What Time Is It Anyway?
Mark 13: 1-8
I don’t know what sort of image you have in mind when you hear a pastor say she is “working on my sermon.” Perhaps you, like many of us preachers before we went to seminary and starting doing this every week, had a well-lit, comfy-study image of this endeavor. Perhaps you think when we approach our desks and commentaries, the light of God fills the room and it’s impossible not to get what the meaning is and precisely how to preach it. Perhaps you think we emerge after hours of study and prayer and thinking and writing and we are aglow.
Let me disabuse you of this notion.
Let me tell you what it’s really like by offering you a direct quote from one of my go-to United Methodist resources for study and preparation. Our General Board of Discipleship offers online reflection and commentary on each of our four lectionary texts each week and I find it’s a good starting place for familiarizing myself with the week at hand, where we are in the liturgical year, and what the texts are up to this week. So this week as I sat down to work on my sermon and I read the “helpful hints” there about the text from Mark’s gospel, here is what it said, “Who wants to preach about the end of time – especially in an age when so many crackpots have misused Scripture?” (gbod.org/worship).
Yep, right there next to the Bible, those are the inspired words I began with this week. Who wants to preach about end times? Who wants to be associated with the crackpots who actually like preaching about end times?
I hope this erases those idyllic images of sermon-writing from your minds. I hope this helps you see that I also think some of this stuff is weird and really hard to relate to – and here I am, not aglow from my inspired time with God, trying anyway to talk with you about it. “Who wants to preach about the end of time – especially in an age when so many crackpots have misused Scripture?”
People who have a thriving interest in end times – or eschatology, the study of last things – tend to have a lot of answers. The crackpots know what the scripture means when it’s vague and fantastical. They know when things will happen. They know why and to whom. Besides the crackpot aspects, I think this is my main objection: knowing all the answers relieves us of living with and dealing with the mystery. But what is this whole thing – what is this Trinity – if not a mystery? Who can really explain this so that it’s less a mystery? And why would we want them to?
Jesus doesn’t seem to think this is necessary. He gathers Peter, Andrew, James, and John to talk. They ask for specifics. They ask, Hey, when will these great buildings and this Temple be brought down to rubble? We want to be looking out for that day. What sign will there be so we know it’s happening? And what does Jesus say? A lot of people will come along and say they are working for me but they aren’t. Also, there will be wars but that won’t be the end yet. Whole nations will rise up against one another and there will be earthquakes and famines…All that will be the first birth pangs of what’s to come (Mark 13: 5-8).
Huh? Seriously? You couldn’t have used a calendar, Jesus? War and famine and earthquakes and nations fighting – that’s how we are supposed to notice a new thing coming? We are supposed to be alert for the signs of everything we have already noticed in all of time?
The point here is that I don’t know what this means, either. Jesus is quite vague and there is a lot of ambiguity in what he is saying. These words can easily apply to almost every time and place since we have had time and place. So how can some folks take these words and be so certain? How can these sentences turn into calendars and clocks and timetables?
The other reason the crackpots get me down is this: when I hear people preaching about apocalyptic scripture, I feel afraid. They mean for me to feel afraid. They are using these texts in order to keep people in line by scaring them to death. But this is the exact opposite intention of apocalyptic discourse. Though it can be really hard for us to hear it through the layers of amphitheater preaching, this literature is supposed to offer us signs of hope. It’s meant to say, as scary as it gets, know that the end of the story is in God’s hands. It’s meant to offer us glimpses of God’s kingdom come, when all we see when we look is war and famine and destruction. It’s meant to say, look again, don’t be afraid, and don’t live by what you see happening but by what you know God can and will do.
If you pay attention, you’ll notice a lot of end times scripture in the next few weeks. Next Sunday is the last Sunday in the Christian year, called Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. We celebrate the end times, the culmination of all history in Christ, just as we round the corner into Advent, the beginning of the Christian year. And though we aren’t particularly good at this, Advent is not meant to be merely a time to await Christmas; it is also a time to anticipate the second coming of Christ. The end times and the culmination of all things in Christ.
It’s hard for us to do this. We’ve already seen how scary the texts can seem on the surface and how uncertain we are about when any of this will take place. We’ve already shown our penchant for celebrating Christmas as soon as we take our Halloween costumes off and neglecting Advent altogether.
Well, in my sermon prep this year, I learned something new a few weeks back. It seems that the season of Advent used to last for 7 Sundays until Pope Gregory the VI changed the liturgical calendar in the 11th century (gbod.org/worship). The thing is, he changed the length of the season but he didn’t change the lectionary texts at all. This explains why I’ve felt for some time like Advent seeps into the season of Ordinary Time before it.
And maybe this is how we edge ourselves into the confusing season and the confusing end times. Maybe we just go with the mess, where one theme bleeds into the next and it’s hard to see where one thing starts and the other thing ends. Maybe we train ourselves to hopefully look for where God can be in this mess and to faithfully hold on to the truth that God’s got it. That, in the end, we know how the story ends.
Maybe this mindset – this spirit-set – will even afford us the vision of what God is up to right now. While wars rage and bombs fall and people starve and loves leave and jobs disappear and friends disappoint and internships turn us down and people we love get sick and die….While all of this is going on, striking us down, and holding us back, God’s still got it. The end of the story is set. Though it’s painful and humiliating and exceedingly hard to see sometimes why chapter 13 has to work itself out this way or how it fits into the larger story, we can still count on the end of the book.
The end and beginning of the Christian year gives us a formal way and a community-wide time to practice this. To say with frustration and honesty This sucks and I don’t see where it’s going and it’s hard to trust but I will hope anyway. To say this week, around our abundant tables and around this Table, Thank you, God, for the blessings we count and for those we have not yet seen or understood. Thank you for bleeding into this time right here, revealing more than we can see on our own, offering a glimpse of the end of the story. Thank you for revealing yourself to us in the faces of those who have no tables or who don’t yet know they are welcome at this one.
I still don’t want to preach about the end times. But I want to get better at seeing what’s going on right in front of my eyes, right now. I want to celebrate with you how sneaky and powerful and unpredictable and generous God is. I want to practice hope, not fear. And I want to pay attention to where and how God enters time, over and over again, nudging our gaze or shifting the light just so, so that what seemed to be the case just a moment ago is revealed to be completely different and more glorious than the explanation I came up with on my own. I hope you’ll do it with me.
Thanks be to God!
© 2012 Deborah E. Lewis