Passages like this one in Mark drive me slightly crazy. I, like many of you, read a passage like this and have so many questions about its meaning and application. What exactly are thoughtful Christians supposed to do with it?
Many Christians take this passage from Mark, add it to other passages from Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation, and come up with a very imaginative interpretation of how the world is going to end. In fact, the whole of chapter 13 is called by scholars “Mark’s little apocalypse:” his vision of signs of the end time.
Hal Lindsey made a fortune with his book, The Late Great Planet Earth, back in the 1970’s. Do you remember that book? In it, Lindsey espoused that Jesus was coming back very soon and that it was only a matter of years until history, as we know it, was over. Russia was the bear mentioned somewhere in scripture. The US was the eagle. These two great forces were to meet in Armageddon for the final battle.
I remember this book well. I was in Mexico on a youth mission trip. One afternoon I was sitting in the upstairs room of where I was staying, reading Lindsey’s book, getting frightened out of my mind, hoping against hope that I was on the right side of the divide when Jesus separated the sheep from the goats… and off in the distance one could see the cone of a still active volcano.
More recently, the apocalyptic Left Behind series has outsold even the Bible, I think, in America. There is something about these books and these biblical passages that fascinate us – apocalyptic destruction. I think it is this fascination that causes me to read Stephen King novels and works by Cormac McCarthy. Both these writers know the gospels, but they approach their subjects far differently from the Left Behind authors.
The difference is that McCarthy is a brilliant writer and in his disturbing work he draws us deeply into the human psyche and our capacity for good and evil. King does this too on a more popular level. But for Hal Lindsey and others including those who appear on your television sets, there is a presumption of special knowledge based on a literal interpretation of a few biblical passages and a self-righteous certainty that the whole Bible is focused on our time and on us. Back in the day that was called Gnosticism. The early church was acutely aware of the danger of such excesses. But today, more Christians believe in literal end-time prophecy than don’t!
There are two things wrong with this kind of interpreting: (1) it is simplistic literalism and (2) it is ego-centered. What makes us think that our day and age is so special? What makes us think that these end time passages are all about us and our generation?
Do you realize how many Americans believe that America is God’s special agent to bring the end time closer, that there will be no real history after our history?
To think that Jesus’ words here are primarily about the end of the world and specifically about our time or maybe a not too distant future time like 2012, is foolish at best and dangerous at worst. It makes people do crazy things and make bad movies. It draws our attention away from what matters – like justice, and peace and hospitality and inclusion – actually living the kingdom and not just waiting for it.
Remember it was Peter, James, John and Andrew who come to Jesus asking him, “What will be the signs?” Haven’t we learned by now that those disciples didn’t get much of anything right? That they were always asking the wrong questions and misinterpreting what Jesus meant? What makes us think that we are to take the words of Jesus at simple face value and not delve for something deeper and richer and truer than literalism?
I ask you throughout all history of humankind; when have there not been wars and rumors of wars? When have nations not raised up against other nations and kingdoms against kingdoms? When have there not been “earthquakes in various places?” There are always earthquakes in various places. When has there not been famine someplace in the world? When have there not been charlatans and hacks who presume to know how to read the signs of the times?
And I think right there is the power of this passage for you and for me.
It isn’t that Jesus words are wrong, or haven’t already been fulfilled (in my mind Jesus’ words were fulfilled when Jerusalem got destroyed in 66 of the common era), or are about some specific time in the future. It doesn’t really matter for the power of this verse for you and for me is that they are true and right for every age, and every person.
Their truth is not in their historical factuality the way we moderns presume to know historical fact – but in their deeper resonance, their deeper reality: that each and every day there is a crisis of change; each and every day there is the horror of destruction; each and every day there is the reality of unexpected death and war and famine and earthquake and all sorts of natural disasters. And each day great institutions are crumbling as fast as we can build them – GM is a good example. Who would have thought 5 years ago that the government would even have to consider a bail out? Who could have imagined 25 years ago that the Berlin Wall would ever fall?
You see, Scripture is being fulfilled now, “filled full” now, in you, among us and in 100 years they will still be fulfilling themselves. So this passage and Scripture as a whole, doesn’t limit us – it expands our interpretations.
