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“The End Is Near” by James Welcher available through Creative Commons License

The End Is Near.

It is hard to read this week’s appointed verses without going to that well-aged, somewhat humorous image of the prophet of doom: the wild-eyed, shaggy-haired, tattered-clothed man yelling into the crowd, “The end is near!”  And, if we can put end-of-the-world associations aside, this time, he’s right. We can see that, for Jesus, as he looks ahead into what we now consider Holy Week, it is crystal clear that his end is near.

We are now in the portion of the gospel of Mark immediately prior to the events that will lead directly to Jesus’ arrest, trial, sentencing, and crucifixion. [Scripture- NRSV- can be found here. Working Preacher commentary by Micah D. Kiehl can be found here. Gord Waldie’s great early thoughts on this passage-complete with photo- is here.] After the last verse in our passage (Mark 13:37), we read in chapter 14:1-2:

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”

As Jesus looks ahead, he sees what he has been teaching his disciples would occur. Even though he has taught consistently that the pain, suffering, and death will be followed by resurrection, it is hard to imagine him being unmoved or agitated by it. This is not the Jesus of John’s gospel, who coolly speaks from the cross as if he were in the middle of a spa treatment (“Woman, here is your son.” “I am thirsty.” “It is finished.”). The Jesus of Mark will agonize over his impending death as he weeps in the garden, imploring his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” In the midst of the horror that is the cross he will cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The end is near, and it is going to be dreadful, painful, inhuman.

Jesus speaks of his end, and it sounds very much as if he were speaking of the end of all things. He has taught on three separate occasions the nature of his work as Messiah: it will involve suffering and death, as well as rising to new life (Mark 8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10:32-34). His disciples, as if on cue, remark upon the magnificence of the Temple edifice, and Jesus’ reply is terse and saturated with meaning: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). The disciples immediately go on high alert: When? What sign will we have? Jesus is not playing, he has moved on to describe the imposters who will claim his name for their own purposes, the wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines. All these, Jesus says, constitute “the beginning of the birth pains.”

Scholars believe Mark’s gospel is roughly contemporaneous with the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies in the years 69-70 CE; Jesus’ description of the complete destruction of the Temple is accurate to a chilling degree. But  Jesus has explicitly spoken three times of the destruction of the temple of the Lord that is his own body, and later in this gospel those accusing Jesus will conflate both temples in their testimony: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58).

After the skipped portion (verses 9-23), Jesus continues on with images that are echoed later, in the passion and resurrection narratives (this week’s podcast treats this at some length):

After the suffering (Jesus’ suffering is described in 14:32- 15:39), the sun will be darkened (Mark 15:33). The powers in the heavens will be shaken (15:38). The Son of Man will come with power, with angels attending him (Mark 16:1-8). And not one, but three admonitions to “keep alert/ keep awake” (Mark 14:34, 37, 41).

This is Jesus’ apocalypse, a word that simply means, “uncovering.” Jesus is uncovering both the cosmic meaning of his death, and the simple fact of it. Heaven and earth will be shaken, and this is all part of the work of the Messiah, God’s anointed one. His message is urgent, and in keeping with all of Mark it is uncovered and yet still veiled so that no one near him seems to comprehend.

On Sunday evening (March 6) the venerable long-form television news show “60 Minutes” went inside the Livingston, Texas facility where death row prisoners are housed until their executions. One of the inmates, Perry Williams, described the countdown to his execution, once his date of death had become known:

Inmate Perry Williams: It’s one thing to know exactly the hour and the time that you’re going to die. It does a lot to you. Shakes. It’s like waking up in cold sweats — having dreams about being executed.

Interviewer Bill Whitaker: You actually had shakes and cold sweats.

Williams: Yes sir.

Whitaker: Why do you think you were reacting that way?

Williams: Fear, fear of the unknown, fear of the death.

I think it would be a mistake to separate Jesus’ words in this passage from his clearly articulated understanding that his death is imminent. Physical manifestations of fear, dreams of his own impending death, his dread of the unknown… Jesus is a man on death row, awaiting his horrible fate. And yet, the promise of God’s bring new life from this death manages to penetrate the darkness of this hour. God’s saving action is at work, even in the midst of fear.

