In 1979 Francis Coppola released to the world his controversial film, Apocalypse Now. The film was set in the midst of the Vietnam War and an isolated unit of US soldiers. The movie starred Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen and William Duvall. Coppola presented a world gone mad: a world overwhelmed with violence, death, and mass destruction; a world without any ground in traditional or humane values, no loyalties or belief system. Chaos reigns, and justice and law are no where to be found in this encampment. It represented some of the worst nightmares of human fears and imagination, for although the portrayal of barbarity was appalling, one could recognize, even in its exaggerated form, the underside of our own humanity–which we normal choose to ignore or deny.

Daniel was written about 165 years before Jesus’ birth when the Syrians had invaded Israel and Antiochus IV had desecrated the Temple. Jews were hanged for keeping Sabbath or forced to eat pork in public or executed for saying their prayers. The Maccabean brothers began the revolt that challenged this oppression. There are four apocryphal books of Maccabees, recounting their heroic revolt. The book of Daniel was circulated as a underground tract. That is why in the portion of Daniel read today he is told to “keep the writings secret.” Daniel was disguised as an ancient book, although it was a modern work of apocalypse.

We should also remember that Jesus’ earthly ministry was a time of great oppression for his people by the Roman Empire. Although not a brutal as the Syrians, atrocities did take place. We read in Luke 13 that Jesus is asked what should be done about Galilean Jews who where massacred during the time that they were offering religious sacrifices. Jesus also makes reference to those who were being forced to do the dangerous work of building a tower when it fell on some of the workers and killed eighteen!

Furthermore, we should not forget that Jesus was right about the temple’s destruction. Around AD 70 there was a great Jewish revolt. The Temple was desecrated, with the Roman soldiers with the pagan symbol of the Emperor standing where they ought not–the holy places of the Temple. This could be understood as the “desolating sacrilege” to which Jesus referred in today’s Gospel lesson (see Mark 13:14). Christians and Jews were scattered throughout the world, fleeing oppression. The Temple was demolished–burned to the ground. Nothing remains today but the Wailing Wall, the west wall of old Jerusalem. But the Faiths of Judiasm and Christianity stand today, even as governments, temples and cathedrals have crumbled.

The word apocalypse means unveiling or revelation; that is, showing what is not yet seen or what is seen but not understood. That is why you may sometimes hear the book of Revelation referred to as the Apocalypse of St. John. This word, apocalypse, arose out of certain Old Testament prophesies and out of the religious literature that came into being between the Old and New Testaments, in very difficult times for the ancient Jews. These were times in which they were oppressed so harshly that they came to believe that their only hope was a direct intervention by God. They referred to this hoped for intervention as the “Day of the Lord.” The recorded visions and dreams about this day and the terrible things–the great foreboding–that would happen immediately before it were called “apocalypses.” These would be signs of the coming of God’s deliverance of them from oppression. This was true in the apocalyptic literature of early Christians, as well. They used peculiar imagery to speak of the meaning of their times. Perhaps the most romanticized or popularized of the images is from Revelation, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: war, famine, pestilence and death! But over the centuries there are different perspectives in the Bible about cataclysmic events culminating times of great suffering and fear.

For example, some literature is warning of coming oppression that would be a consequence of the sin of Israel. In the Hebrew Bible the prophet Amos wrote of such times, which would reflect the consequences of Israel’s sins (5:16,17): “Therefore thus says the Lord, and the God of hosts, the Lord: In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! Alas!’ They shall call the farmers to mourning–[FAMINE] –and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation–[DEATH] –and in all vineyards thee shall be wailing–[DROUGHT] –.”

Isaiah also had apocalypse in his writings when he pictured the nightmare even more fiercely. But his prophesy regards the purging of oppressors and the apostate (i.e., those who abandon the faith in hard times). Isaiah wrote, “Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation [famine] and to destroy its sinners from it [retributive justice]…. I will make men more rare than fine gold [death], and mankind and than the gold of Ophir….Whoever is found will be thrust through, and whoever is caught will fall by the sword [war and genocide].”

Early Christians inherited this great literature and in their oppression gave a new perspective about apocalypse. The prophesies of these terrible times, and the violent and brutal events that would precede the more pleasant event–redemptive events–the Day of the Lord, would be taken over by the Christian Church. And the horrible and catastrophic events would thenceforth be seen as warning sighs of the Second Coming of Christ! Indeed, the entire thirteenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel is given over to a collection of Jesus’ sayings, which are interpreted and categorized in relation of the Day of the Lord, this Second Coming, and the terrifying earthly events which are to precede it! However, we must remember that Jesus always warned that “no one knows the day nor the hour when the Son of Man will come.” And in today’s Gospel lesson he warned that in such vulnerable and terrible times there will be many “false prophets” –people with special knowledge of Jesus or his return. He admonished his disciples not to heed these charlatans no matter how convincing they seem.

