11/14/21 “Interpreting the Signs”

Mark 13:1-10

A lot of people think the number 13 is unlucky. On Friday the 13th, they wake up thinking that they’ll have to walk on eggshells all day, constantly on the alert for threats to their safety. If anything even mildly disagreeable does happen, they chalk it up to the date on the calendar. If they check into a hotel, they get nervous if their room is on the 13th floor (if the hotel even has floor marked Number 13). Getting a seat in the 13th row of an airplane has them studying the emergency instruction card with extra care. They interpret every event through their superstitious lens.

But not everyone thinks that the number 13 is unlucky. My daughter loves the number 13, because her birthday is April 13th. For her, the 13th day of any month is a good day—a day that she fully expects to be special somehow. She wore the number 13 throughout her softball career. She was always dismayed to find the number 13 missing from a hotel elevator’s buttons, and she used to ask me to reserve seats in the 13th row of the airplane when we went on vacation. She interprets the number 13 through a lens of hope and optimism, and anything associated with it is a potential source of joy.

For most preachers, discovering that the 13th chapter of Mark is the lectionary gospel reading for the day certainly seems to fall into the “bad luck” category. Our passage and, indeed, the whole 13th chapter sound so foreboding that a lot of preachers just start looking at what the other options are. I have to say that I was tempted to do that myself. But, avoiding this chapter is a lot like being a traveler who won’t sit in the 13th row of an airplane. Pretending it’s not there won’t improve your chances of getting to your destination. So, rather than avoiding this passage because it seems intimidating and maybe even frightening, what we need to do is to change our interpretive lens. We need to interpret Jesus’ words, not through a lens of fear and dread, but through the lens of discipleship.

The lens the disciples were using wasn’t the one Jesus had been trying to get them to use. They had spent the day at the Temple in Jerusalem. After sparring with various groups of religious muckety-mucks, Jesus called his disciples’ attention to some scribes, whose main concern was their public persona. “Watch out for these guys who recite long prayers for the sake of appearances and parade around the marketplace in their designer robes, paid for by the offerings of the faithful poor, so that they can bask in fawning greetings, the best seats in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They’ll receive the greatest condemnation,” Jesus says.

Then he turns their attention to another person in the temple courtyard: someone who’s the exact opposite of those scribes. She’s a widow and she’s poor. She has put all she has into the temple offering box to meet the demands of those in charge. Far from being the center of attention, she goes unnoticed by everyone except Jesus. When he redirects the disciples from the attention-seeking scribes to the widow, he’s giving them a new interpretive lens. “Don’t interpret the scribes’ ostentation as a sign of their importance and religious devotion but as the self-serving pomp that it is. Interpret it as a sign of the injustice that keeps the vulnerable poor, unnoticed, and alone, and feeds the egos of would-be celebrities. Be careful of how you interpret these outward displays of devotion,” Jesus warns.

Unfortunately, the lesson didn’t seem to sink in very well. As they leave the Temple, one of the disciples voices the amazement that many of them may have been feeling. “Look at how big these stones and buildings are!”

In Mark, this is Jesus’ first visit to Jerusalem. It may have been the first time many of his disciples had been there. So, it’s understandable that they would have been like any other tourists—even tourists today who see the ruins that remain. The massive blocks of stone, fitted together so perfectly that a piece of paper wouldn’t fit between them, all the work done offsite so that the sound of hammers and chisels wouldn’t disturb the peace of the temple grounds. Sure, their grandeur and beauty can definitely give you a sense of amazement and awe.

Jesus doesn’t contradict the disciple’s observation. But Jesus wants his followers to look and see with disciples’ eyes and to interpret what they see correctly. The buildings are indeed large. The stones are massive. The walls do seem built to last forever. Jesus lets them know that it’s fine to appreciate their beauty, but understand this: they are temporary, like all human endeavor is temporary. Just as he wanted his disciples to look past the outward appearances and actions of the scribes, Jesus wants them to look beyond the buildings’ outward appearance of permanence. “Yes, they’re impressive alright,” Jesus says, “but not one stone of them will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.

