March 29, 2020
One night in November of 1983, my church youth group met at our leaders’ house to watch a TV movie. Normally we met at the church, of course; but in those days you couldn’t necessarily watch a TV movie at the church, and I think our leaders wanted us in a more comfortable environment, because the movie was going to be pretty troubling.
The people who track TV ratings say that about a third of all Americans watched that movie that night.
For us it hit a little too close to home—for folks here, I’d suspect it hit a lot too close to home, since it was set in Lawrence, Kansas, and was partly filmed just up the road in Harrisonville. The movie was called The Day After; it was about people in Lawrence and surrounding areas struggling to survive after a nuclear attack. Even without computerized special effects like we take for granted today, it was graphic and terrifying.
We watched it together as a youth group, with many of us in horror and at least one cracking jokes to mask their own fear and anxiety and maybe to try and help calm the rest of us a little. (No, that wasn’t me; I’m not that clever.)
The next morning, we discussed it in biology class. It turns out that The Day After was very inaccurate in one big way: Lawrence isn’t far enough away from Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Ft. Riley outside Manhattan, and even McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, that very many people would have survived the initial blast. We down in Coffeyville wouldn’t have fared a whole lot better. But folks who were killed in that initial blast would have been the lucky ones.
A friend of mine whose father was in the Air Force stationed at Offutt said they were taught that if a nuclear attack came, they should run toward the base so they’d be killed instantly and not suffer a slow death from injury or burns or radiation sickness.
We GenXers and Baby Boomers grew up immersed in the fear of nuclear holocaust. The fear was always present, but there were times when it was a lot stronger, like during the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s and, yes, the early to mid 1980s, when there was a lot of saber-rattling in both Washington and Moscow, with leaders of our country claiming we could survive a nuclear war, and a period of time when nobody was entirely sure who was in charge of the Soviet Union.
We got through that period without anybody nuking anybody, and for a time it looked like we were finally going to be rid of that particular danger. But even now, 30 years after the Soviet Union came to an end, there’s still plenty to be afraid of.
I’ve had to abandon my personal Twitter account for the time being, because there is so much fear and panic being spread there. Someone posted a week or so ago, “Is this how America ends?” Is this how civilization ends? Are we doomed? Is our economy going to collapse? What if there’s no more toilet paper? (Okay, that was a joke; but it seems like a lot of people sure think it might happen, and they’re hoarding it to the point that people who are actually running low on toilet paper at their houses can’t get any.) Is this the end—of us, of our civilization, of our country, of…of…
People are afraid, understandably so, and we preachers aren’t immune to it.
Mark’s Gospel came out of a time when people were afraid and things were falling apart. Scholars think Mark was written either just before or just after the Great Revolt of 66-70, which ended when Rome destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple. It was an awful time for Jews living in Judea and Galilee—and because the earliest Christians were Jews, it was an awful time for Christians living in Judea and Galilee. It was a time of uncertainty and of fear, and it was a time when people truly believed the end-times were upon them.
Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it, although their uncertainty and fear was for a different reason.
The 13th chapter of Mark, which is sometimes called the “Little Apocalypse,” is set just before events are set in motion that end with Jesus’ death on a cross. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem, knowing he will die there. Mark 13 is a warning of sorts to the disciples about what was going to be coming, but it functions on more than one level.
In the Revised Common Lectionary, this text is assigned at the beginning of Advent, when we’re invited to anticipate the second coming of Christ; and then again toward the end of the Pentecost season, just before Advent begins. In those seasons, we can understand it as being about the end-times, about the signs that will tell us it’s time for Christ’s return and for the reign of God to be fully realized on earth. But the Narrative Lectionary places it during Lent, as we move closer and closer to Good Friday, and it really looks somewhat different now.
Jesus is about to be killed; he’s told the disciples so several times as they’ve made their way to Jerusalem, although they didn’t want to hear it. Now, in Jerusalem, Jesus starts making predictions that seem to have come true as Rome quashed the Great Revolt: the stones of the Temple torn down and scattered, a desolating sacrilege set up on the Temple grounds (in the part of the chapter our reading for today omits), false messiahs showing up making outlandish claims and stirring up trouble.
But in these predictions are hidden some images that foreshadow what is about to happen to Jesus and what will happen in the world as he is executed. As Jesus hangs on the cross, darkness covers the land; and there’s an earthquake at the moment of his death. At the end of the reading, Jesus says to be prepared because no one knows when the end will come, evening, midnight, when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If we have ears to hear, we’ll remember that important parts of the Passion story—the story of Jesus’ suffering and death—happen at precisely those times.
At evening, the disciples gather for the Passover meal, their last supper; and Judas leaves the table to do what he thought he had to do. At midnight, the disciples sleep while Jesus agonizes in prayer; and then Judas arrives to betray Jesus into the hands of the soldiers he brings with him. At the moment the rooster crows, Peter has just finished denying that he has anything to do with Jesus for the third time. And at dawn Jesus is on trial, and then is sentenced to death by crucifixion.
“Keep awake,” he tells the disciples, but they cannot keep awake.
“Keep awake,” he tells us, as we wait at home, trying to keep a dangerous and potentially deadly pandemic at bay and worrying what it will do to our homes, our families, our finances.
So often Christians talk about the end-times, about the time before Christ returns, when things get incredibly frightening and horrible, as a way to instill fear, to convince us to give our lives to Jesus so we can escape the terrors that are ahead for those who don’t belong to him. And certainly there is a warning here for us.
Terrible things may well happen. The things we fear may come to pass. It will probably get worse before it gets better. But Jesus tells his disciples, “These are just the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Those of you who’ve had children know that giving birth is a painful experience—but at the end of the pain a new life has begun, and you have a new identity as Mom or Dad. Pain gives way to joy.
The end-times, as they’re often called, will give way to a glorious new world, one where there’s no more sickness, no more pandemics, no more pain or death or persecution; one where the Reign of God, not the Roman Empire or any other earthly empire, is fully in charge.
There are voices out there right now that are telling us that we shouldn’t fear the new coronavirus. Some of them are saying that if we fear the virus, it shows we don’t have faith in God; and that we need to prove our faith in God by gathering in large groups just as we did before the virus came along. But God didn’t give us our brains and our common sense as temptations to be overcome.
Jesus didn’t tell the disciples that when they saw the signs that the end of the age was on its way, they should ignore them and live their lives as usual. He said, keep your eyes open, stay awake, be ready; and I think he would say the same thing to us now. Be aware of what could happen, take the precautions that are necessary to keep your family and yourself safe and avoid spreading illness; and trust that God will walk with us even in these frightening times, and will bring us through to the other side.