Fearing and not fearing

November 22, 2010

For more commentary on this week's readings, see the Reflections on the Lectionary page, which
includes Schertz's current Living by the Word column as well as past magazine
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Century.

Working with this week's apocalyptic Gospel text evokes
memories of childhood experiences and teachings in a Mennonite congregation
with a fundamentalist understanding of Bible and life. Within that setting,
however, my family was solidly Anabaptist in outlook and rooted in social
justice concerns. My public school was, for a community in the middle of rural
Illinois, a virtual hotbed of ecumenicity, with all the major and many of the
minor denominations represented. All this made for some interesting tensions,
especially in a family with an ethos of discernment rather than rules.

As a young person, I did not always appreciate these
tensions--or the lengthy and lively family discussions they sometimes
engendered. But my vocation in biblical studies--especially as lived out within
a passion for the church--has led me to value tension and paradox more fully.

The apocalyptic and eschatological language of the New
Testament appears in lectionaries with some regularity, in Advent but also at other
times. As part of the biblical tension and paradox, these texts can serve us
well in a number of ways. They are one of the ways that reading the Bible is a
cross-cultural experience.

I find that engaging these texts requires keeping the
following in mind:

  • Apocalyptic
    watchfulness is rooted in a social situation. Often this language and
    demeanor emerges in groups that are or feel beleaguered. These issues are
    multifaceted and complex, with respect to both first-century apocalyptic
    and its 21st-century counterparts, but biblical scholars
    interested in social world phenomena have insight worth exploring.
  • Both
    first- and 21st-century apocalyptic groups use language in some
    specialized ways. Apocalyptic language tends to be colorful, sharply
    contrastive and often hyperbolic. Furthermore, apocalyptic thinkers and
    writers do not always maintain clear distinctions between figurative and
    realistic uses of language. As leaders we are required to tend carefully
    the possibilities for misunderstanding and the need to translate images
    and concepts across significantly different views of the world, history
    and the role of church.
  • Most
    importantly, and true for all Bible readers no matter our mindset or
    theological commitments, apocalyptic thinking takes place within and under
    the larger biblical understandings of fearing
    and not fearing. We are to fear
    (or reverence) God and God alone. Paradoxically and iconoclastically,
    fearing God means we fear nothing and no one else. When God appears to
    humans in the Bible, proper epiphany etiquette requires the humans to
    prostrate themselves in reverence. But the next words from the divine
    manifestation are "have no fear." The apocalyptic language and imagery of
    the Bible serves this larger sense--not the other way around.