His disciples hear these words, but not as a lesson in how to interpret what they see. They hear them as a prediction for the future. Later, as they talk together on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the city and the temple, they ask Jesus for more details. “When’s this going to happen? And what signs should we look for that will tell us that the culmination of God’s plan for the world is imminent? Give us a timetable. Give us details so we’ll know what to do and when.”

Again, Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for their questions. But he doesn’t answer them either, at least not right away. Instead, he invites them to refocus. He warns them about things that can easily be misinterpreted, like people who show up, claiming to be the ones who alone can see what’s happening and can lead people through the hardship. He warns them against interpreting bluster and bravado and false claims as signs of leadership and divine authority.

He acknowledges that there will be political and social unrest and natural disasters that some will interpret as signs that “the end is near.” “These things must take place,” Jesus says. “But don’t interpret them as heavenly signs. Instead, interpret them as the natural result of human sin and the brokenness in creation. Focus, not on what is happening, but on how you are living amidst what is happening.” As Steven Covey said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” and the main thing is to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.

We’re not so different from the disciples, are we? We have the same questions as they did: “What are the signs that the end of the age is upon us, and when will it be?” In the absence of a clear divine itinerary, we keep trying to come up with our own. I found a list of predicted doomsday events that dated back to around the time the Gospel of Mark was written. there were more than 150 predictions of the end of the world. Twenty-five of them were supposed to have happened since the year 2000, and a couple more are predicted within the next few years.

It’s tempting to interpret what is happening in our world today as a sign that the end of the world is near—whether it’s the doomsday kind of end or the fulfillment of God’s ends—God’s purposes. We have no shortage of wars and plenty of rumors of wars. Our wars aren’t just military in nature either—we have trade wars and cyber wars. We have plenty of social and political upheaval. We have natural disasters aplenty—the sudden catastrophes and the slow, ongoing threat of climate change. The institutions we thought were indestructible are eroding bit by bit. We have would-be leaders who may stop short of actually claiming to be the Messiah, but they are loud in their claims of being a savior of sorts.

It’s tempting to interpret these things as signs pointing to specific, divinely appointed events. But, Jesus would tell us the same thing he told the disciples. “These things are going to happen, but they are not the signs you’re looking for. Instead, interpret them as what they are: evidence of human sinfulness and a broken world. Interpret them as the context in which you must continue to do your job as my disciples: proclaim my saving love and forgiveness, until all the world has heard the good news.”

We have three lenses we can use to help us in our task of interpreting Jesus’ words for us and allowing them to shape our lives of discipleship today. The first is the lens of history. When Mark composed his gospel, he was writing for people who were living in a time of great social upheaval. Christians, whether Jewish or Gentile, were particularly vulnerable, because their faith in Jesus put them at odds with their own families, their faith communities, and the government.

Living where and when we do, where it is so easy to claim to be a Christian, we forget that Jesus was speaking to people who would pay a price for following him. We forget that there are many in the world today who pay that price. Knowing what kind of world Jesus’ listeners were living in, we can interpret Jesus’ words as reassurance to his followers that although what was happening was difficult, it was not unexpected. The historical lens helps us remember that Jesus was speaking to a particular group of people in a particular time, place, and situation, even as we seek the eternal wisdom of Jesus’ words for us today.

We can also interpret Jesus’ words through a prophetic lens. One of Jesus’ roles was to serve as a prophet. Prophets were judged by whether what they said was born out in reality. We’re not sure exactly when Mark’s gospel was written down, but the events that Jesus spoke of corresponded with events Mark’s readers had witnessed, or at least knew about. They would have known about the emperor Caligula’s demand to be called “lord and king” and to have a statue of himself erected in the temple. Earlier resistance to similar statues in Alexandria had led to violent conflicts there. So, Roman troops had moved into Jerusalem to enforce Caligula’s order, and this had led to rumors of war.

Mark’s readers may have endured the crisis of the Jewish Revolt in Jerusalem. They may have witnessed, and certainly would have known about, the fires set by the Romans which destroyed the foundation of the temple and led to its massive stones collapsing into a pile of rubble. Mark’s readers would have interpreted these events as confirming Jesus’ authenticity as a prophet.

