The Twenty Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28B)
November 18, 2018
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
There is a sense of change in the air. There always is this time of year. We see it as Thanksgiving foods are mingling with Christmas decorations in shops, while Halloween candy is now looking remarkably cheap. That snowstorm on Thursday, following such a beautiful autumn Wednesday, certainly gave us a sense of things to come! We also have been noticing it here in church as we move out of that long season of Sundays after Pentecost, towards Advent and into the beginning of a new Church year. Both last week, with the Epistle to the Hebrews talking about Jesus appearing “at the end of an age,” and this morning, with the lesson from Daniel and the Gospel talking about a “time of trouble” and the coming of false prophets, the passages appointed from Scripture are talking about ends and new beginnings. More than that, our lessons are asking us to engage with something more existential than the usual banter about fall moving into winter. They are speaking to us about upheaval, about suffering, war, and famine, about seismic shifts in the order of things and what that means for our lives.
In our Gospel for today, Jesus talks about a future “desolating sacrilege,” people fleeing to the mountains, running away and not going back for their belongings, a time when mothers and young children are in danger, “days [when] there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of creation.” It is reasonable enough, whenever we hear passages like these that our minds immediately turn to thoughts of the end of time, a second coming of the Messiah, a monumental battle between Good and Evil. Indeed, this section of the Gospel of Mark is styled by many the “Little Apocalypse,” with its close relationship to parts of the book of Daniel, like the ones appointed for this morning. It is very tempting to head in this direction and talk today in abstract terms about Mark’s and Jesus’ visions of some time, at the end of history, that will eventually break us out of the sorrows of this world and lead us into the joys of the next. Careful examination of this passage, however, set in its context within the Gospel of Mark and within the world out of which it comes leads us in a very different, yet no less dramatic, direction.
Jesus is in Jerusalem in the days before his arrest and we left off last week at the end of Chapter 12 when Mark tells us the story of Jesus’ reaction to the women who gave her two last half pennies to the Temple. Immediately following, Jesus predicts the destruction of that institution and his disciples ask him when this will happen. Jesus dodges the question and instead tells them that they should not be led astray, that “when you hear of wars, and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; [for] this must take place, but the end is not yet.” He goes on, “Nation will rise against nation ...; there will be earthquakes, ... there will be famines.” He tells them that they will be delivered to councils and be beaten, and “will be hated for my names sake.” “And [yet] the gospel must ... be preached to all nations,” Jesus tells them. This is where we are when Jesus continues to tell them about the desolating sacrilege being set-up in the Temple, that people will flee to the mountains and not be able to take their belongings, and, he says, “alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those day.”
Although Jesus, in the context of his ministry, is talking about something that will happen in the future, we know very well that the community for whom Mark’s Gospel was composed, the people who are listening to these stories would have known all these kinds of troubles right out of the experience of their own lives. These were poor people, who lived in villages and towns who had been subjected to over a half century of Roman occupation. There was over sixty years of off-and-on warfare in the Roman province of Judea leading up to the last of the Jewish wars when the Jerusalem Temple was finally destroyed. Roman soldiers had terrorized the population. These people had seen and experienced brutality directed against pregnant women and nursing mothers. They knew of actual instances when Roman soldiers came into the villages and there was no time to go back and collect a cloak. These followers of Jesus also knew of the desecration of the Temple, probably fifteen or twenty years earlier, with the setting-up of a statue of the Emperor Caligula as the God Juno There was famine, too. These are people who knew hard times. These are people who knew oppression. These are also people who knew their Scripture and when they were tyring to understand what was going on in their lives it makes sense that they would use the language and imagery of the Hebrew Bible, and books like Daniel that also talk about tough times.
It is clear, therefore, that Mark is not talking about something far off at the end of time, but rather describing the actual experience of real people living in the midst of profound suffering. For better or worse, Mark is saying, this kind of violence is to be expected. It is not, however, to be tolerated. People living in the midst of great suffering must not forget that there is something more at work and that God is constantly drawing us all into relationship. God is also constantly drawing us into mission, drawing us out of ourselves, and into the world and into our work. Jesus tells the disciples to be vigilant, not to accept false prophets, and to know how important it is to preach the Gospel to all nations, even at great personal risk. Jesus is drawing the people into a renewal movement, not predicting the end of the world or merely telling them that they must endure and find their reward in heaven,
At the end of this chapter—and I am not giving away next week’s sermon since the lectionary skips ahead to the Passion—Jesus tells a parable: “Take heed, keep watch, for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.” Jesus is not telling the disciples to go off onto a mountain top, drop everything, and wait for the end. Rather, Jesus is telling them that they need to be on alert, pay attention, and, yet, still go about their work. The point is not for us to speculate on the end times, but rather to acknowledge the presence of oppression and suffering and persevere in its face.
This may not sound like such Good News. Yet, we know the whole story. We know that at the end of Mark’s Gospel, after the Passion, with its betrayal and pain, and after the Crucifixion, the women go to the empty tomb and are told that Jesus has gone ahead of them into Galilee. Jesus has gone ahead of them into Galilee Jesus did not hang around and wait to be discovered by an adoring public, he went right back to work, transforming lives, embodying and sharing God’s self-giving love.
Jesus does what he asks of his own disciples: he is persecuted, testifies in word and deed to the power of God’s love, and is killed because of it. God vindicates Jesus and us in the empty tomb, God shows us in the empty tomb and Jesus heading back to Galilee that those who thought they could kill that kind of love-in-action were wrong.
We live in challenging times. People all around us face suffering and oppression. There is, literally, political upheaval, war, and tribulation. We see people all around us saying they have the answers to the world’s problems. We see people on TV, in the news, and on the internet, who say they know the truth and that they speak for God. None of this is new. Jesus has told us to expect it all and reminds us to keep fast to those things we know to be true. Jesus has told us to preach the Gospel to all nations, witness for Christ, love our neighbour as ourselves, heal the sick, welcome the stranger, doing all this as an integral part of our lives in the world. We do all this at the same time as we move into that season of watchfulness and waiting, and head inexorably towards the celebration of God’s entering fully into our own human experience as, incarnate as the Word made flesh, Jesus our Lord.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
16 November 2018
© 2018 Andrew Charles Blume