There’s a whole genre in the Bible of what we call apocalyptic literature. This is sometimes interpreted as predicting the end of the world or the end times. The reading from Mark 13 is an example of this type of literature. Apocalypse is a fancy word that means to make something that is hidden or unseen a visible reality. When we find this type of literature in the Bible there is usually some kind of conflict or persecution going on in the background.
Apocalyptic literature is usually written in a context where it seems like the world is falling apart around the writer and those hearing the message. The point of apocalyptic literature is to remind people that destruction is not the end. Death and destruction do not have the last word in our lives or in the world.
In this passage we hear the Jesus predicting that the temple will be destroyed. The Gospel of Mark was written in the late 60 or early 70 CE. The Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE so the writer of Mark may have already known the temple would be destroyed and placed the words into Jesus’ mouth. To someone who had lived through the destruction of the temple these words remind them that life continues. It is different but it isn’t the end.
The passage goes on to talk about the signs that the end is near: Wars, earthquakes, famines. Some translations say this is the beginning of troubles or the beginning of agonies. Other translations say it is the beginning of the birth pangs (NRSV/Inclusive). I think the translations that reference birth are more helpful. We know that birth is about bringing forth new life. Birth is painful but we know that there is an end to it and that the outcome will be worth it because there will be new life.
The next part of the passage is closely related to other passages we find in the Hebrew scriptures:
“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”(13:24-25 NRSV)
“For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.” (Isaiah 13:10 NRSV)
“The earth quakes before them,
the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining.
The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (Joel 2:10, 31 NRSV)
“When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens,
and make their stars dark;
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
and the moon shall not give its light.” (Ezekiel 32:7 NRSV)
Jewish hearers of Mark’s gospel would have known these scriptures and known that they weren’t original to Jesus. They came from the prophets Isaiah, Joel, and Ezekiel. These were not new prophecies. These are prophesies that they had all heard before. And guess what? Centuries later the world still exists. People still live their day to day lives. People who heard these words would recognize that hearing these words about stars falling, the earth shaking and the moon being dark didn’t mean it was actually happening in the immediate future. It might happen in the future but not in their own lifetime.
Isaiah, Joel and Ezekiel were all Jewish prophets who spoke to their own people in times of turmoil. The book of Isaiah was written covers the time before, during and after the Babylonian exile. Ezekiel was written during the exile and the book of Joel draws on these and other works. For people living through war, sieges, deportation and exile it might seem like the world is ending. It might seem like the world is falling apart around them. Life as they know it is ending.
Imagine Jesus talking to his disciples and quoting from their own scriptures. The disciples, living in the midst of Roman occupation, would hear these words and be reminded that the world did not end with war and exile. There was life after the exile. It was a different life but it was still life. They would understand that the Roman empire could not bring about the end of the world. It might seem like the world is ending sometimes but even the Roman Empire didn’t have that much power.
In our own time, we hear people use similar words quoted from various scriptures to predict the end of the world. We hear people talk about wars and famines and natural disasters as signs that the end of the world is near. A more helpful way to think about these signs is as birth pangs. They are signs that new life is coming. They are signs that the world as we know it is about the change.
We look around and see so much destruction in various places. One way to see these events is that the end of the world is near. We can wait for the stars to fall, the sun and moon to be darkened and the whole world to be destroyed—the end times. But there’s another way to understand the war and upheaval we see around us. We can think of it either as the end of an era or as birth pangs. The world is always in the process of birthing something new. Think about World War II. What terrible, horrible things happened during that time—things which shouldn’t happen to anyone. People living through war as Holocaust survivors, as soldiers, as civilians might have felt like their world was ending. There were many personal and communal apocalypses during that time—times when it felt like the sun might not rise the next day.
And yet the sun did continue to rise every day. And something new came out of that war. There was a new understanding of the world. There were technological advancements. It became more acceptable for women to work away from home. It was the end of an era but not the end of the world.
We find ourselves again in a time when we witness violence and destruction on an almost daily basis. We see ethnic conflict and genocide. We see refugees fleeing. We see climate change and environmental destruction. We see shootings in schools and other public places. It feels like the world as we know it is ending. And hopefully, the world as we know it is ending.
What would happen if the world as we know it ends? Everyone would be safe. Everyone would have enough. The earth and all creatures would be healthy and fully alive. The second part of apocalyptic literature is that after the world as we know it is destroyed a new world is created. This is the place to think of utopia. The perfect world that we all dream of and that even the prophets dreamed of.
“The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain.” (Isaiah 65 NRSV)
Mark goes on to remind us that we don’t know what will signal the end of the era. We don’t know the exact moment that everything will change. It might be easy to believe the world is simply going to spiral downward and self-destruct. Why should we bother trying to live faithfully when nothing we do seems to make any difference to the larger picture? Why shouldn’t we just wait for whatever is going to happen?
There will be a change. God’s people have always lived in hope of a time when we live fully with God’s presence among us. God’s people have always lived in hope of peace and harmony and justice. Jesus often spoke of God’s kingdom as being among us, near at hand and yet to come. When the world changes and God’s kingdom is fully present where do we want to be? Do we want to be like the slaves in this passage who find themselves napping in apathy when the world changes or do we want to be active participants in the creation of God’s kingdom on earth?