A note from Jamie Howison: This sermon was written prior to last Friday’s violence in Paris, yet the themes of the Gospel reading—“wars and rumors of wars”—and the challenge of the reading from Hebrews—to “provoke one another to love and good deeds”—connected so very vividly to what we’ve all been hearing on the news. The posted text remains as it was originally written, but the accompanying audio reflects what we had come to learn of the past week’s violence in Paris, Beirut, and Kenya.
“It is easy,” writes the biblical scholar Emerson Powery, “to handle a parable-speaking, disciple-calling, village-loving, synagogue-attending Jesus, [but] much more difficult to understand the end-of-the-world apocalyptic prophet figure, who distanced himself from family and religious institutions.” Right? Don’t you get that? As you listened as Michael read those words about “wars and rumors of wars,” earthquakes, famines, and “the beginning of the birth pangs,” I’m sure at least some of you were thinking, “Oh, it is one of those passages.” The Word of the Lord… Thanks be to God. Now what’s Jamie going to say?
- To listen to the sermon press play:
That’s just the reality when a church community follows the rhythm of the church calendar. As we move toward the end of one year and into the opening weeks of Advent—which begins just two weeks from tonight—the lectionary has us read urgent texts, crisis texts, and yes, apocalyptic texts. Early in the week as I sat in a Starbucks waiting for someone to arrive for an appointment, I was reading over these lessons for tonight, all the while being serenaded by Mel Torme singing of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, followed by Burl Ives wishing me a “holly, jolly Christmas.” Starbucks may have created a little tempest in a teapot over their decision to go with plain red holiday cups—no snowflakes, snowmen, or reindeer this year—but they sure aren’t shy about their music playlist. And wasn’t I sipping a “Christmas blend” coffee?
To read the text from Mark was so incredibly out of sync with that context, but then again that is part of what the lectionary and the Christian year do for us. And in the case of this particular text, it is precisely what Jesus is doing for his disciples and for the communities they would go on to plant. They’ve been in the temple, where Jesus has been engaged in a series of confrontations with various religious authority figures. Resistance and hostility toward him is building: “they wanted to arrest him,” Mark had noted, “but they feared the crowd.” And then just as they’re making their way out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’” As I suggested in last week’s sermon, that unnamed small town disciple is basically saying, “Golly, would you look at this place… there’s just nothing like this back home in Galilee!”
And there wasn’t anything like it back home, nor was there a building even close to its size within hundreds of miles. This temple was Herod’s great vanity project, begun by his father and still uncompleted at the point that Jesus and his disciples visited. The plaza on which the Temple stood was 144,000 square meters, and the “large stones” that the disciple referred to were 7.5 by 2.5 by 3.5 metres. Think about that, and then consider the force of Jesus’ words when he says, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” You have to wonder if at least some of them raised an eyebrow at that claim… he can’t be serious. And if he is serious, that has got to be some major crisis that’s going to destroy this place.
Which is precisely the point. There is a serious crisis looming, and for all that the people looked at this temple as being the most solid of places—both literally and metaphorically (it was their spiritual and sacrificial centre, after all)—less than forty years after Jesus’ death it would indeed come crashing down. As N.T. Wright observes, “[M]any people have read Mark 13 as a chapter mainly about ‘the end of the world,’ which it certainly isn’t.” “The main subject remains the fate of the Temple in Jerusalem—and of Jesus’ followers in the time leading up to the Temple’s demise.”
No one imagined that the Temple could be destroyed, but the Romans did it. No one imagined that Jerusalem would be devastated, and that the Jews would be chased from their spiritual and national home. But the Romans did that too. For Jews—and for Jewish Christians as well—it was the end of the world as it had been known.
Yet if N.T. Wright is correct in suggesting that the main subject is the fate of the Jerusalem Temple, what to make of all of this language of war, earthquakes, and famines being “but the beginning of the birth pangs”? Here Jesus is drawing on the well-known apocalyptic vocabulary from the Book of Daniel and from various non-canonical writings that were popular at the time. Apocalyptic is crisis literature; literature that gives symbolic voice in times of upheaval and chaos. When read from the relative comfort of a stable and secure social context, it can seem esoteric or even just plain weird. It gets some people working away on decoding its secrets and interpreting its numbers and symbols, often with little understanding of what those symbols meant to those actually immersed in the crisis. If we put together these signs with those symbols, add the significant numbers from this text in that book, and just figure out who “the beast” is…
“When Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’” Details, Jesus; give us specific details…
But did you notice that he never answers their question? “Beware,” Jesus says, “that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” But you’re not to fall into that kind of lie, he effectively says. You’re to hold tight. Even as the chapter continues and the language of crisis and apocalypse ramps up—even when it feels as if his focus has moved from Jerusalem and its temple to something more final in the life of the world—Jesus refuses to give them a magic key to some supposed code. “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.” (13:32-33) Keep alert, Jesus says, keep awake. “What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (13:37)
Across 2000 years, Jesus still says it. In the words of Emerson Powery, “Despite the global disasters that surround us—some instigated by First World policies—we’d rather think about a messianic figure who has already arrived and called on us to be kind to our neighbors.” And isn’t that true? Wouldn’t it be so much simpler if I were preaching on the parable of The Good Samaritan? Well, maybe, but only if you set aside how controversial the idea of a good Samaritan was in that world… “[O]ccasionally,” Powery adds, “it may be an important reminder to hear an ancient prophet cry out about the fragile nature of the world.” Or as Micah Kiel has it, when directed to a people who live a life of relative comfort—comfort that can cultivate complacency—these words “become a powerful theological vehicle… suggest[ing] that God is up to stuff that may be beyond human ken, and the community’s job is simply to stay awake for it. It functions like a rumble strip on the side of a highway, meant to jar the community awake as it nods off and drifts toward the ditch.”
So yes, even if the Temple is mainly in view in Mark 13, the call to stay awake and to not drift into the ditch while driving 100km an hour down the highway—a crisis image all of its own—that call is real. Now hear it in light of the closing lines from tonight’s reading from Hebrews. “[L]et us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (10:24-25) Wakefulness and watchfulness are not passive. Marked by a deep patience and freed of anxious symbol-reading and number-interpreting speculation, to be awake is to “provoke (great word!) one another to love and good deeds,” as a people of encouragement and hope-filled anticipation. That cuts right against the grain of apocalyptic fearfulness and of a need for anxious control.
But Jesus always cuts right across the grain, doesn’t he?