This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 1st Sunday of Advent [C] (Jeremiah 33.14-16, Psalm 25.1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13, Luke 21.25-36). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the new year, Advent 1 recommendations, mandolins, Vince Guaraldi, Die Hard, divine promises, sacramental arrivals, sins, keeping the cross in Christmas, bullying, incarnational prayers, apocalyptic anticipation, and the end of the beginning. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The End Of The World (As We Know It)
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you seen, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
The disciples are just like us, and we are just like the disciples.
They’ve spent years with Jesus, listening to him tell story after story. They’ve witnessed countless miracles and have had their bellies filled time and time again. They’ve even seen parade into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
But sometimes, even being around the Messiah can’t explain everything. And the disciples are confused.
Their Lord has talked openly, and frighteningly, about the great overthrowing of all things. The whole “the first will be last and the last will be first” stuff. And now here they are in the shadow of the temple, the very thing Jesus has said that he has come to destroy and the disciples cover their confusion with small talk. “O Lord, what big stones this temple has!”
It’s like those times when you’re gathered around the Thanksgiving table and your filterless uncle starts in on his political ramblings. The whole family will shift around nervously until someone tries to cover up the feeling of discomfort by changing the subject, or simply talking loud enough to drown him out.
The disciples know that their mysterious Lord is acting even more mysterious than normal and instead of facing the mystery, instead of engaging with it, they try their best to bring up something else.
And how does Jesus respond to the tourist like behavior of his disciples?
“Hey guys, come close. You see all this stuff? The big ramparts and the towering walls? You see the guards pacing back and forth? You see the lines of people coming in to present their gifts to God? All of this is going to disappear. Every one of those stones will come crashing down and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”
This is a shocking claim and an overwhelming revelation. For many of Jesus’ contemporaries the temple was the most sure thing around. So much so, that some worshipped the temple itself instead of the God for whom the temple was built. And to say that it would come crashing down sounds more like the proclamation of a terrorist than the Lamb of God.
Then the disciples ask the question that anyone would have asked, “Lord, when will this happen, and how will we know it’s about to go down.”
What follows is what some call the mini-apocalypse in the middle of the Gospel. Jesus foretells, in a sense, what is to come and he warns his disciples about what this will mean for them.
“When things start to fall apart, be careful that you are not led astray. There’s going to be a whole lot of people who claim to be me or, at the least, be on my side. Don’t listen to them. They wouldn’t know the Good News if it hit them in the face.”
“When you hear about wars cropping up, or even the rumors of war, don’t be afraid. These things have always taken place, and they will always happen. Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.”
“And don’t even get me started on the natural disasters – the earthquakes and famines and floods.”
“But before that great disrupting of things occurs, you’re going to get arrested and persecuted. The powers and principalities are going to hand you over to the authorities and the prisons, you’ll be brought before those in charge because of me. And when it happens, don’t worry. This will be an opportunity for you to share the truth.”
“So do me a favor, don’t waste your time coming up with the perfect speech or the perfect story – I will give you the words and wisdom that none who are in power will be able to handle.”
“I know it’s going to be rough. Some of you will even be betrayed by your parents or your siblings or your friends or perhaps your children. Some of you will die because of this. You will be hated because of me. Don’t take it personally.”
“Because in the end, all will be well – I promise. It will be well because I have destroyed death, and you will live with me in the Resurrection. The end has no end.”
Jesus goes full end of the world stuff here, rambling on like one of those men dressed in a sign on the street corners of life. And, to be honest, this reflection from the Lord has been used to inflict some serious damage across the history of the church. Leaders have held these verses over the heads of Christians in order to frighten them into faith.
Which, to be clear, doesn’t work.
Telling teenagers that unless they accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior they will suffer the consequences for eternity only leads to teenagers staying as far away from the church as possible.
Telling new parents that unless they baptize their child the flames of hell will be their reward only leads to parents writing frightening Facebook posts about what they heard in church on Sunday.
Telling people at the end of their lives to give more money to church or suffer the wrath of God leads only to emptier and emptier pews on Sunday morning.
It doesn’t work and it shouldn’t.
Jesus declaration is not meant as a description of the nightmare that can be, and is, discipleship. It’s about what he is about to do, and what he has done, for us.
The world’s passion is taken up in Jesus’ passion. And by passion I mean the suffering that leads to a new creation. What we miss, what the church has often overlooked, is that what Jesus gets into here is not a catalogue of all the bad that’s awaiting us, but instead it is Jesus painting a picture of a dying and rising Lord who reigns in the midst of the world falling apart.
Jesus saves the world in its, and in his, death. But we are so afraid of death that we choose to believe something else about Jesus’ work.
We like Easter without having to think about Good Friday. So much so that when we hear about all these horrible things happening in the world we only think about them in terms of how they might affect us as individuals instead of seeing how God already did the most horrible thing of all to save us.
Fanatical and apocalyptic Christians might warn us about how “The End Is Near” but what we’ve missed is that the real end has already arrived through the disaster that was the cross until the resurrection.
In many ways, what Jesus said to his disciples and what he says to us today is this: “You may see signs that you think are the end. But they are not the end.”
Redemption, pointed to through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, involves neither the rejection of the world in its weakness nor the fixing of all the weakness by stepping in. All that matters is recognizing that resurrection comes out of death.
And yet many of us have fallen prey to the myriad of ways a text like this has been used to manipulate, frighten, and even coerce those who hear it.
We’ve left church on Sunday mornings afraid of God for all the wrong reasons.
Instead of announcing the grace of God and the resurrection of the dead being made available to all, we lift up words like these as a potential punishment for those who don’t believe it.
Instead of resting in the strange grace of God’s unending love, we fixate on fixing all the world’s problems with programs that often lead to more doomed living.
We try and we try and we try, and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
We embark on a new campaign and the lost keep wandering and the found keep yelling.
We announce a volunteer program and the least wither away while the greatest smile proudly.
I don’t know how it all happened, we could probably blame sin and our own self-righteousness I guess, but in the church we behave as if we will only allow sinners to gather among us so long as they try to not look like sinners. We perpetuate systems of salvation that both deny the truth of who we are and lay it out as if its all up to us.
For far too long, Christians have left their places of worship with the understanding that the world can only be saved by getting its act together. Or, worse, I can only be saved if I get my act together.
