In my first year of seminary I had a NT professor whose personality was as big as life.
His goal in teaching the NT was to get us students up to speed on what the people who wrote the books about Jesus of Nazareth were talking about. But he didn’t want us to just know the words they wrote. We had to understand what was behind these author’s words—who were these folks? What were their biases, what ideas did they hold about life and death, about the stars and the planets?
The books from Matthew to Revelation to John were written over many years time, in two different centuries, We know some of the authors, but only guess at others— so we study the geo-political conflicts, religious arguments, philosophical teachings, and history of that region…all of this would influence what the writers of the NT composed. What was the world like for these writers?
Who is the audience? To whom were these words written? (Hint: they were not writ to us)
My NT professor loved to take a big fat marker and draw two slightly overlapping and gigantic circles on the white board. I’m not sure there was one day in the entire semester that this prof didn’t get excited and draw those two circles. A Venn diagram for biblical study. Our focus was on the overlapping Space between 2000 BCE and world after Christ—to answer the question, what kind of thinking was in the air when Jesus lived and when the books were written. It was a very different time than ours.
Even when we study the early 20th century, we are reminded how different things were then. Just over 100 years ago, women didn’t have the right to vote in this country. African Americans were prevented from voting with many schemes until the 1960’s even though excluding them was unconstitutional. We have to think hard, now in the 21st century, to imagine living in a time when only white men (and until this was outlawed, only those with property) could vote. That was just understood to be normal—the way things were supposed to be.
2000 years from now, we’ll have folks studying us that will look at this and say wow—that’s kind of unbelievable, what was the thinking back then, what were they reading, being taught in school or church, what was influencing their lives back then in the 1900’s.
The same then is true for us now, looking back 2000 years… what was thought to be normal 2000 years ago? In Jesus time?
Not the purpose of this sermon to outline NT ideology—yet what I hope to shed a little light on is one of the most odd and prevalent ideas circulating in Jesus’ time…because this idea dominates our time too.
My-bigger-than-life scholarly professor explained the idea this way: “Things go BOOM.” (He’d say this LOUDLY, donning his Black clergy suit and Long black Academic gown garnished with velvet panels on the sleeves—opening wide his eyes and grabbing the podium for effect—it was a scary sight to behold– and that’s what he was going for.)
Apocalyptic thinking was soaked into the fabric of Jewish beliefs in Jesus day.vIt was not new to the first century. Some of the earliest apocalyptic writingvis found in the stories of the Book of Daniel, about 200 years before Jesus.vJewish communities at the time Daniel was written faced violent persecution as Rome was coming to power; Rome would eventually crush the Greeks and dominate the land around the Med Sea and beyond. The Jewish people were their subjects.
Political turmoil and armed unrest was part of the landscape of Jesus’ time. As persecutions grew, so did the intensity of the belief of a coming apocalypse.
We hear this Apocalyptic thinking in Paul’s letters—the are oldest writing of the NT. Paul writes to the Thessalonians who are Worried about the end days. He tells them: Be watchful, the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. To the Corinthians he says: Listen, I will tell you a mystery! …the end will come in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
Matthew’s gospel is the most apocalyptic—he alone references Daniel, “So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), 16 then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; 17 the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; 18 the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat.”
Later this fall, just before Advent this year, we’ll read together some of Matthew’s unique and powerful parables replete with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
If any of this talk about end times–sounds familiar…then congratulations you’ve been tuning in to the nightly news. You’ve heard it: If the other side gets their way, Chaos is about to ensue. It will be apocalyptic!
I heard David Brooks in an interview recently talk about all of today’s apocalypticism. Brooks is the author of The Road to Character and several other books, and he’s a conservative columnist for the NYT. This summer Brooks preached at the National Cathedral.
In his Column this past week, Brooks warns America of those who want to rachet up the Apocalyptic thinking, to “culturally obliterate the other side.” I think Brooks has nailed it.
He’s studied about the phenomenon of apocalyptic thinking in history and sees how it can be used to manipulate. He writes the outcome of our dividing along apocalyptic lines will be “the hollowing out of the center and the degradation of public morality…”
Yet, our public leaders seem unafraid to use toxic language, demonizing those who think differently. And many are following along. This is Cataclysmic.
What do we do with this time of ours? When everything we hear from our world tells us we must act now, pick a side—or else—THINGS WILL GO BOOM!
We should step back and breathe and remember two important lessons.
First, Paul, lived through his own apocalyptic times and learned so much.There’s a sense of Urgency in his letter to the Thessalonians
because Paul and the early Christians believed that JC would come back any minute! NOW! Paul is therefore instructive: “just hold on… for a bit,” he tells the Corinthians.
The end will come soon, so don’t get married if you’re not already, stay married if you are;
Paul told slaves they should remain content, bc the time is very near when the end will come and all will be raised in glory. (Sadly, we know these words were used to justify the slave trade in this country, when truthfully, Paul’s thinking was never farther from this—he literally believed the end was upon them.)
However, by the time Paul was writing Romans, the latest letter we have of his,
Paul had changed his tone, developed his theology;
his sense of dire apocalyptic urgency had dissipated.
He tells the Christians: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
The books of the NT may not have been written to us, or even with us in mind, but that does not mean scripture is not for us—the word of God is all about revelation.
God revealing God’s self to us…if we’ll just take time to learn what we are reading. Paul gives some of the greatest direction in answering the question—so what shall we do?
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Read Romans 12…Christians. These are words to lift us up and sustain us in our calling, Do not conform to this world. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Secondly, we should remember that apocalypse really means an Unveiling— the revealing of something that was hidden. When Jesus speaks these harsh words to Peter: “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus is imploring Peter and the disciples to see what they cannot imagine. The disciples think the Messiah will come as a conqueror! To begin another war, to restore the greatness of Israel. It’s not so, Jesus is telling them.
I’m here to usher in the new kingdom—yes, but the kingdom of God The kingdom I bring is one where the old thinking about power and glory and status dies, and new thinking arises. You must see this Peter, he is saying, Don’t hold on to the old ways or you will miss the unveiling of the truth: That love is my tool.
Love conquers better than the sword—love is the only enduring vanquisher.
We Christians can get caught up in the culture wars of our time just as badly as anyone else, so we need one another. We need to remind ourselves that when our faith gets separated from love, and we fall into demonizing others, we have denied Christ. We have failed to see the revelation God gave to us.
Jesus would say to us too, Get behind me Satan, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. Together we must go to the cross, not be lured into thinking that power and fear is ours for the taking. The cross is the path of love, genuine love…and the cross, is the path to glory. Thanks be to God.