March 12, 2016 by

Ragnarök: A Sermon on the Marcan Apocalypse

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It sates itself on the life-blood of fated men,
paints red the powers’ homes with crimson gore.
Black become the sun’s beams
in the summers that follow,
weathers all treacherous.

These lines are not a description of the scriptural “Day of the Lord,” do not come from the Revelation to John, nor from the Book of Daniel, nor even from today’s text, the 13th Chapter of our gospel, a section often called the Marcan Apocalypse. The text is, instead, from Völuspá, an ancient Nordic epic, and from a particular section that focuses on Ragnarök, their equivalent of our apocalypse, when, in a period of great conflict and destruction, the current world ends and a new world is born.

So here’s the good news. Christians aren’t the only crazy ones. Other cultures have taken a good hard look at the world we live in and particularly at human behavior and decided that the best thing would be to start again from scratch.

There are few forms of crazy quite like the crazy of the various Christian factions that fight over how the world will end. Are you Dispensationalist? Post-millenialist? Maybe neither, maybe you believe the Second Coming has already happened, and you are a Preterist. Will Jews be converted before the Whore of Babylon arrives, as some believe? Will Jerusalem become once again a holy city, or will it be purged in nuclear fire? Will a president who believes in apocalyptic push a red button, launching missiles to destroy sinners? Is the Affordable Care Act a mark of the Beast, ushering in the destruction of humankind, as some seem to believe?

Bearded bards eating herring on the North Sea and writing about the end of the world. Hebrews looking at the desecration of the Temple under the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes, or two centuries later the threatened desecration under the Roman Emperor Caligula. An early Christian on the island of Patmos seeing the persecution under the Emperor Domitian and imagining that things can’t go on like this for long.
Evangelical Christians pushing domestic and foreign policies guided by their hope for rapture. All of these people look at the world and don’t have happy thoughts. Ironically, none of the ancient authors of apocalyptic lived in an age where humans could bring about the end of the world, even if it seemed deserved. It has only been in our lifetime that humans have had the power to destroy all life on the planet.

The 13th chapter of Mark is an outlier, odd, not like any other part of Christ’s teaching, for while Jesus is clearly oriented to a fulfillment of divine will, a reordering of creation that is an earthly reflection of the Kingdom of God, he consistently suggests that it is already happening, is ongoing. The Kingdom of God is at hand. You can choose right now to be a part of the kingdom.

Figuring out how you feel about apocalyptic may seem unimportant, a trivial matter at best given the challenges we face day-to-day, but I want to suggest that it isn’t, that it is incredibly important, for those who believe the world is broken beyond human repair, that it must be cleansed with divine fire, have absolutely no reason to try to make the world a better place.

The only motivation for someone who longs for Armageddon is to insure their personal righteousness so that they make the cut, maybe extending that pursuit of sanctity to their family and friends, but they have no reason to care about the planet or about non-believers. War and destruction and violence are all okay, fit within their world view, since they see the world ending in violence. They believe, literally, in that offensive t-shirt worn by so many in our military, a shirt that says “Kill them all. Let God sort them out.”

The gospels tell us that Jesus is fluent with and uses Hebrew scripture and Hebrew tropes, sometimes reconfiguring them, turning, for example, the Messiah figure of the Davidic Covenant and the Son of Man figure of Daniel into the Suffering Servant from late Isaiah. Jesus certainly believes, like every other Jew of his age, that God will judge human conduct, so he sees a day of fulfillment, a day of judgment. But he also says that the Kingdom of God is at hand, breaking into the world even as he moves from village to village announcing the good news and making people whole, in body and in spirit.

He commands his followers to do something, to do justice, to act with compassion for the world. The ancient Hebrews saw God as just one more ruler, demanding and vindictive. Jesus gave them instead a portrait of God as generous and loving, as a parent who wants us to come home. In the teaching of Jesus, don’t earn God’s grace. We don’t need to earn forgiveness. We didn’t earn our very existence. These are all gifts.

Jesus offers us a chance to live in a kingdom of radical divine love, forgiveness and generosity, then demands that we offer what God gives us to others. We know this, he teaches again and again that God will forgive us as long as we forgive others. He demands that we feed and welcome and heal. This does not sound like a man who hates creation and humanity and wants it all burned away in cosmic conflagration.

Is the Marcan apocalypse authentic? The apocalyptic in the latter half of the fiction of Daniel? The Revelation to John of Patmos? Many good and faithful Christians have rejected apocalyptic, including Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who thought all such passages should be struck from scripture.

It is not enough for us to decide that the brutality of Armageddon is inconsistent with the loving God of Jesus, then to sit back, smug in our intellectual tower, for those who believe the world is a broken and dark place do not sit back quietly.

Enough with the pessimism and enough with the hopeless resignation. Enough! We are called to be people of hope, people of action. Let us act like we care about the world our grandchildren will inherit. Let us act as if we believe in the power of love and its expression in a community gathered in the name of Christ. We have the resources to make the world a better place, to call ourselves and our fellow humans to our better selves, to insure that the good news of an Amazing God can live on, but we throw up our hands and give up.

Don’t give up! We are going to hit dead ends, spend time lost and wandering in circles, but sooner or later the sky will clear and we will see a light that guides us.

Those who believe the world is a broken and corrupt place are not silent, and we cannot afford to let them control the narrative, control our governments.

We can’t just classify them as wing nuts and then ignore them. We must counter their propaganda. We must tell the world that there are plenty of Christians who believe the world is good and God is good and that humans have so much potential for creativity and compassion, and then we must go about that work, helping people believe.

To do that we must act as if we believe it ourselves.

Sure there are hard times. But you would think to listen to us that we believed God is dead and the Holy Spirit has left the building.

Resignation and defeat, are these your choice?

Disney recently tried to reignite a little passion for the unrealized potential of the Tomorrowland sections of Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, stuck as they are in a campy mid-20th century version of a future that has come and gone. They made an eponymous film starring George Clooney that was a box office flop, but that I actually loved. In it, the young heroine, a hard-headed optimist, realizes that all the talk of collapse and destruction was just so much self-fulfilling prophecy, that we have become resigned to our own destruction and rush headlong toward it, celebrate it in film and fiction.

Choose the kingdom. Choose hope. Maybe you won’t feel it yet, maybe you’ll have to fake it. That’s okay. Even if things really are hopeless and broken, isn’t it better to believe and fight until the end rather than sit around whimpering?

Y2K, the Mayan Calendar, Thor’s Hammer and the Mark of the Beast. Enough! God is good and the world is good and we have been given everything we need, in the words of the prophets, in the ministry and teaching of Jesus, in the witness of amazing brave and beautiful women and men who have taught and fought and painted and sang and campaigned and worked hour after hour because they believe.

Speak up. Believe. Choose voices of hope and daring.

We do not long for Ragnarök. We trust in resurrection. May it ever be so.

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