March 17 | Fifth Encounter: Good News Amidst Apocalypse




Fifth Encounter: Good News Amidst Apocalypse
Text: Mark 13:1-8, 14-23, 28-37
Speaker: Joel Miller

Well, welcome to Apocalypse Sunday. 

This passage in Mark is sometimes called the Little Apocalypse.  That’s in relation to the big one, Revelation, the final book of our New Testament.  This apocalyptic sermon of Jesus in Mark 13, and its parallels in Matthew and Luke, is merely one chapter.

So, I guess welcome to Little Apocalypse Sunday, which sounds a little less ominous?

This is a passage that speaks of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the warring of nations, refugees fleeing violence, false prophets, a blooming fig tree, and the importance of being watchful and awake. 

It’s a passage easily misused by authors appealing to an anxious audience about the details of the end of the world, sometimes including dates, even though Jesus says “about that day or hour no one knows” – not even the angels.  Not even Jesus himself. 

Although frequently identified with the future, it’s the chapter that very likely most closely describes the current events faced by Mark’s original audience.  In 66 CE a Jewish revolt in Jerusalem expelled the Romans and their Judean appointees out of the city.  The rebellion spread to surrounding areas.  A Roman contingent came down from Syria but was turned back by the rebels who proceeded to set up their own government.  In the next several years the Romans undertook a scorched earth policy that eventually led to deaths of thousands, the toppling of the Jerusalem temple and people permanently fleeing the city in 70 CE – pretty much everything described in Mark chapter 13. 

Most scholars believe Mark was written in this very window of time, after the rebellion had begun, but perhaps before it was definitively extinguished by the Romans.  It was a time when the call to arms was at its most intense, when nationalist fervor was at its height, when the end of the world as they knew it was near.  For those loyal to the Jesus movement rather than the temple-state, what might all this mean?  Was it possible to actively resist Roman imperialism and violent rebellion at the same time? Do we stay and fight, do we flee, or something else?  Put another way: What does it mean to live in apocalyptic times?

It’s the question burning at the heart of the community Mark is addressing.  It’s a question very much alive in the 21st century.

My pledge to you is that this sermon does contain some good news.  Three points of good news, in fact.  Because when the world in crumbling, there’s nothing quite as stabilizing as a good ‘ole three point sermon.  There is good news in Mark 13 and there is hope in the apocalypse. 

But first, the end of the world.

I’d like to read a poem titled “Notes at the End of the World.”  And I should add that it was written by a 16 year old, a generation that will feel, more than mine, the effects of our collective rebellion against the earth.

Notes at the End of the World

Smoke streams the sky like a necklace
People stream the streets like smoke
Clouds are lost in the fog
But rain could not save us now

It would only wash the
Birds’ choked bodies into
The murky storm drains.
I am cloaked in
Air so thick I
Could almost fly
Dirt-stained wings stretched towards
Polluted heavens surrounded by
Air so thick I
Could almost drown
In the sea of it
Dragged down to
The very core.
And when I sleep
I dream of fire
And when I wake
I see it out my window
We are
A blue particle suspended in space
Trying its best
To set itself aflame.

The first point of good news is that apocalypse means unveiling.  We’ve come to use it to refer to catastrophe, utter destruction, the end of everything.  But the definition of the Greek word apocalypsis is to unveil, to reveal, to make known that which was previously hidden.  It’s why the last book of the New Testament, which opens with the words “The apocalypsis of Jesus Christ,” is called Revelation.  It reveals something. 

Apocalypse, and apocalyptic times are revealing times.  They tear away the veil, remove the façade, expose the mechanisms previously hidden from our eyes.  They help us see more truthfully. 
Kind of like a good poem.

So at the beginning of Mark chapter 13, when Jesus and the disciples are walking out of the temple, the disciples see one thing: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  They aren’t wrong, either in their observations, or in their amazement at the feat of engineering, and skill and labor to build these wonders.  We pay good money to visit architectural wonders around the world.  I can still picture the view atop one of the Mayan pyramids of Tikal in Guatemala overlooking a vast jungle.  I can still feel the awe of being next to The Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, a vast city on one side, Cairo, a vast desert on the other. 

But Jesus is not in a mood for tourism, at least not now.  He has only days – not months or weeks, but days left to live before he is executed by the same state apparatus that built those grand buildings the disciples can’t help but admire.  He knows that the human capacity for amazing creativity is met only by our capacity for destruction, and that a time of destruction is near.

“Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus responds.  “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  It’s an unveiling that ties into what he says next about earthquakes and kingdoms rising and falling.  The things we think are the most solid, most unshakeable, most set in stone – literally and figuratively – aren’t as solid as they appear. 

On a geological time scale, it’s all just one more layer of shale pressed between other epochs of the planet.  On a human time scale, nothing is too big to fail.  There’s a fragility to our ways of ordering our world – economic, political, social – even if it appears on the surface as quite impressive.

Now this sure doesn’t sound like good news.  A lot of it isn’t.  But there’s something about this shift from apocalypse as catastrophe to apocalypse as an unveiling that is at the heart of Christian faith.  It connects directly with the theme of sight that runs throughout Mark.  A disciple is someone who was blind, who can now see.  And, in seeing, in truly seeing, is empowered to follow Jesus on the way.

The second point of good news amidst apocalypse is related to the first.  It has to do not just with what we’re seeing, but how to see it. 

When the earth does quake, when structures collapse; when, as the poem says, the air is so thick we could almost fly, or drown in the sea of it, What is it we’re witnessing?  Is this the end of everything?  The end of something? Or could it be something else? 

For Mark’s community, it was indeed the end of a world.  The center – Jerusalem and the temple, and the cultural, economic, and political world it upheld – the center did not hold. 

And yet amidst all this upheaval, Jesus offers two tender images of life.  One is of a fig tree just starting to push out leaves as the harsh days of winter turn toward summer.  The other is after a description of other harsh days, when Jesus says, “This is but the beginning of birth pangs.” 

Jesus had initially countered human creativity – the construction of large elaborate buildings – with human destructiveness – not one stone will be left on another.  But he comes back to the creative work of God – seen in the natural world and human mothering.  Amidst upheaval, there is a greater force at work – the fig tree survives the winter and produces leaves and fruit as the season turns.  Amidst very real suffering and loss of life, there is another kind of suffering producing life, the travails of labor. 

What if what we’re witnessing is something in the process of being born?  And what if our role is to come alongside, to comfort and support the great mothering spirit as she brings this forth?  Like a partner, like a midwife, or a doula. 

The metaphor of how to see what we’re seeing in apocalyptic times matters.  Jesus suggests that his followers see birth where others only see death.  Rather to mere empty branches, to see tender twigs holding all they need to sprout life. 

Apocalypse is an unveiling that enables us to see more clearly.  And the suffering we do see and experience is both the end of something and the birth of something. 

Neither of these is the kind of good news that eliminates the hard stuff.  It is perhaps the kind of good news that enables a community to endure, to keep its bearings, to stay grounded in more than the whims of the moment, in apocalyptic times. 

And so is this final point of good news. 

Jesus ends his little apocalypse with a parable about watchfulness. 

“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”  (Mark 13:33-37)

And again, what could sound like some far off future event, is actually the most pressing present reality of the text.  In those watches of the day – evening, midnight, cockcrow, and dawn – Mark has provided an outline for the rest of his gospel.  When Jesus gathers with his companions in the evening for a final meal.  When he is arrested and tried at midnight.  When he is disowned by Peter as the cock crows.  And when the women discover the empty tomb at dawn. 

Jesus isn’t urging his friends to be alert for some far off distant, maybe/maybe not grand arrival.  He’s urging them to stay awake, like in Gethsemane, as all of this unfolds around them.  As the apocalyptic moment of history, thecrucifixion of resurrection of Jesus, takes place.  As great suffering is met with great love.  As the painfully predictable violent machinery of the state and religious establishment is met with the wildly unpredictable nonviolent mystery of the Divine. 

Keep alert.  Stay awake.  In the present tense.

What does it take to keep awake in apocalyptic times?

One thing that will jolt you awake is when your sixteen year old daughter shares a Google Doc with you of a poem she wrote for her AP Environmental Science class which begins with:

Smoke streams the sky like a necklace
People stream the streets like smoke

And ends with: 

And when I sleep
I dream of fire
And when I wake
I see it out my window
We are
A blue particle suspended in space
Trying its best
To set itself aflame.

Shared here with Lily’s permission. 

How do we keep awake and watchful through the evening, midnight, cockcrow, and dawn of these times?

Apocalpytic times don’t come with easy solutions.  But they do hold possibilities that enable a community to endure, to keep its bearings, to stay grounded in more than the whims of the moment. 

An apocalypse is an unveiling, a revelation of thing previously hidden from sight.

And what we can see is not merely suffering, but signs of tender leaves beginning to push out, and labor birthing something new. 

When we stay awake we join in solidarity with Jesus, who is in solidarity with the whole earth community.  Jesus, who said these words: “What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”