33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 15, 2015

Proper 28 – 1 Samuel 1:4-20; Mark 13:1-8

It’s the end of the world as we know it… or is it?

It sure looks like things are going to hell in a bucket. All manner of violence, suffering and natural disaster are in the news on any given day – but when has this not been the case? Just because there wasn’t the means to broadcast it instantly, constantly, all over the globe didn’t mean it wasn’t happening. Think Black Death, Trail of Tears, Atlantic slave trade just to name a few historical realities that might have been considered signs of the End Times, at least to many. But, well, here we still are. Jesus said it would be so. “When you hear of wars…don’t be alarmed…the end is still to come…nation will rise up against nation…there will be earthquakes…there will be famines…Ebola…flooding…refugee crisis…escalating conflict in the Middle East…Yemen…Syria…planes falling out of the sky…child soldiers…school girls kidnapped….” This isn’t the end. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. But where is the good news in this?

The preacher or teacher of this text must keep in mind that Mark 13 is part of the apocalyptic genre. The list of calamities would have been a familiar one to Mark’s hearers. Not to mention the historic context of the destruction of the temple and the persecutions of Christians. All of this doom and gloom wasn’t theoretical – it was actual. So, surely the end was near, right? But here we still are, the news doesn’t seem any less gloomy and there is no less sense of doom. All the wars and nations rising up against nations are still actual, even if not always personal. Does that mean the end is coming now?

“No,” Jesus says. These painful realities aren’t a sign the Parousia is at hand, they are indications that a birth is coming. In the midst of all this death and destruction, new life is going to emerge. Like refugee women giving birth on boats and beaches, even the direst of present circumstances can’t prevent the baby’s arrival when the time comes. Therefore, keep alert. God’s new life could come at any moment. Are we prepared to be the midwives?

Hannah prays in desperation and then waits in hope for the gift of birth and life – even though if the past is an indication of the future, her hope borders on foolishness. Perhaps that is true for Mark’s audience and for ours, too. Barrenness and death are pervasive, and yet we are called to not only wait in hope for God’s invading glory, we are actively to be on the alert for it, so sure are we that it is on the way. To others, our anticipation looks foolish, but for those of us who follow Jesus, it is the only way to be faithful.  Lamar Williamson Jr. says of this text in his commentary on Mark, “It both ennobles and relativizes the common round of daily life by making each moment subject to the invasion of the Son of man, who comes to judge and save.”

This future promise shapes our current living because it imbues “each moment” with the possibility of being the moment in which we see the glory of God, the very moment when judgment and salvation meet. What would our living be like if we viewed it through that kind of anticipatory lens? I suspect there would be a lot I would worry less about and some things I would take a whole lot more seriously. I would consider carefully where to invest my time, energy and money. I would want to be, I think, right in the midst of all those painful realities because that is where Jesus went when he walked the earth and therefore I think those are the places where he will return, to judge and to save. And I want to be there then, to bear witness, to rejoice with those whose prayers have been so fervent they’ve looked drunk – but now, oh now, how they are vindicated, raised up and made whole. I want to be there then. I want to be saved and I want that even it means judgement comes first because the judge is Jesus Christ and he came to save sinners, so bring it on. Perhaps that’s part of the goal of this chapter, too. To be reminded how to live as if every moment of every day might be the moment when we see the Risen Christ descend in glory.

This is, after all, Mark’s version of Jesus’ farewell discourse, his last words and final instructions to those closest to him. He is trying to tell his followers what truly matters and how to live in ways reflective of those ultimate truths.

Disciples are to be watching, on the look out, for the Son of man whose arrival is certain even if his timing is unknown. Always being ready is of the utmost importance. Discernment is critical, too. Not all claims are true and the kingdom of God may well be found outside the temple, the religious institutions, the official leadership. No wonder Jesus calls for his followers to beware and be aware. Not only is any moment possibly the moment, any place may be the place where God makes an appearance. Who knows where and when the Son of man might return given that his birth was in a stable, to parents on a forced journey, announced to nameless shepherds.

Who knows if today is that day? All we know is that the Son of man is coming and birth brings with it pain. It will hurt and when the baby is ready, it will be born, there is no stopping it, even if that baby’s first breaths come on a boat or a beach or in a stranger’s barn. God’s life-giving invasion, God’s judgment and salvation, will surely come. Our job is to anticipate it, see it, welcome it and usher it in like skilled midwives on call and always ready, right there in the middle of pain and hurt, right in the midst of those places where Jesus went and will come again to make all things right. And that is good news, for all people.

This week:

  1.  Our culture is fascinated with things like the zombie apocalypse. Why do you think this is so? How does this relate, if at all, to the end times in Mark 13 and other biblical texts? (If you haven’t read Brian Blount’s book “Invasion of the Dead, Preaching Resurrection” go get it right now.)
  2. Compare Mark’s farewell discourse of Mark 13 with the farewell discourses in the other gospels: John 14-17, Matthew 28:16-20, Luke 24:36-49.
  3. Why is the promise of Jesus’ return important for how we live in the present? How is this about hope given that the language is about destruction and desolation?
  4. Of what should we beware of in our current context? How do we discern who or what are the false prophets?
  5. Is it possible to live daily with a sense of seeing Christ at any (every?) turn? How do we hone our sight, our awareness or our sense of anticipation?
  6. Take a look at the “Christ’s return and judgment” section in the hymnal “Glory to God” and use some of these hymns as daily prayers. Or chose an Advent hymn and incorporate it into your daily devotions this week.

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