(Mark 13: 24-32, Daniel 12: 1-3, Hebrews 10: 11-18)
Worship at l'Oratoire du Louvre, Paris,
Mark 13: 29b “Know that the Son of Man is near, at the very gates”
The three Biblical texts that I selected for this Sunday's service were not chosen in response to current events. In fact these are the texts proposed by the Sunday lectionary used in Lutheran parishes. I am well aware, however, that today they reverberate in a very singular way, while we all have in mind – and certainly should I rather say in the heart – the events of these past days: a booby-trapped aircraft that crashed in the desert leading its passengers to their deaths, the day before yesterday bombs that sowed more death at Bourj al-Barajneh, a neighborhood in Beyrouth, and less than 40-something hours ago no longer far away but right next to us, in our city, 130 dead and numerous others injured... In the middle of the night using harsh and implacable words of fear and horror, and then in the morning the one of war, “an act of war committed by a terrorist army,” said he, the President of the Republic. However would he have connected what we listened to this morning to our reading of the Bible?
The question is not insidious for I am persuaded that, just as it has happened to me, you too have met these people who, not without a certain morbid delight, tell us that the catastrophes announced by the Scripture, who warn us of the closeness of the terrible days and the end of all things, are indeed those of our own time. What I regret, and I'll say it right away, in the attitude of the people to whom I'm referring is that on the one hand they seem to me to indulge in a very literal reading of the Biblical text, and on the other hand, that they do not envision the gospel in its entirety, and consequently have a truncated understanding of it. Ah! Perhaps you know that we commonly call the “synoptic apocalypse” the parallel chapters of the Gospel, among which figures the one we will focus on today, where these so-called catastrophes are reported. Now, personally, I regret that we only understand the apocalypse as a source of terror, when in reality the term signifies “revelation,” a revelation of what God is preparing for us, and from the depths of my faith, I believe that He is preparing not shadow nor obscurity, in which no revelation is possible since we find ourselves in the impossibility of seeing and understanding, but light instead!
I want to precisely understand as an incitement to grasp the beauty of the revelation of what God promises me, in this beautiful pedagogy set into work in the Lutheran tradition, when it invites us to reflect upon it especially during the last three Sundays of the church year. And here we are, since in two weeks we will begin a new liturgical cycle with the first Sunday of the Advent! You understand already then, that for me it will be less a question of discussing here what, using a convenient term (but which remains to be specified if we want to avoid certain wrong ideas), we call the end of the world, as though God's creation could have an end, which would well risk to be a failure, than to envision God's plan for the world and for His people. His people: I could have said the saints, I hope it to be... ourselves!
What interests me in the first instance, is the figure who dominates this Sunday's Gospel, the figure of the Son of Man! The Son of Man... the problem is that we sometimes misunderstand the meaning of this expression, rather strange at first. I'll explain. Since this title, Son of Man, applies to Jesus, which he applied to himself moreover, we often imagine that in this Jesus Christ, in whom we recognize simultaneously his proximity with God and with us, the most orthodox will say that we confess to be simultaneously true God and true man, when the more liberal will affirm that he teaches us to understand that which is spiritual in all flesh, this term, Son of Man, I was saying, for many signifies that Jesus is our companion-in-humanity who on his cross in obedience fully unites us to him, whereby we avoid using an expression too fabulous, not to say mythological for some: Son of God. I would fear, you see, that to over-distinguish the Son of God from the Son of Man, first of all we would quickly come to cut the Messiah in two at which point we see two of them, on the one side a heavenly Christ always far away, and on the other a Jesus our pal, always uncertain, and secondly, speaking of the Kingdom of God, we would ask ourselves – without finding any response – as it were about God, what the man had come to do here.
I would thus like, in this sermon, to simply explain what in reality is the Son of Man, while not expounding too much theology, and to underline instead what this means for our daily life.
Jesus spoke Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew, a widespread language. It was in Aramaic that he pronounced these words that today we translate as Son of Man, taking them moreover from the Old Testament, where the prophet Daniel introduced them. Let us ask therefore two things: first if our translation is correct and secondly what meaning is suitable to give it. Ah! One more remark before we get there.
