Sunday, 29 March 2020

The End Times?

A sermon for 'Provoking Faith in a time of isolation', 
the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
29th March 2020

Mark 13.1-8, 24-37
Don’t misunderstand me when I say this,
            but I genuinely believe that we are living in ‘the last days’.

Let me be clear.

I emphatically do not mean,
            that the current Coronavirus pandemic
            is a sign from God that the world is coming to an end.

Humans have faced times of plague and disease many times in our history,
            just as we have faced war and natural disaster.
And simply because this is the first time in living memory
            that such a calamity has fallen on our society,
            doesn’t make us in some way special.

It makes us unlucky,
            although not as unlucky as those who will be facing this virus
                        without a functional health service
                        or an economy strong enough to support emergency financial measures.

The question of where God is to be found in the midst of suffering and death
            is not a new question,
but it is our question, at such a time as this.

One way or another, the world will keep turning,
            and those who survive the Coronavirus, which will be most of us,
            will live to remake the world again in the coming years.

This is not to minimise the seriousness of the situation,
            but it is to offer a sense of historical perspective.
We’ve been here, or somewhere like here, before,
            and it’s awful, and it’s horrible, and heart-rending, and tragic,
            but it’s not the end of the world.

So what do I mean when I say
            that I still believe we are living in ‘the last days’?

Our Bible reading for this morning,
            from the so-called mini apocalypse from Mark’s gospel,
            wasn’t chosen by me for today.
Believe it or not, it is the allocated passage in the Narrative Lectionary,
            which we have been following at Bloomsbury this year,
            as we have made our pilgrimage from Jesus’ birth towards his death.

And to understand its end-times, last-days language,
            we need to understand something of the context of the first century.

It’s likely that Mark’s gospel was written right at the end of the 60s,
            which was a time of ever-increasing political tension in the land of Israel,
as Jewish revolutionaries gathered their forces,
            in expectation of a great battle with the forces of Rome.

Their mission was simple:
            liberate Jerusalem,
                        throw out the Romans,
            and re-establish the Jewish state
                        as a religiously and politically autonomous entity;
            or die trying.

And for the community Mark was writing for,
            the temptation to join the revolutionaries was great.

So in his gospel he tells events from the life of Jesus, some thirty years earlier,
            not as abstract stories for use in Sunday school lessons,
but to directly address the question,
            of whether it is appropriate for his congregation
            to join the Jewish rebels in the coming battle against Rome.

From Mark’s perspective,
            which he believes is a perspective grounded in the life and teaching of Jesus,
            the really important battle isn’t actually against Rome;
and for his people to take up swords and fight for their political freedom
            would be selling their souls to the self-same forces of violence
            that already lie at the heart of empire of Rome.

They might win the battle for their city,
            but if the cost was complicity in violence,
                        they would have lost their souls,
            and would in the end simply reinvent
                        the same oppressive powers under a different name.

For Mark, as for Jesus,
            the revolution is not about swords against an earthly enemy,
            but a new and nonviolent way of people drawing near to God,
                        and discovering what it means to live in peace with one another.

And this revolution will achieved not by swords but through suffering,
            as people do battle with the forces of violence not by overthrowing them,
but by unmasking their evil, by absorbing the violence,
            and leaving them nowhere to go but deeper into their own depravity.

This is the way of the cross,
            as Jesus and his disciples draw near to Jerusalem,
and Jesus takes his stand
            against the religious system of the Temple,
                        which he denounces for its oppression of those who are poor,
            and against the political ideology of nationalism,
                        which he denounces for its inherent violence.

The only way through this for Jesus
            will be the way of the cross, the way of suffering and death.

And Mark wants his readers to understand, in their context,
            that dying in the cause of the kingdom of God
                        is not defeat at the hands of the enemy,
            but actually the path through which
                        the new world of Jesus comes into being.

He wants them to know that the cross is not defeat,
            but is rather the moment of the unveiling of the glory of God.

From a historical perspective,
            the Jewish rebels continued their rebellion,
and the Romans fought back, with a massacre in Jerusalem,
            and the destruction of the temple in the year 70,
            just a year or two after Mark’s gospel was written.

And what Mark offers,
            in this strange ‘end-times’ chapter that we have before us this morning,
is a theological perspective on the events of history,
            it invites us to consider where God is
            when the evidence of history seems to be denying God’s presence.

And here I want to offer a very clear statement
            about how we might read Mark chapter 13,
            and other passages like it.

These are not prophecies or predictions
            about some future world-ending cataclysm,
and to read them as if they are,
            is to miss the deep wisdom that they offer.

