Just a Little Apocalypse 11/15/09

Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8

As I talked about with the kids, we are nearing the end of our lectionary year.  Next Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, will mark the last week in lectionary year B.  The lectionary is a tool for walking through the Bible in a three year cycle.  It is not a perfect tool, some passages are left out, but it does help us to wrestle with topics and passages we may not always pick out ourselves.  Today’s passage in Mark is known as the “Little Apocalypse” because it is reminiscent of Daniel and some of Revelations.  That title strikes me as odd … a little apocalypse is like having a little horseradish – it still makes your nose tingle and your eyes water, no matter how much you have.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

My grandfather died when I was a sophomore in college.  I remember becoming very upset with myself for not taking the time to learn his story and listen to all that he had seen and learned during his lifetime.  I had known him only as a figure in my life.  He was grandpa, but after he was gone, I suddenly realized all the things I didn’t know, all the history that I hadn’t experienced.  Born at the end of the War to end all wars, he graduated seminary just as America entered the Second World War.  He was a youth minister at a time when many of his youth were being drafted for Vietnam.  This was a man who had seen things I would never see.  And I wanted to hear his thoughts and opinions.  I wanted to glean something from his perspective.

The fall after grandpa died is when the Twin Towers fell.  As the country pulled together, and picked up the ravaged pieces of a city, I began to understand some of the perspective my grandfather may have had.  In the ensuing years, I had my own early adult traumas and sorrows that threw me off-balance for awhile.  I imagine almost every generation has had to go through this kind of process where the events of the day force you to evaluate what it is you believe and how that is relevant to the harsh reality of the world. Bob Dylan caught the ethos of his day and also the timeless aspect of what it means to face the times when he wrote:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.[1]

In our post-9-11, post-modern, post-Christian world, it is actually rather easy to relate to the upheaval and anxiety the disciples must have felt at Jesus’ words.  When catastrophic, terrible things happen that affect so many people, there is, “in a deep and abiding sense,” a loss of innocence.[2]  Something foundational in people’s lives is called into question, and there is a feeling that the world can no longer be trusted to behave in the safe manner that it always has before.  There is something very contemporary in what Jesus is saying.  He could be addressing us today.  So, I must ask what Jesus is saying to the disciples. 

Finding our Center

The answer is that he is giving the disciples a pep talk, a coaching session, a keep your eyes on the ball kind of lesson.  It would be easy for us to get caught up in the destruction of the temple, which for our day might be the destruction of our church, disjointed as it is in so many different denominations and each denomination squabbling over what is right or wrong, what is sacred, fair, or just?  It would be just as easy for us to get caught up in speculation about the second coming and what that will be like – how do we anticipate it?  Was Nostradamus or the Mayans right?  What do the stars tell us?  Jesus is taking us – and the disciples – away from all of that and saying FOCUS.

“This is but the beginnings of the birth pangs.”  I only went through labor for a little while with Sam, but it was enough for me to understand that labor pains are well, painful … and difficult.  They take your entire focus … but many people find labor pain or birth pangs manageable because there is an end goal.  There is something worth enduring pain for … which for Christians is the second coming of Christ.  The fact that Jesus told us that this is the beginning means that we are not simply to wait around for that time.  We have a job to do as Christians – and that is to prepare ourselves and the world for the reign of God.

The Function of Community

The apocalyptic feel of current events – the shootings, the floods and hurricanes, the attacks on public places – make us forget where our center is and we lose balance.  This is where the Hebrews passage helps us tremendously.  Hebrews talks about community and how we are to have confidence and to hold fast to our hope.  We are to meet together regularly because this is how we strengthen our faith: by stating what our hopes are and why we have hope in the Lord.  Even more than that, we provoke one another to love and good deeds.  That word provoke has both a negative and positive connotation.  You can provoke someone by disagreeing and challenging them or you can provoke someone by encouraging and praising them.  The text includes both meanings of the word.  One way to look at the divisions in our faith is to view the many differences of opinion as a testament to the work of the Holy Spirit who is able to work through all of us in our opinionated, stubborn ways.  The Holy Spirit speaks through our differences and allows them to witness to the power and grace of Jesus Christ.

The focus of Hebrews is the sanctified life, or what it looks like to be holy.  This passage identifies community and solidarity as something that marks the sanctified life.  Communities are diverse and dynamic, but Christian communities are also held together, or centered, in one thing or rather, one person and one God: Jesus Christ, our Lord.

What does this mean for us?

In this constantly changing world, we find our comfort and our center in Christ even while we are called to challenge and renew ourselves together.

As we move into the beginning of Advent, we move into a time when we are preparing for the birth of the Lord.  In many ways, we are also preparing for our own birth in Christ and the birth of the new creation that Christ brings into the world.  It is a joyous time of anticipation … and though our world is sometimes turned upside down, living in the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, and watching and waiting for the new age to come is also a time of joyous anticipation.  As we end our journey after Pentecost and begin our journey through Advent, let us commit to challenging each other, trusting one another, and forgiving one another empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Let us pray, God of tomorrow, enfold us in your love today.  Give us perspective and strength so that we may embrace the future even while cherishing the past.  Bring us into this present moment with the knowledge of your love and grace so that we may rely on you throughout all of eternity.  Amen.

[1] Bob Dylan.  “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”  http://www.bobdylan.com/#/songs/times-they-are-changin

[2] Rodger Y. Nishioka.  “Mark 13:1-8” in Feasting on the Word.


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