You Call This GOOD News?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. Ash Wednesday (March 6, 2019), brought us to reflect on the scripture that contains the longest teaching passage (and Jesus’ ‘farewell address’ to his followers) in that Gospel: Mark 13.  This was a timely reminder of our own mortality and the hope that we can share.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

Titus Destroying Jerusalem, Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1846

Some of you will remember my friend Ann, who lived to be nearly 101.  In the last few years of her life, this was her favorite text.  Every time we were together, she asked me to read the Gospel account of the day that Jesus left the temple and started to talk about the things that were going to happen before “the end of the world”.  And here’s the interesting thing: as I read it, she literally winced. This passage scared her to death. But she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

What do we do with this chapter?  One writer has said that Mark 13 is “a happy hunting ground for persons fascinated by the end of the world” that “figures prominently in books by doomsayers and in sermons by evangelists more interested in the next world than in this one. On the other hand, this chapter is largely ignored by pragmatists, activists, believers in progress, and all who dismiss preoccupation with the end of the world as a juvenile state of human development or an aberration of unbalanced minds.”[1]  Um, yeah. Tell us how you really feel, professor…

How do you hear Mark 13?  Does God’s word come to us through these verses?

Let’s take a look at some clues within the text itself.  Some of you are old enough to remember that when we started this sermon series on the Gospel of Mark, I said that one of the key features of this work was the fact there aren’t many long teaching passages here – it’s mostly what Jesus did. Well, chapter 13 contains the longest speech in the Gospel. And so Mark, writing to believers in Rome in the middle of the first century, decided that, of all the teachings Jesus gave – more than his community needed to hear the Sermon on the Mount or the parable of the Good Samaritan – they needed to hear thisteaching.  Hmmmm. We ought to pay attention.

Flevit Super Illam, Enrique Simonet, 1892

As the longest speech in the Gospel, it’s also Jesus’ “farewell” address to his followers in Mark.  Who is there on the hillside to hear it? Peter, Andrew, James, and John. According to Mark 1, who were Jesus’ first followers? Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  The four who have followed him, however imperfectly these last three years, are getting their final instructions.

In the Gospel of John, the “farewell speech” from Jesus is the wonderful encouragement, in chapters 13 – 17, to love one another.  In Matthew and Luke, there is the command to go and minister in Jesus’ name and in particular to include the Gentile community in baptism, teaching, and service. What’s the point of Mark 13?

Wars, and famines, and quakes…oh my!  Persecution, and idolatry, and suffering…oh my!  Those scenarios are all included, but they are not the prime object of Jesus’ concern in Mark 13.  In reality, most of Mark’s original readers were familiar with events like this. Remember, one of the reasons that Mark wrote the gospel was because the followers of Jesus in first century Rome were experiencing persecution and betrayal and suffering and death.  They had lived through the great famine during the reign of Claudius (also mentioned in Acts 11).  In 60 AD the Roman colony of Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake. In 70 AD the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the town. In 79 AD Mt. Vesuvius erupted, destroying the city of Pompeii.

Wars, earthquakes, and persecution are not Jesus’ focus in Mark 13. They are the backdrop for what Jesus is saying.  I’d like to suggest that the main emphasis in Mark 13 is not the sound and light show that may or may not be going on at any given moment, but rather the promise that all of these things in history have an end.  That history itself has a direction.  The good news of the Gospel, here in Mark 13, is that at some point, Jesus the Christ will return to earth, and the Kingdom of God – the very topic of the Gospel of Mark – will be experienced in all its fulness.

And if that’s true – if Jesus is right about the fact that he is coming back – then it is in everyone’s best interest to be attentive.  It’s a small wonder, then, that throughout this chapter, Jesus warns his friends to be alert.  Various Bibles translate these imperatives differently, but at least eight times in the chapter we are warned to “take heed” or “beware” or “watch” or “stay awake”.

Can you see?  Could it be that this chapter is Mark’s bit of good news to a community that has struggled to keep the faith in the midst of persecution.  Almost everyone that Mark knows has experienced Jesus only as one who is absent – someone who was here, but who has now ascended – who has left the physical earth.  What is crystal clear about this passage is the notion that this Jesus – from whom we are currently separated – is going to return, and at that time, we will be fully present to him and to each other.

Some of us, it seems, will be here on earth, alive and well, when Jesus returns.  Many of us, of course, will have died.  No matter – in life and in death, we are his, and we will be with him.

It’s not too hard to get into a rip-roaring discussion on “the end of the world”.  Just throw out a few comments about wars and earthquakes and fireballs and before too long you can have people engaged and agitated. We talk about it as if it might or might not happen.

