A sermon on Mark 13:1-8; Hebrews 10:11-25; 1 Samuel 1:4-20 & 2:1-10 by Nathan Nettleton, 15 November 2009
Four years ago, I visited the place the call Ground Zero, the gaping hole in the ground where the twin towers of the World Trade Centre once stood in New York City. The gospel reading we heard tonight brought back memories of that scene. Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Not long after Jesus spoke these words, and around the time that Mark wrote them into his account of the gospel story, the Jerusalem Temple was indeed reduced to rubble when the Roman occupation forces sacked the city, and for the people of Jerusalem in that day, the event was every bit as earth-shattering as the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers in ours. Such cataclysmic destruction was almost unimaginable, and the very idea of it, either in theory or later in the face of the reality, provoked apocalyptic speculations. I’m talking both Jerusalem and New York City here. The reality is so shocking and awful and the scale of the destruction so monumental, that people instinctively leap to the conclusion that these things must be signs of a great apocalyptic clash between God and the powers of evil, and that we are now being plunged into the violent horrors that will lead up to the end of the world. I’m not laughing at anyone here; I had all those same fears and imaginations flood through me when I first saw footage of the towers coming down. And of course, events since 2001 have done little to hose down such feelings. A coalition of powerful nations invaded Iraq and then Afghanistan, and now find themselves mired in a conflict which becomes more and more bitter and seemingly has no end. North Korea continues to defiantly test missiles, war blows up periodically in Israel and Lebanon, suicide bombings become increasingly commonplace, even in places like London, and the whole Middle East — always the centre of apocalyptic speculations — seems set to explode.
Even those of us who laughed at Hal Lindsay’s end-of-the-world silliness and distanced ourselves from the various doomsday sects, find ourselves uncomfortably returning to passages like tonight’s gospel reading and asking with the disciples, “Will this be the time? Are these the signs that all these things are about to be accomplished? Is this the hand of God we are seeing at work, and is the final showdown between the hosts of heaven and the armies of evil about to burst upon us?” You don’t have to have any sort of religious categories for such questions. Even those who have no concept of God or any concept of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil, are still likely to respond to escalations of fanatical conflict with fears that it will all spiral out of control and lead to the destruction of the earth and its inhabitants.
We heard apocalyptic hopes and speculations in the song of Hannah that we sang in response to the first reading too. “God's enemies will be broken, heaven thunders against them. The Lord will judge the earth, and give power to the king, victory to the anointed.”
“Lord, will this be the time? Are these the signs that all these things are about to be accomplished? We need answers to these questions, Lord.”
Jesus is famous for his non-answers. I haven’t checked the stats myself, but I heard someone say that Jesus is asked about 90 questions in the gospels and gives direct answers to only two of them! So I’m sorry to report that this question from the disciples is not among the two. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ response is no help. It’s just that typically he reframes our questions and then answers the questions we should be asking.
“Lord, will this be the time? Are these the signs that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
Jesus’ answer begins by warning us not to be led astray by all the speculation. “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” In other words, be very wary of anyone who claims to have the answers to these questions. If anyone is peddling religious-sounding explanations for what is going on and what it all means, be very careful that you are not being led astray. Times like these always see the rise of people who claim to be able to make sense of it all and who set themselves up as the trusted leaders who can help us to safely negotiate the horrors and find our way through to heaven. Be wary of all such claims.
Jesus does not deny that there may be some chronological relationship between violent world events and the hope of what is to come, but he does make it clear that it is not a simple cause and effect, or of God pulling the strings and setting the wheels in motion. “When you hear of wars and rumours 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 birth pangs.”
Jesus is not telling us to ignore such things, or to pretend they don’t matter. But he is telling us to avoid trying to interpret them as signs of God’s activity. Yes, there is an inevitability about the level of global catastrophe, but that doesn’t mean that God is engineering it and that it is all part of God’s plan. Don’t be led astray by such interpretations, however “biblical” and convincing they may sound.
