1st Sunday of Advent
Texts: Mark 13:24-37;
Isa. 64:1-9; 1 Cor. 1:3-9
MARK’S GOSPEL AS FULFILLING THE WAY OF PROPHECY
I would bet that everyone here over the age of 20 remembers where they were on September 11, 2001. If you’re my age or older, you probably remember where you were when President Kennedy was assassinated. The octogenarians who are here today can no doubt remember events like Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and then the bittersweet moment of the terrible bombs that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ended World War II. More recently, we might remember Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the 2011 Tohoku, Japan earthquake, with a tragic loss of life and which at $235 billion is the costliest natural disaster to date globally.
These are events that changed the course of history and get cemented in our memories. We refer to them with language such as “earth shattering.” The earth isn’t literally shattered, of course (except maybe in an earthquake), but it’s language we use to talk about events that are world changing.
Some of us know this kind of memory-cementing experiences in our own personal lives. We’ve experienced traumatic losses that we will not only never forget but did literally change the course of our lives forever. They were earth-shattering for us. In such instances, we might also use language such as, “For a while, it was like the sun would never shine again.”
Why am I bringing up these kinds of traumatic events? Because it is the setting for the writing of the Gospel of Mark. Today we begin another year of cycling through the story of Jesus, this year featuring the Gospel of Mark. And it is actually quite appropriate that we begin with such a strange passage as this one in Chapter 13. Because Jesus is prophesying the traumatic events that Mark’s community has just lived through.
Many generations of Christians have not been aware of this historical background, and so they have read these words as Jesus talking about the end of world. One of the immediate problems with the “end of the world” interpretation is Jesus saying it will happen within a generation. Well, 2000 years later we know that the world didn’t end within a generation, so many scholars have said, “This is an example of either Jesus being wrong, or the early church incorrectly putting words in his mouth.” It’s become a main reason for many scholars treating Jesus’ words as fiction made up by the early church.
But I began this morning as I did to help us into another way of interpreting this vital passage from Mark’s Gospel. We need to understand that Jesus was not predicting the literal end of the world. He was using language that the Hebrew prophets commonly used to prophesy about possible world changing events, traumatic happenings that would change peoples’ worlds forever. They were using picturesque language to describe moments in history that would cause terrible loss and grief and make it seem like the sun had fallen from the sky and wasn’t shining anymore.
But it’s also important to understand that, as the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus wasn’t just predicting the future. He was prophesying. There’s a huge difference. Predicting tends to mean something will happen without a doubt. That there’s nothing one can do to change it. To prophesy is to show someone that they are on a path that will bring likely consequences. Doctors prophesy to us when they tell us that our current habits of unhealth will likely lead to times of illness and poor health. They try to get us to make more healthy choices through their prophesies.
The ghosts in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, that holiday favorite we will doubt see at least once in the coming weeks, are prophets. They are trying to get Scrooge to change the path he is on, a path leading him into a despised life and an utterly alone death. They are prophesying to him the path he is on, not because it is unchangeable, but precisely be cause it is. He can choose another path. He can become a different sort of person. He can and he does.
Jesus has come to his people of Israel, the Jews, to help them see that God has a wholly other path for them in the world. They are to lead by showing others how to serve. They are to be mighty among the nations by showing the other nations how to favor the least: the poor, the sick, the left-out. Above all, they are never to use violence. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. If they choose to go down the path of other nations, seeking greatness and power like them, they will end up as other nations do eventually, when someone bigger and more powerful comes along. Living by the sword, nations die by the sword.
And since the Jews have no chance against Rome, their chosen path of liberation through military victory will come upon them soon … within a generation, in fact. This is what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel lesson. These are the terrible events which have just taken place for God’s people, the Jews. Beginning in the year 66, about 30 years after Jesus’ arose on Easter, a majority of Jews launched into a rebellion against Rome. At the time, Rome was in the middle of its own civil war, so the Jews actually experienced some victories. But when the civil war was put down, they gave their full attention to the Jews. In the year 70, Rome destroyed and burned Jerusalem with its temple and slaughtered much of the population. (1) This is the terrible reality that is still fresh as Mark writes his Gospel in the aftermath.
So why does Mark’s story about Jesus become the first written down version to survive and be kept? Why do we have this new kind of document in the world called a Gospel, that we’re still reading 2000 years later? The first reason is because Jesus was a prophet who, unfortunately, was right. His fellow Jews continued down the same path and were met with the disaster he prophesied. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that 99% of scientists today are correct and that we are heading into a global warming. They warn us of undesirable events that will take place if we don’t change some of our lifestyles. And then let’s imagine that ten, twenty, thirty years down the road, those terrible events are fully upon us and are reeking havoc in our world. Whose writings might we turn to? Won’t it be those who prophesied correctly about these events and told us what we could do to change the path we’re on?
That’s why we have the Gospel of Mark. Jesus was correct not just about his own people. But he is correct about what makes for human beings to live in peace at any time and place. The themes we will see over and over again throughout the year of Mark are at least three:
- True power and might comes through caring for the weakest among us.
- True leadership comes through serving those least among us, not in seeking to be served.
- The most important one: God in Jesus the King is showing us precisely this kind of power and leadership coming true in the world. How do we know? Because God has shown us the powers of this world doing their worst to Jesus and raised him to new life as the promise that God’s way is the true way to peace.
This is so crucial! That we see: even when we fail these prophesies, God comes to us in our weakness. God comes with forgiveness instead of more vengeance. God comes with the power of life rather than more death. God comes with the power to take the mess we have made and begin to turn it into gracious life.
So Watch! Keep awake! What are the paths we are on right now that you and I, as disciples of Jesus, might help lead others into choosing another path? Are the events this week centered in Ferguson showing us that we are headed into a greater and greater racial divide unless disciples of Jesus increasingly step forward with the path to heal racism? Is it Global warming? Is it the increasing gap between rich and poor? Watch! Watch for the signs of being on the wrong path. Watch for what we can do as disciples of Jesus to lead others onto the right path, the one of true power and true leadership. Following in the way of Jesus is following in the way of prophecy.
And Come! Come, King Jesus, come. Come and lead us onto your path of light and life and peace. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, November 30, 2014
1. The Wikipedia article on the Roman-Jewish War outlines the world changing events for Judaism: “The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. marked a turning point in Jewish history. In the absence of the Temple, the synagogue became the center of Jewish life. When the Temple was destroyed, Judaism responded by fixating on the commandments of the Torah. Synagogues replaced the temple as a central meeting place, and the rabbis replaced high priests as Jewish community leaders. Because of the rabbis dominance post-70 C.E., the era is called the rabbinic period. The Rabbis filled the void of Jewish leadership created by the Great Revolt and with their literature and teachings, shaped a new Judaism.