The Last Judgment, Michelangelo, c. 1536

Listen, beloved, the reality is this: the world will end, and it will end, all probability, sooner for me than it will for most of you in this room. But whether Jesus returns in bodily form during my lifetime or not, I can say with absolute certainty that I am dying, and that dying will be, for me, the end of this world. In that sense, every day is Ash Wednesday.

And my sense is that whereas I can usually scare up a pretty good conversation about the destruction of the cosmos and the signs and portents that Jesus seems to indicate here, it’s hard to have a serious conversation about our own deaths – even though, as I have said, it’s one thing of which we can be absolutely certain.

How are you preparing for your demise?  Does it scare you?  Jesus, anticipating his own death and talking to the disciples about what his followers might expect, stresses the fact that there is more to our lives and our deaths than we can see.  He surely doesn’t minimize the fact that the path can be difficult – but he does emphasize the truth that there is more to our endings than meets the eye.

Many of you will recognize the name of Lewis Carroll as the author of such wonderful children’s books as Alice in Wonderland.   Maybe you will know that Carroll’s real name was Charles Dodgson, and that he trained for the ministry and served as a deacon in the church for his entire life.  If you are familiar with Alice in Wonderland, you may know that it contains a wonderful statement of faith in which we are invited to consider our ability to live freely knowing that our deaths are only a part of the story.  Listen for the words of “The Lobster Quadrille” – and I will tell you that a “quadrille” is a formal dance wherein 8 people interact – much like square dancing.

The Lobster Quadrille, Charles Folkard, 1921

“Will you walk a little faster?”

Said a whiting to a snail,

“There’s a porpoise close behind us,

Treading on my tail.”

See how eagerly the lobsters

And the turtles all advance!

They are waiting on the shingle –

Will you come and join the dance?

So, will you, won’t you, won’t you,

Will you, won’t you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, will you,

Won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

“You can really have no notion

How delightful it will be

When they take us up and throw us,

With the lobsters, out to sea!”

But the snail replied, “Too far, too far!”

And gave a look askance –

Said he thanked the whiting kindly,

But he would not join the dance.

So, would not, could not, would not,

Could not, would not join the dance.

Would not, could not, would not,

Could not, could not join the dance.

“What matters it how far we go?”

His scaly friend replied,

“There is another shore, you know,

Upon the other side.

The further off from England

The nearer is to France –

Then turn not pale, beloved snail,

But come and join the dance.

Will you, won’t you, will you,

Won’t you, will you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, won’t you,

Will you, won’t you join the dance?[2]

The Good News of the Gospel is well-presented by Carroll – that there are two shores – one that we can see, and one that we know only through faith.  And the more we insist on staying close and connected to the one, the less we’ll be able to participate in the reality of the other.  We can face our own deaths without fear, knowing that the dance continues with structure, meaning, and purpose.

This doesn’t mean that we should throw up our hands and say that this life, and our impending deaths, don’t matter.  Far from it.  Jesus is clear in his farewell discourse that those of us who follow him are called to run the race as far as we are able, and to keep the course as best we can.  We are called to keep doing what he has left for us to do as well as we can for as long as we have.

Beloved, we don’t know – Jesus said that he didn’t know – when our experience of this life will end. We can have faith in the one who went for us as the ultimate sacrifice for sin and who has gone ahead of us and who has promised to return for us.  With the first-century Romans who heard Mark’s gospel and were sustained by it…with the monks in the middle ages who were convinced that civilization was collapsing all around them…with slaves who were carried to the Americas 400 years ago this year, and who were forced to live in inhuman conditions…with believers in countries around the world that have lived under persecution of other religions or the state… with the church of every age and every time, we can live expectantly –as though life is a dance – because Jesus has proven himself trustworthy. We can live hopefully, and look for signs and evidences of resurrection and life in the world each day.  We can live as those who find consolation, because we know that the griefs we bear will not last forever.  And most importantly, we can continue to invest our lives in God’s purposes, because although we cannot control earthquakes or wars or famines or floods, we can control our resolve to be his people.

I know, you have had people look at you in church and say, “Stay awake!”  But this time, it’s not your mother who is telling you.  It’s not the preacher.  It’s Jesus. And I think he means it.  The end is near.  We’ll get through it.  But until we get there, let’s stay awake, and let’s stay together.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] LaMar Williamson, Interpretation Commentary on Mark (John Knox, 1983) pp. 235-236.

[2] Alice in Wonderland, chapter 11 <http://www.authorama.com/book/alice-in-wonderland.html&gt;

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