Alyce McKenzie tells the story of the optimistic boy. He grew up on a farm, always trying to see the good in things. This boy woke up the day of his birthday and looked outside to see a giant pile of manure on the lawn. He ran downstairs, got a shovel and started happily shoveling. His friend walked by and asked, ‘what are you doing?’ the boy said, “I know there’s got to be a pony somewhere!”
When we look at the ‘end times’ and the ‘apocalypse,’ we look at what Jesus has to say in Mark and we usually see just the bad stuff. And there’s that Mayan calendar thing.
We get these kinds of apocalyptic texts to prepare us for Advent, which starts in just two weeks. Rather than the holiday music and decorations, which are already making their way into retail and radio stations, the Church decorates our minds with the end of the world.
Keep in mind that the gospels, though not as forthright about the circumstances that the Epistles address, are also written in response to what is going on in the church and the world at the time.
Mark was the earliest gospel written, possible during the reign of Nero Cesar. Nero was a bad man, ruling at a troubled time. Tacitus, a contemporary to Mark, wrote:
“The history on which I am entering is that of a period rich in disasters, terrible with battles, torn by civil struggles, horrible even in peace. Four emperors fell by the sword, there were three civil wars, more foreign wars, and often both at the same time…Beside the manifold misfortunes that befell mankind there were prodigies in the sky and on the earth, warnings given by thunderbolts, and prophecies of the future, both joyful and gloomy.”
Nero lit Rome on fire, and while Rome burned, ‘The Emperor played the fiddle.’ Nero needed a scapegoat for the fire, and he blamed the Christians. He started a persecution that claimed many Christian lives, including Peter and Paul. Nero lit up the sky with the burning bodies of Christians, lighting up his garden like candles.
Anticipation of this great persecution, as well as the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., Mark reminds his readers of the words of Jesus. Prepare yourself for persecution, be ready to face whatever. Mark 13 anticipates the future end of the world to be sure but the coming persecution and the destruction of the Temple are what Jesus is talking about mostly. In any case, be prepared to suffer for the name of Christ and beware of those coming as false Christs, false prophets.
Where is the pony? George Orwell wrote in 1984, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on the human face—forever.” That’s not the Christian view, though.
Two reflections based on what we hear today, the first is that God always promises his own presence in times of trial, and two, he never supplants what he does not rebuild.
God always promises his own presence. If you don’t know what will happen or what to say, the Holy Spirit will provide words and strength, so says Jesus later in Mark 13.
The immediate context for Mark 13 is persecution, but this applies in many situations.
Often things we struggle with whether illness, loss of employment, broken relationships, conflict with others—these things can feel like the end of the world in our own context, but if we seek God, he will be present.
I grew up Pentecostal. I may be more quiet and reserved in the way I worship, but the one thing I will never leave behind is the teaching that the Holy Spirit is accessible to all who believe. He is God’s permanent presence in the world and helps us to come to God with boldness as the book of Hebrews says.
How do we engage the Holy Spirit? Jesus says, ‘if your child asks for an egg, will you give him a snake?’ Just the same, ‘how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?’
The biggest challenge for liturgical Christians, and all Christians really, is that the words of the Scripture and the words of the liturgy come to life in us. Look at our Collect…those are words of expectation!
The Holy Spirit comes rarely in dramatic ways, sometimes in subjective feeling ways, but always when we ask.
In trials, God comes to us through the Holy Spirit. Our second reflection is that God never supplants what he does not rebuild.
The Temple and the Torah—supplanted in a sense, but remade in Christ. The Temple was the very presence of God on earth, Jesus then becomes the very presence of God in every way. Early systems and empires are often supplanted but the people of God are always sustained and continue on.
In Mark’s day, no one could have predicted that the Roman Empire would one day implode on itself and be destroyed by small tribes and small military cells. Yet the people of God endured.
I believe the Christian life—this paschal pattern applies to our lives if we could see it. In marriage, for example, part of you must die to give way to the other. No more living for yourself. And then as a couple, you start off footloose and fancy free, going here and there and suddenly you are confronted with little people who demand your time. That footloose and fancy free part of your relationship must then die.
Relationships that endure the little deaths (and sometimes big ones) are the ones that give birth to deep and lasting love. With God’s help. Relationships have a much greater chance of survival with God’s help.
This dying and rising is a pattern that undergirds the Christian life and all of life if we can see God’s hand at work in the world. Stones must fall for God’s new work to begin. As Abraham Heschel observed, “Job’s faith was unshakable because it was the result of being shaken.”
I just finished a book called Movements that Change the World written by an Australian missionary named Steve Addison. He opens his book by looking at the model of St. Patrick. Patrick did not believe in God during the first part of his life. He was captured by Irish raiders at age 16 and enslaved by them for five years. He was able to escape and return to his home in Britain but God called him back to the Irish as a missionary.
What was interesting is that his time of enslavement was the crucible of his calling. That is, the suffering led to his being called of God. Addison writes,
“As a slave, Patrick came to see the hand of God in his troubles. God broke through his defenses, and Patrick faced his unbelief and pride. Later he described how he turned to God, who he realized had been watching over him all the time. He became aware of God’s protection, and he discovered that God loved him as a father loves his son.”
Patrick’s calling came within his suffering.
Sometimes there is no clear ‘happy’ ending to the story. But the truth is still there. God ultimately turns death to resurrection, renewal to even the worst parts of our world and our lives.
John Burtness sent me an article this past week by Marshal Shelley, his old friend who is editor of Leadership journal and Christianity Today. John and Marshall both share the loss of children. Marshall lost two of his children within a two year span. One, after two minutes of life, and the other after two years. Shelley writes,
“Even when I can’t explain why a chromosomal abnormality develops in my son, which prevents him from living on earth more than two minutes …
Even when I can’t fathom why our daughter has to endure two years of severe and profound retardation and continual seizures …
I choose to trust that before the book closes, the Author will make things clear. And to remember his words through the prophet: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11, NKJV).
Clinging to that promise, even when the weight of sorrow makes our knees buckle, makes faith intentional and, I trust, unshakable.”