This doesn’t mean that God isn’t doing anything, either. Jesus does say that the chaos is related to what God is doing — it is the beginning of the birth pangs — but that doesn’t mean that God is orchestrating it. We don’t accuse a baby of orchestrating the labour pains of the mother. But something has to give if the new is to emerge, and sometimes that will be traumatic. What God is bringing to birth has got nothing to do with apocalyptic violence and chaos, but human culture being what it is may well be reacting to its approach by plunging itself into chaos. But, says Jesus, be careful not to get carried away by such interpretations. Don’t start thinking that everything is a sign and that God’s actions can now be reliably predicted by reading the signs in world events. God remains free and will not be bound by our theories of culture or cause and effect. Contrary to what some lunatic Christian fundamentalists seem to hope, we cannot force God to bring about the kingdom by fanning the fires of global conflict to apocalyptic proportions. God might bring something new to birth from the midst of the current chaos, and God might not. Don’t be led astray by simple tick-off-the-signs doomsday theories.
The reason for the inevitability of global violence and catastrophe is actually bound up with the nature of the gospel itself, but not because God is in any way a contributor to violence. The way the world has always acted to keep violence in check is by identifying a scapegoat and employing a sort of God-endorsed official violence to rid ourselves of the scapegoat and re-establish order. After the first world war, the Germans identified the Jews as a scapegoat and claimed a God-given mandate to rid the world of this “problem”. After the second world war, we were a bit more sophisticated, and rather than scapegoat the entire German and Japanese races, we identified their leaders as our scapegoats and we sacrificed them with a neat legally sanctioned process that enabled us to still avoid the questions about what it was about all of us that plunged us into such chaos. But on ever since his crucifixion, what Jesus has been doing is unmasking our “legalised” violence and showing that it is actually no better than the violence it pretends to contain. And the more the distinction between “legal” violence and “illegal” violence collapses, the greater the risk that there will no longer be anything to stop the escalation of the violence. We are watching the distinction collapse in Iraq, and there seems no way out of the apocalyptic furnace now. God’s solution to violence, siding with the victims and drawing the sting out of violence by walking into the face of it and returning only mercy, is so radically unimaginable to us human beings, that its approach causes our old safeguards to fall apart but we can’t conceive of embracing God’s way. The madness on the streets becomes inevitable when both sides are convinced that truth and goodness are on their side, but neither have embraced the wisdom of God that would respond to violence by offering themselves as its recipients instead of as its creators. We descend into chaos, and can see no way out.
What then are we to do? Well, if we had read further in this chapter from Mark, we would have heard that Jesus’ basic instruction is “Be Alert. Be on your watch.” But this is not meant as the government meant it when they told us to be alert. The government wanted us to be on the lookout for scapegoats. They wanted us to collaborate with the system that Jesus has unmasked as hopelessly violent and bloodthirsty. They wanted us to point the finger and name names so that they could employ their “legally sanctioned” violence to create the illusion that the system is still “keeping us safe”, but the illusion is falling apart because after eight years of the “war on terror” no one really feels any safer.
What Jesus is calling us to is exactly the opposite. Be alert lest you fall into such games. Be alert lest you be led astray by official explanations, even religious explanations, of the present chaos and fall into participating again in the very violence that named Jesus as a scapegoat who must be sacrificed lest the violent wrath of Rome fall upon us. Be on your watch, and wherever you see the system making new victims, takes sides with the victim, for in solidarity with the victims you will find yourself in solidarity with the Christ.
Now all that may sound complex and theoretical, and some of it has probably been more so than necessary, but the implications for how to live are not so complex. Our reading from the letter to the Hebrews summed it up much more simply. Did you notice that it too ended with reference to the “coming final day”? Its conclusion were not that you should therefore get caught up in trying to interpret apocalyptic signs. Instead, “let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the final day approaching.” That’s it. That’s all. Hold fast to the faith and hope you have found in Jesus. Stir one another up to greater and greater love and more and more ways to put it into action. Gather often as a congregation, support and encourage one another. The more the world plunges into chaos and violence, the more we’ll need one another. Too simple? Perhaps, but then so is the birth of a baby, and as Hannah found, and Mary found, it is in such little signs of life being born where there was only barrenness and dead hopes, that the real action of God is seen. The coming life of God is not deterred by the signs of death all around, for there is no death or destruction that can destroy God’s power to bring forth new life and hope.