Focus

Luke 21:5-19; Malachi 4:1-2a; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

The temple in Jerusalem—Herod’s temple—had been under construction for more than 40 years when Jesus sat down in its outer courtyard to speak with his disciples.  Herod had begun constructing the temple in 20 BCE, and it was already regarded as one of the wonders of the world even though it wouldn’t be completed until 63 CE, some thirty years after this teaching moment Jesus has with his disciples.

In order to be able to build the massive temple he envisioned, Herod first had to rebuild Mount Moriah, the low mountain on which the temple stood.  To do this, he encased the mountain with walls more than 33 meters (108 feet) high, then filled in the space with earth until it encompassed an area of more than 144,000 square meters.    

The temple in Jerusalem was a visual wonder.  A description in the Talmud says that  the interior walls of the temple were faced with blue, yellow, and white marble.   Gold spikes lined the parapet wall on the roof.  Josephus wrote that the entire eastern fascia was covered with gold.  “The rays of the early morning sun, striking the Temple façade created a blinding reflection,” he wrote.  “The rest was white, so that this towering edifice looked like a snow-clad mountain from afar.” 

It must have sounded like madness for Jesus to say that it was all coming down—that not one stone would be left upon another.  But by the time Luke wrote his gospel, sometime around the year 85, everything Jesus predicted in today’s gospel reading had already happened.  

In 70 CE, during the first Jewish-Roman war, the Roman general Titus destroyed the temple and much of the rest of Jerusalem along with it.  

Six years before that, the emperor Nero had carried out the first official persecutions against Christians, using them as a scapegoat for the burning of Rome in 64 CE.

As for wars and rumors of wars, just between the time when Jesus spoke these words and the time Luke wrote them down, Rome fought the Roman-Parthian War, the Boudica Uprising in Britain, the first Jewish-Roman War, the Spartacus war, the Lepidus versus Sulla Roman Civil War, the Sertorian War and the first of three wars with the Kingdom of Dacia.  

Wars and rumors of wars.  Earthquakes.  The eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Portentous signs in the heavens.  Famines.  Plagues. Persecutions.  All these things happened between the time Jesus spoke those prophetic words and the time Luke wrote them down in his account of the life and teaching of Jesus.   

But the world did not end.

Dositheos the Samaritan, Theudas the Rebel, Simon bar Kokhba and other would-be liberators of Israel gathered followers, led rebellions and claimed to be the Messiah.  They were not.  And now history barely remembers them.

It’s easy to get distracted by apocalyptic thinking and doomsday scenarios.  That’s why books like The Late, Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series have always sold so well.  But Jesus made it pretty clear that we’re not supposed to spend a lot of time thinking about that.  “About that day and hour no one knows,” he said, “—not the angels in heaven nor even the Son, but only the Father.”  (Matthew 24:36)

These lectionary texts that we have for today from Malachi, Second Thessalonians and Luke invite us to focus.  You could say they invite us to focus on what we’re focusing on—on what’s getting our attention.

The gospel lesson for today comes right after the passage where Jesus comments on the poor widow who put her two pennies—all she had–into the temple treasury.  The disciples were busy gazing at the grandeur of the temple and didn’t even see her until Jesus pointed her out to them.  They were focused on the impressive architecture.  Jesus, on the other hand, was focused on the people.  

Are we seeing what Jesus sees…or are we distracted?

It’s understandable that the disciples were captivated by the splendor and beauty of the temple as they sat there with Jesus, but they lost focus on why they had come to Jerusalem in the first place.  Reading the gospel accounts, you have to wonder if they ever really understood why they were there to begin with, although Jesus certainly tried to tell them often enough.  And now, there they were, a day or two away from his crucifixion and they kept getting distracted—first by the beauty of the temple then by speculations about apocalypse.  “When will this be?  Teacher, what will be the secret signs that all this is about to happen?”

To be fair, I know I would have had the same questions.  I suspect you might, too.  Wouldn’t you want to be ready for it?  Even with our long historical perspective that tells us that wars and plagues and famines and earthquakes and false messiahs have been pretty much stock set pieces in the long drama of life on earth—even though all these things have  always been happening—and are happening right now—we would want to know when the grand finale is coming to our neighborhood.   We would want to know when the final curtain for everyone everywhere is coming down.

Because the lectionary cycle repeats, we get this same group of texts every three years.  But even with that repeating cycle, I believe that these texts continue to speak to us in a unique way every time they come up.  They always seem timely—sometimes so much so that it’s uncanny. 