Yet, down through the centuries various individual Christians or sects have chosen make radical changes in their lives because of interpretations of biblical writings and the particular events of their own time, predicting the Second Coming of Christ. When my uncle died my Aunt gave me some of his books. In one I found a tracts from World War I that was interpreting the signs of those days as biblical prophesy specifically timing end times and Jesus return. In the 1960s and 1970s , Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, was all the rage among many Christian’s and popular futurist readers. And fundamentalists still focus on dispensationalism, that is dividing time into dispensations. A major part of that theology is the tribulation. Some will remember the popular film show in theaters and later on television, the Rapture.

The Christian Church does believe that Christ will return. It is in the Nicene Creed we will recite after this sermon. But we do not know when or how our Lord will return. We must remember his warnings, that no one knows and not to be seduced by “false prophets” who claim to know. We only need to remember Jonestown and the Branch Davidian, and Heaven’s Gate as examples of the dangers to ignore Jesus warning.

However, in no age have we been more aware of the moving tide of war, famine, pestilence and death than the century past (two world wars, at least two major international wars, a cold war between two nuclear powers, genocide in Rwanda and Uganda, in Bosnia, Hertzagovenia, Kosovo, famines in Bangladesh, Somolia, Bi-africa, North Korea). In India and Pakistan Christian’s are oppressed. In recent decades the Bible has been seen as a subversive book and illegal or restricted in countries like Guatemala, China and Russia.

So, How does the faithful modern Christian understand and find value in apocalyptic scripture?

First, to understand that although horror tends to get the headlines but good, marvelous things and movements happen every day. We so easily forget that for every bad thing that happens to us and around the world there are 1,000 good things. St. Paul, evaluating all that he saw in his ministry, taught that “were sin did abound, grace did much more abound.”

Will and Ariel Durant are great historians who spent their life writing eleven monumental volumes of history called The Story of Civilization. They also wrote another book I find very interesting called the Lessons of History. In it, after all their years of research, they wrote:

“Sin has flourished in every age…. We have seen Voltaire’s view of history as mainly ‘a collection of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes’ of mankind, and Gibbon’s echo of that summary…. (But) behind the red façade of war and politics, misfortune and poverty, adultery and divorce, murder and suicide, were millions of orderly homes, devoted marriages, men and women kindly and affectionate…happy with children. Even in recorded history we find so many instances of goodness, even of nobility, that we can forgive, though not forget, the sins. The gifts of charity have almost equaled the cruelties of battlefields and jails. How many times, even in our sketchy narratives, we have seen men helping one another?…Who will dare to write a history of human goodness?”

We can understand much of the symbolism of apocalyptic literature if we think of symbols as codes for the times. A way to speak one’s mind and faith without it being easily understood by the political authorities. But it is always understood for their time, not ours. Yes, encoding means that the community is able to express itself, its interpretation, its grief and anger in secret symbols. Daniel and Revelation have much of this, with horsemen, seals, beast and liturgical symbols like lamp stands.

Just imagine for a moment that 500 years from now, or 1,000 years from now, picking up a political cartoon from our time. If we saw in a political cartoon or essay speaking of a bear and eagle trying to smoke a big cigar, which is lit at both ends if were not an historian we might come up with very strange applications, maybe even a new religion! But we know that this is no more than Cold War rhetoric for Russia and U.S.A. trying to use Cuba and getting burned in the process. Or what of a picture of a man dressed in clothes, patterned in stars and stripes with a matching top hat. He is standing on a high-wire with a great Greek revival-type columned building (a court house) in one hand and a great Gothic building (a cathedral) with tall towers in the other hand. Of course we, in our own time can easily recognize the meaning to be speaking of America’s very precarious task of balancing the constitution and religion.

First, I believe that apocalyptic literature reminds us that human evil is real and that political and religious oppression of minorities can be brutal and have been throughout history. But that faith can enable survival. We see this in places like China and Russia where Christian faith has emerged with startling vigor.

Next, we must remember that hundreds of times from Genesis to Revelation, people of faith are told by God to understand their times but not to be afraid! Christians, remember: any religious interpretation that builds fear is not of God!

Finally, we learn from apocalyptic literature that nothing but the love of God is permanent. Not governments, cultures, temples or even cathedrals last–they all come to an end. Think of it, no matter how many centuries the greatness of an empire or culture they come to an end. But what endures is the steadfast love of the Almighty! Our faith teaches us that no matter what security we may feel in our times, or what the horror we may face in our times, God ultimately reigns. Apocalyptic literature teaches us that in the worst of times God is our hope, and there is always a “Day of the Lord!”

At the end of each Eucharistic service the priest sends us out into the world with this blessing:

“The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the love and knowledge of God and his Son, Jesus Christ.” This is the power to which Christians in all times and all places, all sorts and conditions clung. May we receive this peace, that God may keep us faithful, this day and always. Amen.