My best friend in elementary school was Katrina White. We loved to have sleepovers. We would make up plays, sing our favorite songs, create art projects—there usually wasn’t much sleeping involved. But we did at least go through the motions by laying down for awhile. And one night, Katrina refused to lay on the floor by the bed. And she refused to lay on the floor by the closet.
It seems that she had seen the movie Poltergeist in which, apparently, some scary something comes from under the bed and out of the closet. I distinctly remember thinking that if a scary movie could make someone too scared to sleep on the floor, I would just avoid scary movies.
This decision was reinforced when I met a nice young man named Ryan the summer after I graduated from high school. An athletic guy who—thanks to all the horror movies he had seen–would get a bit freaked out walking in the black night. He imagined creatures hiding behind the trees waiting to jump out at us.
I do not like to be scared. I don’t see the point of it. Ryan, now my husband, watches his horror movies alone or with friends. I don’t do horror. Not in movies. Not in books. Not even in the Bible.
My tendency has been to ignore the “horror movie” parts of the Bible—these apocalyptic images that we find in this passage from Mark, it’s parallels in Matthew and Luke, the book of Revelation, and even in a few places in the Old Testament.
I avoid these passages because the images they present are frightening. And I avoid these passages because the theology that many people pull from them is even more frightening. One end-times web site I found sums it up nicely: “If for any reason you ignore God’s message of love, you will deserve hell.”
This does not fit my image of Jesus. The Prince of Peace. The messenger of God’s love. The great shepherd who comforts and protects us.
Those are the parts of the Bible I want to watch. Jesus feeding the multitude. Jesus blessing the children. Jesus laying gentle hands on the sick.
This passage begins with the image of the stones of the temple being thrown down. These massive, huge boulders crashing to the ground. Crushing the faithful. Leaving a heap of rubble where there had –just a few minutes ago—stood the most sturdy, impressive buildings known to the ancient world.
Two tall skyscrapers, gleaming against the vast expanse of sky. Someone in an office just down the street turns to their computer to answer a few e-mails. A terrible noise jolts their attention back toward the towers. Instead of two solid buildings, there are pillars of smoke.
Jesus then warns of false messiahs. Of those who will deceive the people—promising salvation but bringing destruction.
“Trust me,” they will say. “It is us against the world,” they will say. “I am the only one who loves you,” they will say. And people will believe them and follow them wherever they go and drink poison for them.
“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. . . . Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.”
Countries will go to war with their neighbors. Armies will cross oceans to fight. People will destroy people because of religion, politics, money. Governments will attack their own people. There will be revolutionary wars, civil wars, world wars.
“There will be earthquakes in various places.”
And mudslides; and hurricanes, and tornadoes, and tsunamis. The family farms and businesses that people have built up over generations will be destroyed in an instant. There will be fires and looting and panic. There will be wailing in the streets as parents find the lifeless bodies of their children buried in the rubble.
“There will be famines.”
You will see images of children halfway across the world who are literally starving to death. Their knobby bones threatening to break through their taught dark skin. You will be asked to help feed people who live on the streets of your own cities—someone will ask if you can spare some change, if you can serve a meal at the soup kitchen.
These, indeed, are images of horror. Pictures that, given a choice, we might choose to avoid. Click onto a different web site or change the channel on our TV.
But these images are hard to avoid. If you are connected to the broader world at all—through newspapers, radio, TV, the internet—you probably don’t go through a day without hearing of a leader who has betrayed the people, a war, a natural disaster, people who lack what is needed for life.
Jesus’ listeners, of course, did not have access to global media coverage. But they didn’t need it. They had all the horror they could take right there. Messianic pretenders were a dime a dozen. The Judeans grew up on stories of the armed conflict with the Romans. In fact, at the time the gospel of Mark was written the Judeans were either hearing rumors of wars, in the midst of a war, or dealing with the aftermath of war. Earthquakes must have been terrifying when they did occur, because the prophets commonly speak of “earthquakes” to indicate terror and destruction. The threat of starvation hung heavily over the Jewish peasants.
These images that Jesus presents are indeed horrifying. But they should not be surprising. They are images we see every day. They are images Jesus’ first listeners and Mark’s first readers knew intimately.
In his poem, “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats describes the heart of the horror:
TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Jesus is not threatening humanity with a horrible future reality. Like all good prophets and poets, Jesus is simply naming the horrors that already exist.
People are arrested and tortured and killed for their faith; for speaking truth to the powers that be. Families erupt in violence. People are forced to flee the horrors of their lives. Go to a refugee camp in Chad and talk with a Sudanese mother. Ask her if she was pregnant or nursing when she had to flee her home.
In the final episode of the TV series MASH, there is a scene where a group of people is trying to escape. And one woman has a baby who keeps crying and crying. And this baby’s cries threaten to expose the entire group. Everyone is shushing the baby, telling the mother to make the baby be quiet. And finally she pushes the baby’s face tight up against her body until the crying stops.
It is a horror movie. Not one that Jesus creates. One that Jesus responds to.
And when we let ourselves look at the images of horror, we can then look at the other image Jesus presents with joy and anticipation: “The Son of Man will come in clouds with great power and glory.
And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”
I think that those of us who simply watch the horror on a screen have difficulty fully appreciating this image of the triumphant coming of the Son of Man. But the gospel of Mark was written most immediately for those living the horror—the earliest Christians who were being persecuted.
For those living the horror, this passage provides hope. Jesus will come again and the suffering will end.
In general, this hope is a good thing. But we know, of course, the problems that emerge from this end-times hope. It is this “pie in the sky by and by” theology that slave owners tried to shove down the brains of their slaves. That some fundamentalist pastors try to feed to abused women. It’s the theology behind the belief that religion is the opiate of the people.
Is that what Jesus is saying here? Just put up with the horrors because things will be better when you die—or when I come back—whichever comes first. Is that the message?
Considering the healing that Jesus did and the radical things he said, it would indeed be surprising if Jesus was advocating this kind of passivity.
Jesus is giving hope, for sure. But there is something more. There is something Jesus is telling us to do. Did you hear it? Seven times in this chapter: Watch out! Be on your guard! Be alert! Watch!
This is not a call to sit back and scan the horizon for signs of a figure riding in on clouds of glory. Watch! Be alert! Be on your guard! Jesus is emphatic. This is no passive command.
Watch the images of horror. Be alert to the suffering of people around you. Be on your guard against the forces of oppression and injustice.
Yes, the thirteenth chapter of Mark is uncomfortable. It is unsettling. It presents images we would prefer not to see. But what Jesus says here should not be surprising to those of us following his journey from Bethlehem to the cross.
To those who are helpless and powerless, Jesus offers hope.
To those of us with the luxury of being able to turn the channel and avoid the horror, Jesus tells us to watch. To act. To enact the love and justice of Christ in this world until he comes again. Amen.
–Preached March 22, 2009