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“Tell Us, When Will This Be?”–Everyday Apocalypses

Mark 13: 24-37

November 27, 2011

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch, Preacher


I’m sure we all remember the big billboards a few months ago announcing that The Judgment was coming on May 23, 2011, so we all better be ready. And of course, it didn’t, and then the purveyor of this idea, evangelist and radio host Harold Camping, said he’d made a slight math mistake—don’t we all make math mistakes?–and actually the day of the Lord was to arrive on October 21, and of course, it didn’t again, but I don’t think people were paying as much attention, so I suppose it could have come and nobody noticed it.

But not to worry, there’s no shortage of potential apocalypses. We still have the Mayan Apocalypse to look forward to in 2012. And there are promising historical trends, such as ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, always a hopeful sign that the end is near. Some people are concerned about a meteor that’s going to pass awfully near the earth in a few decades, so that’s a bright spot on the apocalyptic horizon. So there’s still hope.

What do we make of our fascination with the End Times? It seems like even from the beginning, we were looking for the end.

Our Gospel lesson is Jesus’ response to a question that His disciples have asked him about this very topic. “Master, tell us, when will this be?” To their disappointment, Jesus tells them that even He can’t answer the question when. And since that’s the situation, He advises them: STAY AWAKE. “For you do not know when the master of the house is coming, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.”

And then, eerily, Jesus seems to step right out of the pages of the Bible, right out of the mists of history, and speak directly to us: “And what I say to you I say to ALL: STAY AWAKE.”

He speaks to his disciples, and he speaks to us. His disciples didn’t understand him. They don’t realize that He’s predicting that the End time will come in the next few days and they will miss it. “For you do not know when the master is coming, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn…” he is describing the “four watches of the night in Roman reckoning” (NIB, Abingdon Press, 2003. p. 1837). On the night that Jesus is arrested, He goes to pray in Gethsemane, and his disciples are supposed “stay awake,” but they do not. He comes to them three times and wakes them, and after the third He says, ‘Enough! The hour is come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.” The hour is a biblical catch-phrase for The Apocalypse.

It gets worse. Jesus had warned Peter that Peter would deny Him three times before the cock crowed twice; and sure enough, at cockcrow, the third watch of the night, Peter had denied Jesus three times. “And Peter broke down and wept.” (Mark 14: 72).

The apocalypse was right on top of them, and they did not stay awake.

Peter and the others were looking for the apocalypse of stars falling and the moon turning to blood. They completely missed the apocalypse right before their eyes, humanity putting God on trial and condemning Him to death. The apocalypse had happened on a quiet night after a good meal and a lot of alcohol. How commonplace it had seemed! How unexpected! And so they hadn’t stayed awake.

The apocalypses of our lives—the apocalypse that Jesus predicts here—they often don’t seem apocalyptic. They sneak up on us. A moment when another kid at school suggests that it’d be fun to pick on the fat kid. Or an older kid tells you that you’ll be cool if you smoke this. The moment your boss tells you that if you cut this corner, maybe fudge the paperwork a little, it won’t do any harm, and there could be a promotion in it for you. The attractive person who seems so much more interested in you than your partner ever seems.

Or maybe it’s the unexpected diagnosis at a yearly medical checkup or the pink slip at work or the principal on the phone with bad news about your child.

And suddenly the world crashes in around you.

Keep watch! Stay awake! Jesus isn’t simply predicting the ultimate end-time to beat all end-times! He’s predicting the inevitability of apocalypse. Our faith doesn’t make us immune from the common lot of human life. All of us suffer. The question is, are we ready? Have we honed our spiritual defenses in the good times so that we can find them when we need them in the bad times?

But important as it is to note that Jesus was warning his disciples that they were about to experience a personal apocalypse, we can’t forget that he’s also talking about the larger kind of apocalypse. In the paragraph before the Gospel lesson today, he warns his disciples “when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be, then those in Judea must flee to the mountains…” (Mark 13: 14). Is Jesus speaking symbolically about something that will happen in our future? Perhaps. But he is for sure talking about something that will happen in His disciples’ future. In AD 41, about 10 years after Jesus tells this to his disciples, the mad emperor Caligula ordered that his statue be set up in the Jerusalem temple—he ordered it would be set up right in the Holy of Holies, the place where only the High Priest could ever enter, and then only once a year. If that had happened, it would have caused the Middle East to explode in violence. The Roman governor at the time was terrified. He delayed putting up the statue as long as he could—and then, just in time, Caligula was assassinated.