Rather, these strange apocalyptic images,
            are a way of understanding
                        how God is at work in the very real events of human history,
            and specifically in the crucifixion of Jesus
                        as the inauguration of God’s new kingdom.

Once we grasp what God is doing
            in and through Jesus’ journey towards the cross,
we are better equipped to understand what God is doing
            in the difficult and traumatic experiences of our own lives.

This is what Mark wants for his readers,
            he wants them to understand the cross,
            so that they can understand their own context.

And the same is true for those of us who read this gospel in later centuries:
            if we can understand the cross as victory not defeat,
            if we can understand the death of Jesus as the revelation of God’s glory,
then we too will be able to understand
            how the kingdom of God is coming to us in our world.

So this is what I mean when I say
            that I believe we are living in the ‘last days’:
ever since the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion,
            the world dominated by powers of violence and oppression
            has been under judgement,
and whenever and wherever the people of Christ
            offer their faithful witness to the power of the cross,
the new world that is forever breaking into this old world
            is made more real as people are liberated from the powers of sin and death.

As we’ve seen with other passages from Mark’s gospel
            on our journey through it this year,
the shadow of the cross intentionally falls over the whole narrative.

We see this today particularly in the last few verses of our reading for this morning:

Therefore, keep awake--
            for you do not know when the master of the house will come,
            in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,
or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. (13.35-36)

The instruction to ‘keep awake’
            is the same request that Jesus made to his disciples in Gethsemane,
and the reminder that God is the master of the house
            is an important reassurance that other earthly powers
            do not hold the ultimate power over people’s eternal souls.

Then we get the four time markers,
            of evening, midnight, cock crow, and dawn,
which point us straight to the last night of Jesus before his crucifixion.

The evening is a reference to the last supper,
            which Jesus celebrated with his disciples
            on the night before he was betrayed (14.17).
Midnight is a reference to the long dark night of Gethsemane,
            when the disciples slept as Jesus prayed in anguish (13.32).
The cockcrow is a reference to Peter’s denial of Jesus (14.30, 68, 72),
            and the dawn is when Jesus is handed over to Pilate to be crucified (15.1).

Just as the disciples slept through Gethsemane,
            even as Jesus told them to keep awake,
so Jesus leans out of the pages of Mark’s gospel
            to tell each of us who reads it
that we must keep awake and ever alert
            to the changing of the times
as the old world passes, and the new world comes.

The master of the house is coming,
            and his presence can be felt by those of us
            who are watching faithfully for the signs of his in-breaking kingdom.

For Mark’s readers,
            the centre of their religious world was about to shift:
                        away from the beautiful temple in Jerusalem,
                        to communities gathered in new and different ways.
            And I’m sure this is something which those of us gathered virtually today
                        will be able to relate to,
            as we too have had to shift the focus of our worship life,
                        at least for a time.

And we too are discovering what it is to live
            with the shadow of death and fear falling over our lives.
None of us knows what the future will hold,
            for us and for those whom we love.

In many ways, the world will never be the same again,
            and the shifts in our society caused by the current crisis
            will be as deep and long lasting as the wars of former generations.

But what will this new world look like, when it comes?
            Will the old powers of violence and oppression reassert themselves?
            They always crouch at the gate, waiting to pounce.

Or will the culture of mutual aid, mass volunteering,
            safety nets for the poor and the vulnerable,
and a commitment to house the homeless and feed the hungry,
            become the forces that shape our world in the coming decades.

As the people of God in this time
            we share with Mark’s readers the task of building a different, a better world;
and we do this not by embracing violent revolution,
            nor by playing the world at its own game, seeking power over others,
but by living out in our own lives
            what it means to offer sacrificial love for one another.

We too are gathered in Gethsemane,
            and we need to keep awake.

Like Mark’s first readers, and the disciples of Jesus before them,
            we too have to discover that the meeting place of God and humans,
                        the place of the ultimate revelation of God’s glory,
            is encountered in the cross of Christ.

Where people die, God is.
            Where people suffer, God is.
Where people live in fear, God is.
            Where people are victimised, God is.
Where people are faithless, God is.
            Where people doubt, God is.
Where people betray, God is.
            Where people repent, God is.
Where people love one another, God is.
            Where people make sacrifices for others, God is.
Where people risk their safety for the lives of others, God is.

Because God is love,
            and the love of God is made known in and through the death of Jesus,
            God’s son, our saviour.

And so we take another step towards the cross,
            as we journey together towards Easter.