So I spent the first three days of this week trapped in various conference rooms, surrounded by bishops, priests, and deacons, which sounds like about as much fun as it was. On Tuesday evening, our presenter, a lovely man who I’ve known since seminary, made us break into groups of nine, gave us three sheets of paper, four paper plates, four Styrofoam cups, three pieces of spaghetti, and some tape, and challenged us to build a five-foot tower using just those things. I no longer like that man at all. On Wednesday morning, the hotel stopped serving us coffee at 9am, just as I was readying myself to present on the work I’ve been doing with Calvary Flemington. I started wondering if we were living in the end times, those times of persecution and unspeakable horror we’ve just heard about in our lessons.
If we’re honest, the three readings we get today in our lectionary are not particularly fun; they’re hard to hear, and make it sound like there’s not much to look forward to. I guess we shouldn’t expect the end of the world to be a soft subject, nothing but kittens and featherbeds, but I don’t like hearing about having to flee to the mountains any more than anyone else does. And that, for all intents and purposes, is the message of Jesus in Mark 13.
This section of Mark chapter 13 is called the “Little Apocalypse” in biblical scholarship, because it deals with the end of the world, or at least what leads up to the end of the world as we know it. That’s what the word apocalypse means to us: we use it in reference to any large catastrophic event or situation, to describe anything that seems to tear the world down around us.
But that’s not technically what an apocalypse is. The word itself is Greek – apokalypsis – which literally means “an uncovering”. An apocalypse is a revealing, a disclosure of knowledge. The last book of the Bible, the Revelation of Jesus Christ to John, could be called the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ the John, and surely that’s what the Greek Orthodox Church calls it to this day.
Mark was not alone in containing apocalyptic writing – in fact, there’s a whole genre of biblical writing that we call Apocalyptic Literature. Daniel is the most famous writer in the genre, but there are many others who wrote down things that were revealed to them, revealed by an angel perhaps, or by some other spiritual experience. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Mark, John, and Paul all told of something that they had seen that could only be seen if it was revealed to them by God.
Such revelations are important, of course, and we should pay attention to such things. But paying attention to these things is different than spending way too much time trying to figure out what they all mean. People have been searching for clues within the apocalyptic writings since they were written: what did Daniel mean when he wrote that the desolation would be for a time, two times, and half a time? How long is a time? When will that time come? What did Jesus mean by the desolating sacrilege? When will the tribulation begin? False Christs? What does it all mean?
Well, for the record, I don’t know, and neither does anybody else, really. The fact is, we’ve all seen sacrilege that’s caused desolation. We’ve all seen tribulation and we’ve all seen people claim to be a savior and sometime to be the Savior Himself. Does that mean we’re in the end times? I don’t know.
What I do know is that both Daniel and Jesus (and Paul in the other lesson) are less concerned with how we’re all going to die than with how we’re all going to live. So what does that look like in the context of today’s apocalyptic theme? Jesus gives us the answer.
First, he tells us to place our trust in no one and nothing else besides him, and, second, he tells us to keep up our guard. First — watch out who you trust. If you look to anyone or anything else besides Jesus to be your messiah, to meet all your needs, you’ll be disappointed.
And, second, we are to always be on guard. The Greek word in verse 23 is actually “See” — Jesus says “Look! Open your eyes!” Jesus will come back someday to judge, and we are to watch for him so that he will not find us sleeping but awake, aware, alert, ready to do his will when he calls our names.”
The end times will come – creation had a beginning and will have an end – but that end is truly just the beginning, the beginning of God’s perfect reign, the time when His people will be delivered from this world of tribulation and desolation, the time when all things shall be revealed.
Fr. Sammy Wood