Shuck and Jive

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Embracing Change: A Sermon

Embracing Change
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 15th, 2009

Daniel 12:1-3
Mark 13:1-8

Was Jesus apocalyptic?

That is one of the questions bantered about between scholars in the historical Jesus debate.

The debate is whether or not Jesus believed that the end of human history was coming and that God would bring it with supernatural fury.

The task of the debate is how to interpret Mark 13 and other passages in the gospels that look apocalyptic. Scholars call Mark 13 “the little apocalypse.”

Before you tune out on me by thinking this is just another exercise in speculation over archaic texts, I am going to suggest that this exercise is contemporary. How we see Jesus reflects how we see ourselves.

We need to define what we mean by apocalypse.

Apocalypse means literally revelation. The last book in the Bible is called “The Revelation to John” or “The Apocalypse to John.” The meaning of that is that some guy named John received a revelation or an apocalypse from heaven. Apocalypse is special divine insight.

In popular parlance, apocalypse means a violent or a cataclysmic future. This is a future that tends to be fixed, predicted, even fated. The most popular expression in Christian extremism is found in the Left Behind novels. This is pulp fiction for the Christian extremist crowd. It reflects religious escapism. The basic plot is this: God is going to wipe out the world. Get on the Jesus train so you can get raptured before he trashes the place.

This view is as common as dirt. We see it in Christian extremist TV preachers. We see it in Muslim extremists. We see it also in the New Age Mayan calendar predictions, (ie. 2012), Nostradamus predictions and so forth. The packages may be different but the product is the same.

This is the product: There is a plan and a timetable that has been supernaturally decided and revealed to those who have special insight.

1) The view is pessimistic. Humanity or even life on Earth is not going to make it.
2) It is escapist. Only the true believers will escape and live forever in some other realm.
3) And it shirks responsibility. There is no reason to address the problems of Earth or contemplate its future because the “Supernatural” will fix it.

That is common definition and the one I am going to use for apocalyptic.

As you can tell by my tone, I don’t believe it. I think it is a dangerous and destructive view. Unfortunately, it is a popular view. As humanity faces more challenges and changes, we might expect apocalypticism to become more popular.

Was Jesus apocalyptic?

From reading Mark 13, it certainly seems like it. Listen to his language:

“Wars…earthquakes…famines…the end is still to come…the sun will be darkened…the stars will be falling from heaven…they will see the son of man coming in the clouds…heaven and earth will pass away…keep awake!”

What was he talking about? Was he talking about the end of the world? Was he talking about a local political event? Was he wrong? Was he exaggerating? Was he strange? Was he a product of his time? Was it really Jesus?

Here is how I learned it in seminary. Mark was written sometime during the Jewish-Roman War in 66-70 CE. The temple was destroyed and Jerusalem was burned. The western wall of the temple stands today. It is called the wailing wall. It has never been rebuilt. On the site of the temple is a Muslim mosque called the Dome of the Rock. For the Jews it was the end of their world.

First century historian, Josephus, recounted the horrors of this time in his work The War of the Jews. Many of the things we find predicted in Mark 13, Josephus described in his account of events including false messiahs, war, hunger, fleeing to the mountains, etc.

The view I learned in seminary and embraced is that Mark 13 was a creation by the author of Mark. The historical person of Jesus never said any of this. It was a creation by the gospel author. That would also be the view of liberal scholars such as Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, and other Fellows of the Jesus Seminar.

In their picture, the historical Jesus was a wisdom sage and poet. He was a critic of Empire but the kingdom would come not dramatically by supernatural intervention or apocalypse but by gradual moral improvement. “The kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus is reported to have said. The kingdom of God is like a seed that grows and produces fruit. He was against Herod’s and the Roman Empire’s economic policies, was critical of the temple, got on the wrong side of the authorities, and was executed as a troublemaker. His vision lived on in his disciples. They were mystically connected with him through this mystery they described as resurrection.

However, the other view is that yes Jesus was apocalyptic. This view is also held by liberal scholars such as Bart Ehrman, Paula Frederickson, and James Tabor among others. They follow in the tradition of the great historical Jesus scholar, Albert Schweitzer. He wrote his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus in 1906. It provided a critique of 19th century liberals who thought Jesus was a prophet of moral progress. See how things come around again and again.

