Monday 11 March 2024

The End Times?

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
17th March 2024

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 wars around the world,
            or indeed the growing effects of global warming,
            are signs from God that the world is coming to an imminent end.
Humans have faced times of war, famine, disease, and disaster
            many times in our history,
and just because these are the signs of our times,
            doesn’t make us in some way specially chosen by God
            as the final generation of humanity.
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, for our world,
            as it is the question for each generation of the faithful.
One way or another, the world will keep turning,
            nations may rise and fall,
            societies and empires come and go,
but short of total nuclear annihilation,
            or runaway global warming to the point where the planet is uninhabitable,
a new generation will come,
            and they will adapt, and build their world in their time.
This is not to minimise the seriousness of the present situation,
            or the challenges we face.
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
            is from the so-called mini apocalypse from Mark’s gospel,
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,
            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 these revolutionaries was great.
So in his gospel he tells events from the life of Jesus,
            events which happened some thirty years earlier,
and he tells them 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 seemingly inevitable and imminent 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 so 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 lay at the heart of empire of Rome.
They might win the battle for their holy 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.
And this is so often the case, is it not,
            that those who take up arms for the cause of righteousness
end up as agents of violence
            as the innocent and the vulnerable
            perish in their tens of thousands.
For Mark, as for Jesus,
            the true revolution is not about taking up swords
                        against an earthly enemy,
            but is rather a new and nonviolent way
                        of people drawing near to God,
            of discovering what it means to live in peace with one another.
And this Jesus-revolution, as we might call it,
            this revolution of the Kingdom of Heaven,
will be achieved not by swords, but through suffering,
            as people of faith do battle with the forces of violence
                        not by overthrowing them,
but by unmasking their evil, by absorbing the violence,
            and leaving the allies of darkness nowhere to go
            but deeper into their own depravity.
This is the way of the cross,
            this is what it means for Jesus and his disciples to draw near to Jerusalem,
for Jesus to take 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,
            the only way out of the death-trap of spiralling violence,
is the way of Jesus
            the way of the cross,
            the way of suffering and death.
And Mark wants his readers to understand, in their first century context,
            that dying in the cause of the kingdom of God
                        is not defeat at the hands of the enemy,
            but is rather the path
                        through which the new world of Jesus comes into being.
Mark wants his community to realise that the cross is not defeat,
            death is not the end,
            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 taking place in Jerusalem,
            and with the destruction of the temple in the year 70,
            just a year or two after Mark’s gospel was written.
But 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.
This is Mark inviting 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
            to each succeeding generation including our own.
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 significance of the cross,
            so that they can better 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, and 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 as we experience it,
                        a world dominated by powers of violence and oppression
            has been under divine 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 twin 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 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)
This 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 ultimate power over people’s eternal souls.
Mark even gives us four time-markers,
            of evening, midnight, cock crow, and dawn,
to 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.
We are the citizens of a new world,
            that offers a new way of being human before God,
a new way of relating to one another,
            a new way of peace ,
the gift of the Holy Spirit
            to those whose lives are lived in the midst of chaos.
But what will this new world look like, when it comes?
            And will the old powers of violence and oppression
            continue to reassert themselves?
Well, they always crouch at the gate, waiting to pounce.
But as the people of God in our 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.

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