Now, sure, all of us would do well to get some things sorted out, but in the end that’s not what saves us. The world has never gotten its act together and neither have we nor will we. We chose the things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing the things we know we should.
That’s the disaster of history – we cannot save ourselves and neither can the world.
So when Jesus speaks to his friends and disciples, when he tells them about things they cannot yet imagine, he is offering us, today, a corrective for the ways we’ve lost sight of the whole thing. Late or soon, the world is going down the drain. Just pick up a newspaper (do any of us still read the newspaper?) or pull out your phone and you will see how prophetic Jesus’ words really are. But as the world spins down the drain Jesus reminds us that only a Savior who is willing to work at the bottom of the drain can do anything about it.
The world has a future and the church is the one entrusted with proclaiming that future. Much to the chagrin of Hallmark and certain pastors, it is not a future of pie in the sky or even pie on the earth – it is resurrection from the dead. And without death there can be no resurrection.
Whether we like it or not, Jesus’ proclamation to the disciples outside the temple walls compels us to ask ourselves questions.
Who are we and what in the world are we doing?
Are we like the disciples wandering around merely marveling at the scenery around us?
Are we “signs of the times” police, attacking anyone outside of what we think is the Gospel?
What is the church and what it is supposed to be?
We can begin to scratch at the surface of those first questions by addressing what the church is not. The church is not an exclusive club of the saved. It is not a gathering of people who will be granted the lifeboats of salvation while the world falls apart because of our superior faith or morality. It is not a museum for saints.
If the church is anything it is a sign for the whole world about the salvation of the cosmos made possible in and through Jesus Christ.
Sometimes it feels like the church is in the midst of a crisis. It should come as no surprise that less and less people come to church week after week, the world feels like is twirling down the drain faster than ever before, and that’s not even getting into the specifics of cultural and societal changes. But if the church really is in a crisis it is because we have foolishly convinced ourselves that we are a bunch of good people getting better. The truth of the church is quite the opposite: we are a bunch of bad people who are coping with our failure to be good.
And Jesus has a word for those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see: You don’t have to put your faith in political action, or moral achievement, or spiritual proficiency because those things can’t and won’t save the world.
We need only trust that’s its not up to us in the end. And what better news is there than that? Amen.
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
On Sunday countless Christians across the globe will hear words from the lips of Jesus as recorded in Luke 21. The particular passage is often hailed as a mini-apocalypse in the midst of the Gospel, and is present in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The imagery and language has been examined again and again over the centuries and have caused many to interpret contemporary signs as signs of “the end.”
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.”
“There will be earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues.”
“There will be dreadful rainfall and great signs from heaven.”
Every new war and every climate related disaster get viewed through this lens of Christianity and we are left wondering if what we’re seeing right now is the end.
Part of that theological process often includes reflections about who is in and who is out if this in fact the end. We create measurements of morality, or degrees of faithfulness, that would grant someone passage into the great beyond. Or, to use the language of Isaiah, the new heavens and the new earth.
For a regrettably long period of time, the church has used this language as a tool to convince or persuade others to give their lives to Christ in order to be saved from the coming wrath.
Robert Farrar Capon, however, offers a great alternative to those Christians who would desire to “scare people into faith” using the apocalyptic language of Jesus:
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days, he says, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of the heaven will be unsettled.”
This is the hour of grace, the moment before the general resurrection when a whole dead world lies still – when all the successes that could never save it and all the failures it could never undo have gone down into the silence of Jesus’ death.
“And then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven and all the tribes of the earth will mourn.”
This is the hour of judgment, the moment of the resurrection when the whole world receives its new life out of death. And it is also the moment of hell, when all those who find they can no longer return to their old lives of estrangement foolishly mourn their loss of nothing and refuse to accept the only reality there is.
“And they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
This, at last, is the end: the triumph of the acceptance that is heaven and the catastrophe of the rejection that is hell. And the only difference between the two is faith. No evil deeds are judged, because the whole world was dead to the law by the body of Christ (Romans 7.4). And no good deeds are required, for Christ is the end of the law so that everyone who believes may be justified (Romans 10.4). Judgment falls only on those who refuse to believe there is no judgment – who choose to stand before a Judge who no longer has any record and take their stand on a life that no longer exists.
And heaven? Heaven is the gift everyone always had by the death of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. All it ever took to enjoy it was trust. (Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment).
May it be so.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heaven will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourself and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
I was in Richmond for most of the week completing the final retreat in my year long leadership program. Every other month a group of clergy retreated from our churches to reflect on how we have led while praying for God to show us the right way to lead.
On Wednesday evening, upon completing the lectures and break out sessions for the day, we gathered to worship in a small chapel on the property of the retreat center. We prayed together, we lifted up our voices together, and we listened together. I could still feel the Spirit’s presence washing over me at the end of the service when one my colleagues asked if any of us wanted to join him for a drive to go look at some Christmas lights.
If you know anything about me, after being cooped up listening to speakers and participating in self-reflection, driving around to look at blinking lights sounded light the best possible way to end the evening. So a group of us scrunched up in one car and we began our journey.
There were plenty of homes in that part of Richmond with the requisite strand of lights hanging from a gutter, or the solitary electric candles standing starkly in every window. But there was one home that glowed in such a way that would make Clark Griswold proud, and it was our final destination.
Across the lawn there was not a foot of space that wasn’t adorned with an inflatable character, a string of lights, or a mechanical animal. You could even tune your radio to a particular station playing Christmas music to which the lights were coordinated. The house had a hotshot driveway so that you could drive onto their property at the expected 2 miles/hour and soak it all in.
I wish I could appropriately convey in words the sheer depth and breadth of what we experienced. And remember: we were a group of trained theologians, properly educated and reserved in our beliefs, and yet all of our faces were pressed tightly against the windows.
There was the giant blinking “LET IT SNOW” on the roof top, there was a projector displaying Santa Claus packing up is sleigh before the midnight departure, and there was a set of inflatable elves playing instruments in rhythm with “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree.”
There were at least 4 full sets of reindeer attached to their own respective sleighs, there was a strange assortment of Santa Clauses in every shape, size, and color, and there was a palm tree decorated as if it were a Christmas tree.
There was a section with holiday adorned characters including Mickey Mouse, Lightning McQueen, a gaggle of Minions, and a small Darth Vader, R2D2, and Yoda.