Six years ago we were reading these texts on the first Sunday after the presidential election when Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote but Donald Trump carried the Electoral College.  That was a pretty tense time.  A lot of people were wondering what would happen next.  I thought it was noteworthy that Hillary Clinton even quoted a line from our 2nd Thessalonians in her concession speech: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”  

Three years ago these texts came up while we were wading through the first impeachment hearings.  Again, it was a tense time and people wondered if the country’s anxiety might explode into something more than oppositional rhetoric. 

Today we hear these texts right after the most anxious and divisive midterm elections in a long, long time—an election fraught with partisan vitriol and acts of violence.  While the votes are still being counted, many are wondering if our polarized political division in this country can ever be healed.  A lot of people are focused on that.

It’s hard sometimes not to let our focus, our vision, be hijacked by the currents of anger and isolation that have been flooding our lives with such violence. There was another school shooting this week, this time in Seattle.  As of November 11, Veterans Day, there had been 589 mass shootings in the US since the beginning of the year.  A total of 38,431 people have been killed by gun violence so far this year.  That certainly deserves our attention.   

We are still dealing with a pandemic that physically isolated us from each other.  We are still dealing with the fallout from the January 6 assault on the Capitol.

On this Veterans Day weekend it would be irresponsible not to mention the epidemic of veterans committing suicide.  

We have an ongoing addiction crisis.  Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. remain at record levels. According to provisional data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 109,000 people died from drug overdose in the 12-month period ending last March.

Homelessness.  The high cost of housing.  The cost of education.  Racism.  Inflation. Climate change that threatens our very existence… These things all need our attention.

Spouse. Family.  Work.  Church.  School.  Neighbors.  Community Groups.  Meetings. These things are all worthy of our attention.

Netflix.  Apple +.  Disney +.  Prime Video.  HBO.  Showtime.  Cable News.  Sports.  Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. These things are all very good at distracting us when the world just seems to be too much.

So where do you focus?

It’s tempting, very tempting, to just shrug it all off, give up and wait for Jesus to come back and fix everything.  Some Christians have built whole theologies around that.  The writer of 2nd Thessalonians was dealing with that very problem when he said to keep away from “those living in idleness.”  Apparently some people were so convinced that Jesus was coming back at any moment that they just stopped working and were mooching off the rest of the community.  They had lost focus on what Christ had called them to be and to do.

Focus.

Focus on what is helping.  Focus on what is good.  Focus on what is improving.  Focus on what you can be thankful for.  Focus on what is changing.  Focus on what needs to be changed.  But don’t be anxious.  Don’t let it all overwhelm you.  Do what you can where you can when you can.  

Then take a breath.

Take a breath.  And take a long look back.  

Everything changes.  There are only three things that are eternal:  God, Life, and Love.  And life and love are eternal because they come from God. 

The crazy politics, the anger and fear and hate, the anxiety and tension, the stupidity and racism, all the antagonism, all the misunderstandings… will someday all fade into history.

The beautiful temples, the faces that we cherish and hands we hold, our favorite music and art will someday all be lost to the world’s memory.

But God, Life and Love will live on.  And because we are made in God’s image and filled with God’s spirit and life and loved by God, so will we.

So let’s stay focused.  Let’s keep moving forward.  Let’s focus on the vision, as Jesus did, that the reign of God, the kin-dom of God is in reach.  Let’s keep working to make that a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.

Yes, a dystopian, destructive, apocalyptic unraveling of our world is always a possibility, but there’s no point worrying about it.  Instead, let’s keep working to build the alternative.  

Martin Luther was once said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces I would still plant my apple tree.”

So let’s do that.  Let’s keep planting our apple trees.  Let’s live in hope.

“The very least you can do in your life,” wrote Barbara Kingsolver, “is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it. Right now I’m living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides.”[1]

Let’s live inside our hope.  Let’s focus on making the world a healthier, safer, more loving place for those who come after us.  Let’s seek first God’s kin-dom and God’s righteousness.  In a world of bad news, let’s not just proclaim the Good News, let’s begood news.

And even if it looks like the walls of the temple are coming down, it doesn’t have to bring us down with it.  “Do not be weary in doing what is right.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  

May we continue to live inside our hope.  And may God embrace us with mercy so that we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver

Apocalypse

Mark 13:1-8

“When the end of the world comes,” said Mark Twain, “I want to be in Kentucky.  They’re twenty years behind everything.”

The word apocalypse comes directly from Greek and only drops one small syllable on its way into English.  Apokalypsis to Apocalypse.  The literal meaning is “to uncover” or “to unveil.”  It originally meant a disclosure, a revelation.  

The word can also describe a particular kind of literature.  That’s the first meaning in Merriam Webster’s dictionary:

one of the Jewish and Christian writings of 200 b.c. to a.d. 150 marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom.

