Pentecost 25 B: Beyond Dystopia

The readings for this 25th Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Daniel 12:1–3

Psalm                    Psalm 16

New Testament     Hebrews 10:11–14 (15–18) 19–25

Gospel                   Mark 13:1–8

Christians have a wondrous asset to share with the world. It is the confidence that God’s love is so strong that it will carry us beyond the waiting dystopia.

We anchor ourselves anew in this each year at this time. Our Scripture lessons in church force us to think of the death of us individuals and the death of our secure institutions. This Sunday is a lead-up to the bridgework days of Christ the King and First Advent, which follow in quick succession. If we go with the flow of trying to skip these days of dark thoughts and rush ahead to the glitter of the Santa and his reindeer, then we miss the profound insights.

And, in my soon-to-be-marked 74 years on earth there was never a foreboding of impending dystopia like today’s. If we survive the political nastiness and racial divide, our democracy will collapse to be replaced either by state or tech-giant oppression and it’s “surveillance culture.” And if we can withstand that, the climate crisis will surely make life on earth a living hell.

But the first few verses of Daniel, which start off our readings for this week mark perhaps the most profound shift in spiritual thinking by the people of the Abrahamic religions. The people of our Bible were used to thinking of a God who cares for everyone. Psalm 82 pictures their uniqueness. In a world where people thought about gods as a bunch of mob bosses dividing up the world into pieces of turf, and where gods thought of little than their own power, the faithful who prayed Psalm 82 insisted those gods were now dying off to make room for the One True God of compassion.

But, still, the people of Israel, and of Psalm 82, thought the best we could hope for from this guardian God was long life and lots of children. If people are faithful to the Israel this God protected, then things would go well for them and their kids, right up to the day they died and went to Sheol, or the underworld.

But by the time of the last six chapters of Daniel were written this hope for a comfy life were shattered. Things didn’t go well for good people. In fact, under the reign of Antiochus IV, the Hellenized King of the Seleucid empire that ruled Israel, many Jews suffered death for simply trying to keep to the laws of Moses. The faithful were dying young.

So, God revealed a profound new insight. The author of Daniel may even have been influenced by some of the ideas of Persian Zoroastrianism, and the thought experiments about eternal life and immortality coming out of Greek philosophy and religion. (God is not hemmed in by our parochialism, and is big enough to do that sort of thing.) But wherever that new thought comes from, it is surely right there in stark form in Daniel 12:1-3.

No, it doesn’t matter how hellish life on earth gets, there is still hope. Why? Because God is still our Guardian. Here in Daniel God does it for Israel through the “great prince protector” angel assigned for the purpose. And God is able to raise people to exercise that guardianship in the form of judgment. The very good become shining angel-stars themselves. The very bad, who succumb to pressure, renounce their faith, and go along with sacrifice to other gods, will be relegated to shame and contempt.

It does sound like a vindictive idea, but it is an idea that gets the ball rolling. Full-fledged ideas of heaven and hell will be worked out later. But here, in Daniel 12, a New Worldview arises.

And worldview is everything.

Imagine how our lives change with worldview. I look around and think the bedrock of our American dominant worldview is entitlement. The elite feel entitled to have the world in the palm of their hands through apps that make things run like clockwork. Their overloads hand all this over to them exacting the mere price of profiting obscenely from the control they now possess of people’s identities. The denizens of the underclass then resent that arrangement, but have no means to resist it other than to assert their entitlement to do as they please with what little they have—their guns, their rights to their own truths, and their ability to say no to vaccines, face masks, and any rules or authority they dislike.

This entitlement worldview seems new, but it is very old because it is just as constricted as Israel’s before Daniel. It’s all about long life and, perhaps, children. There are no consequences beyond tomorrow for the worldview of entitlement. There are no consequences for forgetting the wider picture of human community or the fullness of creation.

The New Worldview God gives us in Daniel 12 is about a life beyond the horizon of tomorrow and beyond the horizon of me.

Daniel’s idea of resurrection being a gift to Israel from her special guardian angel seems crassly ethno-centric. It’s easy to get ethno-centric when your ethnic group is being ethnically cleansed. But “all the nations of the earth” belong to the God of Psalm 82, and this God is a compassionate guardian of all ethnicities and their planet–especially of the favoring the “weak and needy.”

The sheer idea of the resurrection is necessary, but not sufficient, for the Christian worldview proclaimed in the church now through Christ the King and early Advent. The God we worship does not call us as entitled, self-centered selves to share the life among the angels. It is the God who delivers the weak from the wicked, and who has compassion for all vulnerable people, who has the power to carry us beyond the ugly dystopia that awaits us. We will meet this God in a manger, fleeing persecution, pounding the pathways of Palestine, and dying on the cross of Calvary.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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