The Lectionary Readings:
Mark 13:1-8 (The "Little Apocalypse" of Mark)
1 Samuel 2:1-10
In our first reading, Samuel the prophet has been born. His mother Hannah prayed and said,
My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God…
So we get the impression that God is the greatest and that's no surprise in any prayer in any religion. But then we hear something different:
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.
He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and on them he has set the world.
We are told of a God who is for the ordinary person, who in Hannah's day was poor. God was not a justification for the rich and mighty but, in fact, called them to account.
In the Gospel of Luke Mary the mother of Jesus loosely quotes Hannah when she sings� The Magnificat. The message there is that Jesus is another, greater Samuel, and that still, God is a God for the poor and for justice.�
If we are rich on the backs of the poor, and do not live for justice, we should quake in our boots.
Then we come to the reading in Mark 13:1-8
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, 'Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!' Then Jesus asked him, 'Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.'
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 'Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?' Then Jesus began to say to them, 'Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!" and they will lead many astray. 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.
I was in Melbourne earlier this year down at the bottom of Swanston Street. I stood in the magnificence of the Federation Square with its shiny buildings. Across the street was St Paul's Anglican Cathedral. (Next to it was another building of spires and gothic architecture which I first thought was part of the church. I thought for awhile about the logo on the building: VECCI. Then I "got it:" Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry! That's an irony.) Further along was the Flinders Street Station and up the hill, all the glory and vibrancy of retail Melbourne.
You can have a moment when you marvel at such splendour, and you can also have a chilling moment when you see through it all, and see how transitory and impermanent human endeavour is. It can all come to nothing… like that old statue in the desert….
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
You could stand at the bottom of Swanson Street and have a moment of seeing ruins, overgrown and bleak, with no one left… perhaps a few rats in the rubble. And wonder for your grandchildren... or even your own future... which is already the present of many in Kabul and Baghdad.
The scene Jesus and the disciples were looking at was all destroyed only 40 years later, (and then utterly destroyed again another 40 years on.) Many people thought the first destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was the end of things But Mark's gospel makes it clear that it was only the birth pangs! As we read further in this part of Mark we see that this first destruction of Jerusalem is put into Jesus mouth to tell people it was only part of the birth pangs… there will be more destruction.
Many people of Jesus time understood the world to be so evil that in the end God would have to destroy it all and start again. Jesus seems to have believed this too. His followers, who lived after the destruction of Jerusalem and expected worse to come were confident that they would be rescued by God and kept safe if they remained alert and faithful.
In our own times of wondering if all the earth is going to ruin, with more rumours of war and missing nuclear weapons, and lying, expedient politicians, perhaps there is a word to us in the readings from Mark and Samuel.
When we stand and wonder what is the point of everything, and have those visions of how puny and transitory, or how senseless and unfair all our so-called human achievements are… there is a message. It is that the thing we call God… the Divine which is at the root of all things... is real and is here. When we have felt the presence of the Divine… when we have "felt the love of God and been at one with God"… it has been a sign to us that somehow the transitory, the unjust, and the terrible nature of reality, is something that we are in and yet also beyond. The Divine is greater than these. And the Divine which has touched us somehow sets us free from those things. It calls us, and allows us, and empowers us to set our own course through the injustice and terror of the world, and still seek to live well and in love. We can live, not in the temporary power of an Ozymandias, nor in the oppression of his slaves, but in the presence and power of the Divine which, and "who," is always there for us.
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.
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