Sermon seeds:

  • This passage is appointed for us at a time when the national conversation in the United States is one of high anxiety surrounding the presidential election. (New York Times columnist Charles Blow nicely captures many of the presenting issues here.) Jesus places his own anxiety in the context of God’s saving action. Can we do the same?
  • Jesus’ call to “keep alert/ keep awake” seems particularly potent as we observe the growing evidence that climate change is here, and may already be irreversible. Is there a call to action in this passage, in which the fig tree tells us, the time is ripe?
  • And yet: Scholars have marked what they call “the resiliency of apocalyptic belief,” i.e., the fact that there are those who believe “the end is near” in every generation. Terror is powerful, and thrives particularly well in times of oppression. Yet, the kingdom of God as Jesus has described it throughout Mark’s gospel is an event marked by healing, feeding, and gathering into community. What can the preacher do to encourage a response to this passage that is rooted, not in fear, but in our conviction that we are called to love one another, and in so doing, love God?

How about you? Where do you dare to go with this passage? I’d love to continue this conversation in the comments. Blessings on the study and the writing and the preaching of your sermon this week!

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16 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: The End Is Near Edition (Mark 13:1-8, 24-37)

  1. Lots of random thoughts, very few of which are finding their way into a cohesive preaching plan yet.

    One thing related to how every generation seems to have its end time predictors – people who point to “wars and rumors of wars” and say this must be it, God is coming near. Well, maybe these things aren’t as predictive as they are descriptive. We know God is here when we are going through the worst of the worst because that is what God promises.

    Also I’ve been thinking about why some people are so drawn to and obsessive about knowing when, needing to know when, etc. Why is that? Does it provide relief? The example of the death row inmate suggests that knowing the certain time may not always be all that comforting. Does it get them off the hook? There doesn’t seem to be much of a need to care for creation and fellow creatures if it’s all about to end anyway.

    But we are called to keep watch, not bury our heads in the sand. And tend to the world that is hurting. And the end is about God coming near and providing a new beginning.

    And…. Something. I don’t know. I still need to keep thinking and pondering. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think the unknown is the hardest thing for us… one of the inmates said it, in his interview. The unknown. That’s what his fear is about. I can relate to that.

      And yes! to the keeping watch… and I have to believe, keeping watch in faith, hope, and love, which are great grounding when in the unknown.

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    2. The servants being about the master’s business while he is away strikes a chord. We’ve spent the last few weeks learning about being disciples: give to God what is God’s, love God and love neighbor, losing life to save it, the last will be first, the greatest is a servant. Instead of giving into fear, or building walls that will just come tumbling down, Jesus calls us to keep awake, and follow.

      Or something like that. I’m still trying to come up with words for what Jesus calls us to do that doesn’t bring to mind the old bumper sticker “Jesus is coming. Look busy!”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ramona, the bumper sticker has been on my mind quite a bit! Blessings to you, and thanks for joining the conversation!

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  2. Reading the WP commentary again late yesterday I had another thought.

    I remember from my time in the Hadrian’s Wall area 20 years ago thinking how logical it was that parts of the wall had been dismantled so the stones could be re-used in building projects. Why let all that perfectly good dressed stone go to waste?

    So sometimes the wreckage of an ending gives us the materials to help build something new. What use can we make of the “stones” that no longer serve their previous purpose?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like this very much. I look at pictures of the Western Wall these days, and I am aware of all the social upheaval that takes place in its shadow, and I wonder: what is the purpose of that wall now? Just a marker of who’s in and who’s out? Which, I suppose, IS the function of a wall… when it’s attached to a building, or enclosing a city. But what if those stones could be reimagined into the New Jerusalem, the shining city, where the water of life flows?

      Jesus is in a dreamscape. Maybe that’s his invitation to us?

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  3. I’m cutting the first part and just using the “Keep watch” section. What I am remembering is a description by Mark Allan Powell about how as Christians, we are like people in an airport, waiting expectantly for our loved one to come home. Keep watch becomes joyful in that context, and that’s where I’m being led. I also was just in an airport, joyfully waiting for my friends to appear, not knowing when they would pop out of the doorway, and it was such a great feeling to be waiting on those whom I love.

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    1. I too am wondering about cutting this in half, though I’m thinking of keeping the first half.. but then different parts of this ongoing conversation convince me I’ve got to keep the whole thing. I LOVE the airport image… that is truly lovely.

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  4. We have both a baptism and a 90th birthday of a charter member…so I am using vv. 1-4, 32-37, and we are going to talk about missing the point–that the big stones and the “when and how” stuff are not what church really is. Jesus tells us to pay attention to what matters. (which will of course be about people, because baptism and birthday…)

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