and religion. They went so far as to set up a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies. They were attempting cultural genocide, and those who resisted were killed by the thousands.
This was the reality of the author of the book of Daniel. The world as the Jews knew it had come to an end. And so he wrote in an eschatological tone: There shall be a time of anguish, such as never occurred since nations first came into existence.
But Daniel, in the midst of this chaos, also wrote Those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, and those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky. He saw light in the darkness; he exercised great faith during end times.
200 years later, the Romans ruled Israel. They, too, brutally oppressed the people. Shortly after the death and resurrection of Christ, a group of idealistic Jews started a revolt, but they seriously misjudged the power of the Roman Empire. The Romans responded ruthlessly, massacring thousands of Jews, destroying the temple in Jerusalem, scattering the people into exile for what would be 1,800 years. The fragile, new Christian community was decimated; soon they would be persecuted, hunted down, and killed in city after city. It was a complete disaster. The world as they knew it had ended.
This was the world of the author of the gospel of Mark. And so in this book, Jesus speaks in an eschatological tone: After stone upon stone of the temple are thrown down, there will be wars, earthquakes, and famine. There will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of creation until now.
But Jesus also says Do not be alarmed…This is but the beginning of the birthpangs. The early Christian community saw light in the darkness; they exercised great faith during end times.
What was the nature of this faith, for Daniel and the early Christians? I think they had a pretty concrete form of hope. For Israel, God would raise up a leader who would restore the kingdom. For early Christians, Jesus would come again on clouds of glory to set the world right.
We’re living in what seems like end times, too. I’ve felt this ever since the 1950’s in California, when I was in elementary school learning to duck and cover so that when the atom bomb shattered the windows, the flying glass would pass over our heads. That made quite an impression on this 8-year-old boy. I decided that I wanted the bomb to land right on top of my head so that I wouldn’t have to waste away in a poisoned landscape.
Since then, we’ve seen the development of global warming that will lead to disastrous climate change. We’ve seen terrorists whose access to nuclear or dirty bombs seems only a matter of time. And we’ve seen population growth in the third world that has created urban nightmares.
If this insanity continues to accelerate exponentially as it has been over the last 50 years, what kind of world will we have created 50 years from now? It doesn’t help me, when I’m in an apocalyptic mood, to hear that the Mayan calendar ends 3 years from now.
Eschatological writings come alive again: There shall be a time of anguish, such as never occurred since nations first came into existence. There will be wars, earthquakes, and famine. There will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of creation until now.
But I want to be like the ancient Jews and early Christians before us, and exercise faith in the midst of these end times. As the Church, I think it is our job to provide hope to people who sometimes feel that they are living on borrowed time, glancing over their shoulders at the dark clouds approaching from the horizon.
So what is the nature of the hope that we shall offer? What can I hold on to?
I don’t have the concrete hope that Daniel and the early church seemed to have, and that many Christians today have – that soon, the messiah will swoop in and fix everything. As if we could just go on like this until God decides “Enough is enough!” and like a parent whose children have finally gotten way out of hand, steps in and establishes order.
I also don’t have the hope that we will suddenly become selfless and far-sighted enough to cooperate among the nations and radically change our ways of living, so that we can avoid disaster. Don’t get me wrong: I know that we have a responsibility to make every effort to make this world a better place, and I think God always helps us do this. I just don’t place all my hope in humankind’s willingness to do so until things are so bad that we have to.
The kind of hope I have is this. I believe in resurrection as the only enduring reality of life. For even if the worst happens – if we destroy our environment and make this earth temporarily unlivable for most humans, even then, as Jesus said, This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. I believe in resurrection. Creation will renew itself. Life will manifest in new and spectacular forms. God is unstoppable and will always resurrect life.
And even if human beings can’t figure out how to evolve beyond violence, greed and ignorance, even if first we make our societies a lot worse, humanity too will resurrect. In the future, we may have to live in ways that we cannot even imagine today, but God will be in the midst of that, too. New prophets will arise as they always do and, as Daniel said, those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky. There will still be love. There will still be humor, art, and new scientific breakthroughs.
But these stories from scripture are not, of course, just about ancient Israel and the end times of human history. Scripture always speaks to several levels at once. These writings are about our personal end times, too. Israel’s slavery, its liberation, wandering in the desert, and arrival in the promised land is our faith journey. Jesus’ ministry, cross, and resurrection is a pattern for our lives.
The same is true of the Bible’s eschatological writings. We go through our own end times, again and again, and we must find a way of exercising faith in the midst of them.
There are the end times of childhood, when we no longer feel innocent and protected – an end that comes too soon, for some. There are the end times when the sap of early adulthood is rising and we meet our first big disappointment. There are divorces and deaths, illness and failure, depression and being lost. Finally, there are the end times of old age, when we have to gradually let go of public persona, strength, control, and then life itself.
In every one of these end times, it may seem like a disaster and nothing but chaos, but resurrection is in the middle of it. So
Do not be alarmed…This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.
Be wise, and you will shine like the brightness of the sky.