Proper 28B/Ordinary 33B/Pentecost 24
November 15, 2009
From Certainty to Faith
I used to run my fingers over its embossed cover. Like a secret cipher, the raised relief contained a hidden universe: where days were years and beasts were kings and numbers didn't add up the way they do on an adding machine tape. Where the dreams of long-dead dreamers were rainbow colored tomorrows when the sun would never set, the wine would flow forever and all the trees hang low with fruit that tasted like eternity itself. Inside that peach colored book were the same Bible stories that you've always heard, but with a twist: each one of them a piece of our secret history, each one a stop along the roadway to the end of the world. I learned to read aloud from it at four years old.
The pictures in it used to haunt me sometimes, particularly the one which showed the earth opening up and a little girl, eyes wide with terror, pigtails outstretched, tumbling, tumbling, tricycle and all, into the abyss. I used to look at her face and shudder, thinking: that will be me if I am not faithful.
By the time I left high school, we had a pretty good idea when the world would end. The key to it was in the Book of Daniel the prophet. Daniel said that there would be seventy weeks and seven years and seven beasts, and we learned to count them all correctly. We knew what it meant when wars began on certain days and when empires imploded, when pestilence swept in, when currencies collapsed. We understood why assassin's bullets flew and armies collapsed in distant trenches. We knew the meaning of it all. The exciting part of knowing was that, of all the people who had ever read the words of the ancient mystics, only we knew their true meaning, only we would be set free by them, only we, the ones written in the book of life, would survive into the new world.
I remember the night of the end of the world. It was an early October Saturday, the air crystalline with promise of a still distant winter. The stars twinkled in the sky like they always had, since the first night there was a sky. We had dinner with childhood friends, who shared our perverse religion with all its prophecies, its end-times mysteries, its self-assured certainty. None of us dared speak aloud about this moment we had long awaited. After dinner, we played games and told rambling stories and then it got late and our friends got up to go. I listened to the crunch of their car wheels on our gravel drive. I stared for a long time into the darkness watching their headlights dance through the trees. A mosquito buzzed about, like mosquitoes always had. The red dwarf roses still grew near the patio alongside the little trailer where we lived. Somewhere in the night a dog barked, like dogs have always barked. I went back in and went to bed.
The next morning, the sun rose bright and yellow against a blue Florida sky. Birds chirped in the trees. The world had ended, not with a bang, but with a whimper. It's hard to admit that a your whole life had been based on a lie, but that's the bitter sweetener I stirred into my coffee the morning after the night of the end of the world.
Well, I bet some of you are saying, you've come along way since your days in the whacky fundamentalist fringe of Christianity. And I suppose that's true. I don't think there are secret coded meanings in Daniel or Revelation any more. I don't believe that you can decipher the Bible through numerology or any other esoteria. In fact, there's a part of me that's deeply suspicious of any religious claim to absolute certainty. The air I breathe now is infused with faith, not certainty, and there is an important difference.
The Book of Daniel is a collection of stories about one of the most famous of all the Hebrew sages, most likely assembled by young scholars living in hiding during one of the worst times for their people since the hordes of Babylon came pillaging centuries before. Alexander the Great had created the most powerful empire the world had seen, stretching from the blue Mediterranean to the Indian Sea. But he died young and his generals were all too happy to take up the mantle of imperial lust, imposing Alexander's vision of a world united by a single progressive vision. That vision included rooting out every vestige of local culture, especially the primitive gods of the agrarian peoples it conquered.
Judea was troublesome case. Unlike most of the other nations (except for the Persians, who shared monotheism with the Jews), there were no idols in Judea to tear down. There was only Jerusalem's temple, rebuilt under Persian protection three centuries before. If you can't break apart the idols of a rival religion, it's hard to prove that its gods don't exist. And Antiochus Epiphanes couldn't find any god statues to break. He and his troops laughed that the Jewish people were really atheoi, “atheists,” since all they had to worship was a ridiculous invisible god. How could you prove that an invisible thing isn't there?
But Antiochus had a plan. Unlike their neighbors, the Jews had an a near fanatical aversion to certain foods, and there were stories of Jewish prisoners of war starving before they would eat unholy foods. The Jews were especially averse to eating the flesh of pigs, believing that their God considered pigs the most revolting of animals. Antiochus grabbed a fat young hog, and a cohort of soldiers, their brass shields gleaming as they ascended the Temple steps. They sliced their way through the few young men who had chosen to resist and entered the inner room of the Temple, the Sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, where Jewish legends told of the Shekinah light that kept the interior bright. Antiochus ordered his men to take the squealing, squirming pig and place it on the center of the golden altar of Yahweh. A knife slashed, deep and swift, and pork blood spurted everywhere, on the altar, the holy linens, the beautiful tapestries hanging on the walls. Antiochus Epiphanes waited a few minutes to demonstrate that nothing would happen, and he and his men, chuckling at their prank, went back to their garrison.