We did the loop three times.
And it was only during the final pass through, while we were all laughing and giggling with the joyful experience that I realized something strange – there in the midst of all the lights and color, all of the sounds and movement, was only one tiny manger scene tucked away in the corner, as if it was an after-thought.
It looked like they were excited about Christmas, but almost forgot about Christ.
It is strange to gather in this place and at this time with all of the expectations of the world – The Christmas carols started playing on the radio before Thanksgiving, the department stores had up the decorations even before Halloween, and some of us did our holiday shopping months ago.
And now we come to church, to finally catch up with the season we’ve been preparing for and what do we hear about from God’s word? There’s no mention of Santa, we don’t learn about a young virgin named Mary, we don’t even catch a glimpse of a cute baby all wrapped up in swaddling clothes.
No. Today we get the end instead of the beginning.
This is not the sweet Jesus away in the manger. It is the stern adult Jesus picturing the whole of the universe being shaken and turned upside down.
But what about the city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style? What happened to all the falalalalalalalalas? Where are the chestnuts roasting on an open fire?
Advent, for better or worse (mostly worse) has moved very far from what it once was. Now, we imagine it as this awful time of participating in the virtue of patience up until Christmas morning during which we get to cut loose and open up all the gifts. But thats not really what Advent is all about.
Advent it the recognition that we are people stuck in the middle – We are living in the in between.
We already know what happens on Christmas morning, we are aware of the Messiah child named Jesus and what he will do for the world, and yet we are waiting for his return.
And we do this, as Christians, all in the midst of a horribly unpredictable world. We are certainly a people of patience, but it is a confused patience. We wait for his arrival, we wait for his return, and yet we know where he is.
It’s enough to give you a headache.
But that’s Advent! Head-scratching, incarnating, frustrating, waiting.
The End, whatever that may mean, is so often shrouded in fear and foreboding. The wayward person carrying around the sign “The End Is Near” is not often regarded with joy or gratitude. The End raises the hair on the back of our necks and we feel the beginnings of existential dread.
And Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat it with the disciples – things are going to be bad. The whole of the cosmos will experience the dynamic shifting of things from the sun to the moon to the stars and to the earth itself. There will be distress among the nations and the peoples of the planet who won’t be able to make sense of the senseless changes.
People are going to faint from fear when they begin to experience what it coming upon reality for everything will lose its sure foundation.
And then they will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory.
Jesus speaks to us, his disciples, throughout the gospel texts with a repeating message: “The world will fall apart around you but you need not be afraid – I have overcome the world! Be patient in your waiting, just before the dawn, because in the midst of the darkness there are strange and even redeeming events afoot.”
That’s Advent in a nutshell roasting on an open fire – Look up, pay attention, and be ready. Advent compels us to prepare ourselves for the two arrivals of God coming into our world and Jesus returning to the world at a time we do not know.
This is how we begin the Christian year – not with a moralistic lecture on making good resolutions and sticking to them and not a recap of our failures from the past and the descriptions of the new steps we need to take into the future. Instead, on this first Sunday of the year, we spend our time thinking about the end of the story.
As Christians we are forever beginning at the end.
Jesus names and claims the truth about the end, all things will pass away, but he doesn’t leave the disciples with their tails tucked between their legs: Consider the fig trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourself and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these crazy and frightening things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
This prophetic and apocalyptic vision of the future is all about expectation and anticipation. Though not necessarily the types we are used to.
You and I are living in a time where hope is limited to that which we can often imagine; we go through the motions waiting for something, but without really knowing what that something is. And so we get used to the stores having the decorations up months in advance, and we shrug our shoulders when we see the almost forgotten manger scene tucked away in the corner.
But the kind of real anticipation that Advent contains is the anticipation for the end of time, my time and your time and everything in between, AND the fulfillment of all the God has made and redeemed.
If we imagine the end at all we often do so with such stark and negative terms, but consider this: Jesus draws the disciples’ attention to new life! Look at the fig free, look at the new budding branches, new life is the sign of the end.
How wonderfully strange!
Jesus is describing the anticipated and expected reign of God’s kingdom on earth, and though he speaks of the fabric of life falling apart he also does so with descriptions of summer and new beginnings, not winter and barrenness. For some strange reason we miss that beautiful and hope-filled little detail and instead we focus only on what will be destroyed and decimated.
But friends, there are plenty of things in our world that need to be destroyed. There are many things that have to be abandoned. There are plenty of things that need to be crucified.
The fear of a man who stayed inside of a UMC in North Carolina for 11 months hoping to achieve legal status before being abruptly arrested and deported last week.
The anger of parents who sit in worship on Sunday morning even though they know their church believes their child is incompatible with Christian teaching.
The hopelessness of a child who goes to sleep hungry every night wondering if anything will ever change.
Some things need to be destroyed because the message of the Good News is that we cannot have resurrection without crucifixion, we cannot discover who we are without abandoning our false identities, and we cannot have new life without destruction.
Advent is the season we celebrate new life – Jesus’, our own, and the new reality made possible by our God. We live in a time and among those who wish to see the world fizzle out in a tiny smoldering fire, but the Lord promises to return to us in a glorious way and is already bringing us signs of new life and peace.
And so Jesus beckons us to look for the new sprouts and signs of new life. Because it is in the opening of our eyes that we how the end is in fact our beginning. Amen.
As he 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 up against nation, kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
This might be our least favorite Jesus. We prefer the Jesus who fed the 5,000 gathered to hear him speak. We like rejoicing in Jesus’ greatest parables like the Prodigal Son and the
Good Samaritan. We enjoy reflecting on Jesus’ final evening with his friends while passing bread and wine around the table.
But the apocalyptic Jesus? No thank you!
Jesus and his disciples are walking through Jerusalem and the temple is casting a shadow over everything (literally and figuratively). It captivates the hearts and imaginations of all who walk in its shade, and it is the pivotal focus of their faith. It stands as a beacon to all with eyes to see regarding the power and the glory of God.
And the disciples can’t help but marvel in the giant stones and the large buildings. Like kids seeing a skyscraper for the first time they probably kept fumbling over their feet while their eyes were stuck in the sky.
Jesus had led them all through Galilee ministering to the last, least, and lost, but now they are in Jerusalem, rubbing shoulders with the very people who fear Jesus the most.
It was probably Peter who keeps his finger pointed up high with every passing arrangement of architecture and Jesus says, “Psst. You want to know a secret?”
The disciples frantically move to get close enough to hear the Good News.
“All of this stuff is going to be destroyed.”
“Now wait just a minute Jesus! This temple has stood for centuries. You mean to tell us the pinnacle of all that we hope for and that we believe in will crumble?”
Later, they’re sitting on the Mount of Olives, opposite the temple, and they bring it up again: “Seriously Jesus, when is this going to happen? What will be the signs of the times so we know what to expect?”
“My friends, beware that no one leads you astray with empty promises about the end. There will be plenty of people who come in my name declaring profound change, and messianic power. They will lead many down the wrong path. But when you hear about wars and destruction, do not be alarmed; all of this must take place. There will be earthquakes. There will be famines. There will be wars. But all of this is just the birth pangs, the beginning of the end.”
Big and towering buildings are not supposed to crumble to the ground. Oceans are not supposed to leap out and cover the dry land. The earth is not supposed to shake and tremble.
We are not supposed to lose the people we love.
But then it happens.
Those who witness such unfortunate and frightening sights not only lose things that are dear and precious to them – like the countless families whose homes and properties have burned to the ground in California. But in a very real sense they have also lost their innocence.
They now know that something they once believed to be a sure thing is no longer trustworthy.
These images, both in scripture and in our lives, are what we might call apocalyptic. They signal to those with eyes to see the destructive forces of the world such that reality seems to be pulling at the seams. But thats not what apocalypse means.
An apocalypse is a revelation from God – it is a vision of a timeless reality. It is the past. It is the present. It is the future.
Jesus’ friends saw the temple as the end-all-be-all of faithful living, and he quickly brushed it aside to say that even the brick and mortar will fall away.
Don’t put your faith in the buildings and in the structure. Keep your faith in the Lord who reigns forever.
But we don’t like this Jesus; he’s frightening!
These words are tough to swallow in our comfortable and contemporary condition. What if the things we cling to most are just illusions? What happens when those things we so elevate come crashing to the ground? How have we so forgotten these words from Jesus?
Take a look around for just a moment at our sanctuary… None of this will last. Everything has its time. But we deny it again and again. Look at the pews, there’s a reason they’re bolted to the floor! They are made to feel far more permanent than they really are.
All of this will disappear. All of our great monuments are temporary – not just in the church but in the world at large.
And we don’t have to be seasoned with life to know that this is true. Each of us here, in some way, shape, or form, know about the finitude of things. We all kind of know, whether we like to admit it or not, that all life is loss.
Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing…
We try to deny the truth, we erect giant edifices, we worship our architecture as if it was here from the beginning, and we believe that are favorite institutions are too big to fail.
But they do, and they will.
Perhaps most frightening of all isn’t the foolish belief that these things will last forever, but that we will last forever. We won’t. The bell will toll for us all.
We cannot stop the inevitable.
All life comes to an end.
Only a living God can make our end a beginning.
There is a strange and bizarre comfort in these words from Jesus to the disciples in Jerusalem. I know it doesn’t sound comforting. For us, when Jesus says, “God’s gonna destroy all of this,” it sounds like bad news. But for others, those for whom these institutions and statues are like hell on earth, the destruction of them is good news.
None of those things give true life. No building, no institution, no company.
Only God gives life.
The truth of the gospel is that God is gonna get what God wants. No matter how much God’s gotta mess up what we’ve got, God’s gonna get what God wants.
Jesus rightly warns his disciples that many will come proclaiming some version of a truth, they will come with empty promises about the saving end of all things. They will, in some way, call upon you and I to join up to protect the things that we think rule the world.
But Jesus is abundantly clear – the temple cannot and will not stand.
The restoration of the temple, getting Jesus back in schools, whatever the thing is that we are willing to die for is not the end of all things. Those things are not God’s goals for the world.
The goal of all life is resurrection!
This is why we are cautioned about those who draw all of our attention and focus and energy of bold claims about what’s really at stake. And yet we cannot help ourselves! The all-you-can-eat-buffet of suffering and destruction in this world is a fix that never stops bizarrely comforting us.
And we, today, become so focused on discerning the signs of the time, that we neglect to open our eyes to the truth of the gospel today.
Our focus is not on the signs of the times themselves, but rather on the one who is to come – the one who enables us to stare into the void of such devastation and claim the certainty of a new day dawning in the light of the resurrection.
Today, faithful living, whatever that means, has become something of fanatical observance, or an apathetic endeavor.
Just turn on the news and you will quickly learn about the destructive powers of Christians in their communities all across the theological spectrum. Or you can learn about the failure of so-called Christian politicians. Or you can learn about the greed in churches that wedge themselves between families, between friends, and between brothers and sisters in Christ.
The world quickly identifies the people who claim to speak on behalf of Jesus who then rapidly lead disciples down paths of idolatrous worship. They care more about which politicians won certain seats than about the people who sit in the seats of their churches. They preach intolerance rather than love, they emphasize death over resurrection, and they support judgment above new life.
And then, on the other side, there are countless churches that contain only the blandest sense of discipleship. Week after week the pews fill with less and less people as the sermons are filled with more and more trite aphorisms about living your best life. They might have a bible displayed at the front of the sanctuary but it is covered in dust, the people who show up on Sunday don’t even know why they do so, and they only pray because they don’t know what else to do.
And so, it is against the fanatical religious leaders of today, Jesus warns us to beware that no one leads us astray. He speaks to us through the apocalyptic vision of the past, present, and future about holding fast to the love that has been revealed to us in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And he beckons us to remember who we are and whose we are.
And it is against the apathetic churches of today, the ones who are just going through the motions, that Jesus announces an electrifying and revelatory message: this is not the end!
This kind of scripture might terrify us to the core; we might see the world falling apart under our feet and immediately identify what we witness with what Jesus warned his disciples about. Depending on who we are, and where we are, these verses can appear more horrifying than hopeful.
But for anyone with a truly terrifying reality – this is a profound word and vision of hope.
For the woman who fears the Thanksgiving table, and the conversations and memories it brings, “this is not the end” promises something redemptive and transformative.
For the man who knows he cannot afford to buy Christmas presents this year, “this is not the end” is a hope that burns like a faithful flame in the midst of darkness.
For the family grieving as they take their first steps after burying someone in the ground, “this is not the end” takes on a whole new meaning when they experience the glory of God who promises our resurrection.
No matter who you are, and no matter what you going through in your life right now, hear these frighteningly and faithfully apocalyptic words and know that they are meant for you: “This is not the end.” Amen.
As he 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.
The temple in Jerusalem was something to behold. It captivated the hearts and imaginations of countless Israelites throughout the centuries and was the pivotal focus of their faith. During times of strife and warfare the Hebrews would pray for the foundation of the temple. When uncertainties remained in the air, the temple was the place to offer sacrifices. It stood as a beacon to all with eyes to see regarding the power and the glory of the Lord.
It is no wonder therefore why the disciples couldn’t help but marvel at the giant stones when they were walking with Jesus. After spending a considerable amount of time ministering to the last, least, and lost in Galilee, Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and brought his friends to the temple.
“Look Lord! Look at the large stones and large buildings!” Like the dwarfing power of a modern skyscraper the temple kept the disciples’ eyes in the sky. But then Jesus said, “See these buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
I can almost imagine the disciples rubbing their hands together in anticipation; “Finally Jesus is getting ready for the revolution! He keeps talking about the first being last and the last being first, now is the time to strike!”
Later, when Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, the inner circle of disciples gathered close and asked Jesus privately, “Tell us, when is it going to happen? What will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
Then Jesus began to teach them, “Beware that no one leads you astray with empty promises about the end. Many will come in my name declaring change and messianic power, and they will lead people astray. When you hear about wars and destruction, do not be alarmed; this must take place, the end is still to come. There will be earthquakes. There will be famines. This is just the first part of the birth pangs, the beginning of the end.”
We call this an apocalypse. Commonly understood to mean the destruction of the world, it conveys much more than that. An apocalypse is a revelation from God; it is a vision of a timeless reality. It is the past, the present, and the future. Jesus’ friends saw the temple as the end-all-be-all of faithful living, and he quickly brushed it aside to say that even bricks and mortar will fall away. Don’t put your faith in the buildings and in the structure but in the Lord who reigns forever.
But then Jesus takes the time to warn his friends about the coming days, things that we are still experiencing even now. Watch out for the deceivers who claim to know when the end of the world is coming, beware of the preacher who proclaims words in Jesus name that don’t match what Jesus said, keep guard when you encounter the Christian as sales-rep and instead look for the Christian as servant.
Jesus’ words are tough to swallow in our comfortable contemporary condition. We would rather hear about the miracles or the ethical teachings of Jesus. But today we hear about the devastation, the destruction, and the death that will come before the end. When you look out at the world and it looks like the very fabric of life is unraveling, the end is still to come. When you feel lost and alone deep in your soul, unsure of your future and welfare, the end is still to come. When you lose a loved one to death, and you feel like you can’t go on, the end is still to come.
Only a Messiah like ours would dare to proclaim the end as the beginning, the fear as the new birth.
Francine Christophe is an 83-year-old French writer and poet who survived the Holocaust. She was recently interviewed for a documentary about what it means to be human and this is what she said:
“My name is Francine Christophe. I was born on August 18th, 1933. 1933 was the year when Hitler took power… When I was 11 years old in the Bergen-Belsen camp, an amazing thing happened. Let me remind you, as the children of prisoners of war, we were privileged. We were permitted to bring something from France. A little bag, with two or three small items. One woman brought chocolate, another some sugar, a third, a handful of rice. My mom had packed two little pieces of chocolate. She said to me, “We’ll keep this for a day when I see you’ve collapsed completely, and really need help. I’ll give you this chocolate, and you’ll feel better.
“One of the women imprisoned with us was pregnant. You couldn’t tell, she was so skinny… But the day came, and she went into labor. She went to the camp hospital with my mom, the barracks chief. Before they left, my mom said, “Remember that chocolate I was saving for you?” “Yes, Mama.” “How do you feel?” “Fine, Mama. I’ll be okay.” “Well, then, if it’s alright with you, I’d like to bring your chocolate to this lady, our friend Helene. Giving birth here will be hard. She may die. If I give her the chocolate, it may help her.” “Yes, Mama. Go ahead.”
“Helene gave birth to the baby. A tiny, little, feeble thing. She ate the chocolate. She did not die. She came back to the barracks. The baby never cried. Never! She didn’t even wail. 6 months later, the camp was liberated. They unwrapped the baby’s rags, and the baby screamed. That was when she was born. We took her back to France. A puny little thing, for 6 months.
“A few years ago, my daughter asked me, “Mama, if you deportees had had psychologists or psychiatrists when you returned, maybe if would have been easier for you.” I replied, “Undoubtedly, but we didn’t have them. No one thought of mental illness. But you gave me a good idea. We’ll have a lecture on that topic.” I organized a lecture on the theme: “If the survivors of concentration camps had had counseling in 1945, what would have happened?”
“The lecture drew a crowd. Elderly survivors, historians, and many psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists… Very interesting. Many ideas emerged. It was excellent. Then, a woman took the podium and said, “I live in Marseille, where I am a psychiatrist. Before I deliver my talk, I have something for Francine Christophe.” In other words, me. She reached into her pocket, and pulled out a piece of chocolate. She gave it to me and she said, “I am the baby.”
I can’t imagine the fear of being pregnant while in one of the concentration camps. New birth and new life is supposed to be filled with such hope and promise, but to be pregnant in one of the camps was basically a death sentence.
Francine Christophe’s story is a powerful reminder of the power of new life in the midst of chaos and calamity. We see the truth and depth of Jesus’ words, “the end is not yet.”
Today, faithfulness and religious observance is either a fanatical or apathetic endeavor. Turn on the news and you will quickly hear about the destructive powers of ISIS, the greed of the Church, or the failure of Christian politicians. The world quickly identifies the people who claim to speak on behalf of Jesus who then rapidly lead disciples away from the truth. They care more about the color of Starbucks coffee cups than they do about children going hungry. They preach intolerance instead of love, they emphasize death over resurrection, and they support destruction above new life.
On the other side, countless churches contain only the blandness of discipleship. Week after week the pews are filled with less and less people as the sermons are filled with more and more trite clichés about living a better life. Cultural Christians might take the time to attend worship and offer up a few dollars and change when the plate comes around but their once deeply rooted faithfulness has been replaced with apathy for all things religious. They have a bible displayed at their homes but it is covered in dust, they go to church simply because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and they only pray when they don’t know what else to do.
Against the fanatical religious leaders of today, Jesus warns us to “beware that no one leads us astray.” Hold fast to the love that has been revealed to you in scripture and in the church, remember who you are and whose you are.
And against the apathetic churches of today, Jesus announces an electrifying message: the end is not yet!
This kind of scripture might terrify us to the core; we might see the world falling apart and immediately identify what we witness with what Jesus warned his disciples about. From our comfortable vantage point, these verses are more horrifying than hopeful. But for those for whom the present is a terrifying reality, it is a truly hopeful word.
For a pregnant woman in the middle of a concentration camp, “this is not the end” rings true in a young woman with a gift of chocolate.
For a grieving family preparing to gather for a funeral, “this is not the end” takes on a whole new meaning when they hear about the glory of the promised resurrection.
For a city in France that is still mourning the loss of so many innocent lives, “this is not the end” becomes powerful through the global community responding in love and prayer.
For a church that sees fewer and fewer people in the pews each week, “this is not the end” resonates in the commitment to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.
No matter what you are going through in your life right now, hear Jesus’ hopeful words and know that they are meant for you, “this is not the end.” Amen.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons; and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
The disciples have gathered together with Jesus. They’ve probably shared some bread, fish, and wine while sitting around and talking about the latest news from Galilee and the recent happenings in Jerusalem. Peter, ever extraverted, decides to change the conversation to the majesty of the temple: “Oh how lovely it was, adorned with remarkable stones and the gifts dedicated to God. Have you ever seen such gold in your lives?” The other disciples nod in approval, while Jesus remained silent. Bartholomew furthers Peter’s claim: “The temple of God is indeed a witness to God’s majesty in the world. Only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could have such a place!” They all begin to agree with one another, affirming the glory and might of their God, the God of Israel, worthy of such a temple.
But then, in sharp contrast to their excited exclamations, Jesus speaks up, “All of these things that you see, the temple in all its glory, the days will come when not one of these stones will be left upon another; all of them will be thrown down.”
The disciples have been around Jesus long enough to know that when he says something like this, its important to pay attention. “But how could this be?” they wondered; the temple was a sign of God’s glory. So then one of the disciples, perhaps Peter, asked on behalf of the whole group, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”
What a question. Its stories like this one that help to remind me how similar we all are to the disciples. Because that question is the same one I would’ve asked. Okay Jesus, things are going to get rough, when? What will happen to let us know that this is about to take place?
How appropriate and funny is it that Jesus’ first warning about the apocalypse is directed toward the would-be-prophets who predict the end of the world? Just within my lifetime I can think of a number of examples of the self-affirmed prophets who claim to know the exact date of the approaching end of the world. And even though Jesus has clearly warned us against them, when they come forth with their predictions, they never fail to get a hearing, media presence, and air time.
And people listen to them! Droves of people go to the bank and withdraw their life savings, bunkers are dug and filled with emergency supplies, and some even take their own lives rather than accept the coming doom and gloom predicted by these would-be prophets. Jesus looks out at his disciples, and therefore every one of us, and declares, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”
There always seems to be some other form of allegiance in the world that appears better than what we learn to live into from God’s Word. Some affiliation more fruitful, some path through the trials of life that seems more certain and secure. We would rather rely on reason than faith. We would prefer to deal with material possessions than with spiritual growth. The tragedy of the history of God and God’s people is that we have continually been a people running off like that, generation after generation, in pursuit of other, perhaps easier, gods.
After this first warning, Jesus continues his diatribe regarding the eschaton: “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famine and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons; and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”
I have often heard non-Christians remark about how easy it is to be Christian. Those with a limited knowledge of what it means to be a faithful people often charge the church as being a means of escape from the harsh realities of the world. “It must be so easy to be Christian, you don’t have to worry about what really goes on in the world, just waiting for your heavenly reward.” However, in sharp contradiction to these claims Jesus very bluntly puts forth how very difficult it is, and will be, to be Christian. In a way, being Christian, is in some sense, an escape, not our of life, but right into the depth of it; from meaningless into meaning, from futility into purpose, from bondage into freedom.
The Good News of Jesus Christ has always been paradoxical in its ability to disturb the ways of the world. Those with privilege look on it with suspicion, those with power look at it with disappointment. The Jewish leaders were shaken by it and fearful. Rome outlawed it. The first disciples all suffered persecution and condemnation. Jesus did not get killed for loving too much, but for turning the world upside down; for changing the perspective of what it means to be first and last, for defeating death, and removing power from the powerful.
“This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
When Jesus addresses the disciples, describing for them the very trials and tribulations that they were to face he makes it clear that these are the hours of opportunity. When the world shouts No, the church responds with a resounding Yes!
Our faith is not a creed, not a way of thinking about life, not 5 steps to make a better you; it is the I and Thou of a God who calls us by name, addresses us, seeks us, a moment of meeting, the time for hearing and becoming. Our faith is about confronting the problems of the world, living into them, and transforming the world for God’s kingdom. The Bible, God, and our faith is never on pause. The time is now!
What Jesus describes in this passage is what we often call the apocalypse. What kinds of images come to your mind when you think about the apocalypse? Death? Destruction? Zombies? Though these are the popular images often associated the apocalypse, apocalypse deals with a revelation, which discloses the realm of God behind the world of historical and interpretable events.
Timing is important when we talk about revelation from God. What Jesus describes, the events surrounding the suffering of his followers will happen in the future. There will come a time when Christians are called to testify to their faith when everything around them will argue the contrary. The apocalypse is coming in the future.
However, most of the events that Jesus described took place within the 1st century of the church. The temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the disciples were called before synagogues and governors to witness to their faith. They were rejected by the world and suffered because of their association with Jesus Christ. Nations rose against nations and wars took place. The apocalypse happened in the past.
What becomes real for us today, though, is that God’s revelation, the apocalypse, is happening right now! What Jesus described in his apocalyptic descriptions helps to show how what is going on is mixed with what is really going on. Events set in the larger context of God’s purposes in the world. We have been caught up in God’s great cosmic victory and therefore we are surrounded by symbols, signs, and mysterious elements regarding what is really taking place. As strange as this may seem to us as enlightened, modern, and rational people, it is a dramatic witness to the tenacity of faith and hope among the people of God.
