A sermon on Mark 13:24-37 by Nathan Nettleton
For reasons I can’t quite remember, I was talking with Ian and Eliz the other day about what happens when dogs fight. I don’t know if you have noticed, but although dog fights look incredibly scary and ferocious, with lots of angry noise and flashing teeth in a blur of angry fur, when the dogs are pulled apart by their frightened owners, in the vast majority of cases absolutely no damage has been done. There is no blood, no injuries of any kind. And this is despite the fact that if you give these dogs a fresh bone to eat, a bone thicker than either of their legs, they can splinter it in seconds. The truth is that the majority of dog fights are no more real than two blokes thrusting their chests at one another in the pub. It is all bluster and bluff and the dogs simply intend to intimidate each other. They have no intention of hurting each other, because if they intended to, they would. Badly. But it looks pretty real to us. Or to most of us anyway. If you have ever seen a real dog fight where they really do want to kill each other, you will know the difference. The level of intensity is unimaginable until you have seen it. I have once seen one of my previous dogs get into a real one, and it is one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen in my life and the image of it is seared in my memory.
Something a bit similar goes on with reactions to readings like the one we heard from the gospel according to Mark tonight. Jesus speaks of the earth-shattering violence and chaos that will be a sign that the end has come, and so ever since, whenever there seems to be a dramatic increase in the violence and chaos of the world, people start thinking it must be the signs of the end that Jesus was talking about. Things seemed so peaceful and stable just a few weeks ago, and now all hell seems to be breaking loose. Surely the end must be near. Lately it has been the emergence of ISIS and the atrocities that they have been committing in Iraq and Syria. Beheadings and mass executions make for gruesome headlines, and they certainly achieve their aim of striking terror into the hearts of the masses. It seems as though the earth is being shaken and the sun is going dark and the stars are falling from the skies and there are wars and rumours of wars and surely it must all be pointing to something. But the truth is that it only seems like a dramatic escalation because our memories get stuck in short-term mode. Sure, no one had heard of ISIS a year ago, and things seemed relatively peaceful, but actually it is only 13 years since planes were deliberately flown into the World Trade Centre towers, and it is not yet 70 years since nuclear bombs were dropped on two major cities. ISIS are a bunch of pretentious wannabes by comparison. And I suspect that it is a bit like seeing a dog fight. The only reason we think it seems to be end-of-the-world bad is that we’ve never seen what an escalation to end-of-the-world levels really looks like.
There are a couple of other reasons why we have trouble knowing what to make of apocalyptic passages like this one from Mark’s gospel. One is the difficulty of knowing when to hear the language as hyperbole and when to take it as literal. We often react to things we find really shocking and confronting with hyperbolic language. We say things like the world was turned upside down, or the bottom fell out of my world. We don’t mean them literally. It is just a way of expressing our feelings about something. There has been lots of that kind of language used this week as the community has expressed its shock over the death of Phil Hughes. We’d have probably been a lot less shocked if he had died in a car accident or something, because we have a category in our minds for that kind of death. It would still be tragic and sad, but somehow more comprehensible. But we struggle to comprehend the idea that someone could get killed just going about their business of playing professional sport, unless maybe it is motor racing or boxing or something. But not cricket. And so in our incomprehension, we resort to extreme and imaginative language to try to put our shock and confusion into words. The sun refused to shine. The sky has fallen in. The earth has been shaken. Reality has been turned on its head. We know what is being said because we are in the middle of the experience. But when we read the apocalyptic language in the Bible, we are not in the midst of the context that produced the words, and we are not sure whether they refer to the landscape of communal emotions or to literal wars, eclipses, earthquakes and meteorites.
Which brings us to the other difficulty of interpretation, and that is context. When Mark the gospel writer recorded these words, they had a particular current context. Whatever Jesus had actually said, when the gospel writers were writing down his words, they understood them to relate directly to the Roman army sacking Jerusalem and destroying the temple. This earth-shattering event happened about forty ears after the time of Jesus, at about the time the gospels were beginning to be written down. The temple was so central to Judaism that its destruction seemed like the destruction of Judaism itself, and the destruction of the world as they knew it, and so those who were familiar with the apocalyptic statements that Jesus had made naturally understood his words as a foreshadowing of these events that they were now living through.
Now understanding that could take our thinking about it off in any number of different directions. We could just conclude that the relevance of these apocalyptic passages is therefore now past and of no relevance to us. Or we could conclude that the first century Christians were all wrong because the world didn’t end and the second coming didn’t happen, and therefore what Jesus was pointing to is still ahead of us and maybe coming soon. This would be a bit like the dogfight reaction, that says they only thought the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple was bad because they couldn’t imagine how much worse things could actually get. Or we could conclude that Jesus’s words were not tied to a single event, but that he was speaking to both the sacking of Jerusalem and to the fact that these kind of things keep on happening, and that they always feel like they are the end of the world when you are in the midst of them, but as each one passes, another one arises to terrify us again.
Now I lean strongly towards that last approach, but that in itself is not enough. Just knowing that Jesus said these things will keep happening does not really help us that much. He probably thought night would keep following day too, but that doesn’t change the way we engage with the world. Where is Jesus leading us with these apocalyptic warnings?