But that event pales in comparison to another event He seems to be predicting—the terrible Roman siege and ultimate destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70.

But terrible as that event was, it too pales in comparison to the many other apocalypses that have afflicted humankind in the centuries since: the Black Plague of the Middle Ages—the Armenian Genocide—the rise of the Third Reich and the Holocaust—the Rwandan Genocide of the 1990s. All of them were apocalyptic to those who experienced them. All of them throw down the gauntlet before us as people of faith and challenge us—can your faith stand up against this? If it’s happening to you, will you be ready? If it’s happening to someone else, will you stay awake—or just close your eyes?

Martin Niemoller was a German war hero, a submarine captain in WWI, who became a Protestant pastor. In the aftermath of World War I, as he saw his country falling apart, he supported the rise of Adolf Hitler with enthusiasm. But as Hitler began to dabble in affairs of the church, Niemoller became cautious, then alarmed, and finally outraged. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1939. After the war, Niemoller admitted that he had made a tragic mistake—he had allowed his prejudices to blind him to the apocalypse right before his eyes. He wrote in 1946:

 First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.

And then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

When the apocalypse came, Niemoller was not ready. He was on the wrong side.

But God was bigger than the apocalypse, and God used it to change him, to enable him to grow into a deeper, more responsible faith. Niemoller spent his remaining decades as a committed Christian pacifist. His confrontation with the apocalypse changed him profoundly.

The message we often miss in our fascination with the apocalypse is this: God is bigger than the apocalypse. That’s what Jesus wanted his disciples to know: that, in the end, the God of love, grace, and justice will turn out to be in charge. The sovereign Lord of Love is larger than our apocalypses.

That message is meant to change us. Every apocalypse that we as individuals face, every apocalypse that we as a people or a world face, is meant to change us. The challenge is to put the love of God ahead of our fear of death, destruction, and change itself.

The disciples learned that the Lord of Love was larger than their apocalypse. They’d run away, betrayed him, denied him. And he’d died and they thought it was the end. But he rose from the dead, he found them, and he commissioned them to save the world.

Niemoller learned it. He’d betrayed the Gospel. He’d indirectly contributed to terrible Nazi atrocities. It was as close as we’ve come in modern times to the true Judgment Day.

But God gave him—and the world—another chance. The real apocalypse is when we, you and I, and someday maybe the world itself—don’t get another chance.

There are some guys from a local church who’ve been making the news lately by preaching on the street corner near Barnes and Noble downtown. They’re on a soapbox preaching that you better not head down to 8.0 or be gay because the Judgment Day is coming and partying and alternative lifestyles are the very work of the devil.

A St. Stephen parishioner had a bit of a run-in with them. He is a county prosecutor. He works the gang unit. He is six-four and he used to be a gigantic and very mean college football player. He got right in the face of the guy with the megaphone and said:

“God loves you!”

The guy was taken aback, but our parishioner wasn’t through. “Listen–to–me: GOD LOVES YOU!” he said.

He did not touch them. Those guys have no idea how close they came to their own personal apocalypse.

Are those guys crazy? There are true, awful apocalypses the world over and they’re worried aboutFort Worthon a Saturday night?

Sometimes the good news of God’s love has to get in our faces and shake us up, because we’re so easily misguided by our assumptions and prejudices, and because in our troubled world, we so often find it hard to believe that it could be true that God loves us.

The terrible reality for people who take reality seriously is that apocalypse is on us daily. If it’s not on us, it’s on someone else. It may be as far away as the South Sudan, where the Janjaweed rebels have engaged in horrific mistreatment of a helpless populace; or it may be as close as neighborhoods terrorized by gangs on the North Side of town. We turn a blind eye to it only at great spiritual risk, because as Niemoller learned so traumatically, when we do not stand up for others, we victimize not only them, but ourselves.

It’s tempting in the face of this reality to insulate ourselves and our families in a cocoon of safety. But that’s not our commission as Jesus’ disciples. The world is filled with apocalyptic signs, but our calling is proclaim The Good News: Jesus the Lord is larger than the apocalypse. The God of love and mercy, of Justice, Grace and Healing, is victor even over the End Times.

It’s a hard message to convey; it brings its own questions and difficulties. So Martin Niemoller got another chance.Germanygot another chance. Six million Jews didn’t get another chance. What do you say about that, God?

No easy answers.

But we can thank God for another chance. And pray that God helps us get it right this time.



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