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Starting this Memorial Day weekend, we're going to do something a little different (shocking, I know). We're going to embark on a preaching series on what is called "apocalyptic" literature. There are two main books in the Bible that are considered "apocalyptic" - the book of Daniel, and the book of Revelation. 

"Pastor, that seems like a really weird thing to focus on for Sunday morning preaching!"

Yeah, it's a little different because in the Lutheran church, we don't tend to spend a lot of time preaching on apocalyptic texts. Usually because they're full of such strange and confusing imagery that we just typically don't want to deal with them. 

Unfortunately, that means we allow everyone else in our culture to talk about them and dominate the interpretive conversation and let's just say...others go in some really strange places with these books and their meaning! It's important we enter this conversation, because these interpretations have major implications in our world today. They dictate at times our political policies and even wars we enter into. So how we understand these texts have literal life or death implications. Ignoring them because they make us uncomfortable isn't helping anyone--and in fact hurts many. 

So I want to bring us back to some of the more "traditional" and contextual understandings of these pieces of scripture. For one thing, so many find the imagery scary and terrifying, when that's actually the exact opposite of what they were intended to do. Apocalyptic literature (which derives from the Greek word "apokalypsis" which simply means "to reveal") was written as a form of "crisis" literature to people who were facing oppression and persecution by powerful Empires. In Daniel's case, his book was written around the second century to Jewish communities who were facing intense oppression from the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Ephiphanes.

Wait...Daniel takes place in Babylon during the Babylonian captivity. It wasn't written during the time period that it talks about? Nope. It was written centuries after the Babylonian captivity. (Part of how we also know Daniel is likely not a "real" character is that chapter 2 starts off by claiming that the dreams the king is having are only 2 years into his reign - which would have been 603 BC, over a decade earlier than the siege of Jerusalem—meaning Daniel would not have been in his court. So we already know it’s not trying to follow historical realities.) But, the Babylonian captivity was one of the darkest times in Israel's history. So the author of Daniel decided to pull upon a character who is viewed as a champion of Jewish piety, a divinely inspired interpreter of dreams and signs, which makes him an ideal mediator of heavenly secrets. By holding Daniel up as the primary example of one who stays faithful in the midst of Israel's darkest hour, it is meant to help those in the second century facing similar circumstances stay faithful in the face of a King who erected a statue of Zeus inside the Jerusalem Temple and ordered the priests to sacrifice pigs to the pagan deity. Doesn't get much more "abominable" than that in the eyes of Judaism. So the stories of Daniel are about how to stand up in the face of fierce pressures to give in to these practices. 

In Revelation's case, it was following the Christian persecutions of Nero in 60 AD and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD as they and the Jews were expelled from Jerusalem. Jerusalem had been the epicenter of Christianity up until that point and was forced to move to other centers like Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. Titus, the Roman General, didn't set up a statue in the Temple like Antiochus, but he did erect the Roman Standard (or flag) on the ruins of the Temple to declare Rome's power over/against the power of the Israelite God. 

In both of these texts the major question that arises is: who is truly God? Who is more powerful? The Empires of the world? Or God?

The point of these books in both cases was to provide hope and edification to those facing these difficult circumstances. To encourage the faithful to remain faithful despite the seemingly overwhelming power of invading Empires. Their purpose was to remind the people that God was in control and would ultimately bring all these worldly powers under his reign. So stay faithful and don't capitulate to their seeming influence. Which, was really hard because these Empires were very destructive and they brought with them very real oppression, violence and death. 

Pressure to abandon their allegiance to God in favor of the ruling Empire's deities or forces was strong. It frequently cost people their livelihoods and, in many cases, their lives. 

But the lingering question that I think most modern "fear based" and, dare I say, even bloodthirsty understandings of these books fails to answer is: how does Jesus, the suffering servant, the sacrificial lamb who was slain, who stands with the poor, oppressed and marginalized, fit in with these texts? What does Jesus have to do with these worldly Empires?

When we get these "visions" or "revelations" (apocalypses) of the hidden heavenly realms that speak of what is to come, that "reveal" the mysteries of God's Kingdom and its rule, how does that square with the Jesus we have come to know in the Gospels? If these books are speaking to the culmination of worldly powers, what does that coming "Kingdom of God" look like? What are the promises we are actually given? 

This summer's preaching texts will help us all to better understand what is typically a very confusing type of Biblical literature and help steer us back to what the promises of God actually are in the face of a world that tends to view violence and death as the powerful forces in our world. To redirect us back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ--and what that means in the face of these powers and forces in our world.