Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Rodney Wallace Kennedy
We have a difficult text. It requires background to help us understand. Background is not usually all that interesting for people who just want the preacher to get to it and wrap it up in a nice short package, but if we are going to have a chance at understanding Mark 13, we have to take these side trips called background. This is not an Interstate sermon. This is a back roads, side roads, and small state highways road, with a dirt road or two thrown in (if you even still have dirt roads in Illinois).
Think of it as being on I-74 headed east to Indianapolis, and we have to get off on an exit that reads SYMBOLIC. Now, don’t stretch this metaphor too far. I know there’s no such place in Illinois named Symbolic, but there is a Normal and an Oblong, so you ought to be able to stick with this for me. the language of Mark 13 is highly symbolic. This shouldn’t surprise anyone except the diehard literalists among us. The Bible has a lot of symbolic language. What are we to make of the highly symbolic language of Mark 13? For one thing, time is counted differently in Mark 13. Instead of past, present, and future, Time is simply all rolled up into one continuum. It’s all here and now wrapped in a single package. David Buttrick says, “We speak in the space-time of salvation, from within a proleptic new humanity, dazzled by the presence of Gratuitous Love through the Living Symbol, Jesus Christ. With eager eyes we watch out for every new unfolding of God’s salvation within the human story.” Jesus is not talking about the future. He’s talking about here and now. Our text unfolds now in the present tense. The key is “Therefore, keep awake.”
The words of Mark 13 mean on a symbolic level. The text is a mysterious stream of symbols. The most difficult aspect of the Bible is its literary complexity. To read and interpret the many forms of literature found in the Bible requires literary skills. Reading the Bible in community led by “master” teachers is a necessity for discerning the truth. We tend to read the Bible as a book of recipes, a textbook, or an operator’s manual. The Bible often speaks in symbolic, imaginative, language and not in “commonsense” discourse. Symbols are hard to grasp, ambiguous, and they carry the possibility to offering new meanings in new situations, time, and in fresh readings. Symbolic language is never easy.
Wandering around SYMBOLIC we cross a bridge and discover that SYMBOLIC has a twin city: APOCALYPTIC. Mark 13 is usually called the “Little Apocalypse.” Many Christians use this word to speak only of the end of the world. There’s an entire genre of apocalyptic movies. The Left Behind novels and movies are apocalyptic. Armageddon. The Book of Eli. Mad Max: Fury Road. How odd that preachers and movie producers traffic in doomsday messages.
Apocalyptic language in the Bible is exaggerated language, code language to protect Christians facing persecution by the Roman Empire. It is a language that is hopeful and asks of us a fearless responsibility for the world. It is a language that talks about the present and the future at the same time.
After our cup of coffee at SYMBOLIC/APOCALYTPIC we get back on I-74 at our usual speed of 80 miles per hour because we believe that the posted 70 mph speed signs are not literal. They actually mean that the state trooper will not stop us unless we are going faster than 80 mph. We are all interpreters aren’t we?
An entire system of belief has grown up around an attempt to read these passages literally. This means that we are stopping for lunch at a place called DISPENSATIONALISM. The menu is filled with all sorts of delicious treats: rapture poboy, tribulation BLT, Anti-Christ chicken fried steak, millennial pot roast, Armageddon baked armadillo. Take a couple of Pepcid first. This system is an example of how you can stitch together unrelated passages to come up with a false, fake theology. I want to offer you two examples of how preachers use this system. For example, Jesus tells a story of one being taken, and one being left. This story is a favorite of rapture believers and it is the basis of that entire semi-literate set of books Left Behind.
Jesus tells his followers that at that time there would be division between families and colleagues: one would be taken, another left. It should be noted that “taken” in this context means being taken in judgment. There is no hint, here, of a “rapture,” a sudden “supernatural” event which would remove individuals from earth. It is a matter, rather, of secret police coming in the night, or of a group of marauders charging over the hill. Everyone would run for the safety of the city wall. Not everyone made it. One would be taken and one would be left. Jesus is talking about every day events that happened in the lives of his listeners. N. T. Wright, noted conservative evangelical New Testament scholar, has a helpful essay, “Farewell to the Rapture.” Here’s the favorite text of premillennial pretributionalist dispensationalist, rapturists. “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God. The dead in Christ will rise first; then we, who are left alive, will be snatched up with them on clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). What on earth (or in heaven) did Paul mean? At Jesus’ “coming,” those who are still alive will be “transformed” so that their mortal bodies will become incorruptible. This is all that Paul intends to say in Thessalonians, but here he borrows imagery from biblical and political sources to enhance his message. He recalls the story of Moses coming down from the mountain with the Torah. The trumpet sounds, a loud voice is heard, and after a long wait Moses appears to see what’s been going on while we was up on the mountain. Then Paul borrows imagery from Daniel 7, in which “the people of the saints of the Most High” (that is, the “one like a son of man”) are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up to sit with God in glory.
Paul is not giving us Left Behind nonsense; he’s telling us that Jesus is coming to make a new earth, and we are his ambassadors to earth. Paul is not offering us a way out, an escape. He is demanding that we accept fearless responsibility for this world, this one, the one we are living in here and now. He is calling on us to have the courage to subvert the dominant and dehumanizing empires of our world.
If by some wild stretch of the imagination, the Left Behind gurus are right, and Jesus is coming to snatch the believers into the air, I don’t want to go. I want to be left behind. Send word to Jesus: Leave me right here. I’m here. Right here. Ready for more. I want to stay and do something about the 16 million children that go to bed hungry in America every night. For those of you grumbling that our government already gives too many handouts, what are you suggesting we do for hungry children? I want to stay here and be a good steward of this old world and care for its environment. I want to stay here and oppose hatred, bigotry, oppression, and injustice. If believers have a ticket on the Rapture Express, I’m giving mine back. I’m not going. Jesus is asking us to face reality. This world is ruled by powers and principalities out to destroy God’s cosmos and we are right in the middle of the conflict. In this kind of world we are stuck with contingencies we can’t control. We share a common imperative of vigilance with Christians of every age. (Joel Marcus, Mark, Anchor Bible, 921).
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus warns us not to be caught sleeping? That ought to be enough right there to keep us from sleeping in church. Jesus is warning us not to despair over the difficulties of our situation. Jesus insists that we live life with our eyes wide open, our shoulders squared, our face to the future and our backs to the past.
We arrive at our destination exhausted and our mind is whirling with questions, but perhaps now we get it. Too tired to return to Peoria, we are staying at the Marriott in Indy and will head back in the morning. Now we know that our difficult text is not about some undetermined future. It is about what Jesus and the twelve were about to face at the cross and it’s about what we are facing now. The cross and resurrection are the subjects of Mark 13. This cross is what we can expect in every generation. The Son of Man passes through all this turmoil and darkness and returns as the herald of new life and a new age.
The cross is embedded in our identity. Jesus is telling us that this kind of stuff happens all the time. It is happening to us right now. So he tells us to not be afraid and to wake up. We have all the power we need. God has never needed a majority, or a huge crowd to get the work done. There’s stuff we can never know. There’s stuff we can’t avoid. There’s stuff that’s going to happen as Forest Gump tried to tell us.
And what I say to you I say to all: “Keep awake.” Square your shoulders! Lift your heads. Put your face to the future in anticipation of a new day in the kingdom of the Lamb of God.