A difficult Day of the Lord

The first Sunday of Year B 2012 is Advent 1: 27 November. The gospel to be read from the Revised Common Lectionary this year is Mark.

Week of Sunday 27 November – Advent 1
Gospel: Mark 13:24-37

Although the reading is set for these verses, it is worth reading at least the whole of chapter 13.

24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’


Being Awake
In central Australia we discovered a remote narrow gorge, filled with water, and began to swim up. So narrow is this place, that sometimes you cannot swim breaststroke, because your hands drag against the rock on each side. We watched with more than a little fear as we paused in a small opening of the walls. While we rested on the rocks on one side of a chamber the size of a lounge room, a snake swam downstream on the other side. Keep alert!

But our fascination drew us on up the gorge until I noticed that the sky, that high, narrow strip of outback blue visible beyond the sheer hundred foot walls, was suddenly hidden by heavy cloud. Keep alert! Stay awake!

We had so little perspective, just a few feet of sky. Was it a passing cloud, or the warning of a storm? If it were to rain, out here in the desert, even a few millimetres would have us washed away in an un-survivable torrent of water, rising metres in moments.

We swam downstream for our lives.

In Mark 13, Jesus says (23, 33,35,36) to keep alert, or keep awake, four times. In Mark 14, he asks the disciples to stay awake, (34, 38) but finds them asleep, three times. (37, 40, 41) At the last time, he names Peter, who would also deny him three times, his old name of Simon. The Rock has not been awake. His discipleship has crumbled.

If we are not awake, and not alert, we are simply Simon. We are no Rock, no foundation for Christ’s church. The question is, “What does it mean to be awake. For what are we alert?”

Apocalypse now?
Bill Loader says

The suffering [of the time of Jesus] is nearly two millennia distant from us, as, for most of us, is the terrible suffering of poverty in many parts of the world, beside which our panic at terror is scarcely more than an itch....  What does it mean to feel that things are so bad the only hope is going to the end of the world?

I am not sure we safe and secure Westerners have any idea. My friend joined a sect squirreling away food for the end of the world, and then left. “I did not want the world to end,” he said. In my deepest depression, I wondered if I should end the suffering for me, and for my family, by killing myself. I did not, because even then, I did not want my world to end. It was not that bad. I said in a sermon once, that we Australian born probably should listen to the refugees in the congregation, if we wanted to get any sense of the kind of horrors that lie behind a Mark 13. The Sudanese folk looked at each other, and then back at me, with sad, wry smiles. I realised I had no idea how little idea I had.

We cannot use Mark 13 to illuminate, or construct,  our own personal apocalypse. We do not know the day or the hour. As my friend related the story of his involvement with such a group, it was clear their extended preparations made a farce of the text. They pretended to unattainable knowledge. They deeply insulted those who suffer; we who can stockpile food, and fortify our retreats, and dig slit trenches for cover, roofing them in, scarcely know the meaning of oppression and suffering. We are rich, and free, and have choices.

The other insult to those for whom apocalypse is a legitimate literature of hope, is that for us it becomes entertainment. We get a buzz from our secret knowledge. We enjoy our preparations, just as we enjoy our horror movies. We are comfortable people perverting the last hope of others into a kind of pornographic titillation, slumming it just as much as a starlet doing publicity shots in a refugee camp.

The hellfire preaching for which some long, is not just abusive of the weak. For many listening, it is entertainment, and even glories in hoped for suffering of others.

We cannot use apocalypse.

So, Apocalypse how?
Loader says of this text that the apocalyptic imagery is restrained. There is no encouragement--  in fact, we are discouraged from guessing dates and times (13:21). There is no surer sign of error than the claim to know the date; even Jesus does not know. (13:32) We are warned not to join the revolution; do not believe it. (21)

In fact, the apocalyptic imagery is so restrained, and so removed from our reality, that we often ignorantly describe the description of the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple as part of the “little apocalypse.” That part of the story it is simply a prophetic telling of what its author saw would  surely happen. It could be taken from many places in the Old Testament. It is not apocalypse at all, except perhaps for the reference in verse 14. It was responding to common suffering. We have no idea!

We only meet apocalyptic literature in the middle of the chapter, in verses 24 to 27. The “Son of Man coming in clouds” reference is to the book of Daniel, of course, but how restrained it is. No strange beasts, no goats and horns, no listing of kingdoms...

It is as though apocalypse is in the air; it must be referenced and acknowledged; it even points to some truth, but that Mark has severe reservations about what is being said and done. He is, as we say, distancing himself.

Even Mark, Bill says, is

at one remove from [the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He and his readers] ...  have time to gather and hear. Mark has had space to reflect and write. We can give ourselves a hard time about not being right there where it bleeds, but nor was Mark, nor probably most of his hearers. Mark even tones down the irrational tendencies to guess the end, plot the events. To his mind not even Jesus can do that. The mandate is then not to ignore what is happening in the world, but to think about it, to watch, to live in the light of it and in the light of the hope which is beyond it.