Schweitzer’s view was that Jesus felt the end was near and that God was about to do some big thing and that he was part of this big thing. He went to Jerusalem thinking he was going to start things in motion. He succeeded in getting himself killed. For Schweitzer, Jesus’ story is a tragic story. He was a product of his time. We, however, said Schweitzer don’t live in that time. This is how Schweitzer put it:
That Jesus expected the final consummation to be realized supernaturally whereas we can understand it only in terms of the result of moral effort, is merely the result of the change in fundamental thought-forms. … All that is required is that we think of realizing the kingdom by moral effort with the same passion as that with which he expected it to be realized by divine intervention, and that we know among ourselves that we must be prepared to sacrifice everything for it. P. 484
Schweitzer’s apocalyptic Jesus was not the Jesus of Christian orthodoxy and certainly not Christian fundamentalism. Jesus was mistaken, but his passion for the kingdom is to be admired and emulated.

After writing this book he went on to study medicine. He received the Nobel prize for his humanitarian work. His philosophy of a “reverence for life” was embodied in his life of service, particularly the hospital he started in Africa.

My views of Jesus are starting to change. I think that Mark 13 isn’t completely separate from the historical Jesus. I think he did have the destruction of the temple on the horizon of his vision. He could see events shaping up for a clash of civilizations between the Jewish people and Rome. He likely used vivid metaphorical language of the prophets to describe what he saw. I think he used the language and thought forms of his time. He probably did think in terms of divine intervention like the Hebrew prophets before him.

I don’t want to strip away the rough edges away from Jesus. I don’t want to tame him to where he fits in my world view. I will let him be a first century God-infused prophet with a passion for justice.

Our world view has changed a great deal since the time of Jesus. He obviously couldn’t have envisioned the universe we see today or the depth of time of natural history. Apocalypticism is nonsensical for us today.

That said, I do think that Jesus can be an important figure. I do like what Schweitzer says about the mystical relationship between ourselves and Jesus. He wrote:
Our relationship to Jesus is ultimately of a mystical kind….We can achieve a relation to such a personality only when we become united with him in the knowledge of a shared aspiration, when we feel that our will is clarified, enriched and enlivened by his will and when we rediscover ourselves through him. P. 486
How we face our future and our present is a matter of will. Do we have the will as individuals and as a country and as a human race to face reality and act appropriately?

In our text today, we find the disciples behaving like yokels visiting the big city.
One of the disciples looked up at the temple and said, “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.”
I think this saying did go back to Jesus. He saw what was coming. He had the will to face reality and to name it. It wasn’t a magical, superstitious prediction. It wasn’t fatalism. It was a realistic assessment of the conflict that was brewing between Rome and Jerusalem. It was an invitation to his disciples to wake up. I think the author of Mark embellished much of the 13th chapter of Mark, although I am not sure how much. But I think Jesus did see an end of an era, an end of an age, an end of a world.

Most importantly, he was telling his disciples that the end of this era was not the end of everything. In fact, it was a new beginning. This end while painful and destructive was the beginning of something new. Whether it was Jesus or Mark, they blur, nevertheless, it was encouragement to hope in the most frightening time.

The prophets of today are like Jesus in that they are speaking to the yokel within us who says, “Look at my new cell phone! Isn’t our technology incredible?” The prophets are saying in return: “There will come a time when our technology is going to crumble.” Whatever the medium, these prophets are showing us through film, music, fiction, non-fiction, and so forth that we are not living sustainably with our planet and that this age, this era, this world is coming to an end.

In a sense, this song from the musical group, The Talking Heads, is a modern version of Mark 13. Here are the lyrics of the song, “Nothing but Flowers:”

Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it's nothing but flowers

There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers

We caught a rattlesnake
Now we got something for dinner

There was a shopping mall
Now it's all covered with flowers

If this is paradise
I wish I had a lawnmower

Years ago
I was an angry young man
I'd pretend
That I was a billboard
Standing tall
By the side of the road
I fell in love
With a beautiful highway
This used to be real estate
Now it's only fields and trees
Where, where is the town
Now, it's nothing but flowers
The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture
I thought that we'd start over
But I guess I was wrong

Once there were parking lots
Now it's a peaceful oasis

This was a Pizza Hut
Now it's all covered with daisies

I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention

I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries

This was a discount store,
Now it's turned into a cornfield

Don't leave me stranded here
I can't get used to this lifestyle

Modern day prophets are also telling us about hope. What is hope?

