Twenty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. Trevor Malkinson
This week our scripture is a section from the Gospel of Mark known as the “Little Apocalypse”, where Jesus speaks in apocalyptic language. So in preparation for this sermon I went to Google and typed in the word “apocalypse”. I then clicked the News button, to see if any headlines contained the word this week. And of course, in our apocalypse obsessed culture, it didn’t disappoint. A Toronto Star article talked about how the new dance show Grand Finale brings “humor to the apocalypse”. A Forbes article was titled “How Britain’s Shopping Center’s Can Survive the Retail Apocalypse”. A CNN headline read, “In California, the apocalypse keeps getting worse”. An article from Live Science instructed readers on “How to Farm During a Zombie Apocalypse”. There was an article about a new Australian play called The Hamlet Apocalypse, about a group of people staging the play Hamlet on the eve of the apocalypse. There were several articles about the hit TV series American Horror Story, whose subtitle for the current season is, you guessed it, Apocalypse. I could go on and on with further examples. What is up with our culture and the constant use of the word apocalypse, or references to the apocalypse, or movies and TV shows about the apocalypse? What on earth is going on here? That’s a question I want to try and answer today. I want to begin by talking a little bit about what apocalyptic literature is, where it comes from, and what purpose it serves. Then I want to turn to our culture today, and try and figure out why we’re so preoccupied with this worldview and its imagery. And most importantly- talk about what it has to offer us today.
The apocalyptic parts of the Bible are something most ‘progressive’ Christians try to avoid. And our Lectionary helps out with that, because there isn’t a lot of that material in the Lectionary cycles. Like many of the ‘nasty bits’ found in the Bible, they get left on the cutting room floor, and we’re spared the discomfort of dealing with them. But I think this is unfortunate for a few reasons. First, as we’ve just said, our culture is flooded with this material, and if we want to understand our culture, we need to understand what apocalypticism is. Secondly, the apocalyptic worldview and its symbols should not be left for fundamentalist Christians only. Literal readings of this material can be quite dangerous, as we’ll talk about. And lastly, I think apocalyptic literature can actually be a very useful and powerful tool for us. Let’s first take a look at what exactly it is, so we can see what I mean by that statement.
Apocalypticism is a literary form that had its beginnings in Judea in the 2nd century BCE. It comes out of the Jewish religion. At that time a Greek king named Antiochus the IV was powerfully oppressing the Jews. The Greeks had taken over the region during the conquests of Alexander the Great. Alexander’s generals ruled the region as kings after he died, and for the most part they let the Jews maintain their religious and cultural identity. But Antiochus the IV was a violent despot who had different plans. He outlawed Jewish religious rites and traditions and ordered the worship of Zeus as the supreme God. This was a time of deep anguish and crisis for the Jews, and out of this cauldron sprang this new form of literature.
The apocalyptic worldview goes like this- there’s a great battle between good and evil raging in the cosmos. And right now we live in a time when evil is winning. But God has given visions to a special person, a prophet such as Daniel or Zechariah or Jesus. And’s God’s message is that yes, evil currently has the upper hand. But God will soon turn the tide toward the good and evil will be defeated. During this time of victory the wicked will be judged and punished. And once God has defeated evil, a new era of ‘heaven on earth’ will be revealed. That’s what the word apocalypse literally means- to reveal, or unveil. During the apocalypse an evil world will be torn down, and a new God filled world will be unveiled.
So the first thing to note about apocalyptic literature is that it’s written by people who are suffering from deep oppression. Its story of good overcoming the forces of evil is meant as a message of hope and endurance for people who have the boot of tyranny on their faces. This is also why much of its language is coded language. Apocalyptic literature is full of great beasts with many heads and other fantastical creatures. These are often thinly veiled references to the current power structure that’s oppressing them. It would be too dangerous to criticize these things openly, so the criticism must be coded, hidden from the authorities in plain sight. The Book of Revelation, for instance, which is a fierce critique of the Roman Empire, contains characters such as the Dragon, the Beast from the Sea, the Beast from the Earth, and the Whore of Babylon. Not only are these creatures directly referring to distinct parts of the Roman domination system, they’re also used to “reveal the true face of empire as monstrous, rapacious, violent and deceitful”. They “serve as a shorthand” for the kinds of forces that are destroying the world of the writer (1).
So apocalyptic literature is written by oppressed people to inspire hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. And it uses coded language to criticize those who are doing the oppressing. It should be said that although this form of literature began within the Jewish religion, in the last two thousand years it spread to many places and religions across the world. Many peoples who have found themselves in seemingly terminal stages of oppression have produced literature or movements that repeats all of these forms. It’s gone viral, we might say (2). Take the Ghost Dance movement among Native Americans in the 19th century for instance. The takeover of the Western United States by settlers and by the US military was rapidly threatening to destroy many Native bands. Within this situation of crisis a man named Wovoka of the Paiute peoples claimed that he had visions. In these visions he was told “that proper practice of the [traditional ghost] dance would reunite the living with spirits of the dead, bring the spirits of the dead to fight on their behalf, make the white colonists leave, and bring peace, prosperity, and unity to Native American peoples throughout the region” (3). Sounds familiar doesn’t it.
