Texts: 1 Samuel 1:4-20, 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8
I am going to start by giving you fair warning: we have reached just about my favorite time in the church calendar, and no, it has nothing to do with the approach of Christmas. This is the time during our year when everything gets really confusing. We’ve been rolling along through the long season after Pentecost, hearing the stories about the disciples and learning in our readings what it means to be followers of Jesus, and all of a sudden, it seems, we are cast into a time of doom and gloom and, for some reason, we’re almost back at the crucifixion again. What is up with that?
These are the last two Sundays of our liturgical year, this week and next, and the theme turns to end-times. This 13thchapter of Mark’s gospel is known as the “little apocalypse.” The word “apocalypse” simply means to reveal or uncover, so apocalyptic literature is intended to reveal something to us or show us something that is hidden. The sad thing about this is that many groups of people have tried to interpret the future from apocalyptic literature, all those Left Behind books and movies and the guy standing on a street corner with a sandwich-board that says, “The End Is Near.” I have news for you in case you were wondering: you cannot predict the future from these texts no matter what anyone tries to tell you.
Maybe someday we can all do a study of the book of Revelation, the wildest and most unconventional apocalyptic writing in all of scripture, and we can discover together what it means, which is most definitely not that a great beast will come to devour a child and only 144,000 of all of humankind will be swept up into the sky to live with Jesus while the rest of us burn in a fiery lake. No, we’ll save that fun for another time.
Today, let’s just talk about Mark and his little apocalypse.
Do you remember last week when we heard the story of the widow putting her last coins in the temple treasury, and Jesus criticizing the scribes who, as he put it, “devour widow’s houses” (10:40)? The poor woman giving up her last two coins did not arrive at poverty on her own – she was driven there by greed and an oppressive temple tax system. Our reading last week ended with Jesus saying, “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (12:44).
And then we open today with, “As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’” (13:1). I don’t know about you, but when I read that I am reminded of the dog in the movie “Up,” who is constantly distracted by “SQUIRREL.” Time and again they miss whatever point Jesus is trying to make by focusing on the pretty, shiny bauble, whether it’s the beauty of the temple or some kind of power or privilege that they think he’s promising. They are so focused on one thing, SQUIRREL, that they completely miss the depth and power of Jesus’s message and mission in the world.
So they leave the city and head over to the Mount of Olives which gives a really good vantage point overlooking the massive temple, and the disciples naturally want to know when that building is coming down. Jesus talks in cryptic words of warning about false teachers and wars between nations, and he says, ominously, that this is just the beginning.
I don’t think you can read these words without reading them in the context of what is going on in the adjacent texts and what Jesus’s ministry is all about. Go back to the widow. He’s saying that the time is near for her to find relief, for her burden to be lifted, and in order for that to happen, the way power is currently wielded will have to change. And it’s going to change.
The Song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, that is read in place of a psalm on this day says much the same thing:
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honour.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world. (1 Samuel 2:7-8)
And these words would be echoed in the Magnificat of Jesus’s own mother, Mary:
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly. (BCP 119)
There’s a new day coming, and the last are going to be first and the first last.
These are words spoken to the scribes and Pharisees. To Herod and Pilate. To Caesar. To the powers and principalities of the world, Jesus says not one of these stones will be left on top of another.
Maybe that’s why I love this time of our church year so much. It’s a message that did not go out of date once Jesus time on earth ended. They are as valid and as true today as they were then. Those who trample on the poor, who take food from the mouths of the hungry, healthcare from the sick, who build walls to keep out the suffering, raise taxes on the backs of the minimum-wage earner, who send those without opportunities to do their fighting for them, who claim to be oppressed when they have sat at the top of the privilege heap from the day they were born – to these Jesus is saying, your time is almost up.
But note, Jesus did not wave a magic wand or call down 10,000 angels to make this happen. He left it to his disciples and to all of those who have followed in those footsteps through the centuries. How long will it take? The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had a thing or two to say about that:
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.”
How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.”
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
Be of good courage, friends. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews said,” Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).
Or in the words of the late, great Sam Cooke, “It’s been a long time coming. But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.”
But it won’t happen by itself. May God give us the strength to be the change we wish to see in the world.