Webster also gives what it calls the “Essential Meaning”:

a great disaster a sudden and very bad event that causes much fear, loss, or destruction.

In more common usage, apocalypse is often used as shorthand for “the end of the world.”

From disclosure to disaster.  That’s quite a shift in meaning.  

Why are people so fascinated with the idea of The Apocalypse, the End of the World?  What is it about the human psyche that wants to immerse itself in “end of the world” thinking?  And why has our interest in this topic been growing? 

I took a look at Wikipedia’s list of Apocalyptic films.  It paints an interesting picture.  Before 1950, there were only 4 apocalypse movies.  The first one was a Danish film made in 1916 called, prosaically enough, The End of the World.  And then we went fifteen years before anyone made another apocalyptic movie.  That one was a French film made in 1931, also titled The End of the World.  American filmmakers got into the Apocalypse business in 1933 with Deluge from RKO Pictures, and then the Brits took a turn in 1936 with a United Artists picture called Things to Come, written by H.G. Wells.  So in the whole first half of the 20th century, only 4 apocalyptic movies are listed.  Four.  

And then they stopped.  That’s probably because the world was at war in the 1940s.  People were living through an apocalypse, and they wanted their movies to tell them there was a brighter day coming, a time of rebuilding.  

Apocalyptic films reappeared in the 1950s, but they were still sporadic enough that it would be stretching things at that point to call them a genre.  From 1950 to 1959 there are eleven apocalypse movies on Wikipedia’s list, but things would pick up significantly in the 1960s.  

From 1960 to 1969, twenty-six apocalypse movies are listed, including the classics Dr. Strangelove and Planet of the Apes. The 1970s gave us 39 apocalypse or post-apocalypse movies.  From 1980-1989, producers cranked out 47 apocalypse movies.  In the 1990s the stream of apocalyptic films slowed but not by much.  That decade gave us 41 apocalypse movies, but the Left Behind series of books hit the market in 1995, smack in the middle of that decade, so maybe people were reading about apocalypse instead of going to see it on the screen.  

After slowing just a bit in the ‘90s, the genre exploded in the 2000s.  From 2000 through 2009, Wikipedia lists 69 movies with apocalyptic themes showing up on our screens and probably in our collective psyche, because from 2010 through 2019, that number blew up again.  In that decade Wikipedia lists 109 movies with apocalyptic themes.  It’s too early to tell how “apocalyptic” this decade will be.  The pandemic put a serious crimp in film production of all genres, but even with a Covid-imposed lockdown, the first two years of this decade have put 15 apocalypse movies on our screens.

So back to the original question: why are people so fascinated by apocalypse?  Why is there such a big market for dystopia and humanity’s grand finale? 

I don’t know what the social psychologists would say about that, but I do know what Biblical scholars and theologians say.  They tell us that apocalyptic literature appears—and movies are a form of that—when a people is oppressed, or under great stress, or experiencing persecution.  The Book of Ezekiel, with its strange visions and imagery, appears during the time of the Babylonian conquest of Judah to give hope and courage to captive and enslaved people who had seen their nation not just defeated but destroyed.  The Book of Daniel was written to give hope and courage to the Jewish rebels fighting against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the cruel Greek Seleucid ruler who desecrated Yahweh’s temple by setting up an altar to Zeus and sacrificing a pig on it.  John’s Apocalypse, which we call the Book of Revelation, was written to give hope and courage to followers of Jesus in Asia Minor who were being oppressed and persecuted by Rome. 

Hope and courage for people in dire straits.  That’s what all the ancient apocalypses are really all about when you wade through all the fascinating imagery.  They use imagery as a kind of code because the people writing them and reading them are living in dangerous circumstances.  If the empire is breathing down your neck, it’s not safe to say “Rome is a gluttonous, greedy, selfish pig of a nation that bullies other nations into handing over the best of everything while the rest of us are sucked dry.”  So instead you write about a harlot who sits on seven hills.  You can’t say that the emperor is a monster, so you write about a monster, a dragon with seven heads.

The writers of the apocalyptic works in the Bible, and the Holy Spirit who guided them, never intended to be giving a coded timeline of the end of all things.  That’s not why they were written.  They were written to give a simple clear message:  “Hang in there.  Yes, these are scary times.  But God is on your side. Nasty empires and oppressive regimes don’t last forever.  They either exhaust themselves, or somebody conquers them (see Darius the Mede bringing new management to Babylon), or enough people finally get tired of their rubbish and rise up to throw them out on their ear (see Antiochus Epiphanes versus the Maccabees), or they overindulge themselves to death and collapse from internal squabbling and rot (see Rome).  Once more for emphasis: Hold on to hope.  Have courage. God is on your side.  And God wins in the end.”