It was during this dark time for the Jewish people that the Book of Daniel was compiled. The young men who put the stories together did so to prove a point—Yahweh would indeed redeem his people, in his own due time. But first would come a succession of empires, each more fearsome than the last, until the Archangel Michael would come in the night to avenge the innocent blood spilled and the desecration of the holy place. The Kingdom of Israel would be handed over to someone called the Son of Man, the long awaited Messiah, the heir to throne of David. All those written is the great book of life would rise up out the dust and join in the glorious return of righteousness, justice and truth. The times may have been uncertain, but Daniel's scribes were certain that their God would prevail.
Centuries later, Jesus and his disciples are just leaving the same Temple, restored and updated by Herod the Great, that slobbering old half-breed despot who fancied himself a king. Jesus has spent the day stirring up the religious descendants of Daniel's scribes, nearly getting them all arrested in the process. The disciples are in awe of Jesus' religious zeal—risking his life like the ancient Maccabees to defend the purity of Yahweh's own house.
“Jesus, what you did here today,” said one, “thank you. That was amazing.” Jesus just kept walking.
“Jesus,” said another, “have you ever noticed how beautiful the great dome is in the afternoon sun?” Jesus just kept walking.
“Jesus, can't you just stop for a minute and enjoy this place?”
He turned and spoke the words that would change the way they viewed the world forever. “This place—this place is finished. It's going to be a big pile of rubble, and I am not a huge fan of rubble.”
A while later, they came to rest at the top of the hill that sat outside the city, overlooking its iron gates and alabaster temple. The sun was getting lower in the sky, and it was hard tell which was more golden, the setting orb or the Temple dome. They gazed at the magnificent view for a long while in silence.
“Jesus,” said one, “what you said back there in the Temple, about it being demolished? We thought the Temple was supposed to last forever. When is this supposed to happen? And how are we going to know that the world is about to end?”
“Look,” he replied, “don't be misled by people who think that they can predict the end of the world. There are terrible things that happen all the time: wars, earthquakes, diseases, the collapse of empires and rise of new ones. None of that has anything to do with the end of the world.”
Jesus always was a bit of a stand-up comic. And what he has to say here is a pretty funny joke when you consider how consumed his followers have been with predicting the end of the world. And it's not just failed end-times prophecies that have bedeviled the Church for two millenia, it's been those who would use religion as a sort of crowd control mechanism, dividing both world and Church up into saved and unsaved.
In fact, that's the single greatest sign that a religious group has jumped the tracks from faith to fringe: it becomes centered in the personality of a leader who inevitably begins to proclaim that he or she alone understands the mysteries of the human spirit and has the keys to eternity. Christianity has been especially given to charismatic leaders who have sought to gather flocks after themselves rather than after Jesus. Every once in a while, you see the tragedy of the fringe played out with gruesome results: Jonestown, the Branch Davidians, the child who dies because her parents refuse to take her to a doctor. Real damage is done by noisy cultists who divide the flock of Christ up after themselves, with promises that they and their followers are the true representatives of the Kingdom, that they are the Orthodox, the Faithful, the Sole Defenders of the Temple of God. All else is demonic, unfaithful, false to the heritage of the Christian tradition. Unless you believe exactly like they do, you are lost, rejected, a child of darkness, the blood of the martyrs dripping from the dagger you grasp in your apostate hand.
It is during the times of uncertainty that the cult of certainty most passionately battles faith. When the world seems to be falling apart, when governments don't function, when armies spill across borders, when earthquakes, hurricanes or tsunamis collapse the foundations, when pandemics ravage the countryside, when banks fail, factories go dark, jobs disappear, and even the Church seems overpowered by the gates of Hell, it is very tempting to listen when someone says, “I can explain it all to you. And if you don't believe me, you are going to be lost, along with everything else in this old wicked world.”
Jesus is warning us against those who would provoke us, not to love and good deeds in the world that now is, but to neglect of our common bonds because we are fearful of collapsing temple walls. The writer to the Hebrews calls us to encourage one another, not to create divisions with one another. It's not that the destruction of the temples of our lives is not painful, but that we are called in the midst of pain and uncertainty to love and good works. To faith, not to certainty, to love, not to division.
When religion goes bad it is a destructive thing for those caught in its web—spiritually, emotionally, and many times, physically. But what is more destructive is religion gone neglectful of the world outside its temple walls. For that is an atheism more sure and certain than the one proclaimed by those who can't see God at all.