Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 15, 2015
Mark 13:1-8 Commentary
Comments and Observations
We don’t mean to do it. But sometimes out of sheer distraction, we do it anyway. Your own precious child comes up to you and is excited to show you something and . . . you brush the child aside. “Not now please” or “Can you just be quiet for a bit?” And the light of excitement goes out from the child’s eyes like a swiftly snuffed candle. If you’ve ever seen that light go out—getting replaced by a fallen countenance and the deflated look that just says “Disappointment” loud and clear—then you know it’s a terrible thing to witness. If you yourself are the cause of the deflation and then see this, it hurts such that you want to make it up to the kid as quickly as possible.
Jesus’ disciples were generally not big city folks. They were fishermen and such from mostly small towns. But now in Mark 13 they are in Jerusalem and they predictably do the touristy thing of being wowed by the big buildings, by the Temple masonry work, by the sense of history that permeates the place. If they had had cameras, the shutters would have been snapping away wildly. You can imagine the Facebook status updates, the Instagram posts: “In Jerusalem—can’t believe the Temple’s grandeur!” “LOL: Peter, James and John mugging for the camera in front of the Temple Portico!”
But if they were hoping Jesus would click “Like” on such postings, they were sorely disappointed. Indeed, in our Lectionary passage from Mark 13 the disciples come up to Jesus like excited little kids. Their eyes are shining with wonder. “Master, get a load of this limestone block! Can you imagine the work it took to lift these one on top of the other?! This is really something isn’t it?!” For his part, though, Jesus turns a rather blank face their direction and swiftly deflates their enthusiasm with the words, “Impressive? Maybe. Shame about the impending destruction, though, because somebody is going to take those impressive blocks of stone and scatter them all around Jerusalem like a child’s Legos.”
Dumbfounded and deflated, the disciples say not a word initially. Later, when they are some distance from the city and overlooking the countryside from the Mount of Olives, a couple of them finally manage the gumption to ask the obvious. “Ummm, Master? That bad and nasty destruction stuff you mentioned earlier—any dates or timelines on all that we could know about?”
They ask a fairly simple question. In essence it boiled down to “When?” They also tucked into their question a bit more, asking basically if there would be any advance warning—you know, in case someone wanted to leave town before it all came crashing down around them.
The question may have been simple but the answer proves to be anything but simple. Because Jesus’ answer is not restricted to the 3 or 4 sentences we get in this relatively short lection of Mark 13:1-8. No, Jesus’ answer becomes Mark’s version of the Olivet Discourse and it continues on for nearly two dozen more verses, many of which contain imagery that is apocalyptic, a bit bizarre, and utterly sobering. But in the verses of just this lection, what Jesus basically says is that although wanting to know the when and the wherefore of all this is natural, worrying unduly about all this—and so being vulnerable to being snookered by false witnesses who claim to know more than they do about the end of all things—is definitely something to avoid.
If only more of us in the history that followed had taken Jesus’ advice more seriously! It’s an oddity of church history that some of the same people who try to take apocalyptic imagery the most literally (when huge swaths of it are surely figurative and allusive) refuse to take seriously the parts that plainly are literal and straightforward, as when in these verses Jesus warns his followers not to go down one rabbit trail after the next in trying to figure all these things out or in being alarmed by every pious Chicken Little who comes along and screams about falling skies and such.
But before we close out these reflections, let’s take note of one other thing that we preachers can perhaps help our congregations notice, especially since in 2015 this passage crops up on one of the final Sundays before Advent begins (replete with all the Hallmark over-sentimentalizing that too often accompanies all things Christmas these days). This passage can remind us that Jesus is often not quite what we’d expect. The disciples were just sure that Jesus—coming as he did from a small town in the outback as well—would be as wowed by the Temple’s grandeur as they were. But he wasn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact, because Jesus’ thoughts were bent on far more vital matters involving the salvation of all things (even as he doubtless could see in his mind’s eye a cross with his name on it in the next 4 days or so).
The Temple was important and, given its history in the covenant people of Israel, it stood for a great many vital facts about God and his people. But salvation was never going to come through that Temple but only through the incarnate Temple that just was Jesus’ own body. It would have to be torn to pieces, destroyed, before true salvation was going to come. Jesus knew this. And because he knew that—and because his eye was always on the big picture in ways most of us can scarcely ever even approximate—you could never be completely sure what Jesus was thinking or how he would react to a given situation.
