1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8
Occasionally, when the Outlook staff emails one another we begin with “Today’s sign of the End Times,” and follow it with an unexpected and strange request, response or article.
This churchy humor helps us weather the ups and downs of being on the receiving end of many public comments and frequent scrutiny, some of it kind, some of it not so kind, some of it down right odd. But when I come to chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel, I realize that our “signs of the End Times” are not Jesus’ signs of the End Times. Jesus’ signs do not call forth eye rolls, laughter, a chuckle or stress relief. Jesus’ talk of the End Times arrests us and causes us to question expectations and events roiling all around us.
Jesus tells his disciples who marvel at the beautiful, imposing Temple (that same Temple and scribal system he has been railing against) that even an institution and edifice that big and that established and that powerful will not stand forever. “All will be thrown down.” All. What does Jesus include in that “all”? The Temple, yes. But everything else, too? Governments? Palaces? Military forts? Impressive corporate headquarters and historic landmarks? Will all be thrown down? Why? When? How? To what end? What remains? What comes next? Like the disciples who pull Jesus aside in Mark’s Gospel, I too have a lot of questions about the predicted End Times.
Peter, James, John and Andrew ask Jesus: “When will this be? How will we know this is accomplished?” Jesus then begins his sermon with a warning: Don’t go astray. Don’t believe messianic impersonators.
Anticipating the disciples’ ability throughout time to ascribe to Jesus beliefs and ideas antithetical to the Gospel, Jesus warns: Don’t be lead astray. Then he goes straight to the scary and apocalyptic. He calmly lays out the certain upheaval to come: wars, civil wars, natural disasters, famine. But don’t be alarmed, he admonishes.
Wars, civil wars, natural disasters, famine. Check, check, check and check. I can read the headlines and spin the globe on any given day and see Jesus’ signs of the End Times emblazed in print or pixels. I confess, I am alarmed. Even if these are the birth pangs of the new life, new era, new God-thing on the horizon, I am alarmed. I have no idea if these are signs of the End Times. We Christians have been waiting a long time. We’ve been in labor for millennia with no pain relief in sight. All has not been thrown down. The world order of the rich getting richer and the poor getting trampled remains. Have you seen that bumper sticker? “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.” How, Jesus, can we not be alarmed?
The recent climate report that detailed how we are about to fall off a global warming cliff alarms me. The images of starving children in Yemen, babies of skin and bones, alarms me. Reading stories of people risking their lives, leaving all they have, walking to our border in order to escape poverty and violence and terror, alarms me. Another mass shooting and another and another. I am nothing but alarmed right now and this promise of a birth somewhere in the sometime future does not assuage my ever-growing anxiety. Women, after all, die in childbirth with ALARMING frequency. Jesus, how can you tell your followers, “do not be alarmed”?
Is it faithful enough to not be utterly paralyzed? If we cannot keep calm and carry on, is it acceptable in your sight, Jesus, to gird our loins and enter the chaos in your name? Can we be alarmed, scared as hell and persevere, using our provocation to provoke one another to love and good deeds? Would that be an adequate and faithful response to all that alarms us? I might be able to muster that courage, with your help.
But first, I need to stop in the temple while it still stands and pray like a drunkard alongside Hannah. I need to beg for new life, for hope, for relief. I need a reassuring word from Jesus, yes, but also from Eli, from a fellow believer with more perspective and a little more confidence that you will do what you promise. I don’t care how foolish, crazed or uncollected I appear. I am feeling foolish, crazed and uncollected. I need to pour out my heart to you for a while, lament those crushed by poverty, drowned in the natural disasters, left to die in deserts, dance floors and war zones. Do you hear, Lord? Eli? Can we talk in private, because I have some questions about the End Times and about our times and I’d like a few answers, please. I am a woman who is deeply troubled and I know I am not alone in that sentiment right now.
I need not only to pray to God and hear from a caring and competent religious leader, I need the other members of the household of God, too. Could we meet together and talk about this? Can we comfort one another and cry together and share some signs of hope while were are at it? Could we help each other hold fast to that which is good and render no one evil for evil? Could you spur me to love and good deeds and I’ll do the same for you?
I do not know what time it is. What I do know is this: Many are perishing. Wars rage on for generations. God’s good people and God’s good creation are in peril. I am alarmed. But Jesus assures me of his presence, his power, his will to reconcile, redeem, save and make whole. Jesus has given us himself and he has given us one another. Whatever time it is, we are not at the end. That means we hope. That means we need to meet together. That means we pray. That means we provoke one another to love and good deeds. That means we stay with the pain, breathe and hold fast to the One who gives us a Son who never turns away from the hurt of the world. That means we relentlessly work for peace no matter how persistent the violence, we help those in the middle of disasters, natural or otherwise, we feed the hungry and care for the sick, knowing that’s how we want to be found whenever Jesus returns and whenever our end, or the End, comes.
- Do you ever think about the End Times? What does it mean to you? How is your life shaped by Jesus’ words in this week’s Gospel reading?
- Are you alarmed? If so, why? Is being alarmed unfaithful?
- The Hebrews text admonishes Christians to meet together. How are you meeting together and what difference do those gatherings make for you? Others?
- How do we provoke one another to love and good deeds?
- Have you ever prayed like Hannah? Was there an Eli present to hear and counsel you?
- Have you ever been in the presence of one who was deeply troubled? How did you respond?
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