As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.
“What do you make of the gospel reading today? What do you think about this talk of huge, monumental buildings destroyed, knocked into a heap of rubble – leaders that appear on the scene to lure unwary followers off track, lead them astray – wars and rumors of wars – nations against nations – natural disasters: earthquakes, famines. Doom and gloom. Destruction. Scary stuff, isn’t it?
But actually it’s not that foreign to our immediate experience. The World Trade towers collapsed on September 11, 2001. We’ve known plenty of wars, nations against nations throughout the course of history. And natural disasters: a hurricane named Charley was definitely up close and personal for some of us here. We all have our stories to tell about how these scary events have affected us personally. And our ancestors have had their stories to tell about similar events in their own times.
So these predictions in the gospel reading are really not news to us. We’ve see them in our past, our present, and we know we’ll see them in our futures, as well. But then again, in the gospel reading Jesus tells us that all these events will be just the beginning of the end . . .
The gospel reading today is taken from the thirteenth chapter of Mark. This chapter in Mark’s gospel is sometimes called Mark’s “Little Apocalypse.” Do you know this term – apocalypse?
Probably the best known apocalyptic writing in the bible is the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation is sometimes referred to – simply – as the Apocalypse because apocalypse is the first word of the book of Revelation – the first word in the original language, Greek.
If you look the word apocalypse up in the dictionary, you’ll find two takes on the meaning. Some dictionaries list the primary meaning as “a revelation, an unveiling” – or “prophecy.” Others list the main meaning of apocalypse as “a cataclysmic event,” a world-shaking or even world-ending event.
So when we hear the gospel reading today, how do we understand it? Are we talking about the cosmic end of everything – when the sun burns up billions of year from now? Or are we talking about the end of the earth’s ability to sustain human life, an end that comes through Armageddon, that final spiritual battle between the good and evil forces of the world? Are we to think of an end that may come through some natural catastrophe or an end that comes about because of human mismanagement of the earth, damage that we do to the environment? Or maybe we’re talking about the end of a cultural way of life, like the end of free-market capitalism or Western-style democracy. Or are we talking about the final day of Judgment? Or on a personal level maybe it’s about our own mortality.
The gospel excerpt for today is the first eight verses of Mark, chapter 13. At the end of these eight verses we’re left hanging – wondering what this description of “the beginning of the end” might mean, wondering when it will happen, wondering what our response or preparation should be. If you read on in Mark through the end of the chapter, there is a definite sense that Jesus could be speaking about “coming to an end” on many different levels. It may call for a “both/and” interpretation.
WHAT?: Jesus may be talking about a larger spiritual truth that can be both recurring and final in scope – at once cyclical and linear. (By cyclical, I mean recurring – like the daily, weekly and yearly cycles of our lives or the cycle of the church year. And when I say linear, I’m talking about the final fulfillment, the end of our spiritual journey when we will be finally and completely united in Christ – in that time and place we call heaven. So the meaning of Jesus’ teaching may apply to both scenarios – “recurring ends” and “the final end.”) All this is suspended in mystery.
WHEN?: In the gospel story, when Peter and James and Andrew and John ask Jesus when all this will happen, Jesus at first seems to side step the question. But later on in the chapter Jesus says that no one knows when. His exact words are: “Of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” The question of when is left unanswered – out of our control and beyond our ability to predict.
OUR RESPONSE?: How about the question of a faithful response to this teaching? And how are we to deal with “personal apocalypse” – the personal disasters that we will inevitably encounter?
Jesus speaks to this question when he says: “When they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit . . . he who endures to the end will be saved.”
Jesus is telling us to stand in the faith and knowledge that we are children of God, loved eternally by God. Leaning on that faith, we can totally trust that the answers will be provided when the time comes. Persevering in that faith, we can totally trust that faith alone will bring us to Christ in the end – faith alone will bring us with Christ to the end.
At the end of the chapter, Jesus says, “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore – for you do not know when the master will come – watch lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.”
This warning to watch, watch out, repeats through out this chapter of Mark. The end is coming. Be aware, stay awake . . .
The good news simmering in today’s gospel lies in what is to come in the final chapters of Mark’s gospel – namely: the end, in the death, of Jesus on the cross transitions into a new and glorious beginning in His resurrection. As followers of Jesus, we are a Resurrection People. For us as for Jesus Christ, our ends always transition into new beginnings.
This Sunday is the last Sunday of ordinary time – in the liturgical cycle of the church this is the end of the long green season that began after Pentecost in May. With the celebration of Christ the King next Sunday, we come the end of the church year. As we transition into Advent we carry through the message of today’s gospel: Watch! Advent is the season of watching and waiting – awareness and staying awake – watching in preparation for the “coming again” of Jesus into our lives at Christmas.
So for now, Jesus says: “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come. . . Watch– for you do not know when the master will come . . . Watch lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.”