Today we have domesticated all too much of the Gospel. Many in also the church think they have Jesus cased. We think it’s easy to figure out What Jesus Would Do, what Jesus would think, how Jesus would vote, what causes Jesus would support. And it’s not as though we have no idea whatsoever on such things as to some of what Jesus might think or do or say but it’s just that we can’t pretend to have it all worked out. The vision and work of God are always grander, always more startling than we know.
About the time we think we do have it all cased, we may bring to Jesus our prize cause or idea or project and like excited children lay it before him. Mark 13 reminds us, however, that when we do so, there is at least a chance that what we’ll get from Jesus by way of a response might just cause the looks on our faces to change rather swiftly!
In verse 5 (and this is repeated again at the head of verse 9, just beyond the end of this particular lection) Jesus tells the disciples to BLEPETE, to “watch.” Ironically, all through the history of the Church people have been “watching” for Jesus’ return, but so often this “watchfulness” gets translated into a kind of starry-eyed sky gazing whereby disciples scan the distant horizon for any and every sign that could get interpreted as some impending arrow pointing forward to the return of Christ. (Watch any number of Christian shows on cable and you will soon discover how every day’s newspaper gets WATCHED for any and every sign that could be twisted to fit some proof text in Ezekiel, Mark 13, or the Book of Revelation). Curiously, however, in Mark 13 Jesus’ use of “watch” has to do not with watching for the true signs of the end but to WATCH OUT that you do not get sucked in by any number of false starts or erroneous scenarios concerning the end of all things.
Some while back in a sermon, Barbara Brown Taylor related a story from her childhood when she was growing up in the American South. Every day after school Barbara and her siblings were supervised by an African-American babysitter named Thelma. Thelma was remarkable for how little she ever talked to the children. Each afternoon she’d sit in a rocking chair reading her Bible while the children did homework or played. If things got out of hand, all Thelma had to do was lower the Bible an inch or two, just enough for the children to see her eyes glaring overtop the old King James Version, and order would be rather quickly restored.
One afternoon, to the children’s surprise, Thelma engaged them with an activity. She told them to go fetch some blank sheets of paper and crayons. She then instructed them to draw their house: a classic southern home replete with a big pillared front porch, a nice lawn with some oak trees, and even a white picket fence. And so the children drew the house even as Thelma encouraged them to include as many details as they could. When the kids had finished their portraits, Thelma then said, “Now, I want you to draw fire comin’ down from the sky. Draw the fire lickin’ up the oak trees and the picket fence and the roof. Draw it that way ’cause that’s what’s gonna happen when the Lord comes back.”
Well this widened their eyes a bit. But what has stuck with Rev. Taylor in the years since then was not just that Thelma gave the children a backdoor eschatology lesson but that for Thelma this future fire was something to look forward to. Barbara and her siblings were too young and naive to appreciate the racial tensions in the midst of which they lived. They did not see their living in a nice house as something that might cause resentment on the part of others whose opportunities for a similar lifestyle were, at best, minimal. A fire of judgment which would one day by and by set all wrongs to right looked good to Thelma. But it felt like a threat to Barbara and the other kids. What looked like a new beginning to Thelma looked like the end of everything to the children.
That’s often the way of it, of course for folks like us who tend to lead comfortable lives. We’d just as soon avoid trouble and keep things neat and tidy. Some while ago had you walked along Central Park South in New York City, you would have seen a gigantic billboard advertising a new building then under construction. The billboard was probably half-a-block long and featured a soaring vista of Central Park. That is the view that a few lucky folks would have if they purchased the penthouse condominium units in this soon-to-be-completed skyscraper. If you had something like $3 million burning a hole in your pocket, then you, too, could secure a niche in the skies over Manhattan, far above the sound of taxi horns, well away from the sight of any homeless persons. But if you could afford such a luxury, would you be happy to have someone drawing the place on fire at the coming of the Lord? Would you be pleased to hear some modern-day Isaiah proclaiming that every dirty subway platform where the homeless sleep would be exalted even as every penthouse suite would be brought down to gutter level? Likely not. If you already believe that you are doing just fine, you don’t want the reversals of God’s fiery judgment.
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