A little over two years ago, syndicated advice columnist and general provocateur Dan Savage and his husband, Terry, launched a national online media campaign to give hope to the thousands of LGBT youth who consider or attempt suicide each year. The campaign, which you’ll remember was titled “It Gets Better,” grabbed the nation’s attention as ordinary people and celebrities, from our own ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson to President Barack Obama, created short videos of hope and encouragement that were posted online. These video clips were like messages in a bottle, cast out on the wide sea of the internet, in the hopes that they would land on the lonely shores of those considering an end to life when bullying at school and intolerance at home had left them with nothing but despair.
The rise of the internet has revolutionized our society no less than the invention of the printing press, which — in the sixteenth century — made printed literature accessible to every household and resulted in a literacy explosion. Here, at the front end of the digital age, it’s hard to know just how the internet is shaping and reshaping our lives. It has certainly given us access to news, images and stories like we’d never before imagined. No longer tied to “all the news that’s fit to print,” I can go online to read about the attacks in Gaza this past week at online versions of The New York Times, or Haaretz, or Al Jazeera. Or, if I were better connected to the networks of American, Israeli and Palestinian activists working on the ground and throughout all levels of government, I could get my news via email, blogs, or Twitter accounts.
A generation ago this kind of talk seemed like a novelty. We understood that global communications were changing, but it was hard to tell that the world itself was really changing as a result. Two years ago we sat, transfixed, by images of what came to be known as the “Arab Spring,” as movements of youth and progressive activists began a transformation of their homelands powered by the revolutionary information and communications infrastructure of the internet.
We’ve come a long way from the bottle, but we still need the message.
Over two thousand years ago, before the life and ministry of Jesus, the book of Daniel served as the message in a bottle to the Jewish community suffering under the murderous tyranny of King Antiochus IV Epiphanus, ruler of the Seleucid empire. The Seleucids were inheritors of the Greek political and cultural customs of Alexander the Great’s empire, and they ruled in Jerusalem and the surrounding lands before the Romans who ruled in Jesus’ time. During the reign of King Antiochus IV Epiphanus, a name taken upon his rise to power which means “God Manifest,” there was a Jewish revolt — the Maccabean revolt — which is commemorated each year with the celebration of Hanukkah. The Maccabees were revolting against the king’s action to outlaw Jewish religious rites and customs and the desecration of the temple. The book of Second Maccabees describes the situation like this,
“The altar was covered with abominable offerings that were forbidden by the laws. People could neither keep the sabbath, nor observe the festivals of their ancestors, nor so much as confess themselves to be Jews.” (2 Macc. 6:5-6)
It was into this context of extreme political, cultural, religious and personal persecution that the book of Daniel emerged, in a form of literature every bit as politically subversive as the tweets that fueled the Arab Spring: apocalyptic. Even Daniel’s name, which means “God is my judge,” was a challenge to the king who named himself, “God Manifest.” Speaking to a community bullied into complete silence, the book of Daniel promised,
“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of great 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, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Dan. 12:1-2)
We may wonder where comfort and hope are to be found in images of the dead rising from their graves, but to the Jews — those who had survived the massacre of thousands in their community — the message of hope was clear: justice is stronger than death.
Apocalyptic literature appears throughout scripture, wherever the people are facing the horrors of oppression. The portion we hear from Mark’s gospel today is known as “the little apocalypse,” and in it we can spot the common elements of this genre: predictions of a radical upheaval of power accompanied by signs of chaos in the heavens and on earth. Here Jesus is responding to the disciples, who are captivated by the power and majesty of the Temple, forecasting that “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mk 13:2)
Like Daniel, Jesus describes the times to come as filled with violence and war. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” (Mk 13:8) Again, sitting in the relative comfort of our modern existence, where wars take place somewhere else, where the draft has been replaced by recruiting campaigns among the poor, where death is delivered by drones, it may be hard for us to hear good news in Jesus’ dire warnings.
But to those living on the ground, in the war, among the poor, where the bombs land, there is good news here indeed; and it is to these people that God is speaking, through the book of Daniel, through Jesus. The message, once again, is this: justice is stronger than death. God’s justice, taking on form and flesh in the person of Jesus, the ruler who is truly “God Manifest,” will not rest until the world’s worship of violence in all its forms is deconstructed. It will get better.
The good news in apocalyptic literature is the promise made to people who feel completely disempowered that God is on their side, that God will be who God has been, and that the powers of this world are no match for the power of God to liberate and restore what God first created.
The good news this morning is that God sees your struggle. God feels the despair brought on by poverty. God experiences the depression of ceaseless pain, in our bodies or in our minds. God knows the loneliness of abandonment by family and friends. God suffers the explosions as each bomb lands on her good creation. God is moved by creation’s groaning, and is laboring in us and through us to bring a new creation into being. It will get better.
We hear something about that labor in this morning’s upcoming testimony about our own Elijah’s Pantry, one in a series of testimonies that are a part of the fall Stewardship Campaign.
Whenever she speaks about the work of Elijah’s Pantry, Pat Kuhlman is fond of saying that those who work in the pantry have “job security.” It’s a funny way of naming a sad truth, that hunger and poverty are more secured in our culture than our own livelihoods. But this, too, is the kind of institutional oppression that Jesus is naming when he promises that the temples are coming down.
If all we do is talk about it, then we are like the religious people described in the passage from Hebrews this morning, “every priest [that] stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.” (Heb. 10:11)
Our hope each time we gather together as an assembly, each time we listen to the Word of God in scripture, in preaching, in song, in testimony is that we will live into that same letter’s invitation to the Church of that time and every time, as we wait for the new creation coming to us, and through us, and for us and the whole world:
“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, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb. 10:24-25)
In the name of Jesus, God manifest among us. Amen.