Happy New Year! We begin a new year in the life of the church on the first Sunday in Advent. This year we will use the Gospel according to Mark as our major lens for seeing Jesus and our primary matrix for hearing the call to discipleship. In its original form, Marks’ gospel may have been a sort of narrative catechism for new believers in the congregations in Rome (if that’s the actual location). The focus is on what it means to live as followers of Jesus, as disciples.
We begin the New Year, as we always do, in such a strange way. We begin with a text that talks about the end of the world (or so we think). “In America,” write Matthew Barrett and Mel Gilles, “everyone believes in the apocalypse. The only question is whether Jesus or global warming will get here first.” (Gross, Matthew Barrett; Gilles, Mel. The Last Myth, p. 9). We could add several other doomsday scenarios given the realities of 2020. In fact, we’re not at the end of anything.
We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working. That’s really the message of Mark 13. There will be an end, just not now. Panic is over-rated. Patience is undervalued. So, keep awake and keep working.
Mark 12 ends with the story of the widow’s offering at the temple treasury. This little narrative prepares the ground for Jesus’ prophetic words against the exploitive, extractive, collaborative system of the Jerusalem temple and the temple leadership. The widow gives “her whole life” to God as she makes her offering. Soon, Jesus will give his whole life as the offering for the healing of the world. The temple will no longer be the place where such sacrifices are made.
Jesus uses apocalyptic texts and imagery to deliver this prophetic critique. Our gospel reading is the climactic third of that critique. The disciples express wonder at the astonishing size and beauty of the temple before them. Jesus says that soon it will all come tumbling down. The disciples rightly wonder when this catastrophe will take place.
“The place to start to understand this passage,” notes Tom Wright, “is in the middle, at verse 8: ‘These are the beginnings of the birth pangs.’ (Mark for Everyone, KL 3138). Mark is all about beginnings rather than endings. His title for the dramatic narrative he produces is found in chapter one, verse one: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…”
Thus, this isn’t the end of anything. It’s a strange way to start a year, unless you understand this. Tribulation isn’t the end of anything. It’s what we will endure if we are faithful. Christians need not look for trouble. It will find us if we’re doing what we are called to do. And the trouble that finds us will be what the late John Lewis called “good trouble.”
The Greek word for “judgment” is “krisis” from which we get our English word “crisis.” A crisis is, to use the current jargon, an inflection point — a point of no return, a decisive moment which determines what comes next. It is a fork in the existential road, a branching of the universe into new territory. A crisis may be the end of the world as we know it, but it is also the beginning of a world we cannot yet see.
“The world is going to be plunged into convulsions, Jesus says; and his followers, called like him to live at the place where the purposes of God and the pain of the world cross paths with each other,” observes Tom Wright, “will find themselves caught up in those convulsions.” (Kindle Location 3170).
It’s always the end of the world somewhere. I think about this insightful bit of dialogue from the film, Men in Black. Kay scolds his younger partner: “We do not discharge our weapons in view of the public!” Jay is not impressed. “We ain’t got time for this cover-up bullshit! I don’t know whether or not you’ve forgotten, but there’s an Arquillian Battle Cruiser that’s about to…”
Then comes a bit of trademark MIB philosophy. “There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet,” Kay retorts, “and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they do not know about it!” [For another day: this is also a way to understand the way racism functions in our culture – not an accident that the film is called Men in Black].
Of course, Jesus is not advocating for a safe god who keeps us in blissful ignorance. Rather Jesus points to the faithful God who walks with us into the changes and challenges of faithful living in the here and now. “The safe god asks nothing of us, gives nothing to us,” writes Mark Buchanan. That god
never drives us to our knees in hungry, desperate praying and never sets us on our feet in fierce, fixed determination. [That god] never makes us bold to dance. The safe god never whispers in our ears anything but greeting card slogans and certainly never asks that we embarrass ourselves by shouting from the rooftop…A safe god inspires neither awe, nor worship, nor sacrifice. (Your God is Too Safe, page 31).
Jesus is not describing a safe god. Nor is Jesus describing “the end of the world.” But he is describing the end of the world as we know it (and the beginning of a new – or it renewed – order). Wright makes the point clear.
Had it been the end of the world, what would have been the point of running away so frantically? No; but it was the end of their world, the close of the way of life that had failed, by the combination of injustice towards those inside and revolutionary violence towards those outside, to obey God’s call to be the light of the world. (Kindle Location 3240).
