An Apocalyptic Sermon
Liska Stefko (Click here to listen)
If you’re anything like me, your heart sank when you saw the numbers in bold newsprint:
500 Hamas rockets fired into Israel.
466 Israeli air strikes.
3 Israeli civilians dead.
16 Palestinian civilians dead.
75,000 reservists called up.
If you’re anything like me, your heart sank even more when you saw the graphic circulated on Facebook. In the background is a skyline with the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and Sydney Opera house. In the foreground is a downpour of rockets. In bold letters is the question, “What would you do?” In the parlance of Facebook:
23,000 people “liked” this.
61,000 people shared this.
The question “What would you do?” is meant to bring the conflict home, to stir up our own sense of urgency, to take a faraway conflict, an abstraction to many of us, and make it uncomfortably close. When something’s far away, we can operate under a certain level of ignorance or denial. When it hits close to home, a new level of alertness kicks in. We change our behavior, for a time at least. Fear is a powerful motivator.
“What would you do?”
Would you serve in combat?
Would you vote for a candidate who promises to protect you?
Would you take off your shoes in airports?
The conflict between Israel and Hamas conflict is, in large part, lived out in borderlands: To the north, in the Golan Heights, toward the coast, on the edge of Gaza, throughout the West Bank, in settlements in contested lands. At military check points throughout. If you’re a well-to-do resident of one of the major cities, you might be able to stay on your side of the wall, and keep the conflict at arm’s length.
But a few days ago, the conflict got closer to home. Air raid sirens wailed over Tel Aviv, the commercial capital, and Jerusalem, the political and religious capital. It was the first time in more than 20 years, since the first Gulf War. People didn’t know what to do. They didn’t remember.
One columnist for Ha’aretz was sitting in a café having a beer with his cousin. He reported that his cousin didn’t even react to the siren at first—she thought it was just an ambulance. Around him, people stood up, ready to run, but in what direction? Beside him, a teenage Israeli soldier pulled out a cell phone and made a call: “Mom, what do we do?”
Consider these tips for responding, circulated on the Web, on TV and radio, and through every form of media possible:
- Figure out how much time you have. That depends on how far you are from where the rocket has been launched. It could be as few as 15 seconds, or as many as 90 seconds.
- If you’re outside, get inside. This could be your home, or any large enclosed public space, like a mall or an underground parking garage.
- If you’re inside, go down. Stay off the top 2 floors. An inner stairwell is a good place to be.
- If you’re driving, stop. Get off the road.
- When the sirens stop, wait 10 minutes, and go back to normal life.
Adds the columnist: If you were sitting at a café, and ran off without paying the bill, be sure to go back and pay. Leave a big tip.
In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus in Jerusalem. Even then, the center of religion and power. He’s standing in front of the temple, surrounded by his disciples, fishermen from small-town Galilee. They ooh and ahh at the splendor of the temple—the massive pillars, the gold-covered walls: “Look, teacher, what large stones! What large buildings!”
For centuries, the Temple mount had been the site of conquest, destruction, and even more lavish rebuilding. Solomon’s temple—dashed to the ground by the Babylonians. It was later restored–only to be brought down again by the Greeks. And then, in Jesus’ time, there was Herod’s great building project, his pitch to win the affection of his Jewish subjects, and to impress the authorities back in Rome.
When Jesus says in response: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; All will be thrown down.” In that moment, it must have seem terribly farfetched to them, to imagine that those large stones would one day fall.
Jesus’ response is a little startling, but it isn’t surprising. Not if we remember that this is the same man who had entered the temple in a fit of righteous anger and chased out all the vendors and moneychangers. Not if we remember how he was constantly being put to the test by the temple elites, looking for a way to trip him up, so they’d have a reason to kill him.
It’s not hard to imagine that when Jesus looked at the temple, he saw a palace that housed a privileged few, brokering sacrifices, standing on ceremony… While outside the walls were the ordinary faithful, the poor, those in need of healing, the widows offering their two cents’ worth.
When Jesus says that the Temple will fall, he brings the conflict closer to home. His closest friends ask, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to happen?”
Will there be a siren?
How much time will we have to run for cover: 15 seconds, or 90?
Where should we go?
What should we do?
These are difficult words that we hear in today’s Gospel. They’re what we’d call “apocalyptic”: they talk about wars, and rumors of wars. Nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes and famines and natural disasters. These are images of an end time, an end time of destruction and judgment. Apocalyptic imagery brings this end time closer to home. Closer to the here and now. The Greek word “apocalypsis” means an “unveiling” or a “revealing.”
In its negative form, apocalyptic imagery launches us into “fight or flight” mode. It takes our fear as our primary motivator. It places us in front of a clear and present danger, and asks “What would you do?” Hunker down? Lash out? Fight back?
In its positive form, though, apocalyptic imagery can call us to change our behavior. It can claim LOVE as our primary motivator. An all-encompassing love, that includes fear not for our own well-being, but a driving compassion for the well-being of others. It can call us to open our eyes, to be alert in a new way. It can lead us to ask the question: “What are we doing?”
It’s the kind of “wake-up call” that we experience when we survive a brush with death. We survive the heart attack, we walk away from the car accident unharmed. We wake up. We pay attention to God in a new way. We promise to change our lives, to amend our ways. We give thank offerings. The future comes near and pressing: “What will I do with my life?” Becomes “What am I doing with my life?”
If we look back one chapter in Mark’s gospel, we find Jesus naming LOVE as our primary motivator.
When one of the scribes challenges him to name which commandment is the greatest, he says:
“The first is, “Hear O Israel: the Lord your God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
His challenger impressed, responds, “You are right, Teacher, this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.” And Jesus’ response to him: “You are not far from the reign of God.”
I think that THIS is what Jesus wants to unveil, or reveal: the inbreaking of a new era, the reign of God come near, a new reality, a new social order. In this new order, it’s not the temple of stone that houses God, but a temple of flesh—Jesus himself, the Word made flesh. It’s not in the stony hearts of the ruling classes that true power dwells, but the heart of flesh, the servant’s heart. It’s not in the elaborate economy of temple sacrifice that salvation can be found, but through the broken body of Jesus.
In John’s Gospel, this is spelled out for us in the cleansing of the temple. When the Jews ask Jesus for a sign, he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They reply, “‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ but he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
This new order, the reign of God, is not some abstract, far off reality. It’s already happening in the here and now. It’s embodied in a community that takes as its primary motivator not fear, but love—the love of God and the love of neighbor. A community that responds not with violence, but with love and hope.
A community that stands in front of the threats of our times, and answers the question “What should we do?” With tips like these:
- Figure out how much time you have. The rest of our life, however long it is. Each day, each moment, is a gift.
- If you’re outside, get inside. Find a community, a place that can surround and shelter you, nourish you and feed you. Challenge you and love you. That’s what we all did when came to church this morning.
- If you’re inside, go down. If you’re already on the inside of your community, go beneath the surface. Go deeper. Reach out to those around you who may be new, or lonely, or sick, or struggling. Consider where God may be calling you to give your gifts for the building up of the community.
- If you’re driving, stop. Whatever you’re driving toward, stop speeding. Get off the road. Be still. Make space for God to speak into your heart. Give time to your inner journey.
- Go back to normal life. Whatever you were doing before you came here today, go back to it. But in all that you do, show your generosity and your gratitude. Give thanks for the precious gift of life.
Liska Stefko is the Associate Priest at the Church of the Redeemer, Toronto, Ontario. She lived and worked in the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill for over ten years, and continues to be actively involved in its life and ministry.