SUNDAY SCHEDULE
9:30AM Sunday School
11AM & 7PM Worship

2203 San Antonio St.
Austin, TX 78705

Good News for Bad Times

San Williams

November 18, 2012
Mark 13:1-8

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

We’re in that time of year when the lectionary draws our attention to what’s known as the apocalyptic portions of scripture. Today’s reading is taken from the thirteenth chapter of Mark, a chapter sometimes called the “Little Apocalypse.” To be honest, these strange texts are not my favorites. They feel different, look different and sound different.  Typically, they picture a cosmic struggle between good and evil, and they contain troubling visions of things collapsing, falling apart, coming to an end. Actually, the word apocalypse doesn’t mean “the end.” Rather it means “to reveal, to unveil, to disclose.” So as we enter this strange world of apocalypse, let’s open our minds to hear what the Spirit reveals to people who live in angst-ridden times.

Now some of you in the congregation are well versed in biblical studies. Apocalyptic writings are familiar, and you’ve studied how this style of writing appears in such places as the book of Daniel, Mark chapter 13, and most notably in the book of Revelation.  But  this peculiar genre of biblical literature may be new to others of you.  So let me take just a few minutes to give you some background.

Apocalyptic literature is a style or genre of Jewish and Christian writings that first appeared about 250 B.C., and continued well into the New Testament period. This style of writing popped up during times of great oppression, national disgrace, theological crisis. The Book of Daniel, for example, was written during the cruel oppression of Antiochus Epiphanes, around 167 B.C., when the Jewish Temple had been desecrated by pagan sacrifices performed on the Temple Altar, and the Jewish practice of circumcision outlawed.  In other words, the very symbols of their faith were taken from them or destroyed. The language of apocalypse became a way of speaking to the community of faith in the very worst of times. Its purpose was to reassure people that the current state of affairs, no matter how grim, would not be the final state of affairs.  The implicit message of biblical apocalypse was:  God will prevail. Evil will be defeated.  The world will be redeemed.

Now in the thirteenth chapter of his Gospel, Mark incorporates this apocalyptic style of writing. In the verses we read this morning, Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple.  Then he warns the disciples not to be alarmed when various kinds of cataclysmic events occur.  From the perspective of Jesus and the four disciples on the Mount of Olives, all the events referred to in today’s reading lie in the future.  But from the perspective of Mark and the first readers of this text, Jesus’ predictions about the collapse of the Temple and other devastating events were a present reality.  Mark’s community was living through the terrible Jewish/Roman wars that began in 66 A.D. and led to the total destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Thus the events Jesus mentions—the destruction of the Temple, the emergence of messianic pretenders, wars and rumors of war—all these were engulfing and threatening Mark’s community of disciples. So in such a time of calamity, Mark employed the language of apocalypse to help them better hear and understand the words of Jesus, “Do not be alarmed by these things…the end is not yet…this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.”  Like other apocalyptic portions of scripture, Mark uses this style of writing to speak a word of comfort to people living through a terribly difficult time.

But how does this apocalyptic way of speaking sound to us today?  While our times are not to be equated with the calamitous period endured by Christians in Mark’s day, it is interesting how apocalypse has re-emerged as a prevalent theme in the modern imagination.  Movie critic Paul Harris, writing for The Observer, noted how pervasive apocalyptic themes have become in recent years.  “From art-house films to animation to popcorn blockbuster, destroying the world has never been more in vogue.  Directors and movie studios are clambering over one another to see who can create the most dystopian and destructive vision of the near future.”  Of course, apocalyptic themes also appear on television shows, in books, and in video games   In fact, so many apocalyptic games are coming on the market this year that one article on gaming declared the year 2012 as “The Year of Apocalypse.” Some suggest that the proliferation of apocalyptic themes in our culture is triggered by the fact that the world is changing so quickly, and the future so uncertain. Given our modern angst about the future, perhaps it’s not surprising that so much artistic expression takes the form of apocalypse.

Yet here’s an observation:  Unless I’m mistaken, while these modern expressions of apocalypse do represent our wide-spread anxiety, they don’t offer any vision of the future other than dystopia. If there is a glimmer of inspiration in current apocalyptic movies, it usually comes through the courage of a hero or heroine, who manages to survive whatever destruction is being presented. Yet beyond entertainment and heroic struggle, our deeper need to embrace a vision of hope that gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

And that’s why biblical apocalyptic passages speak to us in ways that our cultural entertainments do not. Take today’s passage from Mark.  Jesus acknowledges the extent to which collapse and disasters of one kind or another threaten to undo us.  But then he affirms that what may appear to be a world in its death-throes is actually a world undergoing the birth-pangs of new beginning.  That image of birth-pangs will be more real to some of you than to others.  But we can all appreciate how in childbirth the experience of excruciating pain is followed by the blessing of new life and great joy.  You may have seen the charming movie titled “The Last Exotic Marigold Hotel,” in which one character says to another, “Don’t worry, everything will be okay in the end.  If everything is not okay, then it’s not the end.”