Hope is not escapism. Nor is hope denial.

Believing in superstition is not hope.
Denying reality is not hope.

Hope is a matter of character. It is a belief, a conviction, a confidence that we have what it takes to deal with whatever comes when it comes.

Margaret Atwood, author of The Year of the Flood, which is of the genre speculative fiction, was asked this question in an interview:
I just finished the book "The Year of the Flood." I thought it was amazing and left me feeling hopeful and hopeless about the human race at the same time. How do you have hope? What do you find hopeful about human beings?
She answered:
I think hope is part of the human toolkit, like music. It comes with, for the simple reason that those who did not have it - in the deep past - are not our ancestors.
Dianne Dumanoski, the author of The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive a Volatile Earth, a book we are going to read next for our Thursday reading group, concludes her book with a chapter entitled “Honest Hope.”

She says that blind hope kills. “I fear blind hope as much as despair,” she writes. She says we must avoid a despair on one hand that says “it’s too late” or a sunny optimism that says “we’ll figure out something, because science always does.” Then she writes about real hope:
I discovered that one finds strength when one has to and simply endures what seemed beforehand terrifying and impossible….Such moments of great trial are not only the worst of times, but for many they can also be the very best, because one often experiences life at its most precious, intense, and meaningful.

….Looking ahead, it is natural to focus on the dangers, but those who will be making their way in this uncertain future will also have unusual opportunities, although these may not be of the kind that one would have chosen wittingly. In the struggle to continue the human journey, they may live lies enlarged by a shared sense of great purpose, leavened by imagination, and enriched by the creativity that survival has always required. P. 252.
Was Jesus apocalyptic? No. Not in the sense that we use that word. Jesus was realistic and hopeful. That is why we still tell his story. He showed us—and in that mystical sense that Schweitzer speaks of, when our wills our enriched and clarified by his will—Jesus still shows us how to do the most important thing human beings have ever done or have ever had to do.

He shows us how to embrace change.

We can do that.


  1. I wonder if the author of Mark 13 wrote quite exaggeratedly of cataclysmic upheaval intentionally, knowing even then how upset we get by the smallest changes - in their time perhaps it was a new and more restrictive rule set by the Romans, in our time a change to the way Facebook is presented.

    It could have been his way of giving people hope to deal with these changes after the fact - after upheaval and massive change due to war, or a great storm, or famine - so they could say "Well, that wasn't SO bad".

  2. I think that is exactly the intent of Mark. It is to encourage them in the midst of collapse that Jesus had "predicted it" in advance and is present with them via resurrection through the struggle.

  3. Hi John. Great teaching sermon. I hope folks liked it. Can't wait to see what you will do with Luke.

  4. Man, I wish you were my pastor! The undertones of every church I have encountered is a literal, apocolyptic theolgy with no room for anything else.

  5. @SeaRaven, deja vu a week from Sunday. I'll have to find another angle!

    @Chris, thanks for that!

  6. I'm glad I took the time to read this sermon. This statement says it all:

    "He was a critic of Empire but the kingdom would come not dramatically by supernatural intervention or apocalypse but by gradual moral improvement. "

    Jesus' times don't sound too different from the times we're living in now, eh?...There are many critics of the American Empire and they are working towards changing the hearts of men and women.

  7. While I am certainly not an advocate of self-castration, I tend to think that the early Christian thinker most in tune with the future was Origen.

    Origen did not see a terrifying apocalypse in which all unbelievers would be annihilated. He did think in the terms of the revelation of his day, but he looked beyond it to an optimistic future. Apocalyptic upheaval was a transient thing, part of natural human existence.

    Origen instead saw a future in which, ultimately, even the Devil himself would be saved.

    We've had enough apocalyptic experiences in human history that I am skeptical of any claim that the next one is the very last.

  8. @eclectic

    Good point. The point of the apocalyptic is exactly that. As crappy as things look, ultimately, we are invited to look beyond it...