The scriptures referred to are Mark 13:1-8.
As my wife will tell you, one of the worst things about childbirth is having a husband who is a new nurse. It was bad enough during the pregnancy, with me monitoring every new study (“Coffee is bad for pregnant women...no, it's good...no, it's bad again!”) But the labor was the worst. With my son, we had false alarms. My wife had contractions one day and because she was past her due date we went to the hospital. After monitoring her for hours, they said it was Braxton-Hicks and sent us home. So when I came home at midnight from the hospital I worked just a few days later and she was having contractions again, we decided to wait. After all, we already had an appointment to have labor induced the next morning. Turns out it was unnecessary because this time the contractions were the real thing. It still took 20 hours.
My nursing texts said that the second time around, labor was faster and more regular. Yet when we were having our daughter, my wife's contractions were all over the place. I timed them. They were supposed to be getting consistently stronger and and closer together. They weren't. Then my Casio calculator watch went wonky and I ran out to the nearby Kmart and got another. The contractions still weren't acting as the nursing texts said they should but my wife was in tears and so we went to the hospital. 20 hours. Again. And I learned an important lesson as a nurse: the progress of events aren't always as clear cut as the books say.
When folks study today's passage from Mark I really think they ignore the last line about all of these things being “but the beginning of birth pangs.” Maybe because the majority of Bible scholars and pastors are men. Jesus is saying very clearly here that all of these signs are preliminary and the whole process is going to take a long time. And yet those who obsess over these things can't resist working out time tables and sometimes illustrating them with all kinds of colors and pictures of the beast and the statue from Daniel and the rapture, with little regard for the fact that they are taking all of these out of different contexts and combining them in ways that the original authors never intended. They remind me of the fans who combine clues from all the Pixar films to come up with a clever scenario that runs through all their films. It begins with the introduction of magic into the world, bringing sentience to animals and inanimate objects as seen in Brave, then the creation of intelligent machines that are used against people as seen in The Incredibles, then toys that are alive as seen in the Toy Story films, pollution of the world as seen in Finding Nemo, a posited war between humans and animals that leads to people leaving the earth in spaceships, while Wall-E cleans things up. Meanwhile intelligent Cars take over, while the animals eventually evolve into the characters in Monster Inc. It is a beautiful theory but, except for the in-jokes like Planet Pizza truck they put in every Pixar movie along with images of the characters of their other films, I doubt the studio intended all of these things to come together in that way.
In the same vein, fans have theorized that James Bond is merely a code name assigned to different Secret Service agents over time and that's why the superspy appears to be a different guy every few films. Alternately, fans theorized that Bond is a Time Lord and regenerates periodically like the main character in Doctor Who. If you are willing to be super-creative and ignore context and certain details, you can make a grand theory out of almost any disparate elements. In fact, John Cleese defined creativity as connecting two or more things that were not previously connected. Sometimes this leads to real breakthroughs as when a clever census worker thought of using the principle of punch cards that controlled industrial looms to keep track of data and invented a very primitive data compiler. But sometime it leads to conspiracy theories that turn the very real events of the Kennedy assassination into something dreamt up by the writers of TV's How to Get Away with Murder.
Now I am not saying that the Bible is incoherent in its eschatology, or theology of last things. Certain features are consistent: that things will get worse and this world will come to an end, that Christ will return, that the injustices of this life will be judged and evil will be dealt with, that the redeemed will be rewarded, and that God will renew creation and establish his kingdom on earth. But the details vary. For instance, the word “anti-Christ” only appears in 1st and 2nd John, (never in Revelation) and refers to any opponents of the faith, not one person, whereas Paul speaks of the lawless one and Revelation of a beast and false prophet. Are they all talking about the same thing? The so-called rapture is only mentioned once in 1st Thessalonians. Only Revelation speaks of 7 trumpets, seals and bowls, which often hark back to the Exodus plagues. For that matter the book of Revelation features a lot of freaky imagery and symbols from the Old Testament prophets, plus codes, all to hide the meaning from the Roman authorities who were persecuting the church. It even tells readers to be careful in interpreting its contents. (Rev 13:18; 17:9) All of this lets us know not to take everything literally. Or else the anti-Christ will be easy to spot. He'll be the chap with ten horns and seven heads.
If you read my blog during the year of the Bible Challenge, you know that there are 4 schools of interpretation when it comes to the book of Revelation. The familiar Futurist school thinks most of these events are yet take place. The opposite is the Preterist school which thinks most of the events in Revelation took place in the 1st century AD. The Historist school thinks the book foretells events that happen during the history of the church until at least the Reformation. The Spiritual school doesn't attach the contents of the book to any particular events but sees them as revealing spiritual truths that can be applicable at any time. Notice that 3 of those schools accept that the events in Revelation are not literal, because, for one thing, a third of the population of the earth have not died, nor a third of the creatures in the sea, nor has a third of the oceans turned to blood nor a third of the trees burned up. The Futurist school would add the word “yet.” But even they have to come up with creative interpretations of the army of locusts with human faces, teeth like lions and crowns on their heads, and the fire-breathing battle horses with faces like lions and tails like venomous snakes. The point is: nobody, not even fundamentalists, takes all of these things literally.
