Apocalypse Now

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I’ll be honest, I’m not much of a fan of apocalyptic texts. Not Mark’s “little apocalypse,” of which we get a taste today, not John the Seer’s much bigger apocalypse in Revalation, and not all the ones in between. That being said, it’s still the Gospel reading in front of us, so the question becomes what to do with it.

Two suggestions:

1) We could actually teach folks a bit about Mark’s gospel in general and apocalyptic literature more particularly.

First thing, along those lines, is that if this passage feels different, looks different, and sounds different to our folks, that’s for a very good reason: it is different. It represents a tradition that Mark inherits and works with. I mean, you could almost cut out the whole of chapter 13 and never miss a beat reading from the end of chapter 12 to the beginning of chapter 14. Why? Because this chapter is something of a distinct literary unit, a discreet scene from Jesus’ life that Mark either picks up whole from another source or adapts for his purposes.

But while it’s different from most of the rest of Mark’s gospel, many of our people may have some acquaintance with apocalyptic writing – or at least an attempt to decode apocalyptic writing! – in its most warped and sensational form in The Left Behind Series or, before that, Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth.

In a nutshell, apocalyptic literature stems from a worldview that believes that everything happening on earth represents and correlates with a larger, heavenly struggle between good and evil. It therefore reads into earthly events cosmic significance and anticipates future events on earth in light of the coming battle between the forces of God and the devil. Hence, it often tries to make sense of current events and experiences by casting them in a larger, cosmic framework and in this way give comfort to people who are currently suffering or being oppressed.

Because of this dualism, and because apocalyptic literature tends to be highly symbolic, it’s ripe for reading all kinds of things into it – like predictions about the end of the world! But this chapter in Mark – and other passages, notably the book of Revelation – were not written so that we could ferret out signs of the end. Rather, they were written to offer comfort to first-century believes struggling to make sense of their world and lives. For this reason, it’s way more helpful to read this and similar passages in light of the challenges its original readers were facing, challenges that might be akin to some of our own.

From this passage and those to come in this chapter, for instance, we can gather that Mark’s community was not only struggling with the disruptions the fall of the Jerusalem Temple introduced into first-century Judaism and Christianity, but also that they had been harassed by some people claiming to be Jesus or some other messianic figure returned. Mark’s people were literally caught up in “wars and rumors of war” and probably found comfort in the belief that Jesus had already anticipated this and was offering words of encouragement to them through this Gospel.

When it comes to our own day and age, that kind of encouragement is still valuable, for though our wars may be different, yet we are still harassed at times by a fear that the world is falling apart. To twenty-first century believers, just as to first century disciples, Jesus says the same “do not fear.”

2) We could invite people to imagine that apocalyptic literature, as odd or unusual or peculiarly future-oriented as it may seem, it’s actually very much about the present.

For instance, many – in fact way too many! – Christians have come to believe that the question asked by Peter, James, John, and Andrew, is the central question of the Christian faith: “When will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to happen?”

They are talking about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple of course. That occurred in 70 AD. But we have asked the same question about the multitude of other predictions and prophecies, expectations and promises of Scripture: “When will this be, and what will be the sign that it is about to happen?”

We want to know when, we profess, so that we can be prepared, so that we can be ready. But perhaps that’s the point: we are invited to be ready all the time. We are not called simply to live our lives with no thought of God or neighbor but keenly looking for the sign of God’s imminent coming so that we can clean up our act. Rather, we are called to live always anticipating the activity of God.

Not in a state of anxiety, let’s be clear, minding our Ps and Qs in fear that we’ll fail some divine behavior test. No, we are called to live in joy and confidence. Joy in the knowledge that God has revealed God’s grace, mercy and goodness to us and all the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Knowing God’s love in Christ, that is, we are called joyfully to share that love with others. And confidence from trusting the promise that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us, restoring the world to its intended glory.

In time. In God’s time. We would like to know when that is. But that is not our calling. We are called to live now, allowing the promises of God about the future to infuse our every present moment. Because when you live looking for the activity of God here and now, you begin to see it. In an act of kindness of a friend, in an opportunity to help another, in the outreach ministry of a congregation, in the chance to listen deeply to the hurt of another. God shows up in all kinds of places, working with us, for us, through us, and in us. You just have to look.

When will this happen? Now. What will be the sign? When you see people acting as Jesus did. Even here. Even now.

That’s what I’ve got this week, Working Preacher, in relation to this odd, peculiar, but also very interesting little apocalypse from Mark. Thanks for struggling with it along with me, and blessings on your proclamation and ministry this week. For now, as always, what you do matters! 

Yours in Christ,