Mark 13:1-8, 24-37
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 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. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
Our reading for this morning reminds me of the one about a truck driver who was heading west across the Arizona desert. He has been driving all night, and as the sun started to rise, he felt the need to stop and commune with nature. He pulled to the side of the road, parked, and walked out into the sagebrush. As he was standing there, looking around at the beauty of the early morning, he noticed a lever sticking out of the ground. After a few moments, he walked over, walked all the way around, and then reached out to grasp the lever. Just as he did, he heard a voice say, “Uh, uh, uh, don’t touch that lever.” The driver jumped about two feet off the ground, and as he came down, he looked around. No one was to be seen. Thinking it was just his imagination, he again reached for the lever. But again the voice yelled, “I said don’t touch that lever!” Being more prepared, the driver sensed the location of the voice and looked down under a sagebrush. There he saw a small snake. The driver, in much astonishment, said, “Was that you that just spoke?” The snake said, “Yes. I have to keep people from touching that lever. If the lever is moved, it will be the end of the world.” The driver, still rather astonished, said, “What is your name? And will you talk on TV?” The snake said his name was Nate and that he wasn’t interested in going on TV; anyway, he had to stay and watch the lever to see that it wasn’t moved. The driver said, “Look, I’ll get the networks to send out camera crews. That way, you can inform the entire world about the danger of the lever.” Nate thought it over and realized there was a great deal of sense to the idea. The driver, true to his word, got the network camera crews out. They put on broadcasts in which Nate warned the entire world of the dangers of moving the lever. A few weeks later, another truck driver was going through the area. He was following an oil tanker, and the tanker sprang a leak. When the driver’s truck hit the slick, it went out of control, and he found himself headed straight for the lever. He remembered seeing Nate on the TV telling about the lever and so he knew that if he hit it, he would cause the world to end. He strove, with all his might to maneuver the truck. Finally, at the last moment, he was able to swerve, but in doing so he ran over Nate, the snake, and killed him flat! The truck driver later explained, “Well, better Nate than lever.”
That one tickles my fancy on a couple of levels. The idea that a snake, biblically associated with Satan, diligently working to keep the world from falling apart is rather absurd and downright uncharacteristic. Then the idea that the snake, this great guardian of the world who had probably watched that lever since the beginning of creation, could be completely annihilated by some random act of nature is equally absurd! Throw in a little play on words at the end and you have a fantastic joke…
It’s good to have a little humor when reflecting on some of Scripture’s more difficult passages. In our reading for this morning, we heard Jesus warn his disciples about the end times when buildings will crumble, false leaders will rise, nations will fight each other, the very earth will tear apart. The sun and moon will darken and the stars will fall from the heavens. Then the Son of Man and the angels will appear in mighty power and full glory, presumably to save whatever remains. Now it’s easy to hear Jesus’ words and become frightened…what terrifying imagery! It’s no wonder the disciples press him to further explain what will occur and when it will occur. Make no doubt about it, it is a frightful description. We hear the description and wonder if our own struggle with the coronavirus pandemic is but a precursor of terrifying times to come. Are we living through the beginning of the end times? No doubt there are plenty of people who claim we are. But I will neither support nor deny their claim. Some people are blessed with the gift of prophecy and we give thanks for them. To each is blessed unique gifts that, combined with the gifts of others, make up the body of Christ. Thanks be to God for those who can read the signs around us!
I like to believe my gifts are in teaching and supporting and strengthening others for life in this world. I hear Jesus’ words and am less terrified than I am hopeful. Yes, they have a frightening destructiveness and uncertainty to them but nestled among them are great words of hope. “Beware that no one leads you astray.” How can we tell who would lead us astray? That’s easy–anyone who leads us away from the light and life of Christ. There are many in this world who despise the light and life of Christ. They’d much rather dwell in darkness, seeking life which really isn’t life. Jesus encourages us to distinguish those who would lead us astray. “When you hear of wars and rumor of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.” All throughout Scripture we hear Jesus telling people, and us, “do not be afraid.” He might tell us frightening things, things we don’t want to hear, but that doesn’t mean we are to be afraid. No, sometimes frightening things have to take place. God wants them to take place and allows them to take place. Why? Because they are a means to an end…to his end. “This is but the beginning of birth pangs.” Anyone who’s ever witnessed the birthing process can’t help but be in awe…frightened, one might say. It is a frightening thing to behold but it is less so knowing that it has purpose, it is a means to an end, to new life. All frightening things are means to an end. We just don’t know what the ends are so we become scared of the unknown. God knows what the ends are to all things. We can take comfort in this because we know God is love. All that He is and all that He does is of love so no matter what the ends are, they are ultimately of love. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” These are words of greatest hope! God is always in control and will always be present in his words. His creation may fade away but his words will remain. What great hope! His creation can be recreated through his words!
Yes, there is great hope in Jesus’ words…in God’s words. In times of uncertainty, we must cling to his words of hope. Proverbs tell us, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” (3:5-6) God has guided us so far and God will continue to guide us through whatever uncertainty lies ahead. Psalm 9 says, “and those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.” (v 10) God doesn’t abandon us in our times of uncertainty. We are the ones who abandon him! We are the ones who doubt his presence. We are the ones who rely on our own insight. Let’s get back to trusting in him, to loving him. God loves us and wants to show us his love. Psalm 37 advises us, “commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.” (v 5) In this time of uncertainty, let us commit our ways to God. Let us trust God to see us through and reveal his love to us. There is an end to all things–love. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.