Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost (proper 28) November 19, 2006.
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
Our readings this Sunday enter us into the apocalyptic and the prophetic. Apocalyptic words from the Bible are at once terrifying and hopeful. They help to place the chaos and realities of our own times into the context of God. Our Christian faith is, after all, deeply eschatological, calling us to pay attention both to what might happen at the end of things and, mindful of this, to what we are to do in the meantime.
Eugene Petersen writes in his book on Revelation, "Eschatology is the most pastoral of all the theological perspectives, showing how the ending impinges on the present in such ways that the truth of the gospel is verified 'in the middle.'" (13) As we are about to step into Advent, the vision of these apocalyptic texts, which is both of destruction and renewal, offers us a glimpse into how things might be. Most important, these texts remind us that, in the midst of it, through Christ we might "hold fast to our confession of our hope without wavering, for the one who has promised is faithful" (Heb 11:25).
These images fill us with awe and wonder. We encounter them with a bit of trepidation, a bit like the disciples at the beginning of the Gospel text. We can imagine them: bumpkins who traveled from Galilee taking time for a good tourist look at the enormous temple standing glorious in its majesty. They are a bit like those who come to Chicago and just stare at Wrigley Field. And, like fans who don't want to stare at the walls of the grandstands but want to actually watch some baseball, Jesus tells them, "Do you see ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) these great buildings? This is not what you should be paying attention to; no stone will be left together, the temple will be destroyed."
And just as he told them when he warned against the scribes, Jesus says, "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]!" Look, watch out, pay attention! Mark's use of the birth pangs is highly apocalyptic and symbolic language, used in similar ways in both New Testament letters and in the Gospels. Are these birth pangs merely pain that will bring about life? Or are they pains that are just signs of more pains? The biblical tradition witness might say that these birth pangs will birth something new, but there may be other ways to think about them.
Ched Myers connects these birth pangs to cycles of violence and war. While many believe that war might merely be labor pains for birth, Myers claims: "Not so, counters Jesus: Despite the cataclysmic trappings, war changes nothing and is manifestly not a sign of world transformation. Parodying, he contends that war cannot put an end to political crimes; it can only commence a new cycle of suffering. The dominant order is in labor, all right, but it can give birth to only more of the same, or worse." (14) Only through Christ will this cycle end.
As happens in apocalyptic texts, the destruction and hopelessness that the community experienced were named and put into the context of God's work in this world. The Markan community was living in the midst of wars and rumors of wars that raged in first-century Palestine. The temple had been destroyed. False prophets were numerous and destructive. Many people claimed to be "I am"--a reference not just to Jesus himself but to God.
Our reading from Daniel, a book of Old Testament apocalyptic literature, also functions from a perspective of despair and oppression. The visions were written during Greek persecution and were set in the time of Babylonian captivity. Within a setting of persecution, this vision offered hope and renewed vision. The few verses we get from Daniel are at the end of the last of his apocalyptic visions. After verses describing the anguish and tribulation that could arise, the prophet describes the vision of glory: "At that time your people will be delivered."
Barbara Rossing writes: "when biblical prophets preached destruction, the purpose of their threats was almost always to warn of the consequences of destructive behavior, not to furnish play by play information about events in the future. The prophet's goal is to wake people up and turn people's hearts to God's vision of justice and generosity for the world. The future is yet to be determined. There is hope that judgment can be averted." (15)
In the past weeks we have read in Hebrews about the suffering of Jesus, which has made him perfect. In today's pericope we read that this perfection is given to us. Through the work of God, we too are sanctified and have been perfected. The writer of Hebrews puts theological emphasis on Jesus as perfect and the one who makes others perfect. This term does not connote a sense of being without flaw but rather of being complete, full, or accomplished. In parallel with the questions the disciples asked, "what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" our reading points to Christ as the sign and fulfillment of our fears, incompleteness, and chaos. Jesus is the one who accomplishes all things. Jesus will bring renewed life into this world.
The passage from Hebrews sets forth the foundation of our Lutheran Christian faith: through Christ we are made right with God. Using the theme of the high priest, which we have heard throughout these past weeks, the writer of this letter names the truth that bewilders us and holds us captive. By the work of Christ we are brought into lasting, transformative, and life-giving relationship with God. Christ has brought us into redeemed relationship not only with God but also with one another.
This is the same theme Luther articulated in his famed treatise "The Freedom of a Christian." He writes, "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant to all, subject to all." (16) The writer of Hebrews and Luther remind us that the sacrifice of Jesus, the high priest, has once and for all saved all people. This assurance and hope is not the end but pulls us into a cycle of like self-giving. "Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, as you see the Day approaching" (Heb 10:24-25).
The day is approaching. This is an experience of both fear and great hope. Our faith calls us to pay attention to the suffering of the world, live in service to one another through our freedom in God, and live with the hope and vision that God will do a new thing in our midst. Indian novelist, activist, and essayist Arundhati Roy describes the gift, power, and fear of the eschatology in her book War Talk. "The time has come, the walrus said. Perhaps things will get worse and then better. Perhaps there's a small god up in heaven readying herself for us. Another world is not only possible, she's on her way. Maybe many of us won't be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing." (17)
God is most certainly on her way, blowing Her spirit among us. And when we pay attention and listen carefully, we, too, hear Her breathing. SKO
13. Eugene Petersen, Reversed Thunder (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 9.
14. Ched Myers, Who Will Roll Away the Stone? (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994), 236.
15. Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1989), 89-90.
16. Martin Luther, "The Freedom of a Christian," trans. W. A. Lambert, rev. Harold J. Grimm, Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 277.
17. Arundhati Roy, War Talk (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2003), 75).
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Author:||Olson, Sara K.|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2006|
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