It seems to me that one of the major reasons that Jesus sometimes spoke in such apocalyptic terms was that he didn’t just realise that outbreaks of violence and chaos would continue to happen; he also realised that in a strange kind of way, his message would contribute to them. In some ways, as the message of the gospel of Jesus begins to transform human culture, things get worse. You can see his awareness of this in something else Jesus said on another occasion. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt. 10:34) It is clear that Jesus was not wishing to bring violence, but he was recognising an unfortunate consequence of his message. And it is not just that people will be divided in their reactions to him. As often as not, the increase in violence and chaos will happen among people who have no consciousness of reacting to Jesus in any way at all.
Let me try to explain. The drug known as Thalidomide was marketed the late 1950s and early 1960s as an effective way of alleviating morning sickness. It worked., and for pregnant women suffering severe morning sickness, that was naturally very attractive. But then more than 10,000 babies were born with deformed limbs and it was realised that the deformities were due to the use of Thalidomide, so after that, it didn’t matter how severe your morning sickness was, no one was going to take Thalidomide to deal with it. So if you were the scientist who discovered and publicised the dangers of Thalidomide, you could rightly be seen as the saviour of a generation of children, but you could also be labelled as the one responsible for a huge increase in morning sickness. And both would be accurate.
It is kind of a weird analogy, but Jesus is a bit like that scientist. Jesus has uncovered the terrible truth about the toxic way that the world deals with violence and chaos, but the problem with that is that, for a while at least, it leaves us without a safe way of dealing with violence and chaos, so they get out of hand. And so the gospel itself contributes to these seemingly apocalyptic situations that feel as though the sun is refusing to shine and the towers are falling down and the earth is being shaken to its foundations and the streets are awash with blood.
What Jesus has revealed, both in his teachings and in the manner of his own gruesome and violent death, is that the only way we have known to control violence is to convince ourselves that there is a difference between good violence and bad violence, and that good violence can be used to control bad violence and prevent it spiralling into apocalypse. Good violence is violence exercised by good people and authorised by a good God for the sole purpose of preventing bad people from using bad violence against good people. And we know it is good because everybody is agreed that it is good. And everybody is similarly agreed that the bad people are bad and that God has authorised us to do something about them. This belief and its application has enabled us to contain and control violence and chaos for thousands of years. Sometimes the remedy has had to be pretty severe, but it has worked, because we are still here. Apocalypse has been avoided. But then something went wrong. Badly wrong. Somehow we were suddenly all agreed that Jesus was one of the bad people that we had to use our good violence against, and we were all pumping our fists in the street chanting “Crucify him. Crucify him!” And we did, but he wouldn’t stay dead. He came back, and he was so full of love and forgiveness that we couldn’t even pretend to believe that he’d been one of the bad people. And so the theory fell apart. It became obvious that we weren’t very good at telling the difference between good and bad at all, and that the truth of the matter was that what we called good violence was really just “our” violence, and that what we called bad violence was really just “their” violence, and that actually many of the victims of our good violence were no more bad and no more deserving of it than us.
The implications have been sinking in ever since, and what it usually means now is that it is virtually impossible to get a consensus that “they” are bad and need to be attacked. It is not that long ago that you could get away with pointing the finger at a black slave or a reclusive old woman and the whole community would unite against the “demon” or the “witch” and it would be like a release valve that ease the violent pressures in the community. But the gospel message has been continuing to open our eyes, and you just can’t get that kind of consensus anymore. We still try. Politicians demonise asylum seekers and try to get us all to unite against these enemies of all we hold dear, but now we keep seeing the humanity of the victim, and we keep hearing the whispered voice of Jesus saying, “When you do that to one of the least of these, you are doing it to me. In fact you are doing what you did to me. Don’t you remember how wrong you got that?”
So now, like Thalidomide, we recognise that our “cure” is creating more problems than it is solving, but now we are left with no cure at all. Jesus does offer us a new cure, based on universal mutual love and forgiveness, but we are living in a terrifying time lag where the old cure has been exposed, but the new one is a long way from being implemented. Faced with the ISIS fanatics decapitating their victims, love and forgiveness don’t seem nearly as promising as a drone strike. But Jesus has exposed that too, and we know that the drone strike breeds fierce resentment that becomes the best recruiting tool that the fanatics could ever want, so violence, no matter how justified it seems, just goes on breeding more violence and apocalypse seems closer than ever.
In the face of all this, Jesus doesn’t offer any easy answers. He just offers warnings. “Read the signs. Stay awake. Stay the course.” Salvation will not come in the form of new improved weapons, or new improved intelligence to ensure that our targeting of evil is more accurate. Salvation will come in the form of a baby born in a back shed, a baby that the power of Rome will seek to destroy. “Read the signs,” says Jesus, so that you will understand that the innocent victims are all connected, and when you accept any of them as collateral damage, you are accepting that baby in the manger as collateral damage. “Stay awake” to the temptation to panic and run back to using officially sanctioned violence to try to bring our world back under control. “Stay awake” to the temptation to again try to use the force of law and the threat of God’s judgement to try to enforce morality and security. Stay the course that Jesus has begun, for although it is seemingly plunging us into apocalyptic violence, the plunge is the same as the road to the cross, it is the road that goes through death and beyond and rises into the promised land of life and peace. Stay the course because in the end, the world we yearn for will come, not as an explosion of power and judgement, but as a baby born in a shed, rising in solidarity with all the nameless victims of our misguided attempts to destroy evil, rising not in vengeance, but in overwhelming earth-shattering, apocalyptic love and mercy and grace. And for the advent of that day on this, we work and pray. Come, Lord Jesus, come.