Mark 13:8

For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This will be but the beginning of the birth-pangs.


the beginning of suffering
is not off
in some far distance
or just around the corner

the beginning of suffering
is already on
from a first change
to a previous breath

the beginning of suffering
ebbs flows
felt more deeply
subsumed under joy

the beginning of suffering
disappoints
a lack of proof of anything
background radiation


Mark began with a reference to Creation, “the beginning”. His is a beginning of “Good News”—a report from the battle-front that the fighting is over.

This “beginning” goes back before various Words went out and day-by-day order was established where there was only roiling waters as “this” fought against every other “that”.

Reading multiple religious traditions finds evidence of beginnings and endings separating and merging. A sign can shift from a beginning to an ending and back again as we try to sort out what it is that means something and what is covering over what it means to live straightway.

All through what has become designated as a 13thchapter, we are hearing one attempt at continued awareness after another. The question of a sign has been raised by the disciples and Jesus is asking for a proactive awareness (Wisdom’s perennial work) over knee-jerk reactions that pull and push us into confusion (the Satan’s perennial work).

The anticipation of suffering, arrest, and death can be seen as the outcome of every proclamation of Good News. Likewise the anticipation of rising attends every sign of the end. Wisdom’s work is the sifting and sorting to see where we are on this rhythm of yin and yang.

The beginning of Good News is also a story of the beginning of Birth Pangs. These are the signs of a coin being flipped, of a reversal of a reversal. The idolatry of certainty is revealed as our attempts at consistency stumble, once again, against the life force of seeds growing even as we sleep. These signs of an end are, surprise!, the beginnings of a beginning we didn’t even know we were up to facing yet one more time.

Mark 13:7

“And, when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; such things must occur; but the end is not yet.


the harm done
by rumors of war
is no less
than war itself

both trap souls
in fear of fear
erasing any memory
of original partnership

disappointment in others
surfaces my
desire for revenge
upon all who disappoint

until war comes full circle
to do in myself
and a next war
is seeded


How unapocalyptic.

If we can’t count on wars and the sound of wars to be a sign of a final war to end all wars, we also won’t be able to use any old earthquake, volcanic explosion, tornado, cyclone, hurricane, typhoon to make the case that things are any more dire than they have been. We won’t even be able to use a doomsday clock or climate change to bolster our claim to the ultimate disaster.

If there is no penultimate sign either the world will go whimpering on without us or we’ll all be surprised at the same time when the curtain has dropped and doesn’t go back up.

We all know the bumper sticker, “Things Happen”. What we are wrestling with here is the even worser time when “Nothing Happens”.

It is very easy to sense a danger behind every blessing. Therefore the work of every angelic messenger (as well as yours as an earthly messenger) is to begin every message with those famous words, “Be not afraid”. Today we might say “Stay Calm and Carry On”.

It is helpful to cast our mind back to Mark’s time. The Jewish revolt against Rome failed. To protect yourself it was wise to turn someone else in. The Temple finally fell. There were wandering Messiahs, each claiming to be the real deal—more Messiahs than The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.

How is a community to stay together when their usual world has fallen apart? How does a community continue in the face of competing authorities each with a claim on their raison d’être?

Within the context of swirling meanings and nothing familiar to grab on to, it is actually helpful to know the swirl is not a final threat. We still have a wilderness retreat available to return from recentered.

Mark 13:6

Many will take my name, and come saying ‘I am He’, and will lead many astray.


to my disciples I say
my disciples will deceive
many about my teaching

they will be well-intentioned
with a high niceness quotient
as sincere as the day is long

my teaching is not transferable
it is caught and extended
never certified or rule-bound

the more a core tenet
is centralized the more
it becomes tangential

having known how difficult
it is to live belovedly
I am prepared for disappointment

so friend I say to all
dive deeply enough
to teach your truth

I authorize no one
to represent me
and deceive others


Beginning with the plural “many” we finally end up with each of them claiming a singular state of being—the official representative of G*D, the I AM.

This represents the wide variety of claims, both personal and sectarian present everywhere today. We couldn’t handle a church unified by removing all but the official line of control with Peter holding all the keys.

We couldn’t handle it moving toward two sets of keys, the second claimed by Martin Luther.

We certainly can’t handle all the different G*Ds found swirling within any but the most rigid church structure.

