It is less than two weeks away from Christmas, and priests and pastors everywhere are intensifying their focus, putting everything they've got into the sermon of the year. This is their annual window of opportunity, a time when the congregation of regulars is suddenly dwarfed by a sea of irregulars, the women coiffed and lovely, the men wearing ill-fitting suits and looking very much like they regret forfeiting their weekly sleep-in. This is the preacher’s chance for the big pitch, the appeal. Can he say anything that will stick to the ribs? Is there hope that something he utters will get one or two (or more!) of these people to come back next week?
There are also those preachers who eschew this soft-sell approach in favor of heading straight for the jugular. "The Gospel leaves no room for compromise. Turn or burn, baby, and be grateful you heard it here first," etc.
Those two extremes represent a good portion of my inner life, as a nutshell. I come from a long line of preachers, and while I may have forsaken the profession and no small degree of the tradition, the DNA matrix will not be denied. People, I got ta speak about sumpin'! My previous attempts at appeal have managed to perplex and alienate my conservative and my gay readers, which doesn't bode well for this appeal. But here goes: call me a witlessly insensitive naïf, but this is my Christmas appeal to my Jewish friends.
There are a number of scriptures that we Christians claim to have in common with you, and I'll get to some of those in a bit. But for the moment, please be so kind as to retrieve that "New Testament" our Gideons so thoughtfully gave you in Grade 5; then flip to the back, and read The Revelation of St. John The Divine. This could well inspire a few strange dreams over the next few nights, but this is an important book to read, and here's why: that one, weird little book has done more to captivate and stimulate the imagination of North American Christendom than all the gospels (Jesus narratives) and epistles (letters of instruction to the early churches) put together.
The Revelation is itself an epistle, with one significant distinction: it makes prophetic claims. Give it the once-over, and you will find similarities in tone and metaphor to, say, Daniel. It draws from (or rips off) that particular tradition, using primal, dissonant metaphors to speak directly to moral and physical crises that threaten a particular historical-religious audience. As with Daniel, the greater your understanding of its historical-religious audience, the greater clarity you have reading the text.
You don't have to be a seminary student to achieve this, either. Cursory research reveals that scholars of the text usually date it back to the reign of Domitian (81-96), whose enforcement of Emperor worship was, shall we say, enthusiastic. Jews have their own grim stories from that period, and could probably read the prophetic religious-historical narrative of The Revelation with a comprehension that might astonish most Christians. A fairly simple historical checklist can be made, with Roman acts of desecration and brutality on one side, Revelation metaphors on the other, and a great number of parallels drawn between the two categories.
Of course, problems arise when the historical record doesn't quite tally up with the prophetic metaphors - the triumphant return of Jesus being the most glaring example of this. In Christendom the all-too-common method of dealing with this discrepancy is to say, "Actually, none of the prophesied events have taken place - yet. It's up to us to recognize the moment they do and prepare for the Lord's return." This has led to many, many colorful anecdotes in Christendom - including the birth of the Mennonites. These can occasionally be quite humorous, but most of them are despicable and tragic (decide for yourself which category applies to the Mennonites).
A cheerful willingness to discount the epistle's original audience continues to inspire diverse activity, worldwide. Closer to home we have the runaway juggernaut of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins' Left Behind series. Closer still, we have various Christian organizations assisting (chiefly Russian) Jewish immigration to Israel, in aid of fulfilling prophetic requirements for Jesus' return.
Jewish alliance with these groups had me perplexed at first: these are people with a religious point of view that I want as much distance from as possible - and I'm a Christian. Whenever I've asked my Jewish friends for their response, however, I typically get some uncomfortable silence, concluding with a shrug and a statement to the effect of, "Well, they're doing some good."
Fair enough - these are acts of kindness and compassion which I have no wish to impede. I wonder, though, if you could do me a favor. I can't reach these people, but maybe you can. They have a clear reverence for the Jewish people and the Jewish state, and even claim to admire the depth of Jewish scholarship. I expect you're in a dialogue of sorts with them, so I wonder if it might be possible to arrange the following:
Take them aside, and say something like, "You know, I read The Revelation the other week. Quite the book. It got me thinking of, well, all sorts of unexpected stuff. We should talk about it sometime, but could I ask you to do something for me? Could you maybe give St. John a wee bit of a breather, and read the Book of Amos once or twice?"
Amos is a piece of scripture I think both our religious cultures and their manifold communities could get quite excited about. Again - recognition of the specific religious-historical audience is critically important. But unlike St. John, I think Amos has a plainspoken approach to articulating divine concerns for all of humanity. The most rudimentary reading of Amos reveals not just G-d's expectations of a particular religious community at a specific time, but of governments and nation states that don't even acknowledge Him. Furthermore, Amos articulates G-d's unchanging expectations of those nation states who do acknowledge Him, and go so far as to claim kinship with Him.
North American Protestants are justifiably proud of the social changes brought about by the Great Awakening and its sequel. But I believe if everyone who ate up the Left Behind series were to read the Book of Amos and take it to heart, we just might possibly see the world's first Judeo-Christian Awakening. How about it?
Can I get an "Amen"?