That is the uniform, universal message of pretty much all apocalyptic literature.

With one apocalyptic exception:  the “little apocalypse” in chapter 13 of the Gospel of Mark. 

Mark was written during the Jewish uprising against Rome from 66-70 CE.  There was tremendous pressure on the followers of Jesus in Palestine to join with the Jewish forces in the fight against Rome.  They were told it was their patriotic duty to save Israel.  Special emphasis was put on protecting the temple in this appeal to patriotism.

The temple was in particular danger for several reasons.  It was the natural rallying point in the heart of Jerusalem, their ancient capitol.  That would make it a target for the Romans.  It was also the largest temple to any god in the Roman world, something of a point of pride for the Jewish people.  It was an important tourist attraction, drawing both pilgrims and tourists.  It was the heartbeat of Jerusalem’s economy.  It was also one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful building complex in the ancient world.  Most importantly, though, it was central to every Jew’s sense of identity.  The temple was Israel.  Israel was the temple.  To destroy the temple would be to destroy the nation.  That, in turn, would put every Jewish person’s sense of identity adrift.  Their spirit and resistance would be broken.  For all these reasons, protecting the temple was the rebellion’s top priority.

In Mark 13, when the disciples are gobsmacked by the beauty and grandeur of the temple, Jesus just flatly tells them, “It’s all coming down.  Not one stone will be left on another.”  A bit later as they gather on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sits down to teach.  The disciples, having just heard a tantalizing tidbit of apocalypse want details.  “When is it going to happen?  What will the signs be that it’s about to happen?”  

Remember, this gospel, unlike Matthew, Luke, and John is being written while the temple is still standing, but in great jeopardy.  The questions the disciples are asking in the text are the questions that Mark’s faith community, his companion followers of Jesus, are asking.   They are desperate for a timetable.  As Mark writes his account, the Roman legions have vacated Palestine temporarily to go fight one of their frequent civil wars, but everyone knows they’ll be back. And with a vengeance. But when?

They want a timetable.  They want signs to look for.  But Jesus isn’t going to give them one.  “Stay on the path,” he says.  “Don’t let anyone lead you astray.  Others are going to come claiming they’re the Messiah.  Don’t fall for it.  If people try to tell you that various wars or natural disasters or famines are signs of the end and it’s time to get in the fight, don’t fall for it.  All these things are going on always and everywhere.  They are not signs of the end.  They are birth pangs.  Something new is being born.”

When they continue to pester him to be specific about the time of the temple’s destruction, Jesus finally says, “No one knows.  Even I don’t know. Only the Father knows.”  

This “little apocalypse” from Jesus in Mark is radically different from other apocalyptic writings in one major point.  Other apocalyptic writings—those included in the Bible like Daniel and Revelation, extra-biblical books like 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, and the apocalyptic pamphlets that circulated throughout Palestine during the rebellion—all focused on the basic universal apocalyptic message: hang tough, fight the good fight, God is with you, hope and courage.  But this homily from Jesus is almost the opposite.  Ched Myers and other scholars suggest that he is telling his followers to abandon the temple.  He is telling his followers not to join in the resistance.  He urges them not to be led astray from their path of nonviolent resistance by charismatic leaders with messianic claims, swords and spears.

Jesus calls us to a different pathway of apocalypse.  This is not the pathway of Judas Maccabeus picking up his sword to fight the Greeks.  This is not the pathway of Simon bar Giora, claiming to be the new King David as he leads guerilla bands in surprise attacks.  This is not Mad Max with a sawed-off shotgun.  

Jesus is telling them that the rebellion is not the kingdom of God.

This is the pathway of Jesus, the Way of nonviolence.  The way of critiquing the bad by doing the better.  The rebellion is not the kingdom. But the kingdom is a rebellion…done a different Way.

In the Gospel of Mark, the kingdom of God, as it is embodied by Jesus, is revealed to us as a nonviolent rebellion against business as usual, economics as usual, politics as usual, government as usual, and religion as usual.  It is also very much a rebellion against rebellion as usual.  The entire mission of Jesus in the gospels is, in its way, an apocalypse.  A revealing.  It pulls back the veil to show us the serious flaws in our ways of doing things.  It critiques the bad by giving us a vision of the better.  Yes, the Way of Jesus does describe the end of the world.  It ends when it is gradually, nonviolently reimagined heart by heart, mind by mind, one person at a time until the reign of God has come on earth as it is in heaven.  

How’s that for an apocalypse?