The Gospel of Mark begins with the promise of a great victory. The word Gospel, was itself a word for victory in Jesus time. If you imagine the newspaper boys of Jesus' time standing on the street corners crying out, "Gospel! Gospel! Caesar wins great victory in Gaul… gospel…" you've got the idea.
Jesus called this victory— this gospel— the kingdom of God come near. (1:15) It came in living for one's neighbour, and in serving others. It had a strong critique of imperial rule and exploitative power. Jesus stood firmly in the tradition of Amos, and Micah, and Hosea.
There's evidence that Mark was first disseminated by dramatic readings— even plays— in public places. And when it hit the streets, 30 years after Jesus' death, everyone knew he had been killed. Everyone knew Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans— or, if it had not, that it was only a matter of time before this happened.
So here is Mark, producing a drama right as Jerusalem falls… and calling it a gospel— a great victory— just as Rome was in the process of wiping out the Jewish rebels who had proclaimed freedom!? What is that about? How is that… victory?
Well, the key to understanding all this is to recognise that Mark 13 is a literary trope. That is, it’s distinctive a type of story that everyone at the time recognised. It was the kind of story you told when everything was terrible, and it seemed like God had gone missing, and abandoned the people. It said that despite all appearances, God was still working on the side of the chosen people of God.
Literalistic interpreters from our time often think this literature is predicting the future— our future. That is a complete misunderstanding. Mark 13 was about then. It was saying that then…even though Jerusalem was about to be flattened, or already had been destroyed, God was still involved and would put things right.
So what's Mark doing when he writes this gospel? Is he whistling in the dark?
If we read Mark with literal eyes, it does seem like whistling in the dark… and a denial of the obvious.
But if we read Mark with literary eyes— if we read it as story and drama— then it can crack open our interpretive categories and our consciousness, and enable us to see a new reality.
Let's look at the drama of the gospel… as if we were tuning into the emotions of a stage play or a movie.
It begins with an anti-imperialist, idealistic ethic of loving one's neighbour. It sounds like every idealistic left wing uni student since there was a left wing— only even more idealistic than them. It's wonderful stuff, but anyone with brains knows it will be a shipwreck when it hits the reefs of reality.
Mark even hints at this in the story: Jesus would "undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed…" he tells us— three times. (Mark 8:31)
And the movie hits the theatres— so to speak— just as Jerusalem is done for. Understand what I am saying here: We can imagine some Hollywood director making one of those triumphalist "Rambo flicks" where the heroes pull off some audacious victory over Islamist forces in the Middle East… and it hits the theatres on September 9, 2001… Geddit…? … What a box office disaster to release a movie like that, just then…
But Mark doesn't have an unfortunate coincidence wreck his movie release. Mark does this on purpose….
To recognise the shock of this, we need to recognise that we safe and secure Australians cannot easily appreciate the impact of the fall of Jerusalem on Mark's people: the old traditions said Jerusalem could not be defeated— it was a in the foundations of people's world view.
It would be like the shock of Dunkirk... with invasion a few days later, and London under Nazi control, and the King dead, and the two princesses missing. And the Japanese already on the outskirts of Sydney. It was the end of everything.
And so, as we watch, there is a great irony being developed. In the movie, Jesus is going into Jerusalem on what he knows is a lost cause… and we're going to see Jerusalem do what it always does to the prophets, and kill him.
And then Mark throws in the horrific subplot, which we call Chapter 13, about his present political situation with the promise of worse to come: "this is but the beginning of the birth pangs," he says.
And it gets worse…
because… a few minutes later… the movie of Mark ends with no one seeing the resurrected Jesus! The endings of Mark in most English bible translations are much later additions to his text— people could not stand the uncertainty, and challenge, and emotional discomfort, of having only an empty tomb as witness to the resurrection. So they made up endings and added them on!
But in what many now consider was the original production, so to speak, there was an empty tomb and three terrified women who, for a while, at least, said nothing to anyone.
What do you do when you're sitting in the dark at the end of a movie like that!? What do you do when you've been slammed by the loss of Jerusalem; the destruction of the centre of your whole world!? What do you do when even the person the story itself says is the Messiah, loses faith and cries out, "My God, my God! Why have you abandoned me?"
We get to write our own ending to the movie. Perhaps we even get to write… our resurrection story! He's tipped us into a great pot of conflicting hope and despair… of high ideals and political realities… where we must sink or swim. There is no standing back and observing life at a distance, here.
We can put up the walls. We can try to make life safe. We can do our best to make sure we don't get caught in the Jerusalems of our day. But it will be a life where the wagons are always in a circle. The high waters of life will always threaten us.
Or we can be like the old man— nearly 90— who spoke up in bible study last week. "All this stuff about Jerusalem," he said. "It was nothing special. There's never been a time when this was not happening somewhere. "This is how life is."
He's right. This is how life is. Life is under siege. There is always a Jerusalem. We were always going to die. There is no fairy tale ending. To pretend otherwise is to chase after the wind… or as other parts of the Book of Ecclesiastes put it: it's a vanity.
Mark is suggesting that instead of living life cowering behind the walls, we could be like Jesus and walk on into the city that is being destroyed, and which will probably destroy us.
We can be like the widow from last week— she's a reflection of Jesus himself— and give what the Greek text calls "her whole life," even though it will— apparently— make no difference to anything, and the city will still be destroyed.
It's this kind of giving, this kind of trust— also known as faith— this kind of wholesale stepping into life… says Jesus,
that restores people's sight,
and makes them well. (10:52)
It's a call to hear the singing of angels
to be seduced by hope of deep goodness
to trust that the hints of glory
which come from our poor loving
really are the beginnings of resurrection.
This is how life is… and can be. Amen