Let’s have a little chat, shall we? It will be a chat about these bizarre eight verses from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13. Those who get paid to research and interpret the Bible make reference to the 13th chapter of Mark’s Gospel as “The Little Apocalypse.” You can read a slightly edited version of Mark’s thirteenth chapter in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 21 …. And you can find an expanded version in Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 24 & 25, in which the evangelist adds a few parables about watchfulness and judgment. But they all have their source in Mark’s Little Apocalypse. “Wars and rumors of wars” …. “nation rising against nation” .… “earthquakes and famines” …. “persecution and sufferings.” Not exactly a late night Bible reading before you go to bed, when your faith is feeling a little unsteady.
Of course, most of us are at least a little familiar with the other apocalypse in our Bible, right? (The Book of Revelation) … and all of its wild prophesies and symbols and numbers. And actually, we have an Old Testament apocalypse, also … anyone know the name of that book? Right! The Book of Daniel … we got a little taste of that apocalypse this morning in our first lesson. The words we read today are tame, admittedly, considering the Book of Daniel is filled with a whacko ruler, cities being leveled, prisoners’ of war that are tortured, people being thrown to the lions and others burned in furnaces. It is not a story for the faint of heart.
Apocalypse – it makes for pretty crazy stuff, all right. But if you take a look at the world in which we live today, you might be led to the conclusion that Daniel and Mark don’t offer us much that we haven’t seen or heard already. Wars and rumors of war … cities being leveled … people living in abject sin … earthquakes and famines … prisoners’ of war tortured … this is the fodder of our headlines as often as not these days. I find myself wondering some days if that whack job preacher that we sometimes encounter on the corner of a major metropolitan city … or in front of Willard Hall if you have been a Penn State student at some point in the past 40 years … or more likely in our day and age … on a Facebook feed or Instagram post … is really as whacky as he appears to be. And then … I find myself pausing … and considering the connections between Daniel’s apocalypse, written in the mid-second century BCE … Mark’s apocalyptic words penned in the latter first century of the Common Era … and the proclamations that fill our 21st century world.
Our own Lancaster County theological treasure, Dr. Greg Carey, from the Lancaster Theological Seminary, considered this very question in an article he wrote last year for the acclaimed theological journal “Interpretation.” It is entitled, “Daniel as an Americanized Apocalypse.” If you want to read it, let me know. I’ll make you a copy. Parts of the article are more complex than my theological brain can comprehend. But the abstract of the article speaks words that feel like true ones to me:
Set in the context of Judean resistance against the Seleucid Empire, Daniel addresses issues such as diaspora, identity, empire, and power. The first biblical apocalypse models how to survive faithfully within a hostile foreign culture, and it voices a full-throated rejection of foreign domination. In contrast, American religious media domesticate Daniel into a morality tale, a fable that promotes personal integrity and trust in God. The Americanized Daniel cannot or will not ask what “empire” means or what it means for believers to inhabit an empire themselves. This essay explores what modern readers can gain by reintroducing categories like “empire” and “resistance” in Daniel.
What can we do as Christians living in a world that has some level of madness to it? … what should we do? How do individuals have impact on the empire in which we live and the emperors who seem to control our commerce and our legal systems and our politics and an increasing share of our communication and our resources? I hear one answer to that question regularly, from our own deaconess here at St. Peter’s … Sister Dottie. Sister regularly reminds me of the call to stand up for those who cannot stand for themselves … those who Jesus calls the “least of these” … those that the world tends to forget about or ignore. Sister feels compelled to stand before the thrones of our empires and speak truth in a way that might in fact be heard, intending to turn the engines of the beast against itself, in her advocacy and justice work. Dr. Carey would agree with Sister Dottie, suggesting that waiting and watching may be a great attitude for the Advent season which arrives in two weeks … but is may not be such a great way to engage a world that needs to hear the call to live as God intends us to live … now … not only at the second coming of Christ to the world.