I just said that it was in the Book of Daniel that the expression appears in our Bible. Daniel, whom I called a prophet. Rather interestingly seems it to me: in the Jewish Bible, Daniel is not a prophet, and the book attributed to him is what we call a hagiography, a holy book, useful for piety. In truth, this expression takes on a dimension relating to salvation, soteriological in another book of the Jewish tradition, the Book of Enoch, written in Aramaic but preserved in its entirety only in Ethiopian. Can we trust it? You are going to reply indeed that in doing so we distance ourselves from the Bible. Are you sure of it? It is not irrelevant that the Book of Enoch figures in the Christian Bible, the Bible of the Ethiopian Christians, as you suspected. Not in ours, it's true. But for what reason, I ask you, would our Bible be more credible, more authentic, than the Bible of others? The books retained in the Bible as Holy Scriptures were made so by nothing other than tradition, and consensus is not universal, since the Jews themselves, from Alexandria or from Jerusalem, were not in possession of the same Bible, and today Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox each have different canons – or lists of books – as you know. Allow me to address along the way, that this should lead us as Protestants to reflect seriously on what the Reformist principal of Sola Scriptura, Scripture as the sole source for faith, means when Scripture is so variable. What Scripture... only? The one that suits us or at any rate bothers us the least? Note that for me, I respond to the question by trusting in the discernment that the Holy Spirit reserves for me when I read the Scriptures, in the testimony that the Spirit leads me to give after I was instructed by a Scripture and which I receive like a precious gift; look, it happens that I am a Calvinist!
Without entering into details which have no place to be exposed here, it is sufficient for me to explain that the Son of Man is an over-literal translation, word-for-word, of an expression that does not aim to express, neither in Aramaic nor Hebrew, a line of descent, i.e. an origin or a nature, but that intends to underline a fullness, the character of being complete, perfect. Thus, the Son of Man is not really the human such as we are now, then precisely that we are far from being perfect, being rather sinners, weaklings, inconstant, subjected to our desires and vanities, the man that Jesus assumed on the cross, but it's man such as God created him, in his image and resemblance the Bible tells us, the man that is called to rule over God's creation and who, seeing before him the tree of life, can still choose life. Allow me to cite from the height of this venerable chair of the Oratoire a vision of Enoch: “ There I beheld the Ancient of days, whose head was like white wool, and with him another, whose countenance resembled that of man. His countenance was full of grace, like that of one of the holy angels. Then I inquired of one of the angels, who went with me, and who showed me every secret thing, concerning this Son of man; who he was; whence he was and why he accompanied the Ancient of days. He answered and said to me, This is the Son of man, to whom righteousness belongs; with whom righteousness has dwelt; and who will reveal all the treasures of that which is concealed: for the Lord of spirits has chosen him; and his portion has surpassed all before the Lord of spirits in everlasting uprightness .” (Enoch 46: 1-2)
Echoing this image, which he could not have been unaware of as it was common for the Judaism of his time, and affirming in the Gospel that he is this man – Adam not chased from Eden, Adam dead, but Adam alive – Jesus does more than promise us a possible salvation. He hammers into our ears so that we may well be persuaded of it, that the beginning is not abolished, disappeared, gone, lost forever (and thus the reason due to which speaking of an end of the world is clumsy), but that the beginning with him and in him comes back, or rather continues, endures. This is not just possibility; this is real, concrete. Yes, before us here, when we listen to this Gospel and contemplate the crucified Lord, we see in the cross the tree of life, humanity not only carried, humanity re-established, and it can be question of power and glory: “Then they will see,” this time from this Sunday's reading, the Gospel according to Mark, “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory”, we cease only looking at ourselves and we sing praise to God! Ah yes, even we no longer fear the judgment and already we know that the holy people are gathered.
Already the elect are gathered. They are gathered around the Christ of the cross, gathered, said Jesus – this is the next verse in our text, you will recall – “from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven,” which underlines as much as is needed the total and complete character of the reunited people, as much is complete and perfect the Son of Man who redeems them. It is moreover, the holy people, nourished by him, the Christ their Lord, strengthened by him, and it is also the sign of the Holy Communion when we receive the body of this man, the perfect man, image and resemblance of God, that he restores in us.