Each generation has its crises. Nations rise and fall and great empires falter. Assyria is no more, Greece is no more, Rome is no more, Britain is no more, and in time America will be no more. I don’t mean to sound either judgmental or un-patriotic, but historically it is true. Some other nation, will sooner or later assume the mantle of most powerful nation – and eventually they will fail as well.
Into each person’s heart there is a time of building up and destroying, Haven’t you had the ground beneath your feet shaken by any number of traumatic events: death of a loved one, loss of job, diagnosis of some disease, break up of some relationship that leaves you reeling? Isn’t that the way of life? If we are really honest, there is always some kind of turmoil or spiritual warfare raging within; or maybe emotional warfare between family members. Have you ever felt like that which seemed indestructible – like a marriage, like a job, like your mental health – is falling apart?
The question is not whether or not crisis is going to come, the questions become: How are you preparing for your inevitable demise? How are you accepting the reality of your own mortality? How are you protesting the injustices of great institutions that need to be torn down? How are you growing through the turmoil? How are you suffering through your own disasters – with despair or hope? How are you serving those suffering from famine and earthquake and war? What are you witnessing to?
And probably the most important question of all that Jesus asks is, “What are you giving birth to?” Because Jesus says that the crisis, the end time of any particular moment, or era, or period short or long is just the beginning of the birth pang.
Isn’t that wonderful that Jesus uses the metaphor of birthing?
YES…crisis is on the way, destruction is sure to come, and all your best laid plans… well, you know what happens to them.
YES…there are crises…but always new life is on the way.
YES…there are times of exile…but God is doing a new thing (As Isaiah the prophet declares)
YES…there is pain, horrible pain…but a new heaven and a new earth are being born.
St. Paul reminds us: “I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us…We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies…”
We must train ourselves and support one another in viewing the world not through the lens of destruction, judgment and futility, but rather through the lenses of birthing and hope and power.
Jesus is describing reality: my reality, your reality, our collective reality. Change is constant, there is very little we can ever cling to for security, but there is a deeper reality, the groan of a mother giving birth.
Just as in the forests of Eastern Europe in the Jewish community that hid from the Nazi’s in the trees, portrayed in the movie “Defiance.” It was forbidden to have sex, to risk having a child – and yet a child is born and it brings such hope. In the midst of such despair and horror and violence, a young man and young woman fall in love and get married. Two brothers who are separated are reconciled. In the midst of evil, love is triumphant.
And sometimes that is all we have: love, compassion, mercy, hope. But the good news is these things are more than enough to change lives and to change the world.
No…there is no stopping the destruction, but there is no stopping the birth giving either.
Our faith offers us this deeper narrative of hope. And our fellowship offers us a deeper truth of care. And our service to others offers us a place of rest. We can act as midwives to each other, really. And in so doing we live the Jesus life.
For God always has the final word:
Wherever there is chaos there is creation.
Wherever there is destruction – there is birth.
Wherever there is exile there is always restoration.
Wherever there is separation there is always reconciliation.
Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not even for you that you can see, but for someone. Maybe not this moment, or the next, but it is coming.
And it is the memory of crises past survived that give us hope to survive the next one.
It is interesting to me that this passage about the signs of the end times, so to speak, is selected for two Sundays before the beginning of Advent. The Incarnation rocked the world. The birth of Jesus shook up the fundamentals. Mary’s surprise led to quite a rumble. As St. Luke reports Mary’s words:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, ….
God has shown strength with his arm… he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…
The birth of Jesus turned the whole world upside down.
So maybe Michael Stipe, lead singer of the band R.E.M., whether he knew of this passage or not, he certainly got the meaning of Jesus’ words when he sang: “It’s the end of the world, as we know it…. and I feel fine.”
Thanks be to God who creates out of the madness of our lives and world the hope of new birth.
Pay attention to the birth pangs within.
Attend to the destruction, to the earthquakes, to the wars, to the conflicts within and without – for there, right there – Jesus Christ can be revealed and born again, as you can be born again.