Two stories were written in times of chaos, both holding out hope to the beleaguered people of their times.
For about the last hundred years, many Christian churches have celebrated the last Sunday on the liturgical calendar, the Sunday before the beginning of Advent, as the feast of Christ the King, or, more recently and less archaically, as the feast of the realm of Christ.
But not in Sweden. Since 1921, the Church of Sweden, with its roots in the Lutheran tradition, has celebrated this as the Sunday of Doom.
That seems to have an appropriate ring to it for us this year. We have been through a few weeks of horrific experiences around the world, experiences that fill us with a sense of doom. And we look for shreds of hope in the midst of the chaos.
The two scripture readings that we heard today – one from the Hebrew Bible, one from the New Testament – each come from one of the two apocalyptic books in the Bible – the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation. Both were written in times of chaos and both held out hope to the beleaguered people of their times.
We don’t spend a lot of time around here talking about things like apocalypses and the end days and final judgments. Often, those are topics that can make us squirm and avert our eyes, both because of the harshness they include and the way some groups use those things to wrap themselves in virtue while consigning others to oblivion.
But the book of Daniel was about far more than Daniel surviving a night in the lion’s den or Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego surviving the flames of the king’s furnace – two of the most famous folk tales in that book.
The book of Daniel was about how Jews could survive in a culture that was so different than their beliefs, that threatened their existence.
How much could one accommodate? How much should one resist? The questions it raises are timeless for any group that is a minority in a dominant culture.
The second half of the book of Daniel is filled with visions of God overthrowing the oppressive regimes under which the Jews at that time were living.
You heard the graphic and fantastical descriptions of those regimes in the portion I read and then from the part that Mary/Rick read, you heard God “coming with the clouds of heaven,” with “all peoples, nations, and languages” serving him.
It’s a vision of trusting that God’s goodness will triumph, the life will overcome death, love will overcome hate.
And it’s a vision that stands in sharp contrast to other books written about the same time – the story of the Maccabees in revolt against the Greek empire. Daniel and the books of the Maccabees were written perhaps 150 years before Jesus was born, the last books written that are included in the Hebrew Bible.
Daniel’s vision was one of willingness to risk being killed – martyrdom – for living according to God’s ways. The vision in Maccabees was one of military force – killing others – to protect the integrity of the God’s vision.
Two different approaches, both in our Bibles, both challenging us to define how we will live in the midst of chaos.
The book of Revelation is the last book in the New Testament and it’s very title catches one meaning of the word apocalypse. That Greek word means revelation, letting a select few see what is hidden from many.
And apocalypse also means the overthrowing of the whole world order so that those who suffered are rewarded and those who oppressed are punished.
For the writer of the book of Revelation, the oppressors were the Romans and those who suffered were the early Christians.
The author tells of being taken into the future and seeing the climactic battle where good would triumph over evil, where Jesus is “coming with the clouds” and where God is and was and is to come.
These are books of hope for people in hard times. We can get hung up on the imagery and the violence within them, but ultimately, these are stories not of human battles, but of God’s vision of the world winning out over all the oppression and violence in our midst.
But not every version of apocalyptic literature has that kind of benign interpretation.
There are some Christians who see a literal final climactic battle in Jerusalem or in wider Israel and all faithful Christians will be saved in these end times. Their views have shaped not only their lives, but the political actions of some of the more extreme Christian groups.
And then there are those Muslims who have an apocalyptic view of the world as well. And it is that apocalyptic view held by a small slice of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims that is causing the world a lot of trouble right now. So it’s worth spending a few minutes exploring that before coming back to the messages of hope that I hear in Daniel and Revelation.
That small slice of the world’s Muslims is the group we know as ISIS. It is a group that is infused with a very literal interpretation of some portions of the teachings of Mohammed. It is different from the group we got to know so well in the last decade – al Quaeda – because ISIS is driven by its vision of the end times and its role in helping to bring them about.
In an article in The Atlantic earlier this year, reporter Graeme Wood explored in depth the ideology and theology of ISIS. He explained that the town of Dabiq near Aleppo in Syria plays a critical role. ISIS holds that town at the moment. When an enemy army arrives there – something they are hoping for – they believe the forces of ISIS will defeat them and that will launch the countdown to the apocalypse.
In their vision, according to Graeme Wood, here’s what happens next:
“An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.”
