Today’s Gospel for the Daily Office, Mark 13:14-27, is a hard one. So many good people I know are devastated by what is happening in the world around us. And this reading, only a middle part of a long painful, if revealing, teaching is a grim discourse on how everything ends. Some scholars like to point out that we are hearing the author of the Gospel, Mark referring to his church now under siege by the Roman Empire. But this whole section is repeated largely intact in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I can’t trivialize it. This is Jesus speaking to us. This is an apocalyptic warning, and one which in our current political miasma I think we need to take seriously. Today also begins the reading of the Psalter anew (Ps. 1-4, 7)
“Why do the kings of the earth rise up in revolt, and the princes plot together, against the LORD and against his Anointed?” Ps. 2:2
Going back to the beginning of the chapter, Jesus, our cornerstone, rebukes a disciple for proclaiming wonder at the great stones of the Temple. They are nothing, he teaches, they will be torn down. And so his students ask him privately, when will this happen? Jesus pivots into warning about false prophets, false Messiahs. The time is coming and the signs will be wars, one nation against another. He has said in other places that he came to bring a sword, that families will be torn apart. Here again is the fearful prediction that the Kingdom will suffer birth pains. And his own will suffer abuse, death. Natural disasters, famine. Brother betraying brother, children condemning father and mother. But trust in God to sustain us and God will give us the words to say to your abusers. In Jesus name, and only that, there is salvation.
“You mortals, how long will you dishonor my glory; how long will you worship dumb idols and run after false gods?” Ps. 4:2
And now we come to the desolating sacrilege. The reference is from the book of Daniel (9:27) when a pagan statue was set up in the first Temple. Once again the Temple has been desecrated, in Jesus’ time through sin but also in Mark’s time through Roman destruction of the Temple and persecution of the people. This whole chapter is full of references to childbirth, nursing mothers, infants. The most vulnerable. When the downfall happens, run. Do not stop. Do not look back. Literally, head for the hills, and pray for those vulnerable little ones that it doesn’t happen in winter. And in that spiritual void will come the false Messiahs. And darkness. Then will the Son of Man come from the clouds to gather up his own.
“Let the malice of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous; for you test the mind and heart, O righteous God.” Ps. 7:10
The Church is again under siege by false Messiahs, again perverting institutions, both secular and religious, to pure evil. Perhaps it is time for Christ to come again, but that is not our call. And that is also something to remember when there are dark whispers about conspiracies to bring about the end time, thoughts we might have dismissed as crazy two or three years ago, but enough public insanity has caused me, at least, to wonder is this evil is real. Would there be those who would, in Jesus’ name, cause terrible death and destruction to bring about an apocalypse? Yes, there are. But to interpret this teaching as a mandate to bring on the end is wrong. I don’t believe that Jesus is telling us to drink the Kool Aid or rise to power to trigger a Last Battle in the Middle East. I believe he is warning us that for his own just as there is the peace that passes understanding there is suffering and temptation and fear, but we can, with God’s help, hang in there. There is glory to God in just being there and not giving up. Or refusing to embrace the desolating sacrilege.
Maybe we create our own apocalypses over and over again, in our normal lives. Perhaps we hear false prophets. And avoid the pain of the beatings, incarceration, subjugation, marginalization. Do we hear only what we want to hear? But Jesus offers us a Kingdom that is rich in abundance, life, light, new birth, mother’s milk, his Bread and Wine, but bought at a price. Christ gave us all this and yet we are called to follow him into a world of death because his Father’s Kingdom has not yet come, and we are the ones sent out to bring it. Sometimes faith is a hard thing, but we can’t be filled with the presence of our saving God by trivializing evil, pretending spirituality is all rainbows and unicorns. Or by torturing ourselves with the Bad News, when the Good News is so close. The practice of religion is hard. It takes courage. And we are never alone.
I wish I could say thank God we don’t have to face such terrors as Jesus warned us about. But we do. The Paradise fire last year, and many are still homeless and now destitute. And what we see in the news does touch us. There are refugees from everywhere. And destruction, rape, murder rained down by the various armies of fanatics throughout the Middle East and Africa, all in the name of God, the same God whom we worship and obey. Climate change, acidification of the oceans, extreme weather not only creates famine and climate refugees but exterminates thousands of the amazing species, the gift of evolution from our creator God. I’m not sure if the rest of this chapter gives hope or provokes false Messiahs to lead us to more sin.
Back to the fig tree, once blasted as Israel was blasted. Now in leaf a promise of spring and new fruit. If Jesus had not been clear about who is in charge of the End Time, he teaches, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” We, his disciples, we who have been called, and whom he has sanctified in his name, we are not off the hook. Keep watch, he exhorts. You never know when the Master is coming. The eschatological moment may not be near (or may be), but we must keep watch. But, we ask, what happens if we get hit by a bus? And our last thought was not very holy. No magical thinking required. God is good. Be more or less righteous and love and obey God and keep trying and that is enough.
Our answer cannot be despair, fear, or violence, or we fall into the trap the Evil One has laid for us. Jesus came because we are always at war, always betraying, always finding ways of excluding somebody. And Jesus came to uphold us, protect us, forgive us. We need not be afraid.
“I will bear witness that the Lord is righteous; I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High.” Ps. 7: 17
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.