Now, if you know me, you are aware that I can be a bit of an isolationist. I don’t trust much that comes to us from Harrisburg or from Washington, as most of it seems to be grist for the mills of re-election campaigns and fuel for the circling of party-loyalty wagons. I have a fair amount of cynicism regarding the ability to change the powers that be in our world. I vote in every election … but I don’t have much faith in my vote to change things. So I tend to let others engage the broader world around us, and instead focus my ministry of the people I have regular connections to … people with whom I may in fact be a companion in their desire to embrace their calling in life … people who may in fact be called into those very arenas in the world that I shun. It is one of the reasons I appreciate working with Sister Dottie. For hers is a balancing perspective to mine, and reminds me that I can never just bury my head in the sand and wait for it all to go away … or worse, yet, just wait for the inevitable “end of the world.” I too am called to act in some way.
And I find that reflection on Jesus words in our Gospel Lesson today, help me sort out what my calling may in fact be. Because Jesus does in fact call us to action. If we would read just a bit farther in Mark 13 we would see it more clearly, where Jesus calls his disciples to proclaim the good news. And as we already know, proclamation happens in a lot of different ways. It happens in our deeds and in our words … it happens in the good choices that come from our mind and also from our heart … it happens in large groups and between the two or three who gather together in the name of Jesus. What Jesus mostly reminds us of in today’s Gospel Lesson, is that these terrible things that we sometimes see at work in our world are not a sign that God has deserted us, or that there is no hope.
They are the “beginning of the birth pangs” which will lead our world into a different life with our Creator and Savior. They are not things that God has not anticipated from his fallen and broken children, and they are not things that have the power to corrupt the relationship we share with God. They are simply a reminder that this world in which we live, is not our final destination … it is not the only world we will ever know. And that God’s plans cannot not be derailed by any sin that individuals or groups of people bring to the table. God ultimately wins … completely and totally. I believe this at my very core … and I am privileged to regularly witness what I see as committed expressions of this call to action that God uses to draw us into life, especially, when … the world seems to be struggling.
I believe this, because I have seen it. I saw it last, about a week and a half ago. I found myself in Snyder’s Funeral Home up here on the pike almost two weeks ago doing something I have only done a couple of times, now. I stood in line, not to offer my condolences to a friend or parishioner who had lost a loved one. No, I stood in line, surrounded by a small battalion of cell phones. I was voting … Snyder’s is my new polling location … and for the first time that I can remember there were far more young people (faces planted in their phones, of course) on line to vote. It was an encouraging sign for this guy who can get cynical around election time, and I saw it as God’s little reminder that our Creator may not be quite done with the world yet.
I saw it last week, when I was told by Gary, that we had received another planned gift donated to the church … from an estate which had already sent us a more modest but still significant gift earlier in the year. Margie & Clark, could have done many things with their resources at the end of their lives, including ju=st letting their kids make their decisions for them. Instead, they planned these gifts for St. Peter’s, and gave them to strengthen the ministry of this congregation. Margie & Clark, as their lives ended, chose to make a statement that they also do not think God is done with the world quite yet, and that their church, St. Peter’s, has a stake in making this world a better place.
And for a long time now, I have the shared privilege of bringing communion to our homebound members, along with our pastoral staff members and a small team of committed church members. Some of our visits are wonderfully interactive as our homebound members ask about the news from church, or about friends they have not seen for some time. But for some, whose minds and conversations are inaccessibly locked deep within their heads and hearts, can be quite difficult. Yet our communion ministers share the same words of promise and the offering of God’s grace in Bread and Wine become body and blood. And in so doing, they also make their statement of faith, seen in sacramental action, that they too believe that God is not quite done with the world yet.
One final word from Rolf Jacobson, one of our bright American Lutheran voices, who is acquainted with suffering, as a survivor of childhood cancer, which took both his legs from him early in life. I shared Pr. Jacobson’s words with my Wednesday Bible Study this past week. He cleverly calls people who over focus on the end of the world … theological proctologists … those who are interested in how everything will come out. In counterpoint, Jacobson then says that those who faithfully think about the end times in a healthy way, in Jacobson’s words, instead … “help make sense of the present in light of what we know about how God wants things to end.” God willing, let us be about that kind of talk and action, Amen.