Hebrews 11:11-14, 19-25
There will be “wars and rumours of wars” – nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
As we near the end of the Church Year and prepare to begin again with the Season of Advent, the lectionary gives us some apocalyptic texts (like this one from Mark 13) on which to reflect and preach. What are apocalyptic texts, you ask? Here’s how the SALT Lectionary Commentary explains these strange, symbolic, and often scary pieces of writing:
“When death-dealing forces seemed to have the upper hand, one ancient literary response was to envision an imminent future in which God directly comes to the rescue in spectacular fashion: righting wrongs, routing wrongdoers, and thereby inaugurating a new era of justice and compassion. This literature is often called “Apocalyptic” (from the Greek word apokalupsis, meaning “uncovering” or “revealing”).
“God pulls aside the veil, revealing to God’s people the hidden dramatic rescue to come. Apocalyptic narratives and images can be found throughout the Bible (with Daniel and Revelation being prime examples), typically including cryptic, poetic language; ominous signs in the heavens; falling stars; natural disasters; anguish followed by victory; and so on. In essence, these are extravagant, evocative visions of hope when all hope seems lost.”
When we looked at this morning’s apocalyptic text from Mark in Bible study this week, folks immediately recognized that those ominous signs and events are happening right now. Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of natural disasters. Conflicts and wars abound throughout the world today, and sometimes even erupt in this part of the world with violent protests and insurrections in places we thought were immune to such things.
For those who want to interpret the biblical texts as predictions of the future, it’s not difficult to identify the Covid-19 Pandemic or the revealed brokenness of Indigenous-Settler relationships in Canada as the fulfilment of those expected signs of the end of days.
But neither Jesus nor the author of Mark’s Gospel was a fortune teller, making predictions of what would happen in the 21st century. In the case of our Gospel text this morning, the message of hope was first aimed at Mark’s own early Christian community when he was writing the Gospel some time in the late sixties or early seventies of the first century. And his was a community that was really struggling.
It was during (or just after) the disastrous Jewish revolt against the Roman imperial occupation in Palestine which happened between 66 and 70 CE, and their world was being shattered and shaken to its core. The Roman armies vanquished the rebellion and destroyed the Jewish Temple, desecrating what for Jews was nothing less than the sacred heart of the world. The message of Mark’s Gospel is thus a message of hope proclaimed in the midst of catastrophe, grace in the midst of violence and ruin.
Just think about the story we heard about Jesus and his disciples, and imagine hearing it from the perspective of those early Christians. Jesus and his friends are standing beside the Temple which would have been under construction at that time. One of the disciples looks up and exclaims at the huge stones and the massive building that is coming together.
Herod the Great began building the Jerusalem Temple in 20 BCE, and it wasn’t completed until about 80 years later, in 63 CE, just seven years before its destruction by the Romans. It was an extraordinarily ambitious, massive project, with those “large stones” that so impressed the disciples being 35 feet long by 18 feet wide by 12 feet high!
Mark’s community has just seen that gargantuan Temple come crashing down, and it likely feels like the whole world is coming to an end. But in the voice of Jesus, their leader encourages them not to be alarmed. The end of the world is not happening yet, and they must be careful not to be led astray.
Not to be led astray by feelings of despair and giving up hope; not to be led astray into worrying and wondering about when and how the world might actually come to an end; not to be led astray such that they lose sight of their mission as they focus only on self-preservation in the midst of a dangerous world.
In every generation since that time, our human community has struggled too. Conflicts, wars, natural disasters, and famines have plagued us all through our history. But Jesus tells us to hold on and to keep our focus on him.
If you keep reading through Mark chapter 13, you’ll find Jesus talking about the personal trials and challenges that his followers will face. But he says “the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations.” And although he describes betrayal and suffering, and calls the people to be alert, he assures them that “they will see the Son of Humanity coming in clouds with great power and glory.” That’s Christ coming again to make the world right and new.
The struggles we are experiencing are “but the beginning of the birthpangs,” which means that they are not the beginning of death and destruction, but they are the painful, but hopeful signs of an imminent new era getting ready to be born.
I like the way the Book of Hebrews encourages Christians to “hold fast to the confession of hope without wavering, [because God] who has promised is faithful.” And while others may be despairing, worrying, and trying desperately to protect themselves and their closest loved ones from the dangers of the world…
Meanwhile, the Christians are called to focus our attention on something else. Our task in this context is to “provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, and encouraging one another, and all the more as we see the Day approaching.”
Imagine if we had just hunkered down when the Coronavirus swept the world. I mean, we did need to follow safety precautions and adapt to new ways of gathering and ministering to each other and our communities.
But while the world was in crisis, meanwhile Christians kept worshipping God, kept reaching out in love and mission, kept our focus on caring for those who were particularly struggling, and held fast to our hope in God without wavering.
And while wars, conflict, and persecutions have led to a refugee crisis in our world, with so many people forced to leave their homes and seek shelter in other places. Meanwhile, communities like ours are not choosing self-preservation or ignoring what is happening, but we are working hard to sponsor two families to come to Canada and find refuge here.
While the sins of colonialism and the residential school system are coming to light in these days, with pain, hurt, and anger erupting across this country… Meanwhile, some faith communities are determined not to ignore the injustices in which we participated, and we are doing what we can to listen, to learn, to recover our difficult history and build better relationships with our Indigenous neighbours.
While the leaders of the world are debating and negotiating what they are willing to do to mitigate climate change and slow the environmental degradation that is threatening our planet… Meanwhile, people of hope are working creatively and generously in their own contexts to find solutions and adopt green practices, even before the nations catch up and legislate the changes we need to make.
It is tempting, as we live in the midst of the struggles of our time, either to become completely overwhelmed and give up on God, the world, and the future of humanity… or to go to the other extreme, sticking our heads in the sand, ignoring the issues that don’t land right on our doorstep, and pretending that everything is just fine.
In contrast, Jesus invites us to hold on to hope, to be alert and ready for what God will do to bring in a new world of justice, peace, and love for all, and to find ways to participate with God in that new world even here and now.
While the world seems to be falling apart, meanwhile God’s people are invited to keep on provoking one another to love and good deeds, meeting together, and encouraging one another. And when we do, that’s when we’ll begin to see that the world God intends for us all is growing.