Is it sufficient to express this conviction, that one must not fear, despite all these disruptions that will certainly follow from the eruption of God's Kingdom into the world and in our life, the establishment of God's reign? We have for too long scared people with this famous end of the world. Well I say enough is enough! Of course I listen seriously to what Jesus Christ teaches me through fulfilling the prophets, that it is not acceptable to take God lightly, like our vanities precisely, like wind and nothingness, but I know that this emptiness is assuredly filled. There where there was nothing, nothing to which to attach myself so as to not lose footing, nothing to console me, to encourage me, from now on there is someone: my Savior, our Redeemer! Yes, someone and with him, all of us here united, we are able and capable of great things.
If the Church only had to preach fear and trembling, do you not agree that you would not be satisfied? Ah! But that the Church, meaning us, has to proclaim that it is possible to pursue and achieve great things, here's what is more exciting, isn't it! Also, because Jesus is the Son of Man, I very well hope that our “religion” – I place the word in quotations – will consist neither for us in submission, neither for the others in making them submit, the sole weight of a collection of proscriptions. The teaching of the Gospel of Christ consists not in repeating “Thou shalt not,” but in convincing the individual being addressed, that he or she too, here and now, is seized by the grace of the Lord who opens new horizons.
Let us understand. When I claim, like now, that the Gospel of Christ, because he is the Son of Man, the perfect man happy from the bounty of God's creation, is not summed up via a catalog of proscriptions, I am not saying for as much that no brake ever shall hold us back from now on. On the contrary even. We must be dignified for this Christ our Savior. That the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews that we heard this morning teaches us – what so many confessions of faith of the universal Church have recalled – that the Son “sat down at the right hand of God,” (Hebrews 10:12), do you think that this has no consequence? That this has no repercussion on our life, today and in the now?
We are the disciples of this Jesus who shares with the Father the power and the glory, after having in his humility shared our sins and our wait. As he himself is there for us, us, we are there for him. Meaning that we are there for God and consequently that first of all we would not be satisfied in anything that condemns, rejects, or denies Him; and secondly we must take action so that today His will be done: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” do we not also repeat this often? What is the meaning of these words? Martin Luther answered that this means, I quote, “God represses and breaks,” the word is strong (!) “all evil design,” but at the same time, “ He strengthens us and maintains us firmly in His word and in the faith.” In other words, he gives us the means to be what we must. Still we mustn't forget these means, and they are very well within our reach! And in the first place in the sacraments.
I highlighted earlier that it was not acceptable to radically separate the divine Christ from Jesus our companion in humanity. You will notice that this rejection of cutting in two, is what we at the end of the day arrived at when stopping at what the Gospel wanted to convince us of this morning. Oh yes! For us, I recall the verse read at the beginning, “the Son of Man is near,” and I do not forget that he is at our gates, gates that we must open, gate of hope and gate of joy, gate of all consolation, gate of all intelligence! No, no, if catastrophes there are announcing the coming of the Son of Man, these are catastrophes in our heart, in my sins. The Gospel convinces me of it. I write to myself therefore, “Fig tree of the Gospel, speak to me of God!” and the fig tree's buds announce to me the summer. Here lies the full revelation, the apocalypse, from God's plan for me. For me, for you. His plan whenever he wants. God, that because of Jesus, in whom we see, “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory,” we stand in solidarity with him. Yes, in solidarity with God!
In this word solidarity, there is “solid,” which means “consistent.” May we always be consistent and coherent! May our example be for many a point of rest! Yes, may many be able to rely on us, and hope with us... especially if there is fear, horror, war... In fact, you know that this is where the meaning of this little word “Amen” that we use to punctuate our prayers and our praise. It evokes the image of the rock upon which one builds and on rests, which neither moves nor staggers. May each of our days be from beginning to end an Amen! A prayer and a word of praise. Our prayer and our praise to the Lord in communion with the universal Church. Amen, yes Amen!
So be it!
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