“Seeing the World Apocalyptically”
based on our reading from Mark 13: 1-8; 24-37
(written and preached by Deacon Adrienne Major on our 03/29/20 Zoom service)
What a jam, to get the apocalypse in the midst of a pandemic—when our lives and work are uncertain, we sit with Jesus and the disciples, overlooking the great Temple of Jerusalem, and contemplate its fall. As we turn to the news and hear of hospitals overflowing, doctors and nurses dying, ventilators in short supply; as we hear of people losing their work, their businesses, their livelihoods; as we see our friends struggle and struggle ourselves with the closing down of our local businesses, our arts and cultural events and spaces, our restaurants and coffee shops, we hear Jesus telling us, “these are but the birth pangs.” Great. I can’t tell you how tempted I was to turn to Corinthians today:
“Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end…For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. …And now faith hope and love abide, these three and the greatest of these is love.”
With these assurances, let us turn back to the apocalypse in a time of Corona. Let us remember the context in which Jesus is speaking, and in which we are taking part in these readings. Jesus has come to the end of his ministry. This reading takes place narratively in between the ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and the beginning of the Passion on Maundy Thursday. Jesus can see the gathering storm—the unease of the Roman authorities, the weakness and venality of the Herod, and the corruption of the temple. He lives it. And of course, his disciples can see this too—the gathering tensions in an occupied Jerusalem, the excitement of their triumphal entry matched with the terror of Jesus’ prominence coming to a very bloody end for all of the work and the love that their movement engenders. Jesus tells them, “you’ll see this in your lifetimes” (Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.)
Thus far Jesus’ context. Our context is that we are reading this on the cumulation of our Lenten journey. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and then we will be in the midst of Passion week, enduring the crucifixion and wondering at the miracle of resurrection. We undergo this journey every year, and each year we live it again. Surely as winter turns into spring—or as Jesus puts it, “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.”—we know the resurrection comes. Marcus Borg describes us as an “Easter People.” So we read of the destruction of the temple and of the powers in the heavens being shaken with the reassurance that all will be well again.
Where then does this leave us? One of the Narrative Lectionary Podcasters, I think it was Craig Koester, points out that whereas we think of the term “Apocalypse” as meaning “end times” or violent transformation, the Greek word itself means “revelation”, as in “an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling”. Mark’s gospel as we have been exploring it has presented to us a constant unveiling and unfolding of things. How do we see this, we ask. What could that mean?
We can see Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecies as a straightforward look at what will happen politically in 70 CE—the temple will be destroyed by the Romans. There are indeed (according to my New Oxford annotations) “rumors of wars” in the intense resistance to the order to Emperor Gaius Caligula to install his bust in the temple (@40 CE). “Famines” may refer to the disastrous effects of the severe draught in the late 40s. So Jesus could be prophesying quite literally. However, the number of times Jesus is quite literal—even in Mark—is miniscule. Seeing his remarks metaphorically is often a good unveiling.
Craig Koester and Marcus Borg both suggest seeing these apocalyptic prophecies not in the light of history or the historical Jesus, but in the light of the radical change that Jesus ushers forth. Borg writes in his book, “The Heart of Christianity,” “There are at least five interpretations of the cross to be found in the New Testament… The third sees the death of Jesus as the revelation of the way. His death and resurrection are seen as the embodiment or incarnation of the path of internal psychological and spiritual transformation that lies in the center of the Christian life. The path…is dying to an old way of being and being raised to a new way of being.” Koester applies this metaphor to today’s reading. He states that the world-altering event that Jesus is prophesying is crucifixion and the resurrection. This is world-shaking quite literally: stories of the crucifixion are marked with the darkening of the sun and the experience of a sudden earthquake—but even more importantly, it’s world-shaking metaphorically, as it moves the center of spiritual life from the temporal power represented by the temple to the metaphysical power represented by the cross. In this new world, Jesus comes to serve rather than to be served, and power itself becomes the power of the beatitudes rather than that of institutions:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure of heart,
for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This, then, is an apocalypse we can take to heart in these troubling times. It is an unveiling that we see all around us in and amidst the terrifying and angering deluge of news. We see neighbors helping neighbors. We see businesses retooling to create face masks and ventilators. We see the national guard building hospitals. We see people applauding our healthcare workers. We see grocers and pharmacists ready to serve. We see musicians offering music on line. We see dance classes and yoga classes and tips on teaching and communities of care springing up all around us. Most of all, we see ordinary people making tremendous sacrifices to help each other, both strangers and friends. We are back with the language of the cross: the language of service and of sacrifice. The metaphor and today the lived reality that hails us all as Easter people and loops our wakefulness into last week’s call of the great commandment: Love thy neighbor. For, with the apostle Paul I conclude, “And now faith hope and love abide, these three and the greatest of these is love.”
Attributions, in short:
I don’t think I mention anywhere in the sermon that it’s on Mark 13: 1-8; 24-37. The Corinthians is (of course) 1 Corinthians 8-13, and the Beatitudes is Matthew 5: 3-10. The Borg is on pages 92-93 of the 2003 Harper Collins imprint of “The Heart of Christianity”—in the section on “The Cross in History and Theology,” and the Narrative Lectionary Podcast can be found at workingpreacher.org. ~AAM