Grace Presbyterian Church
November 14, 2021, Pentecost 25B
Signs of the Times
Every lectionary cycle ends basically the same way. The final Sunday of any lectionary cycle is celebrated as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. What happens the Sunday before that, however, can be a bit wild.
Year A, on the gospel of Matthew, culminates with the barrage of parables Jesus lets loose in Matthew 25, just before all Hell breaks loose, in about as literal a sense as that phrase can be used, in chapter 26. Mark and Luke, on the other hand, choose to put forth a bit of apocalyptic teaching from Jesus. (Matthew also includes such an apocalyptic discourse from Jesus, but the lectionary framers chose not to include it; apparently two years out of three is enough.) Curiously, the next lectionary cycle will also touch on an apocalyptic theme; we will be on to the gospel of Luke at that point, but the text will address Christ’s return, “‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” Don’t worry, after this you won’t have to hear about apocalypse for the rest of the lectionary year.
But here, following directly after the account of the poor widow and her all-she’s-got offering comes this seemingly out-of-nowhere discourse from Jesus on What to Expect When the End Is Coming. As unfamiliar and different as it may seem, though, it is prompted by something very familiar in Mark’s gospel; a disciple vocally and obviously Not Getting It.
Hot on the heels of Jesus’s denunciation of the power structure of the Temple and its exploitation of those who partake in its worship, one of the disciples (mercifully unnamed) goes off in a tizzy over the Temple building itself: “what large stones and what large buildings!” Jesus ends all discussion with the blunt assessment “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Only when the group has reached the Mount of Olives do Peter, James, John, and Andrew (something of an executive committee of the disciples) dare to ask Jesus for an explanation.
There is a bit of history, though, that can keep us on track here and keep us from going off on apocalyptic tangents too soon. While you can get a good argument among biblical scholars on the exact date, those scholars agree that Mark’s gospel was written some uncertain time around the year 70 – maybe a little before, maybe a little after. That date is very significant, as it was the year that, after extended conflict between Judean rebels and the imperial Roman occupiers of Judea, the Romans destroyed the Temple and much of Jerusalem. Jesus’s words here as recorded by Mark are describing an event that either is imminent or has just happened. There’s no forth-telling here; Mark’s readers will know exactly what this is about.
The aforementioned four disciples seek an explanation from Jesus on the Mount of Olives, but instead Jesus presses on with more detail and warning. Emilie Townes, biblical scholar and dean of Vanderbilt University’s theology school, summarizes the horrors described like so:
The ebb and flow of creation as we know it, the relationships we have established, the cultural markers that help define us – these and more are now obliterated. This is total destruction at its sharpest. It is unrelenting and unforgiving, and no one – not even the faithful – can escape its devastating blows as the old age is swept away for the new one.
And that’s just these first eight verses, which Jesus describes as just “the beginning of the birth pangs.” The rest of Mark 13 gets even worse, at least until that appearance of the Son of Man with great power and glory (v. 26). That’s the thing about these apocalypses in the gospels; they end with the very thing we’re looking forward to, right? We long for Jesus to be present among us again, right?
In the meantime, though, things aren’t easy. And here’s the kicker; no one gets off scott-free, not even the faithful. No one gets raptured away to be “kept safe” in the dark and dangerous times. And yet notice also that there is no “call to arms” here, no summons to battle. There’s nothing here about fighting to save … well, anything.
What are we called to do, then? Keep watch. Beware. Keep bearing witness to the gospel. Endure to the end. Don’t be led astray by false witnesses or would-be messiahs. Pay attention to the signs of the times. Don’t be stupid enough to think you know when this is all going to happen. And one more time, in verse 37, “Keep awake.”
There are two things about this passage we’d do well to remember, lest we get too distressed or hopeless over it all. One: this is not new talk. Frankly, what Jesus is saying here is, more or less, boilerplate apocalyptic with a deep long history in Jewish tradition. And at least in these first eight verses, the events described are, well, not all that uncommon. Would-be messiahs? Check. Wars and rumors of wars? Check. Nations rising against nations, kingdoms against kingdoms? Earthquakes? Famines? Check, check, check. We can certainly claim these things, but so can frankly almost any age.
Point two to remember is found in verse 8: all of this that Jesus describes is but “the beginnings of the birth pangs.” As one who has never experienced nor will experience that particular sensation, I would not dare to comment upon it. However, we have to note that the birth pangs are not the end-all and be-all of pregnancy; birth pangs give way to birth, new life, new love.
So it is with these times. The birth pangs of conflict and trouble give way to the new birth of life in the unending presence of Jesus, the Son of Man coming with great power and glory.
The times of trouble can be stressful indeed. Even the poet William Butler Yeats was struck by the sense of turmoil and discord and the loss of innocence that comes with these, in his poem “The Second Coming”;
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
If that doesn’t sound familiar just from a glance at daily headlines, I don’t know what to tell you. And yet…and yet…and yet, here we are promised that for all the birth pangs, for all the trials and conflict and violence, our end is promised in the returning of our Lord among us.
In the meantime, we endure. We keep listening to the Spirit, we keep studying what we have been given in scripture – not hunting and cherry-picking for stuff that gives us an excuse to do what we want, but taking what Jesus says and learning how to live it, taking what the early church experienced and learned and figuring out what that teaches us, paying attention to those signs of the times without obsessing on them or using them as an excuse to launch a holy war. We endure, we wait, we keep awake, we keep faithful. And we await, even await with joy, what comes after the “birth pangs.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #352, My Lord! What a Morning; #361, O Christ, the Great Foundation; #629, Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee