How can we be a non-anxious presence in the midst of the chaos, confusion and calamity of our lives?
Walking the Way of Sacred Unknowing
Luke 21:5-19 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Background and Development of the Text
This Biblical passage is in the genre of apocalyptic literature. “Apocalypse” (ἀποκάλυψις) is a Greek word meaning “revelation”, “an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known”. As a genre, apocalyptic literature often details the authors’ visions of the end times as revealed by an angel or other heavenly messenger. In today’s passage, Luke’s Jesus is the heavenly messenger.
Biblical scholars believe that the Gospel of Luke was probably written between 80 and 90 CE, after the Jewish War when Rome destroyed Jerusalem and tore down the temple. So it’s very curious that we read in Luke this conversation between Jesus and those who are admiring the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. By the time Luke was written, the response of Luke’s Jesus was the reality…”not one stone was left upon another; all was thrown down.”
So let’s start there. At the writing of Luke’s Gospel, Jews and Christians alike are an oppressed people, suffering greatly under the tyranny of Rome. Some might remember the best of times, but these are the worst of times. Like Alexander, for those who know the children’s book, they were having “a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.”
The terrible catastrophes and tragedies included the persecution of Roman Christians by Nero in 64; the Jewish revolt against the Romans from 66-70, which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and the slaughter and enslavement of the city’s population; the eruption of Vesuvius in 79, which darkened the sky and changed the Mediterranean climate for a year. Many in the first Christian generation saw these events as signs of the end, but Luke looks back on them and can see that, terrible as they were, they were historical events, not signs of the end.
Now let’s move from the chaos of their lives to the writing of Luke’s Gospel. Why would today’s text be written in this way?
Luke’s community was experiencing the worst of times. Nevertheless, the story of Luke’s community included a message of apocalyptic hope and deliverance.
No matter how bad things get, God would win the day; the people of God would be vindicated; all God’s enemies would be vanquished.
To understand apocalyptic literature, we must back up 600 years when the Jews were taken into captivity in Babylon, and were undoubtedly influenced by the Zoroastrian religion of the Babylonians.
In Zoroastrianism, the affairs of humans on earth are governed by what’s happening in the cosmic realm, where a battle is being fought between the equal forces of good and evil. When the cosmic forces of evil prevail, then good people on earth suffer. When cosmic good prevails, then evil people on earth suffer.
Though influenced by this world view, the Jews moved beyond it into monotheism. For the Jews, the cosmic forces of good and evil are not equal. Rather the one true God is mightier than the powers of evil, and will ultimately prevail.
Apocalyptic literature, therefore, expresses this hope that when the veil is pulled back, when what’s happening in the cosmic realm is revealed, Israel’s God is always prevailing over evil.
When we come across apocalyptic passages in the Bible, such as the book of Daniel in the Old Testament or the book of Revelation in the New Testament, I believe the best we can do is to understand they are the product of an oppressed people suffering unbelievable hardship, hoping beyond hope for a way out, or a way through the ordeal, into a place of comfort, healing, victory or deliverance. In my opinion, it is always a mistake to treat these passages as predictions of what will actually happen in the future. It’s better, perhaps, to ask, “When bad things happen to me, what’s my response? How will I endure this suffering? What will bring me strength, hope and peace?”
It’s also important to remember that apocalyptic passages, rich with symbols and metaphors, are to be interpreted literarily, not literally. These passages are literarily true, but not literally true.
So, returning to our text, when God’s people suffer with wars, insurrections, false prophets, earthquakes, famines, plagues, persecution, betrayal and death, their literature still expresses hope. Their confidence was this; “Ah, yes, horrible things befall us, but if we could look beyond the veil, to what’s happening in the cosmic realm, we would see that our God is prevailing over the powers of evil. It’s only a matter of time before what’s happening in the heavens begins to happen on earth.” Thus, Luke can write “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Interpreting the Passage in Today’s Context
We may or may not appreciate or endorse such a world view. I, for one, don’t take much stock in a cosmic battle where God wins, and everything turns out all right for God’s people in the end. I’m really not looking for any explanation of why bad things happen to good people, mainly because I think “Why” is the wrong question to ask. “How” is the question we may want to ask. “How can we make the best of this horrible situation?” “How can we resist the evils of racism, classism, heterosexism, and anthropocentrism and continue to work for a world that works for everyone and everything?” “How can we be a non-anxious presence in the midst of the chaos, confusion and calamity?“ “How can we trust, and not be afraid?”
