The End... or Resurrection?

Week of Sunday Novermber 30 - Advent 1
Gospel: Mark 13:24-37

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ 5Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

9 ‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. 10And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death;13and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

14 ‘But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; 15someone on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; 16someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. 17Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! 18Pray that it may not be in winter. 19For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. 20And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. 21And if anyone says to you at that time, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “Look! There he is!”—do not believe it. 22False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23But be alert; I have already told you everything.

24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light, 
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 
26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ 

I hope that there is never "a son of man coming in clouds." It would mean that there is a God on high who could choose the moment of his coming, who had all the power to end the unspeakable violence of the world, but who for tens of thousands of years has chosen not to do this. The God implied by the traditional reading of the text is a monster who could have ended it all at any time, but chose to hide himself.

This is a god who is less than God.

Some words from the Isaiah 64 reading for this week are telling: "because you hid yourself we transgressed." Yes God, "we are the clay, and you are our potter," so you may do with us as you will, but you are part of the problem, for "you have hidden your face from us." (Isa 64:5-8)

My complaint is not that of some modern disbeliever who lacks faith. The lament is common in Scripture, even though not often as blunt as I have dared.

So I cannot preach the text for Sunday in the traditional manner which promises that at the end God will come and rescue us. I cannot say with verse 20, for example, "if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days," because this is not good news!

David Bentley Hart reflects on The Brothers Karamazov in his Book Tsunami and Theodicy

Famously, Dostoevsky supplied Ivan with true accounts of children tortured and murdered: Turks tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs, impaling infants on bayonets, firing pistols into their mouths; parents savagely flogging their children; a five-year- old-girl tortured by her mother and father, her mouth filled with excrement, locked at night in an outhouse, weeping her supplications to “dear kind God” in the darkness; an eight-year-old serf child torn to pieces by his master’s dogs for a small accidental transgression.

But what makes Ivan’s argument so disturbing is not that he accuses God of failing to save the innocent; rather, he rejects salvation itself, insofar as he understands it, and on moral grounds. He grants that one day there may be an eternal harmony established, one that we will discover somehow necessitated the suffering of children, and perhaps mothers will forgive the murderers of their babies, and all will praise God’s justice; but Ivan wants neither harmony—“for love of man I reject it,” “it is not worth the tears of that one tortured child”—nor forgiveness; and so, not denying there is a God, he simply chooses to return his ticket of entrance to God’s Kingdom. After all, Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small child to death, would you think the price acceptable? . . .

I think this is a profoundly Christian question, and when we ignore it with a "God is the potter and we are the clay with which he can do what he wills" kind of gloss we are showing our lack of conversion to the way and the love of Christ.

•••

Bill Loader's comments this week offer us a way through the dilemma of Mark 13.

The suffering [reflected in the gospel of Mark] is nearly two millennia distant from us, as, for most of us, is the terrible suffering of poverty in many parts of the world, beside which our panic at terror is scarcely more than an itch.

And he asks

What does it mean to feel that things are so bad the only hope is … the end of the world?

Such overwhelming horror in Israel's history led to the development of the apocalyptic style of writing that Mark has use for Chapter 13. It is appropriate for him to use because he is reflecting on the horrific siege and destruction of Jerusalem, one of those too frequent horrors that left people with no hope for this world−"the greatest historical cataclysm imaginable in their social world." (Myers) The only hope they could see was that God would wipe it all out and begin anew without the evil.

Then Bill says of us

People who have the time and space to articulate and reflect on what is going on in the oppression of people whose suffering most often renders them inarticulate have a crucial role for change in the world.

This is a key understanding. We have the leisure no less, and the responsibility, to reflect on what Jesus has taught us. It is our task to humbly discern, always remembering our privilege of suffering only an itch or two,  but still knowing some of the intense pain of being human−  it is our task to consider what Jesus would have us do when our time comes. (And our task to let oppressed peoples have the last word on our praying and thinking. We have no right to dictate their response to them.)

Bill makes the point that Mark and his people were enough removed from the suffering of Jerusalem to have time and space to reflect. Their response is clear. Mark's apocalyptic is restrained for the time. It is very mild compared to Revelation. It lacks the fantastic beasts of Daniel, even though it quotes “the Son of Man coming in clouds” from Daniel 7.

Mark is stepping back from violent activism.

Myers is helpful.

The apocalypse of war was well-known to the gospel writers. All three synoptic stories of Jesus were composed within a generation of the greatest historical cataclysm imaginable in their social world: the destruction of Jerusalem and the razing of the second temple at the culmination of the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70 CE. Mark wrote during the darkest days of that conflict, and it fundamentally shaped his work.

His story is structured around two fundamental “moments”: the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God (Mk 1:15) and the outbreak of war (Mk 13). Each represented an existential crisis that challenged the audience with conflicting exigencies. The Kingdom, pregnant with the possibility of human redemption and transformation, demanded costly discipleship. The war, with its manic militarism, demanded an equally costly choosing of sides. While these two moments co-existed in the historical era of Mark’s community, his gospel warned against confusing them. Only one was the true kairos moment—the other only pretended to be….

As is always the case in the eye of the wartime hurricane, there was no neutrality, and the stakes were high. Mark knew that only one voice could compete with the compelling but conflicting demands of collaborator and patriot—the living Word of Jesus of Nazareth. So to him the disciples in the story turn in a desperate plea for guidance: “Tell us, when will these things take place, and what will be the sign of their accomplishment?” (Mk 13:4).

(We should note that Mark rejected the way of the rebels while still condemning the whole Imperial Roman system, and the Jerusalem elite's compromise with it.)

The second fundamental moment for Mark was the outbreak of war.

The Judean rebels knew that sooner or later the siege would come, as indeed it did in the spring of 70 (after five months of “economic sanctions” and pitched battle, general Titus sacked Jerusalem and burned the Temple to the ground). But during the Fall-Winter of 69, the Jewish resistance had reason to believe that God had once again intervened on behalf of the holy city.

This may have been the precise moment of the composition of Mark 13. It does not take much historical imagination to appreciate the severe pressures being felt by Mark’s community in re-occupied Galilee. (Myers op. cit.)

But although he is perhaps even writing during the war Mark already branches out from the specifics of Jerusalem to a more general statement. This is itself a statement of great faith if he is writing during the siege! He is saying Jerusalem is not the end. Mark says

When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. (Mark 13:7) Jerusalem was not to be the end.

So Myers, for example, considers Mark's words in the light of the Gulf Wars. (Mark 13 in a Different Imperial Context By Ched Myers Published in John Vincent, ed. Mark, Gospel of Action: Personal and Community Responses, SPCK, 2006 (chap. 15).)

We might go further. The "end of the world" for us is still possibly a nuclear war. But our more pressing scenario is climate change. It does not take much reading to gain the sense that reputable climate scientists fear our problems are far greater than we have imagined or predicted so far. Positive feedback loops may speed up the process. There is a sense that wildcard events that we have not yet factored in to our models may make our very existence as a species tenuous. Pacific Island governments, seeing the rising tides, are buying land for their nation inside other countries.

Our Jerusalem War may indeed be war, but come from climate change.

The situation is impossible, like Jerusalem. There seems no way out. The economic system under which we live, in which Australia and the US squander the health of the world on air conditioners, immoral petrol guzzling behemoths, and grain fed beef is impossible to maintain if we are to survive on the planet. Yet the powers that be seem intractable. Our Prime Minister thinks coal is good for the world, and is pinning our security and financial well-being on the appetite of China for coal, even while "China is now logging more energy patents per year than the European Patent Office and growing much faster than any other nation...China now comes a close second to Japan in terms of cumulative wind patents.”  China had the third-most solar patents behind Japan and the U.S."  We are called to be part of Team Australia; the demands of patriotism are hardening. And even where there is action, it is slow.

How do we live in a world falling apart? How might we live in the dystopia of a Mad Max? How do we live in the horrors of war, of famine, of imperial injustice when it appears God will never come, and when if God did come in the traditional understanding, that god would be our worst nightmare, and more of a devil? For such a god is actually another caesar on a grand scale.

Mark's answer is, in fact, not the end we traditionally see in Chapter 13. We could modify Wrede's characterisation of Mark as a passion story with a long introduction, and say instead, that The Passion is his answer to a long agonised question about God's love and faithfulness. Because immediately after Jesus' exhortation to watch, to be ready, and not to be led astray, Jesus loses everything.

We see the disciples flee; that is a common observation. Peter denies him. Even the faithful women "said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." (Mark 16:8) What we don't like to say is that Jesus failed too. The Human One, one like a son of man, loses his faith on the cross.

34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34, quoting Psalm 22)

This is no cry of triumph somehow anticipating the faithfulness of God and the Psalmist's vindication by God in the latter parts of Psalm 22. (In fact, that Psalm is much more hope than vindication.) This, honestly, is a final loss of faith and meant to be read as such. Human like us, Jesus loses everything. In a sense, he loses more than his life because, like us, he loses his faith. In his own Jerusalem horror, he believes he is abandoned by God. It is not surprising that Mark was an apparently unpopular gospel in the early centuries.

Jesus' faith in the Kingdom of God rather than the Empire of Rome or its would be supplanters, cost him his life.

It gets worse. The original gospel, as we have it, ends on an existential precipice.

6But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 

No one saw him. Like those suffering in Jerusalem, in Tegel or Changi, in Darfur, on Manus Island Mark's people, and we, hear only that he lost everything, but that he was raised and has gone ahead of us to Galilee.

I quote another of my posts on Mark:

And that’s where the Gospel of Mark ends! No one sees the resurrected Jesus at the end of Mark! “He is not here,” said the young man. “He has been raised,” but you will not find the resurrected Jesus at the tomb; you have to go back to Galilee; which means, you have to go back to ordinary life to find the resurrected Jesus, the place where you live. He is going ahead of you in everyday life; in Galilee.

People are always dissatisfied with this ending to the Gospel. They want to see Jesus. And so, there are at least two endings that other people have written for the end of Mark to try and tidy it up. …

[It's] actually good [to make] up a resurrection story, because Mark is asking us, with his gospel story, “How will you talk about resurrection?  Where will you find it? How will you tell the story of Jesus?

“Read the gospel again. Think about it. Listen to Jesus while you are working, and walking, and eating. Talk with your friends, the other disciples. Ask each other, where are you meeting Jesus?”

Matthew and Luke answered Mark by writing their own gospels.  They copied the basic story of Mark and then added and subtracted other bits of the traditions about Jesus, and put a different spin on various events. They were telling their own story of Jesus as they described how they met him in their life.

Other people did as Mark invited them. The pored over the book. They read it and re-read it. They tried to copy what Jesus did.  When they faced an issue, a problem, they asked, “What would Jesus do if he were 42 and had two grumpy teenagers, and his husband was away on business? How would he handle it?”

They found a pattern in the stories in the gospel of Mark, and then, they found the same pattern in their own lives. We can do the same; you probably are!

The pattern starts in today’s reading!

Simon’s mother in law is sick in bed, when she needs to be up and welcoming guests. It says, “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her...”

Now let’s see more of the pattern in Mark Chapter 5. This is the story where the little girl is desperately ill; at the point of death, and Jesus is hurrying to get there in time. And, you remember, he was interrupted. The woman with the flow of blood touched him, and stopped him. And because of the delay, the little girl died before he got there. Remember what happened?

35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?... [At the house]... he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age).

Finally, Mark Chapter 9.

26After crying out and convulsing him terribly, [the spirit] came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.

Do you hear the pattern? Resurrection, for us, is happening in the gospel, not at the end. Resurrection is for everyday life. Jesus comes and takes us by the hand and lifts us up! If we follow Jesus; if we ask what he would do if he were 83 and had arthritis and bad knees, he takes us by the hand and lifts us up.... and we are able to stand...

For Simon’s mother-in-law it was so she could serve. For the girl there is a deep, wonderful mystery of healing of womanhood. She was nearly 12, on the cusp of adult life and is raised up next to a woman who was called unclean, and separated from God, because of her bleeding! And there’s the little boy; who knows where he was going?

Well—we do know! He, and they, was going on with life. They were living their ordinary lives in Galilee. That’s where Jesus met them. The resurrecting Jesus.

•••

Let's go back to Myer's words.

[Mark's] story is structured around two fundamental “moments”: the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God (Mk 1:15) and the outbreak of war (Mk 13).

Each represented an existential crisis that challenged the audience with conflicting exigencies. The Kingdom, pregnant with the possibility of human redemption and transformation, demanded costly discipleship. The war, with its manic militarism, demanded an equally costly choosing of sides. While these two moments co-existed in the historical era of Mark’s community, his gospel warned against confusing them. Only one was the true kairos moment—the other only pretended to be.

Mark does not relieve us of these "conflicting exigencies." And the answer we have often imagined− watch and be faithful until the Son of Man comes− does not work for us in our time. Instead he asks us, "Will you trust the love of God you have seen in Jesus?"

Will we commit to that Kingdom which is heavily "pregnant with the possibility of human redemption and transformation?" "Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days," says Mark 13:17, the cost will be terrible. Like Jesus we may lose everything. Yet it is in that commitment, in that alert watching, and serving, that we will meet the Jesus of Matthew 25 among the hungry and thirsty and disposed, and find resurrection with Mark as we live in the Galilees of our time.

There is controversy about the ending of Mark, of course. Perhaps our ending was not the end. Perhaps a page was lost.

Or perhaps…  perhaps there is no ending to Mark. Mark's answer to the horrible unfathomable mystery of our existence is that there is resurrection. There is life to found in the worst of places. Committing to stepping beyond that existential precipice that says there will be no rescue allows us to discover that resurrection is far greater news than rescue could ever be. A mere Human One has in some sense survived the loss of everything, and yet his life persists, and so may we.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




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