Many were deceived by a church universal, by two, and by a multitude. Always this needs to be said in the present tense that many are deceived right at this moment. Someone is out to get someone else as they claim there is only one way, their way. So goes idolatry in every age, regardless of the number of choices.

It is always the right time to anticipate a prophet speaking against one’s own particular expression of a source of meaning. The dangers of internal idolatry, competing religious expressions attempting to convert one another, a next false G*D, and the neglect of Neighb*rs are ever present.

There is not only an unknown time factor for wrapping up; there are untold numbers of speculations as to how it is going to happen.

Mark 13:5

Then Jesus began, “See that no one leads you astray.


there will be many opportunities
to become deceived
this sign or that
will be touted
as a last coffin nail
for one argument or
another

the difficult work
is to not limit
experiences
where deception is attempted
your task is to learn
a gentle
single-eyedness

deception flows
from self-deception
unto a world view
misgrounded
in univalent signs
voiding
creative ambiguity


The first non-apocalyptic response is a warning that going down the line of being warned about a final line that, if crossed, will, at long last, trip me up, do me in, is a losing question.

Simply approaching such a line from decades away is no different than if we were already strides past a point of no-return.

Our predilection is to play out every pyramid scheme we have ever met. Putting more and more resources into a dwindling base is never a viable solution.

It is almost that we like being fooled. Scary movies or the latest political huckster both play off our thrill of living on the edge of disaster.

To hear a warning to not be deceived is to build a barrier against anything other than deception. E.E. Cummings put it well in his play, Santa Claus: A Morality:

Who can tell truth from falsehood any more?
I say it, and you feel it in your hearts:
no man or woman on this big small earth.
How should our sages miss the mark of life,
and our most skillful players lose the game?
your hearts will tell you, as my heart has told me:
because all know, and no one understands.

The disciples want to know about some mythologic tomorrow without understanding that tomorrow is very much an outgrowth of today. At stake is not avoiding suffering and death but having a resurrection in the present through changed hearts that trust good news to be truer than the most attractive and believable lie.

Mark 13:4

“Tell us when this will be, and what will be the sign when all this is drawing to its close.”


oh so curious are we
looking for every edge
a millisecond per trade
a reliable foretelling
anything
to keep from being caught

unready for an earthquake
a lightening strike
volcanic eruption
another’s anger
a next addiction
a false equivalency

it is in our best interest
to get an insider word
giving advantage
over our competitors
lest we be one step late
crushed beyond recognizability


When will things fall apart?

This question has haunted people forever. Each generation complains about the next.

In some ways this question about destruction is also a question about when new life will break through. Will what we are doing now bear good fruit seven generations down the line?

To ask when Temple walls will fall apart is to ask about when a Temple not made with hands will appear. It is quite problematic to ask about a Temple of any sort for inherent in a Temple is an understanding that there are things or people who are not Temple worthy, regardless of whether the Temple is tangible or not.

There is a sense in which we can see the result of the “progress trap” we have set for ourselves—how we push past all limits until that which sustains is used up. This is an original sin through sociological and anthropological lenses. In the long run, we don’t seem to be able to help ourselves. A small book is helpful here, A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright.

Asking for a sign is an apocalyptic question. Many apocalyptic responses have come and gone over the generations. Every interpretation has come up short. The basic question seems to be about what life will be like after we’ve eaten our seed corn or so wrenched communal life from the common so only the rich have resources and are able to suck another day’s existence out of the poor. Always the drama is writ large, the consequences worse than dire—terroristic and cannibalistic.

An apocalypse is an easy way to try to scare ourselves into responsible living and each time the easy way fails to change our heart.

Mark 13:3

When Jesus had sat down on the Mount of Olives, facing the Temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew questioned him privately,


sitting across from
collection boxes
temple walls
market stalls
kitchen tables
legislative halls

shifts private to public
Peter loses his keys
James and John
lose locks on prestige
Andrew’s and other’s
sugarplums dissolve

such implacability
stares them down
walls thicker than thick
higher than high
trained horses ridden
sharp spears waved

what have we been thinking
fantasies become just that
talk of brave suffering
just talk
it’s finally sinking in
we’re sinking


Having been in the Temple and dealt with tests from all the major religious groupings, it is time to back off and reflect on what has been experienced.

