By Bill Prather
This article is based on a Nov. 15 sermon from Mark 13:1-8, the Revised Common Lectionary text following the terrorist attacks in Paris.
I have to confess that I’m not a big fan of disaster movies. I can count the ones that I’ve seen not only on one hand, but with one finger. Yes, the first and only disaster movie that I’ve seen was the original Poseidon Adventure which came out in 1972 and starred Gene Hackman, Earnest Borgnine, Shelley Winters and a host of others. As you might remember, a huge wave capsizes the ocean liner and the survivors, in the hope of rescue, must travel through the upside down ship toward the exposed hull of the ship. Navigating the obstacles in their journey to the bottom of the boat, there is great joy as the survivors signal their rescuers and are eventually pulled from the wreckage of that ocean liner. Although there is joy and celebration at the triumph of the survivors, a good disaster flick has just a little too much drama and mayhem in it to keep me coming back.
The lectionary texts for Nov. 15th, particularly Mark 13:1-8 (with a bit of Hebrews 10:11-25) have me thinking of disaster movies as the gospel writer takes an interesting turn in his narrative.
Mark has been telling story after story, but as chapter 13 begins, his writing turns more apocalyptic in form. As Jesus’ disciples are marveling at the grandeur of the temple, Jesus tells his followers that the great structure will soon be destroyed — reduced to a pile of rubble. In the next verse, sitting opposite of the temple on the Mount of Olives, Mark’s four initial disciples ask Jesus to explain what will happen and to give them a sign. Jesus basically refuses their request. Normally I am pretty self-righteously critical of the disciples’ thickheaded behavior and I wonder why the disciples don’t “get” Jesus like we modern day Christians do. (My tongue is firmly in my cheek here.) But in this instance, I identify with the disciples’ questions and I think that most of us do as well.
Like the disciples, we have a yearning to know what is going to happen in life and we want to know the details of how the future will unfold. We want to be able to see the signs of the coming chaos that Jesus describes and know why those things will be happening. We may especially feel that way in recent days as our world is feeling the effects of the terrorist attacks in Paris. Not only do our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of France, those injured and the loved ones of those murdered, but our own anxiety level has been raised realizing again that there are people in the world who would hope to terrorize and kill innocent people. So, if we could just know the signs of the approaching end, we could be prepared for what’s to come and we could have at least some small amount of control over future events.
But as the disciples learn from Jesus, so in the text, we grasp that Jesus is not some sort of fortuneteller who is present with us to ease our mind and give us a pat on the head to reassure us. He doesn’t give us clues about future events to calm our fears and thus expose us to the temptation to behave as we choose until the signs appear. Instead, Jesus advises us to be alert, watchful and prepared for what is to come. He warns his followers to be on guard for deceivers who will be in our midst and he encourages us to not be alarmed at the news of chaos and suffering. Jesus understands that the news of this world will only serve to heighten our fears and raise our level of anxiety. Its purpose will be to mislead the Christian and have the follower cling to the latest worldly wisdom in search of truth and security. It’s interesting that in his warning, Jesus says that the things we will hear of will be just the beginning of what is to come.
So, how is the Christian to live faithfully in times of chaos without knowing the signs of what is to come? How does one deal with all of the situations of tragedy and suffering which would have us have us live in confusion and fear? The attacks in Paris are a prime example of what Jesus is referring to, but other situations also come to mind such as a devastating diagnosis of cancer or some other life threatening illness, the collapse of a mighty structure or a tragic loss of innocence. How is one to live in the midst of all of this as well as the competing voice of the world which are all full of passionate conviction and claiming to know the truth of world events leading to the end?
Common sense would say that the Christian ought not fly apart and point to every little hiccup in our society as a threat to the world and evidence of Jesus’ coming in the next hour. And that same common sense would also have us not simply bury our head in the sand and simply think that all of the crazy talk of the end of the world will go away. Rather, in all of the chaotic and fearful situations of life, our focus must not be on signs and voices, but instead on the One who is to come. Our center of peace and calm is to be on the One who enables us to look up amid the chaos that we face and claim the certainty of his presence and blessing. Our life or the world may have appeared to fall apart. It may seem that confusion and disorder reign in our world. But the hope of the Christian is found in Christ and our faith in him.
The author of Hebrews says in another lectionary text for the day (Hebrews 10:11-25), that we are to hold onto the confession of our hope without wavering. That means that we are to have faith in Jesus and have that faith because Jesus is reliable. Thank God that we don’t hold onto faith in our own strength, rather our confidence and true security are grounded in the trustworthiness and faithfulness of the One who keeps promises. We develop our faith and maintain our focus on Jesus by drawing near to him and striving to be like him. For we know that as we do that, we will be shaped, formed and prepared so that we are ready for the times of chaos to come.
Thinking back on Jesus’ response to his disciples, perhaps it is a good thing that Jesus didn’t answer their questions and give them the signs they were looking for. It seems that a better answer for the disciples is that Jesus knew that his followers would be alright if they stayed close to him. They had committed their lives to him, spent time with him, and served him. And they would continue to model their life after Jesus’ so they would grow in discernment and be able to tell the lies from the truth even in the midst of confusion and tragedy.
So, as it is for the disciples, may it be for us modern day followers as well. As we have faith in Jesus, follow him closely and know him, may we too be able to discern the truth even amid all of the disconcerting events and chaos that we hear of. Jesus closes the Markan passage in saying that the rumors will be the beginnings of labor. So, the discerning Christian can live in expectation and anticipation that something marvelous that is coming from God. We can rest assured that God is preparing to birth something wonderful as we will keep the faith and trust in him.