Twenty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
Year B, RCL
November 18, 2018
North Fork Ministries
As Jesus 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."
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" 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 rumors 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 birthpangs."
This morning’s gospel reading from Mark is part of a passage commonly known among Biblical scholars as “The Little Apocalypse” – Mark and the Little Apocalypse… sounds like a group we might invite to play at Saturday North Fork Evensong Project. As we examine this apocalyptic vision presented in Mark, I would like for you to keep in mind three distinctly different audiences for these words of Christ. First: Jesus’ disciples - Peter, James, John, and Andrew who listened to Jesus as he sat outside the Temple. Second: the 1st century Christians addressed in Mark’s gospel during the time it was written a few decades later.
And third: Us - citizens of the United States and members of the 21st century church.
Peter, James, John and Andrew - asked Jesus for signs which would indicate to them when they could expect the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to occur. Jesus responded with a description, that follows today’s readings, of a people under such imminent threat, compelled to move in such haste, that they would not have time to gather any of their belongings from their houses, or even have a moment to collect a single coat. Deepest compassion is reserved for the plight of pregnant women and nursing mothers, those who would experience the most difficulty if compelled to evacuate their homes in great haste. A time of immense suffering is depicted and particular attention is paid to the prospect of this catastrophic event occurring in the winter, when conditions would be even more harsh and travel on roads would be hazardous and demanding. It is an all too familiar picture of the anguish of immigrants, fleeing disastrous conditions, seeking sanctuary they knew not where. To his four disciples Jesus ended his cataclysmic predictions by declaring, “I have already told you everything, now be alert!”
This vivid description of desolation, of the brutal impact of war on a civilian population, must have resonated with the second audience for Mark’s gospel - the Jewish and Gentile Christians living under Roman occupation in Judea in the latter part of the 1st century. There has been much speculation as to the nature of the “desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be” described in verse 14. It may have referred to an earlier attempt by the Roman Emperor Caligula to introduce his image, a statue, to the temple in Jerusalem. Or it may have referred to the sacrilege of the continued presence in Jerusalem of the Roman Tenth Legion, under the command of Titus, son of the Emperor Vespasian. The Jewish-Roman war of 66-71 AD, culminating in the temple’s destruction, had been decided, but not yet won. General Titus had unleashed the full fury of the Roman army on Judea, and, perhaps prematurely, marched in processional triumph into Rome. Yet, all organized opposition had not yet been crushed. Pockets of Jewish resistance to Roman power remained in Herodium, Masada, Alexandria in Egypt, and in the region of Cyrene. Fighting was sometimes fierce, but eventually futile against the technological and numerical superiority of the Roman Legions.
After Jerusalem’s destruction and Roman dominance of the region, Titus brought his Fifth and Fifteenth Legions to coastal Caesarea where they could enjoy the spoils of victory. Here, and elsewhere, Jewish prisoners were compelled to battle wild animals and each other in the Roman amphitheatres. The 10th Legion, however, was permanently garrisoned in Jerusalem to prevent a resurgence of Jewish resistance. The intractability of Jewish nationalism convinced Roman leaders that a continued military occupation was necessary in order to maintain stability in the region.
Certainly this description in Mark of a necessity to flee with great haste and of days of immense suffering struck a respondent cord with the wartime experience of Mark’s listeners. And surely, the fear that worse times were ahead, would have been on the minds of the 1st century Jewish and Gentile Christians who heard these words and feared, quite appropriately, what the Roman occupiers might have in store for them. Certainly, Jesus’ admonition that they “be alert” would not have fallen on deaf ears.
Jesus also compels us, the third audience for this description of war’s desolation, to be alert, to wake up. To wake up to the role we are playing in the realization of God’s kingdom. And, in that realization, to ask if we are we a participant in the liberating power of Christ’s love? Or to ask if we may be complicit in the oppression of those to whom Christ would offer compassion?
Here we are listening to Mark’s gospel. Two thousand years since Jesus first spoke these words to his disciples. A little less than 2000 years since Mark recounted the story to the frightened followers of Jesus.
The message we find in Luke is directed at the people suffering under Roman occupation. So how are we, as citizens of the world mightiest military power, to read this message 2000 years later? Particularly in light of the fact that throughout much of our recent history United States troops have been the unwelcome occupiers. If this portion of Mark’s gospel is to be understood as offering encouragement to his persecuted community, where does that leave us? The question is a complex one and has no simple answer, but we must recognize that we are compelled to ask such questions. The necessity of asking how we are to interpret the gospel in light of how power is wielded in the 21st century is contained within Jesus’ repeated admonition that we wake up in a multitude of ways. We are asked to wake up to the condition of the poor, to injustice, to the plight of the refugee, as well as to God’s continued presence with us.
When the Chinese army invaded Tibet in 1949, a people were decimated. The brutality of the invasion was unparalleled – ancient monasteries were destroyed, thousands of monks were mercilessly slaughtered, an exemplary way of living was lost. The Dalai Lama, along with thousands of other Tibetans was forced to quickly leave his home and flee across the border to India to escape the approaching Chinese army. The Dalai Lama had seen the slaughter of his people, the destruction of ancient and sacred places, the disappearance of a way of a life. Observers asked how, despite all that he had lost, that he was able to maintain his storied sense of peace. The Dalai Lama replied, “Surely you would not expect me to loose my serenity?”
We are called, as Christians, in all manner of conflicts, as participants in all sides of political struggle, to maintain the same sense of God’s presence with us. Christ’s proclamation that we be alert is ultimately a message of love. We are asked to become aware of God’s love for all. God’s love is unconditional. Yet, ultimately we are called on to awaken to that love. With that awakening comes a recognition of the role we are playing in the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. We are all called to understand, to be alert. We as a nation, as individuals, as a church, are called on to put aside our pride, selfishness, our anger –whatever it is that may be preventing us from recognizing and receiving the abundant love of Jesus Christ.
We are called, those on every side of conflict. This is a call to awareness not only for the victims of war, but as citizens of an occupying nation, as voters and taxpayers, as the brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers of the young men and women compelled to fight our nation’s battles…to be alert.
Like the scenes of desolation depicted in the gospel today, we live in turbulent times. Peace, whether we are speaking of a sense of inner calm or relief from the strife that characterizes armed conflict, remains an elusive goal. The kind of peace that is available to us in Christ isn’t just a matter of feelings and it is not only to be had in those rare interludes in our personal lives when things seem to calm down, or with those equally rare moments in international affairs when hostilities momentarily cease. The kind of peace offered in Christ is a constant, though often peripheral, awareness of tranquility present in the midst of turbulence. Peace and security are there for us, sometimes quite surprisingly. The peace we seek is a matter of grace, a gift of mercy, offered freely. The full realization of that peace is dependent only on our awakening to it - our willingness to arise, to take heed, to be alert to its abiding presence.