The Twenty-fifth Sunday After Pentecost
Scary stuff in this Gospel! It is not a pleasant reading. Who wants to focus on the signs of the end times? Historians think that end-of-time thinking originated in ancient Persia with Zoroastrianism. It is called “apocalyptic,” literature from the Greek word meaning “a revelation.” During the period of the Hebrew Exile and beyond, this kind of literature took hold in Hebrew religion and, eventually, spilled over into early Christian thought, where it took firm root. Apocalyptic literature is concerned with the end of human history. The writing is highly symbolic and is meant to provide encouragement to the faithful during times of trial. Here’s why: When Mark’s Gospel was written, being a disciple of Jesus meant persecution, ridicule, false accusations, torture, and even death. The first century church read this passage and it gave them hope—a hope for the end of the madness and oppression at the hands of their enemies. God was going to put a stop to all suffering and restore justice, freedom, and peace. To a people facing imminent persecution, these words of Jesus come as a comfort and not judgment.
Here Mark portrays Jesus and his disciples walking by the grand edifice of the Temple constructed by Herod. It was one of the great wonders of ancient architecture, built of huge stones that gave one the sense that it would be there for all eternity. Now we know that Jesus has this knack of saying things to startle his audience—to make them sit up and pay attention. So, when his companions marvel at the beauty and majesty of this fortress, he bursts their bubble: “There will not be one stone left here on another—not one that will not be thrown down.”
This apocalypse—or revelation—Jesus gives them is a forecast of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70 A.D. He also warns them about the suffering they will endure because they chose to follow him. But that’s all in the past. The Temple in Jerusalem is long gone as is the oppression and suffering of the first few centuries of Christianity.
This text has been used along with many others to make literal predictions about the future, even matching up the symbolic language of the bible with actual events and people. The result is a terrible abuse of God’s Word and the basis of a culture of fear, suspicion, and terror. If we want to find more in this passage than that, we need to delve more deeply and think more expansively. We need to hear this Gospel the way God intends us to receive it.
The theme of this apocalyptic writing is human terror, not divine terror. The potential of apocalyptic violence would be generated by human beings, not God. We don’t have to think too hard to appreciate how that can happen. We don’t need to think at all. Just tune into the evening news.
I wonder if we have not become a culture of apprehension and worry—whether real or fabricated. The lessons today tell us that we are not alone in our fearful response to what we perceive as frightening and world-altering events in our time. Whether it’s a fiscal cliff, a Mayan calendar, a terrorist attack, or other disastrous event, we must remember the words of Jesus: “Do not be alarmed.”
These texts about an “unveiling” or “revealing” are found at the tail end of the church year but I don’t think that they are there to make us focus on endings, but rather to point us towards beginnings. God did not just create the world, set things in motion, and then sit back and retire.
When Jesus tells us about the destruction of the temple, he is talking about all arrangements that are not what God intends for this world. God wants us to have the world that God intended us to have and will continue creating and creating until we do. The other side of fear and anxiety is hope and a radical openness to what God may yet do, as well as discerning our place within the story of the coming Kingdom of God. We are to be people of God and about God’s work in this world—right here, right now. The gospel compels us to confront the darkness of our contemporary life, but this is not a Gospel about destruction and endings. It is the good news of beginnings and new birth. It is an invitation to rethink our role in the continuing work of creation that God is unfolding around us. How much in life do we miss because we are too busy to see that? Jesus warns against apocalyptic literalism; Mark's message is for those in the church to "take heed," watch, pray, and work -- for the kingdom of God is unfolding in our midst. We have the outstanding privilege of participating in God's saving actions in our world. Do we lose perspective without realizing it and end up missing life’s grace-filled moments wherein we are offered a glimpse of God’s grand vision for the world and what part we can play in that vision? God is still creating, working passionately to remake this world in all of its goodness and fullness. And you and I are part of the big picture. Episcopal priest and author Barbara Crafton suggests maybe that's why we have these spooky scripture passages. Not to learn when we're going to die. But to learn how to live. I had an email from parishioner Nancy Vollano thanking us for sharing her stewardship statement in Friday’s Constant Contact. She said, “The photo had me laughing. I recognized the photo that accompanied my remarks. It was pulled from a group shot taken at a Bluefish game with some wonderful friends from St. Andrew’s. My son John is sitting next to me. I’ll never be that young and active again. If we knew then what we know now? Thanks for the walk down memory lane. Think about it. Ponder anew. We pass this way but once. Enjoy the journey and your fellow travelers.” Amen, Nancy. Amen.