A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California
Nov 29, 2020
Our passage from Mark’s Gospel is referred to as an “apocalypse” text. People tend to think of movies like “Mad Max” when they think of apocalypse. End of the world stuff. The Walking Dead. Left Behind books. The world we’re in right now. Ahem.
I’ll get back to Mad Max later, but the rest you can just ‘left that’ behind.
The authors of “Left Behind”, while they may have written compelling fiction for some people, 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 fully 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.
And, as an aside, Apoca Lipsticks is the name I’d choose if I ever were to do roller derby.
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 some 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.
We read this text 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 also hearing it eight months into a global pandemic, and we consider our world in an apocalyptic way— What is God revealing to the world through what we’re living in now?
Even in the midst of our coronavirus worries, many of us read this passage from a place of relative comfort and safety, and so 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.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago when we read Zephaniah, your social location determines whether or not wear hear an apocalypse as good or bad news. War and destruction may be seen as the hope for people who live under constant threats of violence and dislocation. While systems of violence and racism continue to exploit and harm people, destruction of those corrupt systems would be good news.
Think of people seeking sanctuary, people from countries torn apart by violence. When your own government is trying to kill you, and doing nothing to keep you and your family safe—what do you do? 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 crossing a sea?
When all of your possible choices 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.
I was talking to my counselor earlier in the pandemic, about how scattered and jangly I’ve been feeling, and about how my ‘shelter in place’ time has reminded me of when I was on maternity leave when Alden was born.
Before he was born, I had all these great plans for what I was going to do with my time off work. I was going to garden, sew curtains for the kitchen of our little rental house, read books, etc.
Then he was born, and my metric for success each day became, instead, “I managed to take a shower”.
I got nothing “accomplished” in those days. At least not the way I was thinking about accomplishing things. But I kept a new life ALIVE, without having any particular skills or training for that job. So that’s an accomplishment, right?
I think the days we are in are similar. We had no idea what these days were going to require of us, of how much labor it would be— emotional labor, at least—to adapt to the changes we’ve had to make in the past months.
Apocalypse is an apt description. We are in birth pangs right now. And we don’t know exactly what will be expected of us in our 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.
Pandemic viruses? Gone.
That is an unrecognizable world for us.
Almost unimaginable, isn’t it?
And isn’t that sad.
We are so used to the world 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.
I’ve been thinking though, about how the moment we are in can help us see our problems in clearer relief. So that as we rebuild, maybe we can be intentional about it. People of color are dying in greater numbers from this virus than white people are. Some are dying from this because they can’t afford to go to the doctor, or because they’ve been told it isn’t a real thing. The economy remains challenged and people who lose their jobs are losing their health insurance. We must find ways to care for each other as the holes in our ‘safety net’ are being revealed to be big, gaping chasms.
Apocalypse requires resurrection—a belief that life can come from death.
I re-watched the Mad Max movie, Fury Road recently. And it’s a perfect apocalypse movie, even if it is mainly a two hour long car chase across a desert, seemingly devoid of life. It portrays a dystopian world, where water is in limited supply and human fertility has collapsed. It’s a dying world in need of resurrection.
Charlize Theron’s character steals the few fertile and pregnant women away from a greedy warlord who wants life, and the limited water supply, to be only under his control. And they meet up with older women who have planting seeds as the world ended, hoping that life would yet return to their barren world. They take control of the water supply from the warlord, so that it won’t benefit one family, but will give life to everyone. It is a movie entirely about protecting those who bring new life and about those who seek to cultivate it. It is a movie about the beginning of the birth pangs. It is an apocalypse.
God does God’s work during apocalypses, and we are not in control of that. Remember Jesus comment in the text, ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.’
And we have our own work to do during apocalypses too. We plant seeds, and protect life. We make art. We take naps. A number of my friends have adopted dogs since the pandemic began. We let our souls and calendars lie fallow so new life can emerge and grow. Our participation in God’s work to bring new life matters, providing a space of hope for people who only see destruction and barren land.
I worry that too often, in our formerly normal lives, we have lived in a way that pretended 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. I build my life as if resurrection is fine for other people, but I’m intent on avoiding it for me.
And my inability to control a single thing has been made pretty clear through all this.
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.
Maybe that’s a way to phrase things in another time, when people, plans, and jobs aren’t dying all around us. Let’s not lose hold of the fact that more than 250,000 people in our country have died of this virus this year, so far. Maybe the way to speak of resurrection now is this:
As we watch loved ones, and the life we knew, die, the fear and grief we feel don’t have to be our only emotions. Maybe we can let hope and trust in resurrection sit beside them as companion, so that when seeds of new life take root, we’ll have hearts open to see it in our midst.
Trust in resurrection means we believe God can and will bring life where we only see despair and death.
To plant seeds of life and hope and beauty, when we see other people planting great crops of fear, is an act of faith, and sign of trust in God’s ability to make all things new.
We enter the season of Advent 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….” We are told, simply, to “Keep Awake!”
This morning we also heard from Psalm 126, the psalm from whence we chose our theme for Advent—For Those Who Dream. When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.
The psalm ends with “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
The psalmist is describing an apocalypse—a revelation that the brokenness and despair we see around us will not prevail.
Are we willing to be people who dream into existence a world we cannot yet see? One we have not yet fully experienced?
What kind of new world is waiting for us on the other side of our dreams?
As we enter Advent, we wait, we watch, and trusting in resurrection, we believe that this is but the beginning of the birth pangs. Let’s use these days to plant seeds of hope in the world. New life is coming. God lets us be the midwives.
Thanks be to God. Amen