“You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
How easy is it to be Christian? Apparently, its not. What is at stake for us in this passage is the commitment and call to be faithful witnesses under unusual stress and frustration. For us, here in Staunton, it might be hard to imagine suffering for our Christian identities. But faithfulness and endurance under threat and disapproval (and even penalty of death) are the qualities of discipleship during the time of witnessing. Disciples, and that means all of us here, are not exempt from suffering. If there is any doubt of this period of testing and testimony is still present, you need only look to what recently happened in the Philippines, or the dozens of Christians who were recently executed in North Korea for having Bibles, or the suffering of members within this church right now. Some of you might know of the suffering within the church, perhaps its even happening to you, just look around.
Jesus’ address to the disciples regarding the apocalypse, the revelation of God, calls us to reflect on our own discipleship. I have been told again and again that if people are not complaining about me in the church I serve, than I am not doing my job. Being Christian implies a willingness to be pushed into the discomfort of discipleship in order to live into the new reality that Christ initiated with his death on the cross.
Are we almost Christians? Are we content to arrive on Sunday mornings in order to go back to work on Monday without any change in our lives? Are we comfortable with seeing all of the suffering around us and letting it pass by our vision without stopping to question why? Are we ready to witness God’s kingdom transform the world without our participation?
Or are we fully Christian? Have we felt the love of God in our hearts and we are ready to respond to that love with our commitment to faithfulness? Do we sit in the shadow of the cross while awaiting the glory of the resurrection? Are we ready to witness to the goodness of God even amidst our own suffering?
I love the question the disciples ask: “When is this going to happen?” But there’s another question I feel compelled to ask: “Why is it going to happen?” If our Christian lives are comfortable and easy, perhaps we’re not doing enough. If the amount of suffering the first disciples went through was part of God’s revelation, then maybe we should be going far enough to disrupt the powers of the world. What would it take for us to believe so fervently, that we would live such faithful lives worthy of persecution from those around us?
We have to know that what Christ is talking about is the end. And we have to know with equal knowledge that it is also the beginning. That the God of grace and glory is bent on rescuing his own from the misery that finds us in life, and continually working toward that salvation. That God is committed to saving us with the Good News according to Christ, and eagerly doing it by means of every life that will give itself away to him and his kingdom.
Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place? The apocalypse, the revelation of God, is now.
(Preached at Bullocks UMC and Stem UMC on November 18th 2012)
Youtube videos of the sermon at Stem UMC:
Daniel 7.1-18: In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: (2) I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, (3) and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. (4) The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. (5) Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” (6) After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. (7) After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. (8) I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly. (9) As I watched, thrones were set it place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. (10) A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. (11) I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. (12) As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. (13) As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. (14) To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (15) As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. (16) I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: (17) “As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. (18) But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever – forever and ever.”
Dreams are beginnings. It is through our dreams that we discover images of what could be, what may be, and perhaps most exciting, what will be. The dream in Daniel 7 presents for us the fullness of a vision where God’s glory is revealed. I imagine that, rather than a just a simple dream, Daniel was having a nightmare. He tossed and turned under the warm cover of his bedding as he began to shake and sweat. While the images and sounds poured vividly through his mind, things slowly came into focus; this was no ordinary dream. While sleeping, Daniel saw before him the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea. The fury of the wind shook Daniel to his core and he could feel that he was witnessing something on a divine scale. From the sea four great beasts emerged, each different from one another. The vividness of the beasts was unlike any dream Daniel had ever had:
The first beast was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. As Daniel’s eyes followed the feathers attached to the beast they were plucked off and it stood on its two hind legs like a human being. Before he had time to contemplate what had happened, a second beast emerged from the deep. This one looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side and had three tusks coming from its mouth. Suddenly a voice cried out to the second beast, “Arise, devour many bodies!” Immediately a third beast arose, this one like a leopard with four heads and four wings of a bird on its back. Finally, a fourth beast appeared in Daniel’s dream, this one too terrible to describe and unlike any natural animal on earth. The fourth beast had iron teeth and was devouring everything in its sight while crushing anything it could under its feet. Daniel saw its ten horns jolting off in every direction, and a little horn suddenly appeared requiring three of the original horns to be plucked up by their roots. The terror of these four beasts gripped Daniel’s soul, as he stood transfixed before them. But before he could even move thrones were set in place in the sky and an Ancient One took his throne. The Ancient One’s clothing dazzled whiter than anything Daniel had ever seen and the throne burned with fiery flames yet remained unconsumed. Surrounding the Ancient One Daniel witnessed a thousand thousands serving him as the great book was opened. Immediately the fourth beast was put to death and its body destroyed. And then one like a Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven. The Ancient One gave him dominion, glory, and kingship, an everlasting dominion where all people, nations, and languages would serve him. As Daniel stood witnessing this cosmic battle he was greatly troubled and frightened. Before he awoke he approached one of the attendants, an angel, near the throne of the Ancient One and questioned him about the truth of the vision: “As for the four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever – forever and ever.” And as Daniel awoke from the frightening vision, he quickly reached for some parchment in order to write down everything he had seen.
Daniel 7 is one of those scripture passages that pastors either love, or loathe, to preach. The ones that love preaching on apocalyptic texts will often stand in the pulpit and proclaim wonderful messages. Their sermons come to them naturally and they see the scripture as being straightforward and easily explained. And then you have preachers like me, who are daunted by a text such as this. The connections with our daily living are no so cut-and-dry, and the passage demands prolonged attention. For me, Daniel’s dream is not one that can be simply explained, but must be proclaimed.
This was no ordinary dream, because Daniel was no ordinary man. Daniel was a man of God, one of the beloved prophets of the Old Testament. Daniel was the one who correctly interpreted the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the one who was friends with the three men who survived the fiery furnace, the one who was thrown into the lions’ den for praying and then delivered from their jaws of destruction. Daniel lived his life faithful to the One who had created him and breathed into him the breath of life. Daniel believed in God’s righteousness at a time when God seemed absent from the lives of the Israelites as they waited in Babylonian captivity. Daniel was no ordinary man, and this had been no ordinary dream. This was a vision given to Daniel by God in order that he could experience God’s glory and understand the world around him.
