At first glance it may be difficult to see any connection between tonight’s two readings. (Even at second glance it may be difficult to find, but here’s what I see.
The first reading, from the 2nd chapter of the book of Daniel, tells the story of Daniel’s interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Nebuchadnezzar was the King of Babylon who captured and destroyed Jerusalem in the year 597 B.C.E. and drove the people out of their homeland and into exile. Daniel, a Jew living in Babylon during the exile, is able to interpret a dream for the king that none of the wise men of Babylon had been able to decipher. He even describes the dream itself without ever having been told it and makes it clear that GOD has revealed both the dream and its meaning to him. In the dream, a large statue made of gold, silver, bronze, iron and clay is completely destroyed. The statue is symbolic, says Daniel, and represents the future of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar and his descendants, indicating that his kingdom will become increasingly weak and divided until it is at last completely destroyed.
The second lesson, drawn from the 21st chapter of the Gospel of Luke, records the words of Jesus as he speaks of a coming day of judgment when Jerusalem would be ravaged and its magnificent temple destroyed, an event that took place in the year 70 C.E. when the Romans forcefully put down a Jewish rebellion and demolished the temple.
Although a period of over 600 years separates these two events, they do have something in common. For one thing, they are both examples of apocalyptic writing. The word ‘apocalypse’ means a ‘revelation’ or ‘unveiling.’ Apocalyptic writing, then, claims to reveal things which are normally hidden and to unveil the future. Those who write apocalyptic literature see GOD’s hand in major historical calamities, and recognize that GOD is bringing one era to an end and beginning something new. The best examples of this type of writing in the Bible are the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures and the book of Revelation in the New Testament, but apocalyptic writing can also be found in the gospels and in the writings of St Paul. The book of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures anticipates the destruction of the Babylonian rule and the return of the Jews from exile. The book of Revelation in the New Testament anticipates the destruction of the Roman Empire and the vindication of all the faithful who have suffered under its rule.
The focus of apocalyptic writing is on eschatology, the end of the world as we have known and experienced it, and the beginning of a new world in which God’s order is restored and justice and peace are re-established. These writings offer hope, especially for the oppressed victims of worldly powers. Apocalyptic writing arises out the experience of tragedy and oppression, as people of faith look to God for the revelation of God’s will and for relief from their suffering. It is the voice of faith in the most difficult of times, casting all its care upon God to act on behalf of those who are powerless. The spirituals sung by African slaves in this country are full of apocalyptic language, looking for a day of freedom and release when justice will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Apocalyptic writing and music carries the hopes of suffering people for a better day, a new day, when justice will reign.
Every age, I suppose, has its unique experience of suffering brought about by oppression, violence and evil. We brothers are currently reading the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer1 during our silent meals in the refectory. The unimaginable suffering imposed by Hitler and the Nazis in the last century certainly prompted a desperate longing for God to act with justice. The cry for God to destroy the evil regime and to vindicate its victims was in the heart of every faithful Jew, and of countless others besides. They longed for a day which they could not yet imagine, and looked to God to overcome their oppressors, clinging tenaciously to their faith in God’s goodness, power and mercy.
The 21st century has its own fears and concerns: (1) an unstable world economy, in part brought about by exorbitant risk-taking and greed; (2) the constant threat of terrorism and war fueled by fear and pride; (3) the rash of natural disasters that have occurred over the last ten years: tsumanis, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods, and famines; (4) the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, the “haves” and the “have nots,” in our country and in the world; (5) the numbers of weapons of mass destruction that are stockpiled in our country and throughout the world, presumably in order to maintain peace. We are living in our own version of the ‘end times.’
What can we learn from these apocalyptic writings, and especially from the two texts before us this evening? I’d like to suggest two things:
1. We can learn that people of faith are not exempt from the world’s suffering. Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in the Gospel of Luke calls for faithfulness and endurance from disciples who are threatened by arrest or by penalty of death. Biblical scholar Fred Craddock writes, “There is nothing here of the arrogance one sometimes sees and hears in modern apocalyptists, an arrogance born of a doctrine of a rapture in which believers are lifted above the conditions of persecution and hardship. There are no scenes here of planes falling from the sky because believing pilots have been raptured or cars crashing on the highway because their drivers were believers and hence have been lifted to an indifferent bliss. According to [Luke], [Jesus’ disciples] are in a time of witnessing in the face of suffering and death, but ‘by [their] endurance [they] will gain [their] lives’” (Luke 21:19).2
2. We can learn that God does not forsake us in these times, but is always with us, and that the purposes of God cannot be thwarted. There are, to be sure, times when it is difficult to see light in the face of overwhelming darkness and evil, but as St John assures us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). In the end, darkness cannot extinguish the light of God. People of faith know this to be true. The great spiritual leader of India in the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi, expressed it this way: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail – think of it, always.”
The writers of apocalyptic literature saw beyond what was seen to what was as yet unseen. They distinguished between what appeared to be happening and what really was happening. They saw history in the larger context of God’s purposes for humankind and for all of creation. And they witnessed to their faith that God would and could overcome injustice, conquer evil and transform the world.
May we not only believe this, but live it.
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