Mark shifts his use of εἰς from indicating motion to now indicating a having come to rest. It is time to take stock. They may be at the top of the Mount in a place now named Dominus Flevit (meaning “The Lord Wept” as in Luke 19:41–44). They may be at the bottom of the Mount scouting for a later visit to The Garden of Gethsemane. Wherever they are, this is probably a place Jesus went to for wilderness outside the gates of Jerusalem. Here it was always time to pause and reflect.

It is worth doing our own pausing and reflecting about the presence of Andrew with the inner circle of Peter, James, and John.

If we use the shorthand of metonymy, Andrew stands for all the rest of the disciples. In current discipleship language, this is the priesthood of all believers where each is a marker for all. This partnership of leadership asks each to bear responsibility for the others. It is a loving of one another (John 15:12). This is a larger group alone with Jesus than just four. It is also a group that includes the Readers of Mark.

We are gathered around to hear what we expect to be a continuation of moving toward an end game where we cause a coup. It will be easy to slip into the gruesome imagery of the apocalyptic, but important to keep bringing ourselves back to the more realistic picture of simple eschatology that sits ready just beyond our current reach.

Mark 13:2

“Do you see these great buildings?” asked Jesus. “Not a single stone will be left here on another, which will not be thrown down.”


put on
demythologizing glasses
to correct
grandiose astigmatism
so enthralled
illusion of control

no one thing
built on another
but falls together
black holed
all disconnected and
together again

rock by rock
solidity illusion
season by season
process illusion
image by image
illusion illusion

in this
in all
what comes
goes around
in all
in nothing


This dramatic projection of the result of the arc of oppression and resistance allows us opportunity to reflect back to the conspicuous privilege of the scribes (including the priests and Herodians) as ghosts haunting a demolished temple. We can also appreciate that not even loyal givers of all they have will protect the memorials of all they hold dear.

These stones that have been built up will be broken down. So it has ever been. What erosion doesn’t get, repurposing will. Their purpose will be stolen away.

One way to try to get our head around what seems to be a natural effect of time is to look for another framework. Sabin156returns to 2 Samuel 7 and the transition from Ark to Temple:

When God finally gives in and promises that David’s son, whose house God will establish, will “build a house for my name,” there is still the overriding implication that God remains in charge: God is agreeing to a structure that will honor his name but not to one that restricts his freedom. The biblical writer thus leaves open the door to the prophetic metaphor that God abandons the Temple when it no longer honors him.

In keeping with the tradition of the prophets and the lack of knowing what tone of voice is being used here, we might listen to this response with a sense of sadness rather than anger.

It could be argued that Chapter 12 should be extended to this point as a finale to the result of religious leaders more enraptured by their own position than the honoring of G*D in their Neghb*r. This is an issue not only for Jesus but for Mark’s time when the Temple actually was broken apart. How are they to understand this loss?

Mark 13:1

As Jesus was walking out of the Temple Courts, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, look what fine stones and buildings these are!”


stop
everything you’re doing

look
around at this present glory

listen
for an eschatological hosanna

rest
your weary ethical judgment

wait
for some distant white knight

relax
you are already at your goal


It is difficult to imagine a larger leap to irrelevancy than this shift from honoring an unnamed widow, as poor as a widow might be, to stunned awe by an organized pile of stones, no matter how large and beautifully arranged.

It is a particularly insensitive disciple who will turn their back on one pointed out as worth further attending to for either a religious idol indicted for treating its poor with a calloused disregard for the wounds it caused or a model of honorable participation in a system of sacrifice they have bought into.

By this time Readers have found some of their footing and know that the title “Teacher” is going to lead to a teaching moment, a catechetical opportunity. This means it is time for a pre-test.

Question 1: What do you expect is a next scene? Indicate what you believe will be the outcome of a widow having given her all. Is it a quick move toward death? Will she run into a prosperity preacher and find an unimaginable fortune as a result of her contribution?

Question 2: Which disciple is most likely to provide this distractive question or is this a reminder that each of them is capable of missing the point? Might it be Peter with stars in his eyes again? How about James and John still fixated on prestigious positions within this glorious edifice? Are we suspicious of a former tax collector who can assess a building’s worth? Might it be a practice run by Judas, at sowing chaos, causing Jesus to pause on his travels? Could it be the Reader?

Questions 3: Who knew a next question-trap would come via a disciple after running a gauntlet of Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees? Who’s left…the Chief Priests, State Officials, Crowd, the Possessed, one’s S*lf?