And so, on the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, the Revised Common Lectionary bids goodbye to its year with the Gospel of Mark. (There is one more Sunday in the year, but the Gospel for “Christ the King” Sunday will be John.)
The text is Mark 13:1-8 — which is just the beginning of Jesus’ discussion of things apocalyptic.
Maybe it’s a mainline sort of choice, reflecting the traditional Protestants and Catholics who tend to use the RCL. (Let’s have as little as possible about the signs of the end of the age, thank you very much.)
But you could also say that this week brings the story full circle. On Advent 1 the year began with another chunk of the same chapter’s predictions of Christ’s second coming (Mark 12:24-37).
The year of Mark begins and ends with its eye on the end of the age.
This week’s reading is a tidy little segment of the much larger passage.
1. Jesus and some disciple talk about the big buildings around the Temple.
2. The two pairs of brothers among the Apostles ask for a private consult on the signs of the end.
The Big Buildings
Earlier Jesus and the gang had their discussions with (and about) the scribes, and then they chatted about the people giving donations in the Temple. Now they are going on their way.
One disciple, maybe someone who didn’t make it to the big city very often, is impressed by the buildings.
Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1 NRSV)
Though it dates me, I can’t help but hear Gomer Pyle USMC here with his long drawn-out
Jesus’ response to the country bumpkin’s wide-eyed wonder?
Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2 NRSV)
I’m not sure Jesus was intending to open up a can of apocalyptic worms here. It seems to me like a simple splash of cold water to refocus the disciple on what really matters.
The rest of the conversation went something like this:
Hey, are you impressed by human creations? Think long term: the biggest and best things we make will eventually crumble. Focus on the eternal. Let me tell you a story about the Kingdom of Heaven…
Mark left that part out. Okay, it actually came straight from my imagination. But it might have been like that.
The Signs of the End
It was Peter, Andrew, John, and James who heard a bit of the conversation and figured Jesus was talking end times. They wanted to know more.
If the buildings are going to fall, we want to know when. Will there be signs? Is this gonna be some of that crazy stuff we read about in the prophet Daniel?
Again, Mark left out this fuller version of the conversation. It’s really my paraphrase of what they did ask in private:
Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4 NRSV)
And honestly, ever since, when Christian conversation turns to the End Times, someone in the room has tried to make some calculations. We sift the clues. We plot out the symbols. We line it up on a time line. And we decide that Jesus is coming again sometime in our own lifetime.
- Sometimes, whether in the middle ages or in every recent century, groups gather around leaders and prepare for the end.
- Sometimes they sponsor conferences and create handy charts, or publish detailed books on the prophesies to make it all seem convincing.
- Sometimes they start whole new religious sects.
- Sometimes they just write best selling novels about it.
They foster a lot of fear, and live in a lot of anxiety about it.
Anyway, Christians are able to get their knickers in a knot with the feeling that Jesus is coming day after tomorrow.
Jesus himself is actually kind of low key about it.
He has three words of wisdom on the topic.
1. Don’t be led astray by people claiming to know too much.
First word: Watch out for those who claim to know too much about the end times.
Specifically, watch out for those who make claims about being Jesus.
Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. ” (Mark 13:6 NRSV)
He repeats the instruction later, expanding it to those who say not “I am he!” but “There he is!”
And if anyone says to you at that time, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “Look! There he is!”—do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.” (Mark 13:21-22 NRSV)
You’d think someone who claims to be Jesus in the flesh would land in the psych ward.
But people are so vulnerable. The anxious and the ill-informed, the lonely and the broken, can be preyed upon by those claiming to be the savior.
You find it in the news. Too many people get swept into dodgy dangerous groups following the bold claims of leaders. Within my lifetime members of such groups have been led to mass suicide, to murder, to sexual abuse, and other evils.
Jesus is clear: anybody claiming to be him isn’t.
Real leaders have more of the attitude of John the Baptist:
He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30 NRSV)
2. Don’t be led astray by what you see on the news.
Second word: Don’t waste your time pegging the events of the day to the apocalyptic time line.
People looking for signs of the end in human conflict, the rise of evil leaders, or natural disasters always have a ready-made hobby.
There are always wars, and rumors of wars, says Jesus.
…this must take place, but the end is still to come.” (Mark 13:7 NRSV)
Then, comes the repetition, as if it were the second half of a parallelism in a piece of Hebrew poetry. As well as strife between nations, says Jesus, there are always famines and earthquakes.
This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” (Mark 13:8 NRSV.)
That is, signs or no signs, there is still a lot to happen before the end — and a lot of work to be done. After all,
… the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations.” (Mark 13:10 NRSV)
3. Don’t Panic
Jesus’ third word of wisdom is familiar to every reader of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
If the lectionary had given us the full chapter of apocalyptic prediction, the chorus we would have heard should lead us to calm down.:
…do not be alarmed…” (Mark 13:7 NRSV)
As for yourselves, beware…” (Mark 13:9 NRSV)
…do not worry…” (Mark 13:11 NRSV)
But be alert; I have already told you everything.” (Mark 13:23 NRSV)
Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:33 NRSV)
Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come…” (Mark 13:35 NRSV)
And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37 NRSV)
Pay attention, yes, but don’t freak out.
There’s going to be bad stuff in the world. But the one who is coming is good. He loves you.
And remember: The only Jesus is Jesus, the Word made flesh, who came to dwell among us and will come again. When he wants to.
If you want Advent to be a real time of renewal, think about joining my upcoming class on the classic Christian spiritual discipline called lectio divina. It is a prayerful way to dive deeper into Scripture, and a scriptural way to dive deeper into prayer. You can get on the waiting list to be sure you get a notice when it launches in a week or so.
(By the way, the link to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy up there is an affiliate link.)