Texts for troubling times

Are these the ‘end times’? Despite appearances, probably not! This is the sermon I preached today about some of the apocalyptic writings we find in our Bible, at Barnes Methodist Church. The texts were: Daniel 12:1-13 and Mark 13:1-8.


“There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.” (Dan. 12:1) Reading those words on Thursday, as event unfolded at Parliament and in the Cabinet, I began to wonder if our reading from Daniel was referring to Brexit. But then I read on and knew it definitely was not: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky [and] lead many to righteousness”! Instead, our two readings today take us to two very dark periods of Biblical history, times that might even make Mrs May believe that things could always be worse!

Both readings come from times when the very existence of God’s people seemed in doubt and when the future was very uncertain. Both come from what is called the ‘apocalyptic’ genre of Biblical literature – from the Greek ‘apocalyto’ meaning ‘to reveal’ – and they sought to provide some insight into the heavenly truth behind the grim earthly reality faced by their first audiences. We shall seek this morning to understand a little of what lays behind these confusing writings, and discern whether they have anything to say to our own, troubled times.

The Temple

Solomons TempleWe need to begin with a little history and particularly the history of the great Temple in Jerusalem, which is central to the interpretation of both passages. I promise to be as brief as possible, though, and to illustrate what I am saying with some photos from my own time in Jerusalem a few years ago.

The first temple in Jerusalem was, the Bible tells us, built by Solomon, perhaps around 1000 BC or so. The scriptures provide a fairly detailed description of its dimensions and what it looked like, and there are numerous ‘artist’s impressions’ of its appearance on the web. By the time of the last kings of Judah it had become the centre for the worship of the one true God, Yahweh (or Jehovah). Around 586 BC, however, the Temple was destroyed by the invading Babylonians and left a pile of smouldering ruins, where faithful Israelites came to weep and lament (see Psalm 79).

After the return from Exile, the Temple was rebuilt, and is often referred to as the ‘Second Temple’. What it looked like we do not know, because no descriptions from that time have come down to us. All we can say is that the lack of money and resources after the disaster of defeat and exile meant that it was certainly not as impressive as its predecessor. As we read in Ezra, at its dedication, “old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house” (Ezra 3:12). Not the greatest architectural review! However, worship resumed and Jerusalem was once again the centre of the Jewish religion.

The ‘desolating sacrilege’

Antiochos_IV_EpiphanesA degree of mystery also surrounds what happened in the Temple a few hundred years later around the year 168 BCE. This is important because it is these events that lie behind much of the book of Daniel. At that time, Judea and a large part of the Middle East was under the rule of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes (here seen on one of his coins), the ruler of the Seleucid Empire. (The Seleucids are most easily described as the descendants of Alexander the Great and his army.) Judea had lived peaceably under their Hellenistic overlords for many years by this point, and had been allowed to live and worship their strange god in relative obscurity. For various reasons, though, they seemingly rebelled against this particular king. In turn, he sought to crush their insurrection and, we are told, in a fit of anger effectively tried to eradicate the Jewish faith. The inter-testamental book of 1 Maccabees tells us that he ordered the Jewish people to “profane sabbaths and festivals … to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised” (1 Macc. 1:45-48). All who refused to obey were threatened with execution.

The king also, we are told, defiled the great Temple in some way. The book of 2 Maccabees tells us that he polluted it by re-dedicating it to “Olympian Zeus” (2 Macc. 6:2). Our reading from Daniel today adds to this by telling us that he caused “the abomination that desolates” to be set up in the Temple (Dan. 12:11, cf. 9:27, 11:31), also known as the ‘desolating sacrilege’. Now, the trouble is that whatever was done in the Temple was so distressing, so blasphemous and so ‘abominable’ that no Biblical writer could quite bring himself to actually record exactly what the king did in the Temple that was so awful. Most people assume that the king ordered a statue of the Greek god Zeus to be erected on the temple mount but we are not completely sure. All we do know is that whatever the king did was considered so bad that the whole temple had to be purified and re-dedicated afterwards (2 Macc. 10:1-8).