We’ve probably all seen it in ourselves – a demandingness in our hearts, feeling like we deserve better than what we receive, insisting on a happy ending. We may want to operate by an alternative wisdom as is found in the book of Job, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” In other words, “Shit happens.” No matter how hard we pray, no matter how much we trust in God, no matter how much we exercise mind over matter, shit happens, and it sucks. And the truth is, we have no idea how or if God is behind any of it.
The wisdom of the book of Ecclesiastes may help us move from asking “Why?” to asking “How?” There is a time for everything under the sun…a time to be born and a time to die…a time to weep and a time to laugh…a time to be silent and a time to speak.” (3:1,2,7). All these times have sacred worth. In the words of singer songwriter Peter Mayer, “Everything is holy now.”
The Alternative to Fear
So why dread one event over another, or one day over another, when we apparently can discover sacred worth in everything that happens under the sun. Here’s another “How” question: “How can I discover sacred worth in what is happening to me?”
When I chatted with Ruthanne Berkholtz, who is a clinical social worker, about today’s text, she remarked, “Often when things go wrong, we want answers. We want an explanation. We want to be able to fix or solve the problem. But often there are no answers or explanations. There’s no way we can fix or solve the problem. Where does that leave us? Coming to grips with the fact that not-knowing is simply a part of being human.”
My daughter flew in to Madison last week to be with her Mom and her step dad. Neil has leukemia, and received a bone marrow transplant this past Friday. I asked my daughter, “How are Mom and Neil doing?” She replied, “I think for them, the hardest thing is not knowing. Things could go well, or things may not go so well. Not knowing is very troubling for them.”
Perhaps you’ve heard that Edgewood College is restructuring and downsizing because of huge financial challenges. It’s likely that a number of faculty and staff will lose their jobs. Many at Edgewood are actually saying, “The hardest part of this is not knowing who will stay and who will be let go.”
Haven’t we all been there? Sometimes the best we can do is learn to live more comfortably with not knowing.
In her book Holy Envy, Barbara Brown Taylor calls this “walking the way of sacred unknowing.” (Pause)
We may be troubled by many things these days. What if we found a way to put a positive spin on not-knowing by accepting it as a sacred gift, as a natural part of being human?
One line in today’s reading stood out to me: “Don’t be terrified.” And, of course, I immediately thought, “Easier said than done when it’s all hitting the fan!” But then I started pondering the many beautiful texts throughout Scripture that urge us, “Do not be afraid.”
I also remembered a few years back during Joys and Concerns when 4 yr. old Nathan Amburn stood to his feet and exclaimed, “God is with us. We don’t have to be afraid!” A silent hush came over us as we realized a prophet was among us, and indeed we had heard from God.
I was chatting about our Scripture passage with Vicki May this week, hoping to gain the perspective of a clinical psychologist, and asked, “Vicki, why do you think some people resort to catastrophizing and sensationalizing when things go wrong?” She replied, “From the stories I’ve heard of those with near-death experiences, they find a greater degree of peace in life afterwards. It’s as though the fear of death no longer has a hold on them. I’m wondering if many of us are carrying around a lot of fear of death and dying, but rarely ever talk about it, or get in touch with it.”
She got me thinking. Dying is a part of living, right? Dying is simply a part of being human. Then why so much fear?
I don’t have a good answer to that question. But I do appreciate every attempt we make at trying to overcome our fear of death, including meditating on the “Do not fear” passages of the Bible, taking to heart the exhortation of a 4 year old boy, listening to the stories of those who have had a brush with death, acknowledging to ourselves how vulnerable we are to being traumatized, and getting professional help lest we be re-traumatized over and over again.
What I’ve been trying to say is that bad stuff happens to good people. Observe it, pay attention to it bravely and matter-of-factly, try to figure out how it becomes part of our story, part of who we are; but don’t let it define us.
These are troubling times, and there may be a lot to be afraid of. But we’ve inherited a faith tradition that asserts “Love overcomes fear.” We’ll spend a lifetime trying that on for size to see how it fits, never really understanding how it’s possible or how it really happens, but choosing love over fear will help us walk non-anxiously in the way of sacred unknowing.
Disaster strikes. It’s real. It’s terrifying. We can’t deny it, avoid it, bargain it away, and we only exacerbate the situation by throwing a fit. It’s happening not because God caused it, or allowed it, or can make good come out of it. And we didn’t bring this evil upon ourselves. As much as we dread it, experiencing disaster is part of what it means to be human.
In the midst of frightening situations, some find hope in a divine rescue, or in apocalyptic sensationalism. Others find hope by walking the way of sacred unknowing. AMEN