There are few things as easy or as difficult as preaching on an apocalyptic scripture text (such as this week’s Gospel lection from Mark 13):
As he [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. –Mark 13:1-8 NRSV
It’s simple, as long as you subscribe to the idea that the Bible can/should be taken literally. Christian bookstores, radio and TV stations, and (for the most part) evangelical pulpits are filled with hellfire-and-damnation preachers who apparently have a crystal-clear idea as to how the current world will come to an end and who will ultimately be around to be in charge of what’s left (curiously, they’re always in that group).
As I’ve said on several occasions, you can take the Bible literally or you can take the Bible seriously, but you can’t do both.
If we don’t take the Bible literally how can we responsibly understand, teach, and preach the apocalyptic parts? Well, as I said at the top, it can be really difficult.
Probably the first thing to keep in mind is the comment by Jesus a bit later on in this Gospel that no one can know exactly when or how “the end” will occur. Furthermore, this much we can know: Don’t rely on any of the known structures (physical, institutional, social, imperial, or geographic) to be certainty. In fact, there’s probably only one certainty: that God is in charge and that, in “the end,” the kingdom of God will become a reality on earth as it is in heaven.
But while that’s a lovely and reassuring theological thought, once we start defining what those terms mean, we can easily end up back where we started not knowing up from down, past from future, real from unreal. And that’s why we cannot remain faithful on our own. We need God. Now, as we begin to feel the “birth pangs” of the coming kingdom–and always.
It’s become commonplace in our day and time for people to confuse being faithful with being obstinate, stubborn, and stuck in their ways–the “good old ways are just fine by me, thank you very much–good enough for previous generations and therefore good enough for today!” It’s true for institutions, too, of course, because institutions (including religious ones) are directed by human beings, often doing so in the name of God. Sometimes it’s fear that guides actions; other times it can be uncertainty or ignorance. In the end, innocent people are damaged and wounded. Then the cleanup must begin.
*Portions adapted from 2012 ForeWords blog archive
- Who is the Faithful One? A Lectionary Reflection (bobcornwall.com)
- Urinating on Corpses and Burning Holy Books (mikerivageseul.wordpress.com)