November 18, 2018

REVEALING GOD’S FUTURE

BIBLE READINGS
Mark 13:1-8 
Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-25

REFLECTION

In many parts of the Muslim world today, arranged marriage is the norm. People living in these parts of the world are strongly expected to live up to this ideal.

I once watched a clip on a Muslim portal on the internet that talks about this issue. It reminds Muslim fathers to make sure that their daughters do not have boyfriends. It gives a severe warning. It says that a father runs the risk of being burnt in hell if his daughter has a boyfriend and end up marrying him. 

Look, I think all of us here have different idea about what is the best pathway to a healthy marriage. But the clip shows to us how religious belief on God’s judgement can be used to scare people.

But Muslims are not the only people who are guilty of this kind of approach. Christians often fall into the same trap. Most of us have heard fire and brimstone sermons based on what scholars call as Apocalyptic writings. These are the writings in the Bible that reveal God’s plan for the future. Often, these writings talk about catastrophe and disasters that will happen in the end of time. As such, some people use these writings to scare people into doing something that they want them to do.

But the original intention of Apocalyptic writings in the Bible is not to scare people off, but to give hope. This morning, two of our readings fall into this Apocalyptic category. The first one is from the book of Daniel. 

The book of Daniel is full of visions about the future. These visions concern mainly the powerful kingdoms and rulers in ancient time. These kingdoms and rulers had often brought misery to other smaller nations around them, including Israel. These superpowers could easily destroy these small sates, desecrate their holy places, and kill their people.

Daniel’s visions were thus to give the assurance that Israel was not completely helpless. Behind all the powerful forces that ruled the world, there was another force that was more powerful: God’s. Evil kingdoms would not prevail forever. God would destroy them and bring justice back into the land.

In the vision that we hear today, Daniel saw God raising a ‘prince’ who would fight for Israel. The word prince in the book Daniel could also mean angel, God’s messenger. In other words, God would fight on Israel’s behalf and God would make things right. Israel may have been a small and insignificant nation, but its protector was powerful.

Writings, like the book of Daniel, were often born in the midst of oppression or persecution. It is thus hard for us, living in a peaceful nation like Australia, to understand or to appreciate these writings. We tend to ignore them. We tend to put them in the ‘hard-to-deal-with’ basket. We like to consider them as those ‘quirky’ readings in the Bible that don’t suit our modern or affluent taste.

But these writings can speak to people living in a war devastated area; or of those who live under social or political oppression. These writings can also speak to people living on the margins of our society; people who are left behind by the current system; people who are discriminated because of their race or gender or sexuality or disability. These writings offer hope that, despite evil in the world, God will make things right.

One of the fastest growing Christian denominations in the poor and developing world today is Pentecostalism. And there are many reasons why Pentecostalism seems to readily connect with the people in these regions.

One reason is its extensive use of Apocalyptic writings like the book of Daniel or Revelation. See, many people in these nations are poor. Many are left behind by the global capitalist economy. 

The Apocalyptic writings remind them that their suffering and condition are not permanent. The writings acknowledge that their condition is not their fault; their suffering is not the result of their laziness or foolishness. It reminds them that their poor condition is the result of great evil that controls the world.

But God will make things right. If they are faithful in their suffering, they will receive the reward in the end. 

We who live in an affluent society like Australia should listen to this message. Everything is not always right in the world. Despite the progresses that we have made in technology or ethical standard, there is still evil in the world. Evil may be hidden from our sight, but it doesn’t mean that it’s hold over people’s lives are not real. Without knowing, we may even be a part of that evil structure that put many in misery today.

Friends, nothing that we create is perfect. There will always be cracks in our creation and there will always be people who fall through those cracks.

Even the great temple in Jerusalem had cracks. It was built during the time of Herod the Great. In some parts of the temple, it was eight-story high and its highest peak reached 17 stories. And we’re talking about a building made in first century.

The stones that made up the temple were not less impressive. Some stones weigh 50 tonnes and one particular stone weighs up to 300 tonnes. Think about the kind of engineering in first century that was needed to put those stones into a building.

And as if these things were not enough, the temple was placed in the highest spot in Jerusalem. The front part of the temple was made out of plates of gold. No doubt, it was created to impress anyone who visited the city. A Jewish historian named Josephus said that it ‘lacks nothing’ that could dazzle people’s mind and eyes.

The temple was indeed a testimony of human ingenuity and hard work. It is considered as one of the architectural wonders of the first century world.[1] Yet, Jesus said that none of its stones would be left upon another. Nothing would be left standing. This human edifice would become a ruin.

It must have been hard for his disciples to listen to this. After all, the temple was still standing tall before them. But Jesus reminded them to not put their hope on any structure that humans created. 

Indeed, anything that we create is subject to decay. Even worse, evil can penetrate, even saturate, our creation. 

Last Sunday, we commemorated 100 years since the declaration of peace that ended WWI. If you had lived then, you would be forgiven to think that the declaration would end all wars; that the world had seen enough destruction and it had no appetite for another global war anymore. No one then would ever know that the peace declaration would only produce a deadlier war; that highly developed and advanced nations would still seek to annihilate one another in WWII.

No, nothing that we built is perfect. It may be hard for us to accept this, but this is a part of the Gospel of Christ. We are to acknowledge that there is a demonic and sinful power at work within us and in the world. As such, anything that we create can be influenced by evil.

But it’s not enough only to acknowledge this. We are to give hope that God will take action. As such, we are called to be God’s hands and feet to restore hope and justice in the world.

Yes, it’s important that we don’t deny or ignore evil, but we must avoid the other side of the coin too. We are not to be paralysed by fear or be obsessed with negative news. The main point of Apocalyptic writings in the Bible is this: evil is real, but its power is only temporary. In the end, this world will be replaced by the new one that God is creating. We are not only to look and wait for tragedy to happen, and to live a fearful and constrained life. We are to be restless: searching for and working hard to create a better world for all people.

To do that, we are to listen more to people on the margin. Why? Because these people are the ones who have seen evil in the eyes. These people are those who have experienced first-hand the demonic power that rules the world. As such, they are the ones who can show to us where evil resides and how to deal with it.

Friends, Apocalyptic writings invite us to imitate what life would be like when God’s reign breaks in. The writings invite us to bring the future into a present reality 

We are thus to live our life today like the way we are going to live in heaven. The letter to the Hebrews ask us to ‘provoke’ one another to love and to do good deeds. In the letter, to ‘provoke’ can also mean to ‘irritate’.[2] Yes, we have to ‘irritate’ one another not to annoy or to make other people angry at us. We are to ‘irritate’ means that we are to disturb one another’s complacency and comfort. We are to push and challenge one another to act in love and to do good things.

We are to ground our life in God. The author of Psalm 16 found security and wholeness by obeying God’s commandments. We too will find security not by trusting in human institution, but by following God’s way. Just like what Psalm 16 declares: those who keep God before them and at their right hand shall not be moved. The stones that made up the mighty temple in Jerusalem had been moved. But those whose trust is in God; those who follow the way that Jesus has shown to us, will not be moved.

Friends, this world is full of evil. We too can become evil. We shall not deny this fact. But God is not finished with this world and with us, and neither should we. We are to be agents and messenger of hope in the midst of war and rumours of war and famine and disasters. We are to be lights in the midst of darkness. And God has promised that no darkness will ever be able to quench that light.

Amen.
Toby Keva

[1] From a sermon by Brian K. Blount for November 15, 2015 - B51: The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B 2015 (www.asermonforeverysunday.com)

[2] Katherine A. Shaner, Commentary on Hebrews 10:11-14, [15-18], 19-25 (November 18, 2018)