We’re at the end of the church year and approaching the beginning of Advent. It’s a time in liturgical churches when we focus on last things: Christ’s coming again as king and judge, the consummation of history and the world as we know it, the hope of new heaven and earth. Some of our lectionary readings, hymns, and prayers have an apocalyptic tone.
This should resonated with us because Americans are apocalyptic people. We’re always looking for signs of the end of the world as we know it. When we experience one mass shooting after another and constantly raging fires and floods, it’s easy to think apocalyptic thoughts.
“Apocalypse” is the Greek word for “revelation”. Usually it refers to a special revelation, such as The Revelation to St. John the Seer, the last book in our Bible. Governor John Winthrop must have had an apocalyptic vision when he said at the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, “we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us…” President Ronald Reagan referred to that vision all the time when he called America “a shining city upon a hill”. The idea of the image is that we are to be an example to other nations. Our sense of American specialness is even engraved on our money: Novus ordo seclorum, “The new order of the ages”. But when the light of the city on the hill is darkened by storm clouds of bigotry and xenophobia or the new order isn’t going the way we think it should, some folks get that apocalyptic fear that it’s all going to come crashing down.
Politically, we seem to live in perpetual fear that our society is going to come crashing down. When I was growing up in the 1950s it was the “red scare,” which didn’t refer to Republicans but Communists and the fear that Soviet agents were infiltrating our institutions. How interesting that we’re again concerned about Russia undermining confidence in our democracy by tampering with our elections.
In the 2016 election many voters supported Donald Trump out of fear that they were losing their way of life. To be fair this was not just a resurgence of white supremacy, although Trump stoked those fires, but many of Trump’s voters had voted for Obama in the previous presidential elections. But opponents of Trump saw his election as a danger to our democratic institutions. We have become so divided as a nation with clashing views of social life that some critics have even said it has spelled the end of comedy as comedians go for applause lines rather than laughter, making caustic political comments rather than telling jokes.
Today we hear Jesus speaking in apocalyptic terms of the temple being demolished and prophesying that “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 birth pangs, for the end is still to come.”
Jesus had been teaching in the temple and as he left the precincts his disciples marveled at the immense stones that supported the Jewish Temple that had been erected by King Herod the Great. Jesus responded that “not one stone will be left on another”. It was an apocalyptic prediction that came true. Forty years later in the Roman-Jewish War Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans after a lengthy siege and in 70 AD they did destroy the Temple. All that’s left of it today is the Western wall, the Wailing Wall – the giant stones that extended the platform on the temple mount so that the great Temple with all its courtyards could be built on top of it.
Jesus had an apocalyptic vision that the great Temple would be destroyed. But there’s nothing in his prophecy that predicts the end of the world – although to the Jews of his day the destruction of the Temple and the end of the world sounded like one and the same thing. But that’s not what Jesus says. In fact, anticipating the false prophets who would look for signs that would be a map to the future, Jesus said that these signs of destruction, whether of the Temple being destroyed or wars between nations or the calamities of nature, are not the end. In fact, Jewish life as we have known it for the last two thousand years was born in a new system replaced the Temple and its sacrificial cult. That new system was the study of Torah in the synagogue and common prayers offered as a spiritual sacrifice, a practice that was already developing at the time of Jesus in the Jewish diaspora.
I’d like to focus on Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple. On one level, it is no more than what the late French-born philosopher René Girard called the imitative origin of violence. Imitative means that we imitate what we experience. It results in retaliation. If you hit me, I’ll hit you back. In fact, I’ll hit you back even harder than you hit me. You see it in the behavior of children. One child is playing with a toy. Another child sees the toy and wants to play with it too. So he takes it away from the child who had it and she fights to get it back. Soon there’s a war going on in the nursery. Much violence in the world is caused by retaliation for real or perceived injustices or transgressions, whether it is an individual or a group afflicting terror on others or whole nations going to war against each other.