It’s instructive to observe the bifurcation of the QAnon movement in the wake of the recent election. For some members, the result has produced a crisis in faith since the predicted outcome did not materialize. For others, the strategy is to double down, recalculate, read the signs again and continue the delusions. It’s no surprise that the mysterious center of all this baloney — the anonymous and eponymous Q — has simply counseled patience and watching.
On the other hand, True Q believers are advocating a variety of narratives and responses, many involving some form of violence. Christians should hear clearly in our text the warning against listening to false messiahs and prophetic pretenders. That warning was potent in the first century and pertinent in the twenty-first century.
Regarding Mark 13, Larry Hurtado writes, “it is helpful to note that the dominant theme of the whole passage is a warning against being deceived by false claims about the end being near and by individuals who will try to pass themselves off as prophets – or even something more (vv. 6, 21).” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
So, Hurtado suggests that Mark had a particular pastoral concern for his listeners/readers. “Thus, Mark’s primary purpose,” Hurtado continues, “was not to inflame speculation about the time of the end of the world, but rather to urge caution and wisdom. He cared more,” Hurtado concludes, “about the welfare of his readers than about encouraging them to try to calculate the details of God’s future plans” (page 212). In a time when the QAnon conspiracy myth walks in the front door of some churches (well, at least figuratively in Covid-time), the words of Mark 13 are noteworthy.
There will be an end to history at some point, Jesus says, but this ain’t it, friends. The destruction of Jerusalem was a huge deal, but life went on. The utter chaos of 2020 is a huge deal, but life goes on. Most of us never met a crisis we didn’t enjoy, but that’s not the role for Christians. We are to wait patiently, to endure faithfully, and to continue to work while it is daytime. We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working.
Panic is over-rated. Preparation is under-appreciated. Patient endurance is the platinum standard for disciples. Wright says it well: “But it is also important for us to remind ourselves of our own call to watch, to be alert. The judgment that fell on the Temple is a foretaste, according to other passages in the New Testament, of the judgment that will fall on the whole world.” (Kindle Location 3308).
I have two questions still to address. First, where is the “good news” in this part of Mark’s gospel? It is in the narrative yet to come. The crisis will come to its climax on the cross. The forces of sin, death and evil will be drawn to a single point in time and space. God takes on and takes in all the powers of anti-life and defeats them in the death and resurrection of the Beloved Son. Today’s text is the beginning of the birth pangs. In a few weeks we will remember and celebrate the Festival of the Incarnation when those birth pangs produce a child in a manger, who is Christ, the Lord.
The second question is, who benefits from misreading this passage as a text of terror? “We are surrounded by fear,” writes Scott Bader-Saye, “just to the extent that we are surrounded by people who profit from fear.” (page 14). Let us not be distracted by the fear-vendors among us. We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working.
Bader-Saye continues. “Christian discipleship, that is, following Jesus, will mean surrendering the power that masquerades as security in order to love the neighbor and welcome the stranger. It will mean avoiding the safe path in order to pursue the good.” (page 22). It’s hard to improve on that line. But it does give me a chance to squeeze in a great Harry Potter quote. “’Dark times lie ahead of us,’ Dumbledore warns Harry, ‘and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.’”
That is, of course, always the choice facing Jesus followers. For Christians, Jesus tells us, this time is all the time. “Courage is the capacity to do what is right and good in the face of fear,” writes Bader-Saye. “We become courageous when we learn to live for something that is more important than our own safety.” (page 67).
Can our congregations be places where we can speak our fears safely and honestly? “To speak our fear to another is to begin to loosen the grip that fear has on us. To make fear take form in speech is to name it as something that can be confronted, not confronted alone but in the community of those willing to speak their fears aloud and thus begin to subdue them.” (Bader-Saye, page 71). What a gift to the world if our congregations could become and be such places!
We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working.
Bader-Saye, Scott. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2007.
Buchanan, Mark. Your God is Too Safe: Rediscovering the Wonder of a God You Can’t Control. Sisters, OR.: Multnomah Publishers, 2001.
Carvalho, Corrine. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3485
Gross, Matthew Barrett, and Gilles, Mel. The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about America. Promotheus Books, 2012.
Hartwell, Drew, and Timberg, Craig. “‘My faith is shaken’: The QAnon conspiracy theory faces a post-Trump identity crisis.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/11/10/qanon-identity-crisis/
Hogan, Lucy Lind. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2278
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Jervis, L. Ann. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=180
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Kindle Edition. Augsburg Fortress Press, 1992.
Wendland, Kristin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2253
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (2nd Edition, Kindle). Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.