Much of the chaos the world is now experiencing at the hands of ISIS is intended to precipitate those final battles. It’s an apocalyptic vision with very real world and very horrific consequences.
I’m not about to get into the best diplomatic or military strategy to counter that. I’m going to look at our texts and the words of others for some thoughts on how we here in Fitchburg on a Sunday morning in November might live in the midst of competing visions of the future.
I’d like to start with a quote from historian Howard Zinn, who wrote A People’s History of the United States and who was attentive to social movements within our nation. He wrote:
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”
Keep that thought in mind as you hear this story about Antoine Leiris. His wife was one of the victims in the ISIS attacks in Paris. He posted this on Facebook last Monday. Listen at the end to the sense of God’s judgment superseding anything we might do.
“Friday night you took away the life of an exceptional human being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred.
“I do not know who you are, and I do not wish to. You are dead souls. If this God for whom you kill so blindly has made us in His image, every bullet in the body of my wife will have been a wound in His heart.
“So I will not give you the privilege of hating you. You certainly sought it, but replying to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance which made you into what you are. You want me to be frightened, that I should look into the eyes of my fellow citizens with distrust, that I sacrifice my freedom for security. You lost. I will carry on as before.”
“…I am of course devastated by heartbreak, I’ll cede you that little victory, but it will be short-lived. I know that she will be with us every day and that we will meet again in a paradise of free souls to which you will never have access.”
I don’t know if either Howard Zinn or Antoine Leiris had any particular religious beliefs that informed their response to the terrible things in our world. New York Times columnist David Brooks has been writing a lot lately about the values that shape our lives and this past week, he reflected on the role religion can play in the midst of the violence in our world. These are his words:
“The great religions are based on love, and they satisfy the human need for community. But love is problematic.
“Love is preferential and particular. Love excludes and can create rivalries. Love of one scripture can make it hard to enter sympathetically into the minds of those who embrace another…
“Alongside the ethic of love there is a command to embrace an ethic of justice. Love is particular, but justice is universal. Love is passionate, justice is dispassionate.
“Justice demands respect of the other. It plays on the collective memory of people who are in covenantal communities: Your people, too, were once vulnerable strangers in a strange land.”
Justice demands respect of the other. I think that’s a piece of what some of us are doing together with the letter to local Muslims that is circulating here. We are trying to widen the circle, not narrow to only people who look and think just like us.
When I hear the writings in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, I don’t hear them simply saying that we live in this hell on earth and that all is well in heaven.
I see God coming toward us on those clouds, bringing us closer to the vision God has for our world.
I see Jesus as the faithful witness challenging those of us who seek to follow him to be faithful witnesses to God’s vision as we take on the evils of war and racism and environmental destruction and income disparities.
I see these stories as ancient tellings of the modern image of the arc of the moral universe.
It was Theodore Parker, an anti-slavery minister from Boston in the 1800s who first used that image when he wrote, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
Martin Luther King Jr. paraphrased that in a 1967 speech when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward Justice.”
They both watched that arc bend as slavery was ended, as civil rights were granted. And they both knew that the task was not yet done.
I see in these stories from Daniel and Revelation the work of French theologian and scientist Teilard de Chardin, who developed a theory of the universe evolving materially and spiritually toward was he called the Omega Point – in other words, towards Christ, who draws all things to himself.
“ ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come.”
I see in these stories a vision sketched out by Shannon Barry, the executive director of Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, who not only sees no shortage of interpersonal violence in the work she does, but who witnesses along with the rest of us the violence of our world.
Here is what Shannon posted on Facebook last week:
“I am so tired of hatred and fear. I am not a religious person at all, but I believe that our job here on Earth in the short time we are given is to help others. I really don’t think it is that hard. I think about the energy that is spent fear-mongering and spreading vitriol and I wonder what it would look like if that energy was instead spent on creating a world where everyone is safe, valued, loved, and able to achieve their full potential. I suppose that is what heaven would be.”
That would be the vision of Daniel. That would be the vision of Revelation. That would be the vision of Howard Zinn and Antoine Leiris and Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King Jr and Teilhard de Chardin and Shannon Barry. Let me suggest that also was the vision of Jesus.
May it be our vision as well.
In gratitude the possibilities of that vision, let’s join together in singing #425, “For the Fruit of All Creation.”