This doesn't mean that the ideas behind the symbols are not true in some sense. Certainly we are quite capable of destroying that much human and animal life and wreaking that much havoc on our environment. Some would say it is already underway. And we are monkeying with the DNA of various species and even considering creating chimeras, animals with human genes. And the closer we come to getting our hands on the very fabric of life and reality the more cautious and humble and morally aware we need to be. This is not a matter of being anti-science but of being wise in how we use science because of the unforeseen consequences that come when we tinker with things. For examples, rabbits, animals most people consider relatively harmless, were introduced into Australia in 1859 for hunting and meat. They had no predators there. Within 10 years the initial 24 hybrid rabbits had so multiplied that 2 million could be shot or trapped with no apparent effect on the overall population. Their impact on the ecosystem there has been devastating, resulting in erosion from eating the plants that protect the topsoil. In addition they are probably the most significant factor for the loss of species down under. And that's rabbits! Imagine if someone decided to make them even hardier. Or if they tried to introduce something else. They are presently trying to eradicate them by spreading a virus among them for which there is no cure, a virus which can spread to other mammals. What could possibly go wrong?
I think the best way to approach apocalyptic material in the Bible is the one Jesus outlines here in Mark 13. Right off the bat, he cautions us not to react in the way people typically do when they think about such things.
First, he says, “Beware that no one leads you astray.” Fearful and panicked people are easily manipulated. That's why preachers and politicians often ramp up the bad news to make everything a matter of life and death. If they say, “I think this policy or trend is not a very good one but certainly it's not the end of the world,” not many people will listen to or follow them. So instead they make it sound as if their opponent's stance on the hot button topic du jour will spell the end of civilization as we know it. “You must elect me or follow my Bible interpretation lest we all be plunged into a hell of our own making or the literal hell of fire and brimstone.”
And that leads to Jesus' second warning: beware of false messiahs. I always thought it was weird that so-called believers could think that Jim Jones or David Koresh was the messiah when if they just read their Bibles they would know that Jesus redflagged such people. But it can be just as bad when people look to certain political leaders as if they are the only ones who can save us or our country. Putting blind faith in leaders is how you get a Hitler. Psalm 146:3 says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings who cannot save.” I'm not saying don't vote. Just realize that whoever we elect will not be the answer to all our problems. He or she may even create new problems. What we need to elect are wise and just leaders. (And in case we don't, our founders set up a system where any branch of government can be held in check by the two other branches. Having lived under kings they were against giving any human being absolute power.)
Jesus' third warning is key: don't be alarmed by wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines. That is, don't ignore them; just don't think they spell the end of the world. Again we do tend to jump to those conclusions, don't we? When things are bad for us, we think they are bad for everyone. The opposite error is just as pernicious: to think that because things are fine for us they are basically OK for everyone else. Jesus knew that neither is true. Specific regions or classes of people have it good while other regions or classes of people have it bad. That's the paradox of this world. Believe it or not, the tourism board in Syria is trying to get people all over the world to come to a new resort area, one apparently where people are not being bombarded by barrel bombs or find themselves under the threat of being beheaded or enslaved by ISIS. So even while a civil war rages and thousands of refugees flee, there is at least one place in this hell on earth where people can go to the spa.
On the other hand, for those refugees and for those who under fire from their own government and for those who are facing violent fundamentalists who can justify any atrocity, it is the end of their world, of their civilization. Even if they survive or find refuge somewhere else, things will never be the same. They will mourn not only those people they lost, but also the places and ways of life which were destroyed.
Which leads to something Jesus says that I think is the key to this whole passage, but is several paragraphs beyond the end of today's lectionary reading. Jesus says, “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.” Matthew's version adds, “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. (Mt. 24:46)
And what is that work? Helping those whose world has come to an end: those whose health has gone, whose wits are at an end, whose home is gone, whose livelihood is no more, whose family has been shattered. We are to help the helpless and give hope to the hopeless. We are to feed the hungry and give water to the parched and go to the sick and visit those in prison and welcome the immigrant as Jesus commanded us in Matthew 25. We are to spread the good news of God's love and forgiveness and healing and wholeness through Jesus Christ, his son, not only with our words but with our works.
In Jesus' day, it was thought that first the Messiah would appear and then he would end the current evil age and begin the Messianic age, establishing the kingdom of God as a political entity. But Jesus kept comparing the kingdom to things that start small and grow: a seed, a field of wheat, leaven, talents that are invested for later return. He also spoke as if the kingdom were a present as well as a future reality. Because his kingdom does not come as earthly kingdoms do, by forcible conquest but by being offered and accepted and by growing one person at a time. The Messianic age has already begun, and has invaded the current evil age before it has ended, reclaiming God's creation and creatures from it. And we are to plant the seeds of the kingdom of God that is within us and among us wherever we go and with whomever we encounter. That too is our work.
Jesus never promised that following him would be easy and uneventful. He never said that enlisting other people to become citizens of his kingdom would work like magic and give instant results. Everything he said about the coming of his kingdom indicated it would be slow, hard work, like farming or fishing or childbirth. And he never said he would whisk us away from the hard times of the final days. In fact, in Mark 13: 24-27 he says, “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 heaven will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Emphases mine)
Sorry, people who think the rather recent idea of the rapture as an escape plan is somehow Biblical. Jesus ain't handing out any “Get out of Tribulation Free” cards. He didn't skip the excruciating work of redeeming us. We can't skimp on the task of taking up our crosses and following in his footsteps.
You know what, though? My wife was so in love with our first child that she was willing to go through that discomfort and pain all over again to have our second child.
Everything Jesus tells us about the kingdom, which he often compares to a big wedding feast, says it will be worth it. Like my wife and most mothers, we will find that the result far outweighs the pain and that the love we receive will far surpass the cost.