Sermon preached by Miss Kate White, Sunday 16 November 2003
Living the Apocalypse
Mark 13.1-8 Heb 10.11-14, 19-25 Daniel 12.1-3
A question for you: where would you find a Manatee?
On a recent trip to America I visited Seaworld, one of the big theme
parks in Florida. It contained all types of fish and other sea creatures.
I’d been to similar parks before although, of course, in America they’re
bigger than anywhere else! But I saw something for the first time that day –
an exhibit entitled “Manatees – The Last Generation”. I had no idea what I
would find, but when I arrived at the manatee enclosure there they were –
huge, grey sea mammals, as big as a small whale. They were strange, with
flippers and hairy skin, and they simply floated slowly around, doing
nothing. They weren’t attractive but they were absolutely fascinating. And
they were the last generation because they are an endangered species,
threatened by extinction because of the modern advances of the human race
gradually eroding their natural habitat. The last generation. That phrase
came back to my mind when I was preparing for today’s service. The manatees
I saw in that Florida theme park might or might not be the last generation.
When I opened the first commentary that I read on the lesson set for today
the first line read "Mark 13 is the biggest problem in the gospel." We'll
think about why that might be, but the message challenging us here, is
“Shall we be the last generation?”
It’s a strikingly unusual passage which stands out in a number of ways: it’s the only point in Mark’s gospel where X delivers a lengthy speech on a single topic. More typically we get brief stories, parables, tips and teachings. But this is different. As always with any part of the bible, we need to understand the context and age in which it was written. It was written in the 1st century AD, at a time when interest in the apocalypse – the end or resolution of the age – was at fever pitch. Visions of the end of the world and the return of a messiah figure were commonly expressed in all sorts of literature. What seems to prompt J’s speech here was a casual throwaway remark from the disciples as they came out of the temple. The temple was indeed a remarkable and imposing building, one of the wonders of the world, and one of the disciples offers a remark about how amazing it was. J, pretty much out of the blue, goes on to explain that the temple might well be a fantastic construction but in due course it will be the scene of mass destruction: “There will not be left here one stone upon another.” And he goes on to give an apocalyptic description which sets out in considerable detail the signs and portents which will herald the end of all things. Our passage, set in today’s lectionary, is just the first stage of a 3-act drama. First will come wars and natural disasters; secondly there will be a period of great tribulation and suffering, focussed on some kind of outrage against the temple. Thirdly comes the denouement, where the Son of Man comes again and rescues those who are specially chosen. And it builds on a well-established OT apocalyptic tradition – as we heard outlined in the reading from Daniel. This passage is so unusual that it quite possibly might not be an authentic speech of J at all. This is particularly so because it doesn’t match J’s teaching about the apocalypse elsewhere. It could easily be a familiar form of Jewish apocalyptic description to which have been added some genuine sayings of J.
It paints a grim picture, but one which would have had a currency and meaning in first century Palestine, when memories of J and his ministry, death and resurrection, would have been much fresher than they are 2000 years later. Expectations that something would happen to finish the story off were high. People sought a cataclysmic event which would bring closure to the promises made by J. They thought they were to be the last generation. And what do we think? What does it mean to our generation? Do we think we are the last generation? Well, I have to say I don’t. Apocalyptic events, signs and portents – they’re not on my agenda.
Last Sunday, and again on Tuesday we held services of remembrance for the war dead. We thought about people who gave their lives for others and we marked wars and conflicts which involved brutality of human upon human, and carnage and loss which was stomach-turning. The so-called “great war” of 1914-18 seemed to some people who lived through it to be full of the terrible signs of destruction of an apocalyptic era. Since then people have interpreted more recent events in a similar light: the Vietnam conflict, slaughter in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, September 11th at the World Trade Centre. All were horrific events which, to some, seemed to change the world for ever. And yet we’re still here, aren’t we?
So does this apocalyptic vision in Mark’s gospel, this description of the end of the world, matter now? Well, it can encourage us to reflect on whether we see ourselves as the last generation. Generally I don’t think we, in contemporary British Christianity, see ourselves in this way. But if we don’t – how do we make sense of time moving on and seemingly decisive world events taking place around us? My suggestion is this – that even if we are not living in a feverishly apocalyptic age, we are still living in time, moving time. We are people of history, living out our life’s brief span in the 21st century. And I believe we are called to take our place in history. But we’re required to take our place in history without knowing our place in history. Are we the last generation? Will our children be? Will our grandchildren be? We don’t know and we can’t know. The NT is littered with notes of caution about trying to second-guess God as to when the world will end. It’s a cul-de-sac we go down if we try to fathom whether and when the resolution will come to pass. And would we live any differently if we knew for sure we were to be the last generation? What would you do if you knew you only had 24 hours left, or 12 hours, or half an hour? That kind of thinking can be helpful – can help us to prioritise and sort out things which need some attention. But we shouldn’t need guessing games to prompt acts of compassion, love , forgiveness or reconciliation. That should be the way we live anyway.
But there has to be more than that here. We might not feel like the last generation, but how do we feel about what has gone before and about what we leave behind us? Are we aware of our age, our era, our place in the world? Do we live in a way which makes an ultimate act of destruction likely in our lifetime? Are we working our way towards inevitable ruin? When some non-Christian friends asked what I was preaching about today I told them I was preparing a sermon on The Apocalypse. "Oh, that was a great film" one of them responded, half-jokingly remembering the film Apocalypse Now, which was a violent portrayal of the events of the Vietnam War. But we actually went on to have quite an interesting conversation. When I asked them for their atheistic or agnostic take on the apocalyptic, they were very clear. All things will end, they felt. There is an inevitability about that - the world, OUR world, will not last indefinitely. And it quite possibly might even end with a final decisive dramatic and violent event which closes all things. And why will that happen? Easy. Because WE are destroying the world and ourselves. Not God, US. And sooner or later we shall press the self-destruct button, not God, but us. There have been some scares, haven't there - the threat of nuclear war, the threat of medical epidemics which would eradicate the human race, weapons of mass destruction, inter-necine strife. It wouldn't be difficult to construct a catalogue of end-time events like those outlined by J on this 13th chapter of Mark. But the understanding of what is happening in those apocalypse-like situations is a modern one, a secular one. The human race is bringing itself down, not being destroyed by God.
The feeling that we have a self-destructive tendency which is both frightening and powerful is located in the hearts of many people, Christian and non-Christian. Attempts to address that tendency and reverse a process of decline are entered into whole-heartedly by people of all faiths and people of none. I have a non-Christian friend who has a frost-bitten blackened big toe to shoe for months spent sleeping outside the perimeter fence at Greenham Common in the early 80s. She was scared that the escalating nuclear arms race would destroy the planet for her and her children. The fight for self-preservation is a fight which finds its common ground not in people's religious affiliations, but in their shared humanity. And it is a fight which sees God in the centre. A God who wants to save his world, not afflict it, who watches its turmoil with great pain.
The last generation- is that us? Or do we have "world without end"? Possibly - but not necessarily. Perhaps we have a lot to learn from the secular world here - the future of our world and planet is in large part in OUR hands. I don't think we should live like we're the last generation. 1st century people sort of welcomed and looked forward to the end, the resolution. I don't think WE have the same outlook. Instead we have a duty to work with God to prevent our self-destructive gene from gaining ground. I'd like to finish with the words of a modern hymn by Fred Pratt Green;
(Hymns & Psalms 343).