Mark 13:1-8, 24-37
When I am deciding what verses to preach on each Sunday, I usually follow a plan called the Narrative Lectionary. This is a four-year long cycle of readings with specific verses assigned to specific weeks. It was created 10 years ago, and the cycle never changes. I tell you that so that you can appreciate the timeliness of today’s verses. They weren’t picked last week. They were picked 10 years ago. And they talk about the end of the world. What we are reading this morning is usually described as Mark’s Little Apocalypse. When we hear the word apocalypse we usually think “the end of the world.” But the word technically means to reveal something or uncover something. It’s as if our current situation has been lifted away to reveal God’s true intentions for the world. Apocalyptic speech in the Bible always anticipates God’s ultimate victory over evil. We will understand these verses much better if we understand the situation in which they were written. The gospel of Mark is the earliest one, and although we don’t know an exact date, it was probably written less than 50 years after Jesus died. Around the same time that Jesus lived, there were other leaders who rose up and claimed to be the Messiah who would lead the Jews to military victory over Rome. Some of them had a pretty good run, but eventually each of them was killed. In the year 66, the Jews rebelled against the Romans. This rebellion continued until the year 70, when the Romans finally breached the walls of Jerusalem, completely destroyed the Temple, burned the city, killed perhaps 1 million Jews, and took 70,000 more as slaves back to Rome. The gospel of Mark was written around this same time, maybe a little before, maybe a little after. Sometimes when we read this morning’s verses people want to say, “See! Jesus can predict the future!” And maybe he did, but that’s not really the point. The point is that Mark wanted to give his readers instructions from Jesus on how to live during times that seem like the end of the world. Which seems like instructions we would also want to hear this morning. “So let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Readings: Mark 13:1-8
As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
Then Jesus describes a time when his followers will experience persecution because of their trust in the Gospel. They will be called to testify before courts and even have conflict with their own families. But they are encouraged to continue sharing the Good News. After that will come a time of severe tribulation when even preaching ceases and everyone flees Jerusalem to find safety.
We pick up again in verse 24:
“But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
“At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
This the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Sam and I have been talking this week about whether there’s anything to which we can compare our current situation. And there’s just not. Many of us have individually experienced seasons in our lives when our foundations were shaken, personal tragedies. There was massive global uncertainty at Y2K about whether everything would collapse, but ultimately it didn’t. 9/11 reshaped our mindset and many of our national priorities. The 2008 financial crisis destabilized our economy for a while. But in our lifetimes, we have never experienced such upheaval on a global scale that also affects each of us individually. It’s come upon us pretty suddenly and we are all trying to figure out how to deal with it. How to deal with our isolation. How to deal with new routines. How to deal with our fear. How to deal with our grief over experiences we are missing out on. It’s real. At times it’s overwhelming. We need resources to help us deal with it. And although our situation is not the same the one Mark’s first readers were experiencing, I think Jesus gives us some wisdom here about how to be disciples in a global pandemic.
First we must not put our ultimate trust in human institutions. This section begins with the disciples awe at the Jewish Temple. This temple was built by King Herod and finished about 10 years before Jesus was born. It was constructed out of massive stones, some of which can still be seen today in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. It was an impressive piece of architecture and the center of Jewish religious life and so it makes sense that the disciples are impressed by it. But Jesus wasn’t. He knew that our human tendency is to put our trust in the things we create. We want big houses and fancy cars, or whatever it is for you. We feel secure in our future because we have good jobs or retirement plans.
By using the Temple as an example, Jesus reminds us that none of those things are permanent and they don’t deserve our trust. Are they good things? Yes, they are. But in this situation, we’ve seen how fragile they are. Some of the highest paying jobs are the least needed right now, while the “low-skilled” work is essential. Our stock market investments come and go. Even our tried and true ways of doing church, our “temples,” can be undone in a snap. To be a disciple means to put our ultimate trust in God and not in human institutions.
Next to be a disciple in a global pandemic we must not be afraid. Now I’m sure that comes as no surprise to you, and I know it falls in the category of “easier said than done.” Believe me. I feel afraid sometimes too. But Jesus invites us to trust, even and especially in the midst of disaster. He says to his followers, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed.” In this broken world we are going to experience disaster: wars, earthquakes, famines, but those don’t mean the end of the world is upon us and we shouldn’t give in to fear. We have a secure place in which to put our trust. Jesus says that even if the created order, heaven and earth, pass away, his words, the truth of his loving good news, will endure. To be a disciple means to be brave in the face of disaster.
Finally, to be a disciple in a global pandemic, we must keep on doing what Jesus calls us to do. In the verses that we skipped over, Jesus encourages his followers to keep sharing the gospel even if they put on trial or face opposition from their own families. And at the end of the verses we read, Jesus compares his ultimate return to a householder who went away and left his servants in charge. When he comes back, he wants to find them doing his work, which for us means sharing the good news.
So I ask you, what kind of words are you speaking in this time? Are you speaking words of panic or fear? Are you spreading rumors without checking them? Are you criticizing the president or the governor? Or are you speaking words of life and peace and love? Are you sharing good news with your words and also with your actions? Are you looking for opportunities to be generous, to be of service to others? To be a disciple means to continue doing what Jesus calls us to do.
Remember that the point of apocalyptic speech is to help people anticipate God’s ultimate victory over evil. Now it can sound scary because evil is pretty strong in this world, so it’s going to take something radical to overcome it. And if you are standing on the side of evil when it happens, if you haven’t been living as a disciple, you’re going to get caught up in what God is doing and it will probably be uncomfortable. Changing something for the good isn’t always easy. In these verses Jesus refers to it as birth pangs, as contractions. Sammy brings great joy to my life, but getting him from inside of me to outside of me was not fun. It was painful, but not ultimately harmful, and it resulted in something beautiful. It resulted in new life.
Now just like we want a due date for a baby, it’s tempting to want to know when this new world is coming. But Jesus cautions us not to go there. There’s no point in making charts and trying to put world events on some biblical timeline because according to these verses not even Jesus knows when he’s coming back. So don’t waste your time on trying to figure out when the Left Behind series will start when you could be spending your time on Kingdom business. But also don’t assume you have all the time in the world just because Jesus isn’t back yet. These verses also says that he will come suddenly. As Jesus’s disciples we are called to live in the balance between obsessing over his return and ignoring his return. We are invited to live with anticipation of a new world, to do all we can to make it a reality, knowing that Jesus is the one who will fully complete it.
The world that’s coming, the one that will be revealed when Jesus returns, it’s good. It will be different but not totally unfamiliar. It will be like the difference between a tree in winter and a tree in summer. Same tree, just out in its fully glory, doing what it was created to do. It will be like a family when someone comes home from a long trip. They were a family while they were apart, but when they are together they are whole. And remember that the ultimate end of new creation is not that we go to heaven but that heaven comes here. The last part of the book of Revelation depicts a new reign of God on a renewed earth. Ultimately, God comes here to set right everything that has gone wrong and to make room for everyone who chooses to live in God’s new city.
These words of apocalypse might sound scary but they are meant to reassure us that God still has a plan. This world has not gotten out of God’s control. It’s not so far off track that God cannot pull it back on course. Ultimately, all will be well, no matter how much things change around us. The new world will be born. The fig tree will get blossoms and leaves and bear fruit. And the family will be reunited. We do not have to be afraid. All will be well because God will make it so. Amen.