Rev. Stacy Swain
Daniel 12:1-3; Mark 13:1-8
Apocalyptic scripture readings? Talk of end times on our this our Thanksgiving Sunday? How can that be a good idea?
Getting ready for today, as I held these texts in one hand and our Thanksgiving Sunday in the other, I remembered the words that Brita Gill Austern spoke to those of us who traveled to Zambia last year. She said “Pay attention to the places of tension. For often the greatest learning happens in the places where we are least comfortable.”
So in the place of tension between these apocalyptic texts and our joy of thanksgiving , let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God our rock and our redeemer. AMEN
Now the readings the reading from this morning were just excerpts from longer passages that speak to the end times. In Daniel there is a great cosmic battle between the heavens and great horned creatures and the passage from Mark continues with Jesus speaking of great trials to come. These are difficult passages. Hard to enter into and hard actually to really take seriously. Cosmic battles, end times, the second coming. Really?
But what I’d like us to consider today is that the reason this kind of apocalyptic writing is difficult for us comprehend is that perhaps it was not meant for us. Apocalyptic writing was not meant for those who are pretty much safe and secure – doing just fine.
Instead these writing are for those who fear their lives are not their own. Those who do not know how they are going to get through tomorrow. Those who feel powerless in the face of the future. Those who have their “backs up against the wall,” to borrow a phrase from theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman.
Take the book for Daniel for example. The book of Daniel took its final form in the second century BCE during a grueling time, when the Jews were being ruthlessly persecuted by the oppressive rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, from Syria. But the story of Daniel is actually set in an earlier though equally despairing time when the great city of Jerusalem had fallen to Nebuchadnezzar and when much of its population were in exile in Babylon.
The story tells of Daniel, a Jew who happens to have particular gift of interpreting dreams. And because of this gift, Daniel is captive and pressed into the king’s service, forced to change his name, forced to take up his place as servant. But as the story unfolds, Daniel begins to have visions of a fuller reality than that of the earthly realm around him. He has visions of God and the angels of the heavenly court and is witness to the great cosmic battle between that which seeks to destroy and devolve creation back into chaos and the working of God and God’s angels who are battling those forces. And Daniel sees God’s plan and knows that God will prevail. Through God the people set free from their oppressors. They will be restored and renewed.
For those suffering the persecution from Antiochus Epiphanes, who by all accounts was a particularly cruel man, the Book of Daniel was the word of hope that changed fear into thanksgiving, a word of hope that helped them trust God and God’s future for them.
And so it is with this passage from the book of Mark as well. Like the book of Daniel, the Gospel was written after events of which it speaks. It was written most likely in the years around the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation in which not only where the Jewish people crushed but also when the temple was completely destroyed.
The word that Jesus speaks to the disciples forecasts this time of destruction and strife but like Daniel, Jesus sees through it. Jesus sees through to that time of salvation, renewal and re-creation that is coming. And so Jesus tells the disciples to be ready for hard times but not to be afraid or undone by them, for “all of these is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
The words of hope in these passages are spoken to those feel powerless and who fear that forces outside of their control are crafting the future that will be theirs. These words of hope are spoken to a conquered and fearing people. Can these words speak to us too?
While it is true that bombs are not falling from our skies, and our lives are not being ripped apart by violence, and most of us are not going to bed hungry or waking up afraid, I am not so sure that we too do not in some places in our lives feel powerless and fear that forces outside of our control are crafting the future that will be ours.
Do we feel powerless in the face of a culture of consumption that defines us by our possessions and breeds a pervasive unrest so that we are never satisfied with what we have but are continually reaching for that which is always just beyond our grasp?
Do we feel powerless in the face of an addiction to efficiency and productivity where who we are is of value only if we are producing something of value? Where time is money and where we have to move faster and faster and do more and more so much so that we never have time really to be in the place where we are, but instead are always running to whatever it is that comes next?
Are we shackled by a deep seated fear — knowing that the way that we are living is ultimately killing the planet but feeling completely trapped, powerless to really do anything about it? As if we see the train tracks ahead running straight off the cliff but stay on the train anyway?
And here is where the rubber hits the road for me. When we remain immured, closed off to those places in our lives where we feel powerless, do we miss the words of hope that have the power to free us from fear, and to deliver us into trust and thanksgiving? Is our hesitation to really acknowledge and face that which entraps us playing right into our own enslavement? Does our reluctance to take a good hard look at ourselves and our lives actually keep us from the hope and the future we crave?
For the salvation and deliverance of which these apocalyptic texts speak, well they are not just for the end time, whenever that may be. They are also for our lives now.
Theologian James Cone writes that for the black church in the midst of the ruthlessness of slavery and the persistent corrosion of racism, deliverance is now. Worship, that time and place apart becomes for these people who live so much of their lives with their backs up against the wall, the place where the lived experience of God’s promise of deliverance and salvation becomes real now.
Cone writes “The black church congregation is an eschatological community that lives as if the end of time is already at hand… [The people believe] that the Spirit of Jesus is coming to visit them in worship service to bestow upon them a new vision of their future humanity. This eschatological revolution is not so much a cosmic change as it is a change in the people’s identity, wherein they no longer are named by the world but named by the Spirit of Jesus.” No wonder worship went on for hours! Who would want to leave that place where one experienced what it was to be free, delivered, emancipated saved, fully loved? Who would not want worship to go on for hours if it was really truly a slice of heaven on earth?
What would happen if we let go of what may be our covert fear and shame of not really being in control and instead acknowledged to ourselves, each other and God, those places in our lives where we are in bondage? What if we let the story of Daniel and the story of Jesus and the disciples be our story? What if we let the word of hope that heaven is at work on earth laboring for the end of all that enslaves and for the deliverance of all creation into newness of life spark a hope in us that transforms our places of fear and failings into places of trust and thanksgiving?
So as we move into this Thanksgiving week. Let us take do so with the words of these texts in our ears. Let us give thanks not just for all that we have, all that is good in our lives, but let us also give thanks for a God that labors in those places where we remain captive, laboring on our behalf and on behalf of all creation, that we may truly know what it is to be free. Amen