This is a sermon about hope.
It’s a wild old text this one (Mark 13:24-37). Sun and moon darkened, stars falling from the sky. The “son of man coming in clouds” with power and glory. The elect gathered. And all those warnings. Keep watch. Beware. Keep awake.
In short, we find ourselves deep in the world of apocalyptic again. It’s a strange world for us, a long way from the culture of progress and optimism that has animated so much of our culture of modernity. It seems to sit strangely with smart phones and Uber Eats and binge-watching our favourite series on Netflix.
And yet, as a culture we are pretty partial to an apocalyptic story – whether it’s climate change, as in the Day After Tomorrow, or invasion by aliens in Independence Day. And in some ways our news takes on a slightly apocalyptic flavour – North Korean ICBMs and Chinese sabre rattling remind me of the cold war, albeit in a lower key.
I think this is a key for understanding the language and ideas of a culture that can feel very far removed from our own.
So let’s talk about Hollywood blockbusters.
The thing about Hollywood blockbusters is that they revel in special effects. You could easily imagine a Hollywood version of today’s text. It would make for some wonderful visuals – the sun suddenly extinguished, and the stars falling like rain. The problem with this putative film though is that by reading the text in this sort of literalist way is that, as TS Eliot put it “we had the experience, but missed the meaning”. We are so far removed from the culture that wrote these words, that we can’t easily pick up the resonances it would have had for the original audience. We don’t pick up on quotes from the scriptures, and even when we do notice them in our study Bibles, they feel remote and theoretical. We don’t understand how they would have emotionally resonated with people at the time.
So let’s use the Hollywood apocalyptic to look at some apocalyptic imagery with an easier to grasp meaning. Let’s look at the 1996 film Independence Day. I’m not sure how many of you watched it, but the story is straightforward. Spoiler alert: aliens invade, but are eventually defeated by the plucky human resistance.
Independence Day contains one of my favourite moments in film. The menacing alien spaceships have been hovering over cities all over the world, including Washington DC. Their purpose is, at this point, unclear. Some people think they come in peace. Others, including an engineer played by Jeff Goldblum, suspect that something more sinister is afoot. The spaceships appear to be co-ordinating some sort of countdown. And at zero hour, right on cue, the aliens start their attack, destroying among other things, the White House. The audience, when I saw it, cheered. Not out of any particular anti-American animus , but for the way in which the orderly, though dull, world in which we lived, had been thrown upside down.
It was the symbol that was the important thing here. The White House symbolises a lot of things – order, stability, the liberal democratic status quo. To destroy the White House is to upend the world. To throw everything up into the air, let the pieces fall where they may.
This is what perhaps gives us a clue about how to understand the use of apocalyptic language. It is a way of seeing things, a way of understanding our experience. It is a symbolic language, rather than a prediction of the future.
In actual real history, as opposed to the Hollywood version of the world, the defining event for my generation, or at least for me, was 911, and the fall of the Twin Towers in New York. I was living in London at the time, working in the financial district, and I vividly remember all my colleagues crowding around each other’s computers, refreshing our web browsers to try to get a handle on what on earth was happening. I remember ringing Anne, who was working from home, to get her to turn CNN on, so that we could get a better idea of the situation.
The event was shocking, not just because of the sheer number of people who died, but because of the epoch-making of the event. It hadn’t been that long ago that political economist Francis Fukuyama had released his book The End of History and the Last Man, arguing that
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government
Twenty-five years later, we might beg to differ. The finality of Western liberal democracy does not seem anything like as assured as it did during those years of American hegemony.
The fall of the twin towers felt apocalyptic. Those haunting pictures of the day – the plane-shaped hole in the still standing tower, people fleeing out of the dust cloud. Images to haunt my dreams.
It marked the boundary between the old world of The End of History, and the more fractured world in which we live today.
It’s the sort of thing that could well be described as “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Not because any of these things literally happened, but symbolically, they absolutely did. The powers of our world really were shaken and nothing has ever really been the same since.
But, to return to the text, what on earth is Jesus talking about? I am going to follow contemporary British New Testament scholar N T Wright in my interpretation of the text. He argues that this passage, kicked off by Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple at Mark 13:2 is not about the end of the world at all. If it were, the previous pericope, which recommends fleeing Jerusalem would make no sense at all. Rather, it is Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple, and the whole temple system.
The apocalyptic language expresses, not so much the physical events, but what they will mean, and their earth-shattering importance. That, instead of God being the god of the Jews only, the whole world is now invited to be part of God’s people, a wild olive shoot grafted into the stem of the chosen people. It is hard to us to understand quite how important an event this was – which is the strength of the apocalyptic language. It is a bigger change than the destruction of the Twin Towers. It vindicates Jesus as the final prophet of God – he said the temple would be destroyed and it was. That’s what the “son of man coming on the clouds out of heaven” refers to – the vindication of the son of man, quoting Daniel 7:13. It isn’t a reference to the son of man returning, but going to God and sitting down at God’s right hand.
The apocalyptic language turns out to be helpful to us, because, given how far we are from the events Jesus is talking about, it reminds us that Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection is of absolutely earth-shattering importance. It is as earth shattering as 911, as astonishing as an alien spacecraft destroying the White House. It marks an entirely new era in the history of God’s intervention into the world.
So what does all this have to do with hope, my ostensible theme for today?
I want to begin here by drawing a distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism is the idea that things are getting better, more or less of their own accord. Scientific, technological, and ethical progress are all tied up together, and will inevitably advance. As President Obama, quoting Martin Luther King, put it: “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” It’s the image of a process that isn’t always smooth or linear, but is irreversible and irresistible.
Hope, on the other hand, is different. N T Wright says that
Hope has to do, not with steady progress, but with a belief that the world is God’s world and that God has continuing plans for it. The signs of this hope within the world at large are not the evidences of an evolution from lower to higher forms of life, or from one ethical or political system to another, but the signs built in to the created order itself: music, the birth of a baby, the appearance of spring flowers, grass growing through concrete, the irrepressibility of human love. Some parts of our world simply point beyond themselves, and say “Look! Despite all, there is hope.” http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/04/04/apocalypse-now/
Optimism thinks that, on the whole, things are getting better. Hope is what springs up in difficult circumstances and says: despite how things appear, there is still hope. God is still at work. Optimism is cultural, and can easily turn to despair if things do not appear to be unfolding as we think they should. Hope is countercultural.
The good news here is that in our troubled world, God is at work. It can be hard to hold onto how important it is because, in contrast to the destruction of the temple, there are no dramatic events to point to. Like watchmen in the middle of the night, we are tempted to fall asleep. God is working to bring the fullness of the Kingdom, and we are invited to be part of it. We are the renewed people of God, collaborating with God, called to be foretaste and foreshadowing of the Kingdom, looking toward the final consummation of all things.
Jesus is saying here: have hope. Keep awake. Out of the worst possible things, God brings hope. Out of the destruction of the temple, God brings a new way of relating to the world. Out of the unjust torture and death of the best of people, God reconciles us to Godself. Out of unpromising circumstances – a simple family in an occupied country in an unfashionable end of the empire, in hazy circumstances, God reveals Godself to us, and decisively intervenes.
In the banality of our everyday, and even in the worst of circumstances, God is at work.
A sermon preached at Glen Iris Road Uniting Church on 3/12/2017, the first Sunday of Advent. The text: Mark 13:24-37