The dream goes against everything we understand about the world: The beasts are combinations of natural animals, and are absolutely terrifying; the fiery throne of the Ancient One burns in the sky, but rests unconsumed; one like a Son of Man comes on the clouds of heaven and is given total dominion. Daniel’s dream is an apocalyptic vision, not because it explains the “end of the world,” but because it is a way of revealing God’s action in the world. Daniel lived during a time of significant Israelite persecution, a time where people were thrown in furnaces or lion’s dens for worshipping the wrong God. God revealed this vision to Daniel to show how even when the most terrible rulers dominate on earth, even when people are devoured by the beasts of the world, God’s rule is swift and everlasting. God’s glory and kingdom is one that shall endure forever and ever. There is no epic cosmic battle between the fourth beast and the Ancient One – before Daniel can even fully appreciate what he is witnessing the Ancient One destroys the fourth beast immediately. God’s rule extends far beyond our expectations and imaginations.
For far too long, apocalypses have been understood as something that either happened in the distant past, or are events that will culminate in the distant future. The cosmic quality of the visions lends to these separate interpretations, but apocalypses also reveal God’s character and actions to us right now today. In Daniel’s dream the four beasts come from the great sea and reign destruction over the earth. I wonder: How many of us are surrounded by beasts in our daily lives that appear far worse than those in Daniel’s dream? For Daniel there was nothing worse than a foreign ruler persecuting his people, and God presented those rulers to Daniel as beasts. Perhaps for some of us, God has presented the beasts this morning to represent terrible things in our lives; our beast might be an addiction, or unemployment, or a broken relationship. Maybe we’ve lost a child, or our way of life, or our faith in God. Truly I tell you, there are beasts in our lives surrounding us everyday. I know that for some of us when we wake up every morning, the beasts of Daniel’s apocalyptic vision have become manifest in what seems like an unending, and very real, nightmare. Yet, like Daniel we are called to a life of faith predicated on looking to God when the world spirals out of control.
This past semester I have been serving as one of the on-call chaplains, along with your pastor Brock Meyer, at Duke University Hospital. We are required to arrive at the hospital by 8am and we cannot leave until 8 am the following morning. We are there to serve and respond to the many pastoral needs of the hospital, both patients and staff. A few weeks ago while making my way from one patient’s room to another I received an urgent page on my beeper. Before arriving to the designated room, I could hear the patient screaming down the hall. The situation was incredibly chaotic when I entered, the nurses and doctors were yelling, the patient was attempting to, and then succeeded, in ripping out her IV, and I stood there in the middle not sure what to do. I attempted to mediate and within a few minutes a compromise had been made. The patient desperately wanted to the leave the hospital but she was not well enough to do so, and the staff feared that if they let her leave the room she would attempt to leave the hospital, so I was assigned the task of walking the patient around the hospital, allowing her to escape from her room for a little while, before bringing her back.
As the patient and I made our way through the halls, I offered her my arm to steady her walking, and we began to talk. “I just can’t stand being here,” she said, “At night I can’t sleep because of all the noises of the hospital, and whenever I finally fall asleep, I wake up feeling like I’m in a nightmare. I just feel like I’m losing control.” As we navigated our way through the continuing corridors I encouraged her to speak all of her fears and frustrations; I learned about how she can no longer take care of herself but fears losing her independence, I learned about how lonely she felt and how scared she was about going back to an empty house. I learned about how she knew that God loved her, but she had a hard time seeing it in her life. “What about your church?” I asked, “Have they been able to help?” She shook her head, “I haven’t been to church in some years, after I started getting sick I realized I wasn’t able to keep helping and serving others, and I didn’t feel like I should go anymore.”
In the dream it is God, the Ancient One, who is in control. Though the beasts arise from the great sea, God’s purposes run triumphant over and against them. And then it is the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven who inherits the dominion of God. In keeping his gaze on the divine, Daniel’s vision of the world is made right. He begins to see a world where the foreign rulers are no longer in control, but God is the one who reigns. He begins to imagine the way the world could be through faith in the Ancient One on High. Daniel was given his apocalyptic dream so that he could envision a new beginning for the world.
Dreams are beginnings. It is from our dreams that our lives can be changed. Many of us dream about success, earning high wages, and making the world a better place for our children. We dream about moving out of difficult situations, doctors finding a cure for our cancers, a future without war and suffering. We dream about finding eternal life after we die.
As a church we come together to worship the good God who breathed into each of us the breath of life, to sing songs of praise and lament, to question the ways of the world and compare them to the ways of God, to dream about making God’s kingdom come on earth. This church is where our dreams begin. We listen to the Word proclaimed through scripture and song, imagining a world more like the one Jesus calls us to. We believe in a God who makes our dreams into realities.
For the rest of our time together that afternoon in the hospital, the patient and I continued in silence. I kept thinking about all the fears she had shared with me, and I marveled at how calm she had become after the episode in her room. Before I brought her back to her room I placed my hand on her shoulder and looked into her pale blue eyes, “Ma’am I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said about your life. I know that you are afraid; afraid of losing your independence, afraid of being lonely. Maybe now is the perfect time for you to go back to your church. I know you’re worried about not being able to help other, but perhaps the best way you can follow Christ is to let your brothers and sister in Christ serve you. Now is the time for you to receive love.”
At the end of Daniel’s dream, after questioning about the meaning of the vision he was told that the Holy Ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever; Daniel learned that the people of God will share rule with the Son of Man. The Church has been granted a wonderful place in the kingdom. We are called to serve and love one another and our neighbors. The church exists as a place where that patient from the hospital can begin to dream about what will be, a place where she can be taken care of, a place where she can feel God’s love. This church can be the place where we seek refuge from the beasts in our lives, where we can hold each other through the nightmares, and celebrate in our new dreams.
Just as Daniel kept his eyes on the throne of the Ancient One, today we are called to turn our eyes to Jesus. The beasts do not have the final word. God came in the form of flesh, dwelt among us, and mounted the cross on our behalf. God has triumphed over the greatest beast, death, and will continue to do so. Though the beasts of our lives will surely torment us, the God of Grace and Glory has come to us as the Son of Man, God has granted us to receive the kingdom, and God will continue to reign with us from this time forth, and forevermore. Amen.