But, prophets are not fortune tellers. Their prophecy is grounded in their astute comprehension of the world around them. Their words are diagnostic in nature—they assess the spiritual and moral state of their people, and they announce its expected impact. A people that relies on human leaders, a society that ignores the needs of some to preserve the comfort of others, an economy that plunders the natural world with abandon, a church that is more concerned with outward appearances than building God’s kingdom—these will certainly lead to all the ills Jesus announces. The prophetic lens helps us connect human behavior with what happens in the world.

This leads us to our final interpretive lens: the lens of discipleship. Our passage gives us just a glimpse through this lens, but we can see throughout the thirteenth chapter and especially in its concluding verses. God’s plan for a restored earth and humanity will come to pass, but we don’t know when. In verse 32, Jesus clearly says, “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Jesus goes on to say, “Keep awake, for you do not know when the master will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. What I say to you I say to all: keep awake.”

As Jesus’ disciples, “keeping awake” means that our job is not to worry about timetables and trying to figure out if this war or that disaster is a sign of Jesus’ return. The lens of discipleship demands that we interpret the events around us as signs of those things in us and around us that require repentance and reform. Our job as disciples is to interpret them as wake-up calls—as invitations to more faithful living.

This means that we interpret climate change as a sign of how we have misused God’s creation.  We interpret pleas for justice and equality as the revelation of social ills we haven’t been able to see from our own perspective. We interpret wars and rumors of war as possible signs that we have focused too much on our own desires for prosperity and power. We interpret a pandemic as a sign of our interconnectedness with the rest of the world and our interdependence with people whom we may never have noticed before.

Then, we allow these interpretations to shape the way we live as disciples of Jesus. We literally clean up our act and become more intentional about our commission to dress, till, and preserve the earth. We allow people whose lives are different from ours to tell us what their lives are like—dropping our defensiveness and listening carefully and with open hearts and minds. We join them in efforts to make the world a more welcoming place for everyone. We examine our lives to see if we are using more of the world’s resources than we should, and if we have attitudes that contribute to suspicion and hostility. If we find that’s true, we change our ways. We take notice of the people who contribute to our well-being in ways large and small, and we let them know we’ve noticed, by our words and our actions.

But what about the signs we see that are closer to home? The crises in our own families, the illnesses and deaths of people we love? How do we interpret them? It’s tempting to interpret them as a kind of punishment from God—a rebuke for what we believe to be our failures and shortcomings. I don’t believe that that is ever an accurate interpretation. God loves us and does not harm us as either punishment or instruction. Depending on the circumstances, our personal challenges may serve as a call to self-examination, repentance, and change. But most often, we should interpret the hardships we face as a path to a deeper trust in God. We can interpret them as times when we can embody our confidence that God is with us in every circumstance.

This is easy to say and hard to do, especially in the midst of a difficult and painful situation. Like the disciples, we have more questions than answers. Our doubts and fears and even our anger at God may hold sway over us for a time. But just as there is turmoil and pain in our lives, there are signs of hope—signs that we can interpret as evidence of God’s steadfast love for us. We see these signs in the scripture we read, in the work we do together and, most especially, in the saints who surround us—saints like Mark D., whose love of God and whose faith in God’s love for him has never wavered, despite all that he has endured. We see signs of God’s love for us in Mark’s love for God. Even in the midst of our sorrow, we can interpret those signs as evidence of the hope we have through our faith in Jesus Christ.

The number 13 can seem unlucky to those who interpret it through a lens of superstition, and the 13th chapter of Mark can seem like bad news to those who interpret it through a lens of fear. But Mark introduces his gospel by describing it as “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” That is the lens through which we can interpret Jesus’ words and the world around us—as part of the good news, even when the signs we see may tempt us to a different view.

We interpret the world through the lens of discipleship, which the Rev. Fairfax Fullerton Fair describes this way: “We must not be obsessed with time but look beyond it. We must not be awed by grand structures, unlimited stock options, or extravagant opulence, but look beneath them. We must not be afraid of apparent signs of the end time but must wait for the Lord and trust God’s actions toward us to be loving and restorative, even when the consummation of history is finally realized.” This is how we, as disciples of Jesus, are to interpret the signs around us. This is how we, as disciples of Jesus, are to live, as we wait for his return. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young