“And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”
“As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’…Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Mark Chapter 13
Sounds eerily familiar. Open your web browser, turn on your TV news outlet, or if you are an old fogey like me, open the morning paper, and much of what you find is the kind of stuff Jesus appears to be talking about: wars, earthquakes, hurricanes, buildings and institutions once thought to be eternal come tumbling down, false prophets abound (disguised as politicians, terrorists, economists, pollsters, news readers, entertainers, talk-show hosts and what-not!).
Taken uncritically at face value, Jesus can be made to appear to be addressing our current situation – which in a sense he is. Taken historically, he was describing the situation on the ground at the time of the Roman Military Occupation of Israel. Looked at from a historical-critical viewpoint, Mark appears to be writing at a time shortly after the First Jewish Revolt against the Empire – the Temple, viewed as the center of the universe, that place where God’s finger holds the world together, is already in ruins having been razed by the Roman Legions.
Undoubtedly the thirteenth chapter of Mark is one of the more problematic texts in the Bible. Often called “The Little Apocalypse,” it has baffled modern readers over the past 150 years or so, giving rise to such things as billboard campaigns announcing the end of times on a particular day and time.
Even as an undergrad, we were urged, by Dr. John Gettier, to read the Bible as history, theology and literature. Literature. Understanding the Bible not as a book, let alone The Book, but as a collection of books, a one volume library if you will, one discovers that there are a number of different literary genres represented in this remarkable collection of now ancient texts. Apocalyptic is one genre alongside narrative, non-fiction, poetry, songs, aphorisms, gospels, letters, to name only a few. When one does the difficult work of reading Jewish Apocalyptic literature in this collection of books we call The Bible one thing becomes evident: apocalyptic literature is not meant to be predictive in any way. Rather, texts like this thirteenth chapter of Mark are addressed to a people who are experiencing some sort of political, social, and/or economic pressures – people who are in need of two things; a reminder and hope.
The reminder is that our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus has been with us in the past. The hope is that our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus is with us right now in the midst of the current travail and dislocation.
It all starts out with a question about when the Temple will be destroyed (which Jesus simply answers, Only God knows), and a question about when the “the Son of Man” will return (“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”). Which raises the legitimate question: exactly what Bible are all those people who predict the date and time of the Second Coming reading? Obviously not the Gospel of Mark!
The rest of chapter 13 is addressed to all Christians throughout all time in somewhat coded but very direct language: Beware…Do not be alarmed…Do not worry…Be alert…Stay Awake. This essentially means, do not be distracted by all this other stuff – others will, but you are to be on guard against whatever may distract you from being faithful to Jesus. And, oh yes, you are to proclaim the good news everywhere.
Douglas R. A. Hare, in his commentary, Mark (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY:1996), points to the heart of this discourse in verse 9 (“As to yourselves, beware…”NRSV), but urges us to return to the King James translation: “But take heed to yourselves.”
“That is,” writes Hare, “the object of the verb ‘beware,’ the same verb as in verse 5, is not an external threat, such as deceivers or persecutors, but oneself! The warning may be paraphrased: ‘As for you, constantly be on your guard against your own weakness. External events have no power to compel you to be unfaithful; disloyalty comes from within.’” (p.170)
Talk about a text that for very different reasons than those assumed appears to address our current situation today! We live in a culture awash with excuses and finger pointing at any and every external circumstance blamed for whatever it is we do not like. It is always somebody or something else’s fault: the other side of the aisle, the liberal media, the conservative echo chamber, the economy, unchecked militarism, Super Storm Sandy, the utility companies, earthquakes, wind and fire. Rarely are we urged to look within ourselves. Rarely are do we take the time to “take heed to ourselves.”
Like the Buddha some 600 years before him, Jesus asserts: yes, everything is changing; nothing stays the same – not the Temple, not the current persecution, not the Empire – nothing. He also joins the Buddha in declaring that the life of faith, the life of the Spirit, quite simply life itself, is an undertaking that demands intense self-effort. As odd as it sounds, to Stay Awake is more difficult than it sounds. The Reverend Frederick Shriver, professor of Church History at General Theological Seminary always reminded us that we tend to spend much of our lives sleepwalking – lulled into a constant state of Unawareness. This sleepwalking is induced by our preoccupation with disasters of all kinds, which in turn dulls our senses and sensibility and distracts us from life that is true life. It is so easy to get wrapped up in tearing down the other side, whether it is the Roman Empire, or Democrats and Republicans, parties within and without the Church, natural disasters, man-made disasters, and what-not. Why not? Who wants to do the hard work of looking within ourselves? Who wants to spend time examining our own weaknesses?
Look at Facebook, or Twitter, or the Blogosphere – listen to the radio, watch the television, cruise the Internet – how easy it is to be bludgeoned into a somnambulant state of perpetual sleepwalking through life! Not to mention a perpetual state of grumpiness!
Spiritual leaders, teachers, around the world and throughout time urge us:
Wake Up! Be Aware! (Anthony de Mello, Jesuit priest and psychotherapist)
Breathe. Smile. Live in the Present Moment. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk)
We spend most of our lives conjugating three verbs, To Want, To Have, To Do, when we know all of these verbs have no meaning outside the verb, To Be. (Evelyn Underhill, English mystic)
Being must precede Doing. (Gordon Cosby, Church of the Saviour, Washington, D.C.)
Beware…Do not be alarmed…Do not worry…Be alert…Stay Awake. (Jesus, The Little Apocalypse)
Jesus, and all these others, means to give us Hope despite our living in a world that rarely gives evidence that such Hope is justified. To sustain such Hope is in fact hard work – it requires intense self-effort, and a commitment to look within ourselves so that we might develop the inner resources to Stay Awake. Such commitment to such religious behavior is often viewed and touted as our duty. We must not see this as our duty, but our privilege. We are privileged to be counted among those people who take Being a People of Hope seriously and with great Joy. Others may be satisfied being sleepwalkers and grumps – but not us! Our God has been with us in the past, and is with us in the here and now. If only we will wake up and welcome him into our lives! Amen.