For Lent, we’ve been intertwining two different paths. We’re going through the gospel of Mark as Jesus prepares for his death and resurrection, and we’re also remembering the suffering that happens in our lives and in our world.
Last week, what text does Mel get to preach about? On love being the greatest commandment, and of the widow giving her pennies at the temple.
This week, what text do I get to preach about? The apocalypse and the second coming of Jesus. Not that I’m bitter or anything…
First of all, Mark chapter 13 is strange and weird and something that doesn’t make a lot of sense. In actuality, we could skip the entire chapter, and the entire story of Jesus would make still make sense.
So why is it there?
Well, since you’ve been listening to me preach for almost 6 years now, hopefully you know that the first question we ask about hard biblical texts is, “Why was this written down?”
Mark 13 is a genre called apocalyptic literature. There are a variety of ways to approach apocalyptic literature, with some of them a bit more helpful than others.
(But before I begin, I do want to remind us that our unity isn’t based on us agreeing on how to interpret apocalyptic literature. Our unity is based on us being a community of Jesus followers coming together and trying to love God and love our neighbours.)
I’ll start by saying what I think apocalyptic literature isn’t.
Apocalyptic literature isn’t a literal prediction of the future. It’s not a sequence of events to come. If you take the text literally, I see how some of us end up there, but then that leads to all sorts of interesting ideas about Jesus and the end of the world.
For example, some of us were taught about something called “the rapture”, where all the Christians leave this world and the rest of the world has to suffer through trials and tribulations for several years on Earth til Jesus comes again.
“It’s like all the Christians leave the Earth and get box seats in heaven from which to watch all the bad people on Earth suffer.” – Nadia Bolz-Weber
Some of us might even be familiar with the movie from the 70’s called “A Thief in the Night”, where this exact thing happens, and proceeded to scare and scar an entire generation of Christians into not wanting to be left behind. Or, if they came home from school and Mom wasn’t there, them thinking that they were left behind.
This train of thought can be more or less attributed to a guy named John Nelson Darby from the UK in the mid-1800’s. And almost 200 years later, some of us still believe it.
Why? As the author Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “This fear-mongering stuff sells like hot cakes. People eat it up. And why wouldn’t we? It panders to the selfish, hateful, vengeful-seeking parts of ourselves, like God himself is co-signing on it all.”
So, if treating apocalyptic literature as literal future events that is really just fueling our selfish and vengeful egos, is there a better way to approach apocalyptic literature?
Well, this is how I treat it.
“First of all, apocalyptic literature is style of ancient writing that was usually code for speaking about the world the people at the time live in: they were for people in politically dangerous situations to speak the truth about power – they were more commentary than prediction.” Nadia Bolz-Weber. It would kind of be like us in 2016 writing an epic story of good and evil and power and what happens when a raging lunatic gets a hold of the most powerful weapon in the universe, and us calling it Star Wars. And then, in the year 4016, humans would dig up the remains of our houses and find a copy of Star Wars, and then they would start exploring the universe looking for Wookies.
A commentary on good and evil and the possible destruction when big weapons fall into the hands of the wrong people? Very compelling and real.
Wookies and Ewoks and Jedi Knights? Not so much.
So, what’s the commentary of Mark 13? Well, the first few verses are about the temple being destroyed by the Romans, which, we now know happened around the same time as the gospel of Mark was written. The sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans left huge buildings nothing but piles of rubble and dust. It was the ultimate destruction.
And who was the gospel of Mark written to? A small band of misfit, powerless Christians being persecuted and killed by the Roman Empire. And Jesus tells them to not be afraid, for even though heaven and earth will pass, his words never will.
Often, apocalyptic literature is code. It uses metaphors and symbols to describe the present reality of the readers. Nowadays, we just fly drones to take videos of cities that have been leveled. But back then they used apocalyptic literature.
Secondly, apocalyptic literature served as a reminder to be awake, to be on guard. Some os us take that metaphor as a bit of a threat, a warning, that you’d better be ready for when Jesus comes back so as to not be left behind. It portrays Jesus like an angry parent who has returned home from their vacation a day early and finds that their kids threw when they were gone. Oh man, you’ve been bad, and now you’re going to get it.
Actually, “the word apocalypse actually means “uncovering” or “disclosure” or “unveiling.” It’s about things being exposed for what they truly are…a true apocalypse, then, wasn’t something to be feared or dreaded but something to be anticipated and celebrated as evil is crushed and violence ended and injustice brought to an end as God makes all things right.” – Rob Bell
So watching out and being on guard aren’t only negative actions, but could also be positive ones. If we throw a house party when our parents are away, and a bunch of strangers show up and start snorting cocaine in the basement, watching and waiting for your parents could be seen as a good thing.
There’s one other thing that apocalyptic literature does. It’s an attempt to place our own experiences, our own joys, our own sufferings, into a bigger picture. It sees our own earthly stories as part of a bigger story. This kind of “apocalyptic literature stems from a worldview that believes that everything happening on earth represents and correlates with a larger, heavenly struggle between good and evil, between God and the devil. By casting these stories in a larger, cosmic framework and in this way gives comfort to people who are currently suffering or being oppressed.” – David Lose
And, as we know, the first readers of the Gospel of Mark were suffering and oppressed, so any reminder of God’s love, any reminder of God winning in the end, was probably well received. Some of this apocalyptic literature can be read as stories of hope.
Last year I came across a great definition of despair: Despair is when we believe that tomorrow won’t be any better than today. Despair is when we believe that tomorrow will be the same as today.
When times are good, and life is humming along, it’s easy to believe that tomorrow will be better. Even little Annie Orphan believes that tomorrow will be better than today.
But in hard times? That’s a harder sell. In Lent so far, we’ve heard stories of depression and anxiety and mental health, we’ve heard stories of surgeries after babies, and stories of insomnia. In those times, it’s hard for us to be hopeful, it’s hard to believe that tomorrow will be better, it’s hard for us to believe that God makes all things right.
Apparently some people throughout history have needed apocalyptic literature to remind themselves about hope. Others of us nowadays might find hope in places other than apocalyptic literature, such as a walk outside with some friends, a good cup of coffee, or some warm weather in March (But if the world’s superpower was actively killing us and destroying our cities, we may need something more than sunshine and coffee.)
But when we place our own stories inside of a bigger story in order to give us hope… maybe we’re not that far away from understanding apocalyptic literature after all.