Now that particular apocalyptic movement failed, as many do. Sometimes the powers that be are just too strong to be resisted. But if you’re going to put up a last stand apocalyptic imagery can inspire courage and endurance in those fighting for their lives. Its vivid and spectacular imagery can reveal the true face of ones rulers, especially to those who have been conditioned not to see it, and this can jolt people into action against them. It can also inspire hope. That’s the point of apocalyptic literature. It was never to scare people with terrifying end times predictions, like we see so often today. Its purpose is to proclaim the message that all of the prophets proclaim- that even in the midst of darkness, God is still creating. That God is with us even in times of upheaval and destruction. That the forces of evil do not have the last word. The good will eventually triumph. Do not lose hope. God is with us, and the world will be transformed. That’s the message of apocalyptic literature.
It’s an important time in history for us to hear this message. Because as I don’t need to tell anybody here today, we live in very troubled times. Which brings us back our earlier question- why is there so much apocalyptic imagery in our era? I think there are two main reasons for this. The first is that we live in a time of civilizational transition. That’s a clunky phrase, but it’s basically what’s happening. We live in a time when the global modern world-system that was built on science, industrialism, and capitalism, is no longer stable. There are many reasons for this. Part of it is the rampant inequality that’s been baked into the system over time. Some of it is the corruption of big money in our governments and politics. And part of it is the environmental costs of this system becoming too burdensome. It can’t continue in the way it’s been going. And when a system moves out of a state of stable repetition, and into this phase of flux, a lot of chaos comes into the system. There are wild fluctuations, and weird happenings that couldn’t have been predicted. Don’t you feel that right now? How bizarre is this period is that we’re living through? It seems odd, uncanny, very different that the relative stability of the postwar decades. We’re in a serious moment of flux and uncertainty. People can feel it in their bones. And I think this is spurring on much of the obsession with apocalyptic imagery. Our world is literally ending, and another one will eventually be unveiled.
It doesn’t help that many people today read the apocalyptic texts literally. This has been a problem for two thousand years. Something weird happens in the skies, like a comet, and people scream that the apocalypse is upon us. For two thousand years people have been trying to find out who the antichrist is, or who the Beast from the Book of Revelation is. Oh it’s that king, or that Pope, the apocalypse is upon us! Or there’s a special blood moon and some pastor screams, “The apocalypse has come!” (4) Apocalyptic texts are not maps of future events, with us as the detectives trying to spot the signs and symbols. That’s a bad use of these texts. As we said earlier, apocalyptic texts tell a story of good and evil, with evil eventually losing. They’re meant to inspire hope and endurance in people feeling hopeless. They remind us that God is with us.
So people reading the texts literally are not helping, especially in our time of chaotic transition. The two forces mixing together are creating quite a cauldron. Is there any good news in all of this? Is there anything to be hopeful about in a time that’s generally producing fear and anxiety in most of us? I think there is. The great thing about systems that are destabilizing and chaotic is that new things can emerge out of them. Systems that are no longer stable look for new forms of order, so they can become stable once again. So a time of destabilization is also a time where great creativity and newness is possible. It’s a time where we can speak about things we’re normally not supposed to talk about. It’s a time when progressive experiments in medicine, or agriculture, or education, can be tried and implemented, because the old forms are breaking down and the system gets desperate for new ideas.
And in this time of flux and chaos, individual actors can make a big difference. In a system that’s stable and plodding along, creating change is actually quite hard. If things are working, the system generally doesn’t want to hear it. But when things are broken and sliding in all directions, like they are now, the system becomes very open to things that can help it survive. So please know that everything you do in this period matters greatly. The biggest thing is to not give in to fear, and to be a force of love. The love we bring to the world will deeply affect how this story unfolds, and where go from here. Let us be that force of love together.
Friends, I think we actually live in a time where great things are about to happen. Despite all of the madness and the chaos, I truly believe we’re in the middle of a great awakening, and that a new more just world is about to be unveiled. We’re in the middle of an apocalypse now. We just need stay tuned and bring our best to those around us. And as Jesus is always reminding us, don’t be afraid. Don’t give in to the fear and the division. God is creating in the midst of this darkness. God is doing a new thing, even now. And if we can stay the course, what will be revealed on the other side of this tribulation will be glorious. May it be so. Amen.
(1) Greg Carey. ‘The Book of Revelation as Counter-Imperial Script’. In the Shadow of Empire- Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance. John Knox Press, 2008.
(2) See this Wikipedia page for more details- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millenarianism
(4) “Blood moon doomsday warning”. July 22, 2018. https://www.express.co.uk/news/weird/992613/Blood-moon-end-of-the-world-eclipse-doomsday-bible-warning