A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
March 12, 2016
Mark 13:1-8, 24-37
This passage from Mark is referred to as an “apocalypse” text. People tend to think of movies like “Mad Max” when they think of apocalypse. (see note at end of sermon about Mad Max). End of the world stuff. Left Behind books.
But you can just ‘left that’ behind.
The authors of “Left Behind”, while they may have written compelling fiction, have done a dis-service to a scriptural understanding about apocalypse.
Apocalypse is not about getting your individual self right with Jesus so that when he comes back in glory, you’ll be on the right side and will be able to watch the fools, who didn’t choose Jesus, suffer torments for their sins.
Apocalypse is a Greek word that means, “Revelation”. Apocalyptic books in the Bible are rare—Daniel and Revelation are the only full apocalyptic books we have. But Apocalyptic was a common genre in the biblical world. And Apocalyptic themes run through books—the text we have this morning is a good example. The Apostle Paul’s writings speak of “revelation” a fair amount too.
What Apocalyptic literature reminds its hearers, or reveals to its hearers, is that until the end, when God wipes away every tear from our eyes, our redemption is not complete.
It is not finished as long as anyone on earth is in pain.
Our freedom is restricted as long as people are in bondage and suffering.
Our longing is not for just ourselves but for everyone.
You can hear that in Mark’s revelation here in chapter 13. “Then the Son of Man (language from Daniel) will send his angels to gather his elect from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
There is no place, no suffering, so far away that God will not be able to find you to gather you up.
This text is often read before Christmas, during Advent. And we consider the birth of Jesus in an apocalyptic way—how God revealed something new to the world through the birth of Jesus.
Today we’re hearing it in the midst of Lent, and we consider the coming death and resurrection of Jesus in an apocalyptic way—how is God revealing something new to the world through Jesus’ death and resurrection?
Of course, as we read this passage from a place of relative comfort and safety, we may not intuitively get how promises of war and destruction would be seen as “good news” to people. War is not hope for people who benefit from stability.
War and destruction may be seen as hope for people who are living under threats of violence. Think of people in Syria. Their own government is bombing them, and has been doing so for years. They are facing decisions you and I can’t imagine. Do we stay here, maybe die from bombs or starvation? Or do we try our luck to make it to safety in another country, knowing we may die in a refugee camp or on a boat in the Aegean Sea? Do we send the kids alone? When all of your possible decisions are potentially bad ones, perhaps the promise of “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs” is a word of hope.
Because birth leads to new life.
Mark’s apocalypse doesn’t leave people with destruction. There is more to come. And they are to prepare for it. “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
Once the Divine enters the world, even the heavens themselves will be shaken. By making reference to sun, moon, and stars, Mark is cluing us in to the truth that God’s reign is a cosmic reign, it isn’t just a change of administration. It is an entirely new creation.
So, all of those systems on earth that enslave people? They’ll be gone.
Credit card debt and second mortgages? Gone.
Child abuse? Gone.
Systemic racism? Gone.
That is an unrecognizable world for us. Almost unimaginable, isn’t it? And isn’t that sad. We are so used to what we live in that we can’t even imagine a world of peace, where all are fed and safe, and where new life come from death.
Apocalypse requires imagination. And it requires resurrection. A belief that life can come from death.
I worry that too often, we live in a way that pretends we don’t need resurrection. In one sense, I’m talking about the way we try to control things, to keep life in a narrowly managed way.
But I think we’re skeptical of resurrection too, of the idea that God can do things we can’t even imagine. If we believed in resurrection, we wouldn’t be afraid to let things die. And we’d believe that God could bring life where we only see despair and death.
This week I heard Shane Claiborne speak at an event. He was a good church kid from Tennessee who moved to North Philly to live with the poor after college. Because he realized if the Good News wasn’t good news for the poor, then it wasn’t Good News. And, listening to him, I realized you only move into a neighborhood with a high crime rate, broken social structures, and despair if you believe God can do a new thing. Because what could one kid do on his own? He might make a positive impact for the people he met. But his neighborhood needs Resurrection, not new neighbors. He’s there because he believes he can join in God’s work to tear down the structures that imprison people, that lead to violence and despair, that perpetuate systems of inequity and injustice.
I saw images this week of people at political rallies with signs that said, “We Choose Love”, and I read what people said to them.
Here’s how Rev. Erin Counihan described the experience:
I stood on the corner, silently, with a smile and a sign that read, “We choose LOVE.”
A man yelled at me, “Tell THAT to ISIS!” A woman got in my face and told me I didn’t know the bible.That I needed to learn about the wrath of God. A man questioned my ordination. He told me he knew better and that I better go back and read my bible. Another man, wearing a clergy collar, loudly explained to the teenagers with him that I wasn’t a real pastor; that I wasn’t a real Christian. People chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Then, “Build. That. Wall.” I kept choosing love. I loved that man and that woman and those other men. I loved the teenagers who were there with a hate-filled pastor. I tried really hard to love that hate-filled pastor. (I’ll be honest, I stared him down a bit first.) I loved all the people who shook their heads at us. I loved the people taking our pictures, who told us they were going to mock us online. I loved the people screaming “ALL LIVES MATTER” without even recognizing the irony in their screaming. I loved the heck outta the kids there with their angry parents. I even loved the frat boy bros who walked by in seersucker herds giggling at us.
Because I chose love. Over and over again. Because love has chosen me.
We can talk about policy. We can talk about laws and budgets and agendas. We can disagree. And I think we can talk and disagree without hating each other. We can debate plans for our country without brewing fear and spewing hate. I choose to be informed. I choose to respect my neighbors. I choose to lead with the love that has claimed me. I choose love. I choose love. I choose love…
When you choose love in the face of hate, you believe in resurrection.
When the news gets too depressing, I open up a book of poetry to counteract the depression. I read this poem by Mary Oliver. From her new book, “Felicity”.
“The World I Live In” is the title.
I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?
You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.
As we head to Holy Week, we begin it with an Apocalypse, with a Revelation, that a change is coming. And we are told to wait for it. To watch for it. But we are also told, very clearly, that the prediction business is not ours. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father….” So our waiting and preparing doesn’t involve guessing which horrible events in our world are the sign that Christ’s return is imminent. We are told, simply, to “Keep Awake!” While we’re keeping awake, let’s be sure to also be looking for miracles, and trusting in resurrection, that the world may hope that this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
NOTE: Sometimes after a sermon is preached, the big ideas arise. Alas. As I was driving to Walla Walla today to pick up Alden for spring break, I was thinking about the Mad Max Fury Road and realized it is actually the perfect apocalypse movie because it is all about resurrection. From seeds, lovingly carried by women when no earth will grow plants, to pregnancies, lovingly carried by women when new life is rare, this movie is a raucous chase across the desert. Would have been a GREAT sermon illustration.