Understandably, all of this caused great distress throughout the land, and it was against this background that much of the book of Daniel seems to have been written. Not the earlier stories in the book with which we are most familiar – Daniel in the lions’ den, the fiery furnace, etc. – but the later chapters, like the one we heard from today. Chapters that are written in strange-sounding language, often using allegory and complicated imagery to describe what is happening. I could go into much greater details about all this, but suffice to say for now that, for Daniel’s first audience, this was indeed, “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence” (Dan. 12:1). A time when their lives were threatened and their very existence as a separate people seemed in doubt. Ultimately, though, the popular rebellion was successful and, against all the odds, the little kingdom of Judah managed to regain its independence for some time.

The Temple in Jesus’ day

Second_Temple_viewIf we fast forward two hundred years or so to the time of Jesus, then the Temple in Jerusalem looks very different. It has been enlarged, enriched and greatly beautified by King Herod the Great. (Famous from the story of the Three Wise Men, of course.) In a bid to win popular support, he had initiated a massive building project on the Temple Mount some years before Jesus’ birth, which would not be completed until long after his death. It is this Temple that may be most familiar to us through pictures of reconstructions and models, like this famous one at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Arch_of_Titus_MenorahAs you can see, it was indeed an incredibly impressive structure and no wonder the disciples marvelled at it as they wandered through its precincts in Mark’s gospel (Mark 13:1). As we heard, though, Jesus warns them that all of this will soon be destroyed and in 70 AD that is precisely what happened. Once again, Judea is under the rule of a foreign empire, this time the Romans. Once again, the people rebel but this time ultimately unsuccessfully. And so, once again, the Temple is destroyed – this time never to be rebuilt. Whether Mark wrote his gospel before these terrible events or afterwards, we are not sure. It seems hard not to believe, though, that Jesus’s words on the Mount of Olives took on a much greater significance once his prophecy about the Temple’s destruction had come so distressingly true.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday in Jerusalem, it is possible to get some idea of how the Temple may have appeared and glimpse some of the destruction wrought by the rampaging Romans. The most famous surviving part of the Temple is, of course, the Western, or Wailing, Wall. This was not the wall of the Temple itself – which stood on top of what is now called Temple Mount – but the great supporting wall, built under King Herod to enable the massive extension of the Temple complex. Soon after the destruction of the Temple, scholars believe, this became a site for Jewish pilgrimage and prayer, primarily to lament the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the people, and it continues this function OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtoday. You can also catch sight of part of this wall underground in Jerusalem – a fascinating place to be in such an ancient city! – where the tour guides will happily show you some of the “large stones” that Jesus’ disciples marvelled at, one of which is allegedly the same weight as two fully-laden jumbo jets! You can also see the some of the stones of the Temple that were pushed off the mount by the Romans during its destruction and which have lain undisturbed ever since. It brings home vividly the scale of the devastation that Jesus warned his hearers about in our passage from Mark.


How long?

That is more than enough history and holiday photos for one Sunday morning, you will be delighted to hear! I hope, though, that that has given you some insight into the realities that lay behind our two passages today. And it is vital to stress that word, ‘reality’. What we have heard about today are not picture book fantasies. These were real people, living in real times and places, and facing real times of terror and persecution. Just because we do not have live footage from the BBC or CNN of their suffering does not make it any less real. These passages are clear examples of God’s Word breaking through into the reality of our won word, and it is vital we recognise that.

It also vital that we recognise how both passages are linked in so many ways. Both speak of the Temple. Both talk about times of terror and persecution. Both are addressed to audiences living in fear of the future. Both centre upon the seeming survival of the people of God. And both are also written in the strange, elliptical language of apocalyptic literature, which is so hard to understand.

1200px-Jerus-n4iCrucially, in both people want to know how long their suffering is going to last. The disciples quiz Jesus on the Mount of Olives: “when will this be”? (Mark 13:4). In Daniel, one of the mysterious figures standing by the river asks, “How long shall it be to the end of these wonders?” (Dan. 12:6). How long until a Brexit agreement is signed, ask our newspapers and commentators? In all cases, the answers are unclear and confusing!

In Mark, Jesus does not give the disciples a precise date and time, as perhaps they had hoped. Instead, he warns them about false teachers and describes some of the signs of the tribulation that is to come: “wars and rumours of wars …. earthquakes … famines” (Mark 13:7-8). Words that have been applied to every nation and every age since.

In Daniel, we come across a regular feature of apocalyptic writing: the use of numbers with apparently hidden meaning to denote individuals, events and particular time spans. The most famous example of this is ‘666’ in the book of Revelation. At times, this seems to have been used as a sort of code to protect the authors and readers at times of persecution. At others, though, we simply do not understand what lies behind verses like those we heard today from the end of the book of Daniel, and its references to 1,299 days and 1,335 days (Dan. 12:12). It has not stopped endless speculation, though, and I strongly discourage you from Googling these references on the internet. If you do, you will immediately discover that they refer to the Pope, Hitler, President Obama, the EU or pretty much anyone else you could imagine, and that the world ended last Thursday tea time! Instead, we need to echo Daniel’s prophetic words: “I heard but could not understand.” (Dan. 12:8). These are deeply mysterious writings, whose full meaning we shall not discover in our own lifetime, I believe.

Abiding hope

What on earth, then, are we meant to take from this confusing mess of history, temples and strange writings? Well, we take the other factor that links our two readings today.

What is most important in that passage from Daniel is not the talk about strange figures beside the river or the bewildering numbers. It is the hope that is given to Daniel of ultimate deliverance – the hope of the resurrection:

There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (Dan. 12:1-2)

For the first time in the Old Testament, a prophet is offered the hope that the dead shall not simply descend to Sheol, never to see the light of God’s brilliance again. (See, for example, Job 30:23.) Instead, there is the promise of eternal life: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky … like the stars for ever and ever.” (Dan. 12:3) We see clearly the unfolding revelation that is granted to God’s people in our scriptures; a God who continually reveals new truths about his plans for his people: “plans to prosper you and not to harm you” (Jer. 29:11, NIV).

resurrection-pieraThis promise to the prophet Daniel is realised and fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The same Jesus who sat on the hillside of the Mount of Olives, gazing down upon the splendour of the Temple. Who, like the martyrs of Daniel’s day and the good people of Jerusalem when the Romans destroyed the city, faced the reality of terror and murder at the cruel hands of those in authority. But who took the horror of the cross and turned it into the glory of the resurrection, by triumphing over the grave on the third day. An event as historical and real as any we have discussed this morning.

The writer of Hebrews, in one of the other set texts for today, expresses it far better than I ever could:

when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” … And the Holy Spirit … testifies to us …  saying … “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus … let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith … Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds … encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:12-25)

Daniel’s confidence, Christ’s confidence, and our confidence does not lay in our knowledge of history or of secret numbers. It does not lay in temples, buildings or institutions, for as we shall sing shortly: “Tower and temple fall to dust.”. It lays in the promise and the reality of what God has done through his only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. In his life, death and resurrection. It is that which allows us to speak to all peoples, in all times, in all places, offering hope in seemingly hopeless situations. It is that hope which allows good people to oppose evil and fight for justice even today in our world, where the tyrants are no longer kings and emperors but presidents, generals and dictators.

We are not meant to know the future, brothers and sisters. We are not meant to scan the pages of our scriptures or the distant horizon, looking for “wars and rumours of wars”. We are not meant to be prophets of doom, warning people that now, truly, the ‘end times’ are upon us. We are meant to point to the hope that Daniel offered his contemporaries and which Mark offered to his. The hope that lies in a God who is faithful and just, and who will ensure that in a world that often seems so violent, confusing and fallen, ultimately justice, truth and grace will always triumph. Let us seek to follow Daniel’s example, therefore, and in a dark world “shine like the brightness of the sky … like the stars for ever and ever.” (Dan. 12:3) Amen.

Subversive God,
temples of power
in which we would keep you
trapped and tamed:
lead us through violent times,
unafraid to speak for peace,
untempted by those
who promise easy answers;
may we follow him alone
who renews the world in love;
through Jesus Christ, who sits at God’s right hand.

(Prayer taken from ‘Prayers for an Inclusive Church‘.)


One thought on “Texts for troubling times

  1. Pingback: Not fake news, but good news! | Idle words

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