Sermon for Sunday, November 15th, 2015 || Proper 28, Year B || Daniel 12: 1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10: 11-25; Mark 13: 1-8 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
That was the last reading from Mark’s gospel we’ll hear until another three-year cycle in church-calendar-time rolls around again. And a doozy of a reading it is: the beginning of what’s known as Mark’s “mini-apocalypse.”
Having said that, a couple of things need clearing up before we can really think about what this gospel has to offer us as 21st century Jesus-followers. First there’s the term “mini-apocalypse,” which seems like an oxymoron if ever there was one. If apocalypse refers to the end of the world, how can there be any such thing as a “mini” one?
But the word “apocalypse” actually comes from a Greek word that means “disclosure” and it refers to the revelation or unveiling of otherwise hidden knowledge. We’ve come to associate it with the end of the world because in Greek it’s the same word that’s used for the Book of Revelation, which some interpreters believe foretells the Second Coming and the end of the world as we know it.
And that leads us to the second bit of clearing things up: The whole end of the world thing. I hope you noticed that I said some interpreters read the Book of Revelation—and today’s gospel reading—as prophecies that foretell the end of the age. Some do–but not all.
There are at least four other widely accepted approaches to interpreting the Book of Revelation. And many biblical scholars today believe that Mark’s gospel actually describes events that took place around the time when Mark was writing (about 40 years after the crucifixion) rather than that it records an event in the life of Jesus in which he foretold the end of the age.
Mark’s gospel was written at a time of unimaginable violence and chaos—even by today’s increasingly horrifying standards—a time that bore an uncanny resemblance to the events Mark has Jesus describing to his disciples in today’s reading—complete with false messiahs leading the faithful astray.
When Mark wrote this gospel, the First Jewish-Roman War had probably just ended. This was a war that began with Rome executing 6,000 Jews and devolved into civil war among various factions of Jews within the besieged walls of Jerusalem.
For seven months, Rome attacked the city, implementing a blockade, which meant death by starvation for many of the Jews and crucifixion for those who were caught trying to escape. At one point, historians believe the death toll reached as many as 500 crucifixions a day. Meanwhile, the internal violence escalated to such an extreme that one faction intentionally burned the city’s entire food supply in an unsuccessful attempt to force Jewish solidarity against the Romans. The war that finally ended when Rome took back Jerusalem, torched the city, destroyed the Temple (leaving “not one stone standing”) and took the survivors into slavery.
The historian Josephus records that more than a million Jews died during the siege, many of them by the hands of other Jews, many of pestilence, and many more of famine. Nearly a hundred thousand were taken into slavery. In short, it was a nightmare of apocalyptic proportions.
So it’s not hard to hear the echoes: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down…nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines…” About the only thing Mark has Jesus predict for which we don’t have any historical record at the time of the Jewish-Roman war is the earthquake.
So what are we to do with this passage if not associate it with the end of the world? And when we think of the “end of the world,” what exactly are we thinking of? Do we mean the end to the cosmic struggle between good and evil, the end of all of history, the end of life on this one little planet, or the Second Coming of Christ? Might we mean the end of some particular political, economic, cultural or religious world as we know it? Or could we even be thinking of our own individual lives—and our awareness that they, too, will end?
As I wrote this sermon, news was just breaking of the hideous attacks against innocent people in Paris. The magnitude of the evil that was done is incomprehensible. One wonders what power lies behind it—human or cosmic– this latest evidence, for those with an apocalyptic lens, of the end times.
And what are we, as Jesus-followers, to do?
“Do not be alarmed,” Mark’s Jesus tells us, “this must take place, but the end is still to come…This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” This is no platitude, no simplistic answer for the reality of suffering. These are challenging words—about as challenging as they come. Because whatever our interpretation of Mark’s mini-apocalypse, whatever our interpretation of terrorist attacks, global warming, or the ultimate “end of the world” the real revelation in this scripture, and in all of scripture, is that God is for us; that the Lord of All can and will do more for us than we can ever ask or imagine (whether we believe that or not) and that God’s Kingdom will come. It has to.
This may be but the beginning of the birth pangs, but God’s love is more powerful even than evil or death, so it’s certainly more powerful than whatever we’re experiencing now. Jesus warns us to beware that no one, and no thing—however frightening or threatening or painful or evil– lead us astray…astray from believing and trusting in the power of that Love. We are to remain faithful to God’s dream (as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says) even—if not especially—when our world is a nightmare. Because we are Jesus followers.
So we remain faithful, like the psalmist, by holding fast to the practice of prayer. We pray even when we don’t believe; we pray until we believe again. “You are my Lord,” we affirm with the psalmist, “my good above all other… O Lord, you are my portion and my cup; it is you who uphold my lot…you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the Pit…You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy…” We remain faithful by holding fast to the practice of prayer.
We remain faithful by holding fast to what the author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls “the confession of our hope,” reminding ourselves week after week in Holy Eucharist, that Jesus looked evil and death in the face and did not back down, and that by the power of the risen Christ we can do the same. We remain faithful by retelling our story, in sacrament and in song.
We remain faithful by holding fast to God’s Word. By “reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting” holy Scripture. Reading a daily devotion, listening to sermons, going to Bible study. We remain faithful by holding fast to God’s Word.
And finally, we remain faithful by holding fast to one another, to this beloved community; by not “neglecting to meet together” as the Letter to the Hebrews says, but gathering as a community of faith to “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds… encouraging one another– and all the more as [we] see the Day approaching.” All the more as the world around us feels increasingly frightening, out of control, surreal. All the more as hope becomes an increasingly scarce commodity. We remain faithful by holding fast to one another.
“Beware that no one leads you astray,” Jesus warned his disciples. “…When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come…”
So hold fast, St. Stephen’s. Hold fast, and do not let the darkness of terrorism lead you astray. Hold fast and remain faithful–with prayer, with sacrament, with scripture, and with one another. Hold fast to the confession of our hope– God’s love–because he who has promised is faithful. Amen.