Every generation has its markers; every generation has things that are so quintessential to those critical years during which you become aware of the world around you. They can be big things like watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon for the first time or watching the Twin Towers fall during Economics class. Or they can be smaller things, like the deep disappointment of having your pixelated family die of dysentery on the early video game, Oregon Trail, or the great joy of Fortnite dances and watching older generations try to learn them. While there are many things that seem to mark my own generation, one specific thing that comes to mind for me is the ever-present nature of apocalyptic narratives; I grew up in a world saturated with the tales from the series Left Behind, and while I never read the series myself, it seems that for much of my life, people have been claiming, often with chagrin, that the end times are most certainly near.
Our gospel passage today is often referred to as “The Little Apocalypse,” in which Jesus talks about the end times, but not in as much detail as we get in John’s Revelation. Jesus leaves the temple and one of his disciples wants to show Jesus the greatness of the temple; the temple had likely been rebuilt from the destruction a few years earlier. This temple was a masterpiece, a marvel of its time; some of the stones in the retaining wall alone were thought to be made of 40-foot-long pieces of stone. Not only was the temple twice as large as the Roman Forum, it was also gilded in gold. The disciple likely did not need to point the temple out to Jesus, yet here we are.
One of my favorite things about Jesus, is the subtle ways in which Jesus could drive a point home; after the disciple asks Jesus if he sees the large stones and large building, Jesus turns it around immediately and asks, “Do you??” “Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus asks, subtly hinting at the difference between seeing and seeing, and soon these buildings will be gone, not one stone left on the another. After they went up to the Mount of Olives next to the temple, four of the disciples ask Jesus how they might know when this time is to come. Maybe they want to know what to do next, or maybe they want to be able to get ahead of the game, but Jesus responds in a coy way. Rather than giving the disciples a date, time, and place, Jesus describes what will come; it won’t be pleasant, but it will be the beginning of a new creation, it will just be the beginning of the birthpangs.
When I read and reread and prayed through this passage this week, I found that I was stuck. I found that I was stuck because what good can come of this? What is the good news in war and famine and humans claiming to be God incarnate; why does Jesus cast this in such a “it is what it is, but it will all be good” light? I struggled to read the Little Apocalypse and see God at work in the world. I struggled, most likely, because I’m tired. I’m so tired of the great tragedies that we wake up to everyday.
I’m tired of the big national or global issues: the famines happening now in Yemen and South Sudan, wildfires that rage in California, and the continual gun violence that happens in our country. I’m weary from knowing that our neighbors go hungry and find the most sustainable option to be to sleep on the cold concrete of our cloister walkway. I’m exhausted from the ways in which black and brown bodies are treated as less than in our society, and that we ignore the dignity of so many folks who are impoverished and seeking refuge. How can all of this, any of this, be considered the start to something good, how can it be the beginning of a new creation when it so tangibly feels like everything is crumbling apart?
How can we even claim a bit of good to come out of such tragedy and such pain? Do we cling to the silver lining that it could be worse, or do we try to grasp for the opportunities that such tragedies give us? How do we navigate this world without being overcome by compassion fatigue, or worse, outrage fatigue? I was so tired when reading this gospel lesson from Mark, and all my mind could come up with were images of interstellar warfare and the four horsemen of the apocalypse, “Is this it? Is everything going to just keep getting worse and worse until our world implodes? What could possibly be the good news there?!?”
But then I remembered what the word apocalypse really means; it is not a word inherently filled with doom and devastation. While the cultural concept of a gloomy, impending apocalypse may come quick to the surface, what apocalypse really means is an unveiling, or uncovering. An apocalypse is not a snapshot of destitute and dire situations, it is the disclosure of something secret or hidden, which is why the “Big” Apocalypse is called the Book of Revelation, it was revealed. But the revelation in the apocalypse is not that everything is awful and some how we’ll all survive if we’re good enough people. What is revealed is the ability to see the whole world and the whole creation with fresh sight and a refreshed spirit.
Jesus offers his disciples here an apocalypse, not to get them to stop asking him questions, but to offer them a glimpse of something greater. It is to offer them, and us, an ability to see past the grandeur of the temple and the beauty of our buildings. It is a reminder that God cannot be contained in the walls of the temple and as magnificent as that temple is, it will crumble, but God will remain.
It isn’t hard to imagine how the disciples might have felt after Jesus bursts their spiritual bubble. While it isn’t giant, gilded stones that I am proud of, it isn’t a huge leap for me to imagine what questions this might have brought up for the disciples, and then, quickly, to realize they are questions for me as well: are the disciples willing to sit in the knowledge that things fall apart? What about big things that take all of our time, energy, and resources? Are the disciples, who know they want to follow Jesus, actually ready to embrace a life of faith that includes ruin and failure? What if we put all of our time in creating something that ultimately fails and doesn’t solve all the problems?
The truth that Jesus reveals here for the disciples that it will fail; our great masterpieces and years of work will crumble; the things that we are proudest of will not last into eternity, but the work of God, in God’s grace, will. We can work and work and work to solve the problem of homeless or hunger or war and it will ultimately fail, and it’s easy to despair and it’s easy to get worn out with the pace of the world today, but the thing that must sustain us is the fact that God is at work in the world, and not only is this work not tied to our own ability, it far exceeds it. Because we do not attempt to do the work of God’s kingdom alone, and it is our responsibility and gift as people of faith to participate in the coming glory of God’s kingdom.
While we have to take concrete steps toward helping to bring about God’s kingdom, thinking seriously about what that means for us individually and communally as we look toward the future, we also have to hold what Jesus’ reveals to his disciples as the Good News. This world will pass away, and what is being revealed in that is the unbridled hope of the new creation. Because it’s now, when things feel most chaotic and overwhelming, that we must lean into what we know and claim to be true: that the resurrection hope will make all things new.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Proper 28B on Mark 13:1-8.