First Sunday of Advent, Year B
This reflection also appears in The Witness, a magazine that's been an Anglican voice for justice since 1917, and also happens to be my new employer. Please do visit there regularly; reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary readings appear there every week, along with compelling news and commentary from around the world.
Sometimes I wish that Mark 13 came, like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, with a cover bearing the large-type friendly admonition, “DON'T PANIC.”
Yes, I know it can be a pretty scary chapter — especially the parts our lectionary leaves out. It starts with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It continues with images of war, earthquake, and famine, of family members betraying one another, of great suffering. But don't forget that in verses 30-31, Mark says very clearly and emphatically that these things are NOT predictions of doom in the distant future: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” And as Malina and Rohrbaugh point out, that even gets backed up with an oath in very strong terms indeed: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
The truly frightening stuff described in Mark 13 is, for Mark's readers, not a prediction to frighten future generations, but words of comfort for a generation that used this vivid language, the language of nightmares mixed with literal retellings of the kinds of betrayal and threats facing community members, to describe what they'd already seen brothers and sisters in Christ going through. Jesus went around calling women and slaves and sons alike to follow him, and leaving out any hint that they need to get someone else's permission to do so. His followers after his resurrection called him “lord” or “master,” suggesting that others who wanted to claim that title need not apply. That's not the kind of thing you can say — let alone a way of life you can live — without getting in trouble, and so Christians were dragged before local authorities, sometimes by members of their own family. Furthermore, war was on the horizon, if not already happening — the Jewish Revolt of 66 - 70 A.D., the war that would bring the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, an abomination causing desolation to match Antiochus Epiphanies' desecration of the Holy of Holies in the Maccabean Revolt a century and a half earlier.
That's the bad news, and that's the stuff that the community didn't particularly need to be told. They knew it already. Under those circumstances, a person who just danced up and said some first-century Greek equivalent of “don't worry — be happy” would be more likely to get a sock in the jaw than to succeed in encouraging listeners. When people are going through that kind of pain, you've got to acknowledge that pain, that grief, the seriousness of the obstacles before saying, and not seeming flip:
Yes, there is serious pain in the world, in your community. There are wars and rumors of wars. There's strife within families, and even within the family of faith, those called to be one in Christ. And God's name is profaned, used as a political prop to assert power over the powerless — an abomination to those for whom God's name is the name of one who feeds the hungry, lifts up the lowly, frees the prisoner. The first readers of the Gospel According to Mark knew that as well or better than we do. So when you see these things happening, don't think it's a sign that the kingdom of God Jesus promised is late in coming or has been derailed.
A community that saw Nero's power come and go has another word for us. Heaven and earth will pass away before Jesus' words will pass away. We don't know the day or hour, but we know that God is faithful, and Jesus' resurrection from the dead is a sign to us as it was to Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, Mark's community, and our own wounded communities: Jesus is coming, and God's kingdom, inaugurated with Jesus' ministry, is being revealed, finding fulfillment.
Yes, I know that there are people who want to say that the Day of the Lord should inspire terror, but we know something that they don't seem to realize: the person we call Lord is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, who taught and healed, who welcomed the outcast and broke bread with anyone willing to eat with him. It's Jesus, whose way of life and manner of death underscored what his words taught: love your enemies. When we know Jesus, the Jesus of the gospels, we know that God is love, and love drives out fear.
So don't panic. Panic, like sleep, keeps a person from watching and listening, from the ability to respond to another person, and with that, the ability to love. Don't panic when someone tells you about suffering in the present or suffering to come: keep watch, and respond with love. Don't nod off when the comforts of life in one of the richest nations of the world try to lull you into complacency: keep watch, and respond with love. There will be earthquakes and wars and famines, as well as more personal catastrophes of betrayal, but there is nothing that can derail this train, so people, get ready:
Jesus is here, and Jesus is coming.
Thanks be to God!
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This reflection refreshes my studies of the NT. The Gospel of Mark is primarily written for the persecuted church and there is every reason for the writer to be alarmed of wars and rumors of wars and in view of these, we can allude that the writer intends to calm down the nerves of Christians during that time.
What is disturbing in our modern world is that Christianity is associated with the aggression of powerful countries who happened to be the best articulators of the Christian faith. Modern day Christians are fully aware of the dynamics of the geopolitics. It is only when the poor Christians around the world would live out the values of the parousia that they can be vigilant, not panicked, but consciously respond in love. Thanks be to God.
Posted by: Francisco J. Hernando | Nov 25, 2005 7:09:06 AM
I had a warm feeling for you and Karen seeing both of your by-lines on the same page at The Witness. It must be an awesome feeling for you as well. I hope we get to read and see more of you two together.
God bless you and what you do for His service.
Posted by: Joel | Nov 25, 2005 11:48:41 AM
Hey Dylan, i am grateful tyo God for how He is using you for the expansion of his kingdom. i am a student of united missionary theological college iIlorin in Nigeria west Africa. i have read some of your articles and they have been a blessing to me.
Posted by: Joshua Marcus Rikoto | Apr 24, 2010 1:45:38 PM
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