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.
- 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!
RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.