Twenty-fifth Weekend After Pentecost (B/RCL)
November 14-15, 2015
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
There’s a cultural collision, a wrenching disconnect, between turkey and stuffing headed our way, Christmas wreaths hanging on the lampposts in town, and today’s Gospel. The Celebrate intro reads:
In the last week of his life, Jesus warned his disciples concerning trials that were to come upon them and upon the world.
“The last week of his life” fits more with Holy Week than Thanksgiving, right?
But every November, which is the end of the church year (since the new year begins with Advent I) the lectionary gives us these “end time” readings. (The “lectionary” is the 3 year cycle of assigned Scripture lessons that Mother Church gives us, reflecting the liturgical seasons, exposing us to as much of the Bible as possible, and hopefully preventing us pastors from preaching only on what we like and are comfortable with!)
I don’t believe I’ve preached on this particular passage from St. Mark before. I save my study notes and didn’t have any on this Gospel! I hadn’t even underlined or highlighted the commentaries I consult. Why haven’t I? Well, how do you get a handle on such crazy sounding stuff? To quote one book: “The thirteenth chapter of Mark is a happy hunting ground for persons fascinated by the end of the world.”1 I’m not. Some of this end-of-the-world imagery freaks me out. But I’m glad I found my courage and dug deeper this year!
The timing and location of this conversation between Jesus and his closest disciples is important. At the beginning of this last week of His life, Jesus’ public ministry is complete. There won’t be any more preaching to the crowds or casting out of demons or healing the sick. In the original ending of St. Mark’s Gospel, there’s no post-resurrection appearance. The women leave the empty tomb in terror and Jesus is no more to be seen. So in today’s Gospel Jesus is leaving a farewell message with His followers, to be remembered in time to come: BOLO! Be On the LookOut for the Son of Man, Jesus, to return. He doesn’t promise to meet them in Galilee or any other earthly place. He promises instead to be “’coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” (Mark 13:26)
This is imagery from apocalyptic writings, within and outside of the Bible. Apocalyptic literally means veiled, hidden. It is like secret code, designed to convey an important message to those who understand it, but hard to decipher for those who don’t. Apocalyptic literature springs up in troubled times, like the Roman persecution of Christians at the end of the first century, when the Book of Revelation was written. (For instance, they didn’t want to say straight out, “The emperor is out to get us!” so they referred to him as an eagle. You use symbolic language.)
It’s important for us to remember that the Jewish people embraced their identity as the chosen people of God and believed with all their hearts that God would keep the divine promise to establish an everlasting kingdom for them. They saw how weak they were compared to the nations around them, how vulnerable their geographic position in the busy corridor connecting the Romans and Greeks with Egypt. They figured God would have to act miraculously to conquer their enemies. They anticipated that divine intervention would be powerful and terrifying, included extinction of the sun, blood on the moon, falling of stars, etc. To describe His Second Coming, Jesus piggybacked on that startling imagery. It expresses the inexpressible. It is poetry, not prose. I agree with the Bible commentators who state it is not to be taken literally.
You may or may not agree. What I think we can agree on is that it doesn’t serve the Gospel, doesn’t “proclaim Christ” as Luther would say, doesn’t help anyone for us to look at current events, conclude that the end of the world approaches, and despair! Yes, there are wars and rumors of war. Yes, there are earthquakes and famine. There always have been. Jesus Himself said neither He nor the angels knew the timing of His return, only our Father in heaven. (Mark 13:32) Energy invested in establishing a timetable for Jesus’ return is energy wasted. The Lord has work for us to do and doesn’t intend for our spiritual strength to be sapped by anxiety!
I love this story from the early days of our country. There was an eclipse in New England while a colonial legislature met. Some of the lawmakers began to freak out and suggested immediate adjournment. One of them stood firm, though, and said:
“Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, that candles be brought.”2
So here are a couple thoughts I’d offer.
1) God would minister through us to those in the world who suffer from the horrific circumstances that lead some to believe the end is near. It is not time to pack our spiritual suitcases and sit on them waiting for the Lord to return. It is time to be about the holy work in this world that the Lord sets before us.
2) Let us remember that when Jesus describes earthly suffering and cosmic chaos He calls them birth pangs. They are painful as labor, but bring forth new life. The end is not darkness. The end is light. The end is not the end at all. It is a new and promised beginning.
3) Although the Lord said we should be on the lookout for false sightings, He did say He will return again. We are to be watchful and ready. We should not allow ourselves to be lulled into complacency or to forget that this world is not all there is. We should live as if He is coming now, and not leave for tomorrow any kindness that can be performed today. None of us knows if He’ll come to us or if we’ll go to Him first. In a way, it doesn’t matter. In either case: will we be ready to meet Him? If we keep that question alive in our hearts, then: “All life becomes a preparation to meet the King.”3
The best preparation is faithfully doing the work the Lord sets before us. May the Holy Spirit show you what your holy work is, or if you already know, strengthen you to serve in love until He comes or you go. Amen.
1Lamar Williamson, Jr. Mark (Interpretation, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), p. 235.
2Ibid, p. 242.
3William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (Daily Study Bible, rev. ed., Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), p. 321.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham