A Provocation: First Sunday of Advent: December 3, 2017: Mark 13:24-37

Mark 13:24-37
13:24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,

13:25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

13:26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.

13:27 Then 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.

13:28 “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.

13:29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

13:30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

13:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

13:32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

13:33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.

13:34 It 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.

13:35 Therefore, 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,

13:36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

13:37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

A Question or Two:

  • Which apocalyptic movie will you watch as you prepare to celebrate Advent?
  • Skip the Left Behind nonsense, or anything made by that crowd.
  • Try Harry Potter.  Try The Lord of the Rings.  Try Band of Brothers.  Try White Christmas.  Yes, seriously.  (Sort of.)

Some Longer Reflections:

Real end-of-the-world stuff this week.

And almost all of the customary notions about this miss the point.  Sometimes really badly.

All of this goes sour when somebody pops up with the Rapture, and the threat of being “left behind,” and pretty soon we’re all doing the backstroke in the lake of fire.  Oh joy.

A bit before my parents were born (early 1920s) Lutherans in North America got together and decided to suspend preaching on the second coming and the end of the world.  They judged that such preaching was doing more harm than good and that they would do better to give it a rest.  A long rest.

I am sometimes really thankful so such a decision.  Speculation about dates and times and heavenly signs leads to mischief.  Only mischief.  But as a result of that decision both my parents and I grew up with almost no acquaintance with apocalypticism.  That meant I was spared the hellfire-and-damnation theology that generally goes with it.  I’m fine with that: as a result of missing out on hellfire, anger has always seemed to me a dangerous intrusion in theology, not a major key to play in.  But also as a result of that decision, my whole generation was ill-prepared to deal with the apocalyptic times in which we grew up.  We fell victim to the various galloping apocalyptic schemes (some religious, some not) that burst on the scene in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Kent State Massacre.  We swallowed the Jesus Movement (for good and for ill), some of us much more than others.  Perhaps we would have been spared some of the excess (wretched and otherwise) of that era if we had developed critical theological skills around apocalyptic.  Perhaps.

That is the last century.

This is now.  It is another apocalyptic time, in some ways as excessive (and as dangerous) as the late 60s and early 70s.

This is maybe a good time to look closely at apocalyptic texts and trends, and to think critically about them, whether they are religious in origin or not.

The first thing to notice is that the celestial events listed in Mark 13 begin after “that suffering.”  This is no time to fire up old rants about “the tribulation.”  That is NOT what Mark 13 is talking about, no matter what TV preachers will tell you.  “That suffering,” for any imaginable audience of Mark’s ancient story, would have called to mind the horrors of the crushing of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome.  Ancient sources say that something like 1 million Jews died.  The disaster came to its climax in the siege of Jerusalem, which was horrifying.  This catastrophe left marks on the Jewish faith (and the Christian faith) that are visible still.

(See David Carr’s Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins for a fine exploration of this and other generative catastrophes.)

Notice that it is AFTER that suffering that the powers of the heavens are shaken.  Rather than speculate about how the stars can fall from the sky, imagine what such events would have meant for the first audience of this story.  The sun rules the day, says Genesis 1, and the moon rules the night.  The stars are for the marking of the regular and reliable seasons.  Even during the darkest days of the siege of Jerusalem the sun always rose in the east every morning, and set every night in the west, reliable and regular even in disaster.  The moon walked through its phases, week by week, moving from new moon to full, and back again, every month, every year.  And the North Star was always steadily in the north, with all the other stars spinning around it.  For these guarantors of regularity to be knocked from their places would have meant that all reliability, all predicability, was gone.

I imagine that these images named quite precisely how Jews felt after the Revolt was crushed.  After that suffering, there was nothing left to count on, nothing to trust, nothing to hope for.

Mark’s storyteller takes the feeling of deadly vertigo that comes at such moments and makes it into a sign that the END  of the suffering is near.

This is not a scene about the “end of the world.”  It is a scene about the end of suffering, the end of hopeless desperation.

The storyteller goes on.  After “that suffering,” after the loss of so many friends and family members, God will gather all of the lost and scattered Chosen People “from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”  The roots of this notion go all the way back to an earlier trauma, the destruction of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) by Assyria in 722 BCE.  At the end of that horrible period, all surviving members of the Northern Kingdom were hauled into Exile and scattered.  Ever since that disaster, any promise of restoration had to account for those who were lost.  Now in the aftermath  of the First Jewish Revolt (already seen for the gospel’s audience, but not yet for Jesus’ audience), with the orienting stars and ruling sun shaken and unreliable, Jesus promises that when the sufferings end, the lost and scattered will return.

How soon?  “This generation will not pass away,” he says, but “about that day or hour no one knows.”  This is an important collision of ideas.  Consolation is close, he says, but not so close or so readable that you could put it on a calendar.  This last unreadability is perhaps another result of the sun, moon, and stars being knocked loose.

It seems to me that apocalypticism that is too sure of itself gets angry and impatient: impatient with God’s delay, and angry with Them for living less-than-faithful lives (presumably the cause of the delay).  Impatience is risky and anger is destructive.  At least that’s how it seems to me.

So, we live in an apocalyptic world.


Again we have groups that believe that the cycle of the aeons is about to turn and the world will change.  Some of those groups are convinced that the election of the current US president is the sign that their sufferings have ended, though it is beyond me how the Obama administration, with its long, steady climb out of the Great Recession, could be characterized as suffering.  (Unless it was having a black man in the White House! That must be the cause of their “suffering.”)  Again we have groups who have taken up arms, threatening armed rebellion if Their president should fail at getting re-elected, just as they threatened revolt if he had failed at getting elected the first time.  Are the threats real?  Are they planted by foreign entities?  Who knows?  It comes down the same either way: there are armed people who plan only to accept election results of which they would approve.  Every once in a while they drop a hint that they are heavily armed.  Heavily.

In the last apocalyptic age that I lived through the politics were very different, but the armament was the same.  The Weather Underground (no, not the weather forecast app) was armed, and intended rebellion.  It promised violence and it meant what it said.

In the apocalyptic age that the gospel of Mark knew, it was the Zealots, likewise armed, and likewise set on violence.  Apocalypse is always a favorite of the violent.  The two seek each other out.

So, beware.

Keep alert.  Look out for impatience and anger.  It is easy to make things worse, and slow work to make things better.  “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”  No matter where you land on the political spectrum, you likely agree that there is work to be done.

That is, you likely agree unless you are one of those who is playing with the idea of armed violence.  So long as that is your plan, you are the problem.  You are the danger.  You are the cause of the present sufferings.

If you are one of those who is playing at threatening armed revolt, you won’t like the changes that are coming.  Do you remember how many women turned out for the Women’s March last year?  Have you been following recent elections?  You’ve had your turn, and the rest of us (regardless of our political party affiliation) are tired of you.

The changes that are coming will be disorienting for all of us, and disheartening at times.  But “this generation will not pass away” before the changes start.  I don’t know when.  Maybe the mid-term elections.  Maybe 2020.  Maybe later.  But the changes will come.  I will not like all of them.  Neither will you, no matter where you land on the political spectrum.

But no matter the shape and nature of our political commitments, we likely agree that things have to change.  Perhaps we could even find ways to work together on some of the changes.  The people who need to threaten others with their weapons, however, they can stay home.

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