I’m feeling my way here, with an analogy:

In Australia, currently, there is a panic about boat people. Listening to politicians, in government and opposition, and the shock jocks, one would think we are being swamped by hordes of illegal immigrants coming on boats from Asia, “jumping the queue.” This lie is an unchallenged truth for many in Australia. Yet even the Murdoch press site  news.com.au, says today

Herald Sun investigation has found that nearly 60,000 people - one in every 390 - is in the country unlawfully, sparking renewed calls for a crackdown.....

And they dwarf the 4700 asylum seekers who arrived by boat in 2010-11.

Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria chairman Sam Afra said illegal residents attracted little of the outrage associated with boat people, despite taking jobs and housing, using public services, and not paying tax....

Australian Human Rights Commission president Catherine Branson, QC, said it was important to remember many more overstayed visas, or arrived by plane and sought asylum, than arrived by boat.

"Another misconception is that people who arrive by boat are illegal immigrants. Australia is obliged to assess asylum seekers' claims."...

Could staying awake, and being alert, and being faithful to Christ, mean being alert to “the bigger picture?” In Australia, we have great problems with justice and compassion, with employment, with mental health, and simply being decent.  We cannot talk about these things without talking about the refugees who come on boats, but the boat people are not the issue. Our problem, our big issue, is fear for our security, and much of it is justified. What will happen to my house and mortgage if I cannot get more work? What will happen to my job if the economy collapses? What will happen if the obscenely rich keep getting richer?

The ruling powers-that-be protect themselves from our fears by channelling them into a misplaced hatred of boat people, who are no threat to us. Are we awake to this?

Be alert if you wish to be faithful to Christ. There is fear to be faced, and there are strategies to be devised. But to base them on racism and greed; to exploit the fears with popularist policies to stay elected, or feather our nests, is not discipleship. And if we small people in the suburbs, are not awake to this, and follow the Bolts and the Abbots, we are just as much a failure to Christ in his hour of need, as those disciples who slept in the garden.

In the same way as all this, we cannot talk about the Christ in our time without reference to a son of man coming in the clouds, (13:26) but the day is not the issue. There is something more important, and that is watchfulness, or staying awake.

The Open Gospel of Mark
Let us come back to Mark. He understood very clearly that resurrection cannot be defined, and placed in print. He leaves us without a resurrection story.

Australian scholar Alan Cadwallader suggests we must supply our own. All through the gospel, however, Mark gives us hints of resurrection. Jesus keeps “raising people up” in Mark, which is language of resurrection. We are invited to develop this; to tinker with it, to discover our own resurrection.

Thinking from a seminar Alan gave earlier this year, I see the church has always supplied its own ending to the gospel. There are at least four well-known specific endings to Mark itself (see Wikipedia for a summary), but Matthew and Luke actually supply an ending. They are in a sense commentary on Mark; Mark’s gospel for their time and place.

Is this openness restricted only to matters of resurrection?

I think the whole gospel of Mark is an open gospel. It is not a fixed text; a piece of Apple or Microsoft software which we are forbidden to alter, or to which we may not add. It is “open source.” It expects us to tinker, and adjust stuff for our situation, whilst maintaining the integrity of the program. It asks of us, “How will you live? How will you remain awake? How will you develop the story of Jesus in your time and place?”

Mark is already doing this. Jesus clearly expected the end soon. And Mark agrees. One like a Son of Man will come from the Ancient of Days, and gather his elect. But Mark is already stepping back; that is all he says, except be watchful, be awake. Mark has seen already that perhaps this “coming” is not as was expected.

Will we stick slavishly to the text, following the Microsoft Way, or will we follow Mark, and Jesus before him, who took the traditions about God, and wove them into the realities of their own times? Is it not clear that Jesus is not soon coming back; that is, the imagery of Daniel is not a literal description someone will film on their mobile phone? Is it not our time to say this?

How will I live now? Mark was not written to foretell the end of the world.  It was written for people living in a here and now, and expecting that now to continue for some time. There are 15 chapters devoted to that, and only mere verses dealing with the end.

How will I live now? By staying awake; the day of the Lord is now.

I have no expectation that one like a son of man will come riding on the clouds in this year of Mark. I do expect wars and rumours of wars. I expect to see shoots soft and promising on fig trees, and also other old venerable trees begin to wither. I expect temptations to follow causes which seem to offer hope for the world, but which are not of Christ. There will be messiahs offering me a discipleship, and new ideas, but they will not be Him. People will extol their virtues to me, and publishing houses and bookshops will urge me to buy their wares.

My calling is to open the gospel of Mark; and to be awake and watchful. I am to discern the spirits of the year, and to speak justice and compassion generated from the words of Jesus which Mark brings me. I have already told you everything; he said (13:23).

I have not finished pondering hese words from Bill Loader:

People who have the time and space to articulate and reflect on what is going on in the oppression of people whose suffering most often renders them inarticulate have a crucial role for change in the world. Watchful living has less to do with speculation about the end of the world and more to do with carrying out our trust, as Mark illustrates it, in a way that finally makes the date of the end a matter of irrelevance.

However, I clearly see that the open gospel of Mark calls us to move on from  worrying about that day of the lord to concern for this one today. Will I remain awake and speak out the words of the gospel of Jesus? Will I live them out?

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!




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