Sometimes, we just have to laugh at God's timing. Just as the hype and publicity surrounding the release of 2012 on Friday the 13th has reached its height, you and I are reminded of the real end times in Mark's Gospel. Think on that for a second. Of all the weeks to release a movie, the producers chose one when all churches who follow either the old lectionary or the Revised Common Lectionary, will get a lesson on the end times. So, is the world going to end in 2012?
Our story from Mark this week begins with the apostles pointing out the magnificence of the Temple in Jerusalem. They remark at its seeming immovability and its beauty. The implication is, of course, this is God's house and it will never be moved. Jesus' answer no doubt surprised them. They were expecting him to remark at the permanence or beauty of God's house, and he tells them that every stone will be over-turned. I think we sometimes forget the massive scale of some of the buildings of antiquity (after all, who measures in cubits nowadays?), but these stones and buildings were magnificent. And big! And the Teacher tells them that every stone will be overturned.
As the story progresses, the apostles find themselves on the Mount of Olives alone with Jesus. They ask of Him for signs when this destruction is to occur. And Jesus begins another of His teachings about the End Times and His expectation for us. Jesus tells the apostles privately that there will be wars, that there will be earthquakes, and that there will be famines. These events, He says, are but the beginning of the birth pangs. While the timing of the reading was impeccable this year, we might wish that the editors of the lectionary would have kept the entire pericope together. Jesus's answer actually forms a chiasmus over some 21 verses. A chiasmus is, among other things, a literary way of placing emphasis on something within prose or poetry. The emphasis in these passages is Jesus' instruction to His disciples to be discerning. Really, a better translation might be "see with understanding," but we get the idea.
Events will happen around us, objects will loom large in our lives, and Jesus commands us to see with understanding. The temple, that outward sign of the immovable God of Israel, houses those who will kill God's only begotten Son. The place that houses those who ought to be watching most attentively for Him will instead house those will successfully manipulate the Romans into crucifying Jesus and the people into complacency surrounding His death. And even these horrible events can be overwhelming. Earthquakes are just weird. Who likes it when the earth moves? We call it solid ground for a reason. And wars. As we have learned, wars carry a terrible cost. The toll on those in war is nearly overwhelming. There are physical, financial, emotional, and mental strains placed upon soldiers that doctors and sociologists are only beginning to understand. And Jesus tells us that things mark the beginning of the birth pangs.
So, do I think the world going to end in 2012? I think it is as likely to end in 2012 as it is in five minutes hence. I do not mean to downplay the likelihood; rather, I mean for us to think about Jesus' teachings on the End Times. How does Jesus describe His return? The images used by Jesus are one of surprise and suddenness. "Like a thief in the night" or "like the bridegroom returning home in the middle of the night," Jesus describes His return as swift and sudden. At the end of this story, He describes His return as sudden. Even when the disciples ask Him directly about the time, Jesus says only the Father knows. But when it is time, He will come. So we are told by Him to be alert, to be awake. In other words, we do not know when He will come again, so we had better be ready at all times for our Lord's return. Maybe the bumper sticker is right: "Jesus is coming. We better look busy." Might Jesus be coming in 2012? Sure.
But He might come before then or after then. It is our job to be prepared. It is our job to finish those jobs and ministries that He has given us. It is our job to make sure that we have cast His net as wide as possible, have invited as many as we have seen to the Feast, have shared His story of redemption with all with whom we come into contact. Because His appearance will be sudden. His appearance will be decisive. His appearance will mark the gathering of humanity and the Final Judgment. For those who have accepted His offer, it will mark the beginning of a wonderful celebration. For those who have rejected His offer, it will be a terrible time, way worse than wars and earthquakes and famines. And there are no "do-over's."
Armed with that knowledge and certainty, you and I are sent into a world with urgency. Should we be scared by Mayan calendars? No. If Jesus did not know when the Father would send Him, do we really think the Mayans knew? Should we be afraid of guys or gals on the street corner holding a placard proclaiming "the end is near." No, but we should be reminded of the urgency of the work to which He has assigned to us. Should we fear natural disasters such as tornados, floods, earthquakes, and fires as harbingers of His return? No. But we should use those events as opportunities to share the hope that we have in our Lord's ability to overcome everything, even the grave. And should we fear "prophets" who claim to speak in His name and urge us to any number of crazy actions? Absolutely not. We are to look with eyes that perceive and hear with ears that hear His voice and hearts that truly understand Him so that we cannot be misled and so that we can speak out against those who would destroy more of His sheep. It is not by accident, at least I hope that it is not, that our lectionary editors chose the prayer over Scripture for this set of readings. We are called to read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest His Word. His Word, His grace, His love ought to be lived out by His disciples. Are the end times near? Absolutely. Do we know the moment of His return? No. So watch, and get busy! Someone in your life is waiting to hear His story.