So what Jesus could have been talking about is this: “If you keep retaliating against Roman oppression with more violence, Rome will keep upping the ante. And Rome will win because Rome is bigger than you and Jerusalem will be destroyed.” Forty years later that is exactly what happened.
But on another level, what Jesus is saying here is similar to what he was saying by his actions when he purged the temple, driving out the money changers and animal sellers and closing down the sacrificial system for the day: the old answers, the official sacred violence of the sacrificial system, is never going to set people free from this cycle of fear and violence.
Jesus unmasks our “officially sanctioned” violence – whether religious sacrifice, war, capital punishment, etc. – as just another crude imitation of the violence of those whom we fear. In Jesus’ actions in the Temple, which actually occurred in the gospel narrative just before his apocalyptic prophecy about not one stone left on another, the whole system was crashing down.
Why would he perform such a prophetic action? If we turn to the reading from the letter to the Hebrews, we hear a reminder that the heart of the sacrificial system in the temple is the need to offer something to God in order to procure God’s forgiveness. That’s what the atoning sacrifice is all about. And Jesus was saying that this is entirely unnecessary because it is based on an entirely wrong understanding of God – a view that misrepresents God as angry and judgmental and is only reluctantly willing to let anybody off the hook without punishment.
That’s not what God intended by instituting the sacrificial cult. The sacrifices prescribed in the Torah were a way for God’s people to relate to God in acts of praise and thanksgiving, in supplication and repentance. But people who are afraid that they will be eternally punished for their past deeds will go to great extremes to prove their repentance to a god whose mercy, in their view, is only begrudgingly given because that’s the way they forgive. They haven’t believed that they were entirely forgiven and therefore are not able to entirely forgive.
Often when I hear some right wing Christian family-values zealot criticizing the morals of other people, I often think of Shakespeare’s line, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks". This is spoken by Queen Gertrude in response to the insincere overacting of a character in the play within a play created by Prince Hamlet to prove his uncle’s guilt in the murder of his father. So, too, it has transpired that some family-values zealots have had affairs on the side, or had committed some transgression in the past that drives them to be the most zealous, most vehement opponent of “sins” they still fear being judged for.
The letter to the Hebrews promises us that we can have confidence to enter the presence of God in full assurance of faith with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with the pure water, because God gladly forgives all our sins. God forgave us in Baptism and promises forgiveness by returning to our baptism. So there is no longer any need for a further offering for sin. Jesus’ once-for-all atonement on the cross is an all-sufficient atonement; no further atonement is needed. No further scapegoat is needed.
All this was revealed when God came among us in the person of Jesus, calling us to follow him, to imitate him and his way of non-retaliation, and modeled for us the way of gratuitous mercy that overcomes hatred and violence with self-sacrificial love and forgiveness even of his enemies.
René Girard saw Jesus’ atoning sacrifice as the resolution of the imitative character of violence. We will imitate what we see and experience. But with Girard’s help in understanding more clearly the workings of the cycles of violence, the nature of Jesus’s way of salvation from this cycle becomes more apparent.
Although, as Jesus says, he had the authority to call down twelve armies of angels to violently repress his enemies, he knows that that would be to perpetuate the cycle of violence, not to break it. Self-sacrificial love and forgiveness are the only answers that will work. It is only when we know ourselves utterly forgiven that we are healed of our fear of judgment and are set free to offer ourselves for the life of the world. As forgiven people, we are not called to prove our zealousness in fierce crusades, imitating and outdoing our enemies. We are called instead to imitate Jesus by loving and forgiving our enemies. We are called to accompany the oppressed, put away our swords, and replacing our bullets with tubes of finger paint.
Jesus doesn’t just leave us with teaching. He communicates his life and forgiveness to us directly. Here at this meal of thanksgiving, we actually taste the self-giving love that can conquer the cycles of violence. Here we feed on the mercy that can sustain us for the journey through uncertain and terrifying times. Here you receive in your bodies and feed your souls with “the body of Christ, given for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”. Here are holy things for a holy people and you are utterly forgiven. Thanks be to God. Amen.