Mark 13:24-37: Year B (Advent 1)

Pic #1 Culture Jammed Billboard, Finders Street Station
Pic #2 Sentinel, Foyer, 101 Collins Street
Pic #3 Graffiti, Baptist Place Laneway
Snapshots from the War on Drugs (which is my week…) …reflection below…

Year B (Advent 1): Mark 13:24-37

24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.
37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
New Revised Standard Version

Snapshots from the “War on Drugs” (that is my week….!)
Snap#……Singapore government look set to execute Van Nguyen, a young man from the Melbourne suburb of Glen Waverley a man with no previous convictions for smuggling heroin who did so in order to help his twin brother’s drug related debt. Talk back radio runs hot on the issue of whether or not he deserves to die. Think of all the kids that would have died if the heroin had got to Australia…..our own kids are at threat!!!
Snap# Herald Sun runs front page headline “School Dopes” about Year 9’s from a Melbourne private school buying and smoking marijuana on their end of year exposure trip to Figi called “The Big Experience”. I had spoken to the same students earlier in the year during their city experience about their stereotypes of so called “druggies” and “junkies” in the city.
Snap# Michelle Leslie is released from custody in Indonesia for possession of the drug ecstasy. The “outer wear” of the former “underwear” model and recent convert to Islam is the subject of vicious speculation. Was her conversion and her hijab wearing authentic or about gaining favour with foreign media/legal system? We are told that what has been revealed in an Indonesian court of law is not the real truth of the story which we can expect to be revealed by the tabloid press who rush to Singapore with cheque books open to secure the rights to her “truth” before her return.
Snap# After ten years of harm minimisation practise, successful responses to overdose, and Christian hospitality in Melbourne’s Baptist Place Laneway residents, church and Urban Seed mission staff gather to debate the merits of re-prioritising to make our laneway “drug free” and “safer” for other groups of people.
My work of popular education in the heart of Melbourne is a cultural war zone. I often feel bombarded as the voices of the news and talkback keep finding ways to overlap with my work, my experience, my deepest hopes and fears. The War on Drugs, The War on Terror, Culture Wars around Christmas, The war on…….. (add your issue of choice, passion…) Of course a good fight can have it positives in which we are forced to unify, to clarify our core values and act courageously as moral agents. The downside is that war also polarises reality, communities and opinion! As George Bush famously said in his response to the 9/11 attacks, “Anyone who is not with us is with the terrorists!”
Sadly truth, the hard truth, God’s truth, the truth about ourselves is often the first casualty in this process. At times this week I have felt powerless and alone…… “Am I stupid? Am I an irrelevant softie? Doesn’t anyone else think its more complex than that?” Jesus earlier words in Mark 13:13, “You will be despised by all sides because of my name” are both painfully depressing and ironically comforting. “What’s the point of my work?” …its hard to get out of bed! One is tempted to stay asleep with the luxury/ lethargy of self flagellating middle class activist depression.
Thankfully this weeks lectionary cuts through the sedating talkback as the voice of Mark’s Jesus reminds me to WAKE UP!
It was written close to the time of the 9/11 of the Ancient Jewish world, when the Jewish rebellion (and temple) were crushed by the Roman Empire. Mark’s story of Jesus is structured around two fundamental “moments”: the in-breaking of the kingdom of God (Mark 1:15) and the outbreak of war (Mark 13). Both represented historical crises that challenged his community. The kingdom, pregnant with the possibility of human redemption and transformation, demanded costly discipleship. The war, with its manic militarism, demanded an equally costly choosing of sides. The two moments co-existed but must not be confused, for only one was the kairos, the other only pretended to be.
To understand the truth of each moment, Mark argues, requires “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” His story narrates true religion as a struggle of the senses; the tragedy of blindness (Mark 4:12,6:51-52,817-21), and the hope of healing (7:31ff, 8:22ff, 9:14ff, 10:46ff).
How does one “see” or “hear” Chapter 13 with its second coming, cataclysmic apocalypse and secret signs which seem difficult to interpret. My immediate image is of my crazy religious uncle with bumper stickers all over his car and letterbox, warning the mailman and other drivers of impending doom. “Warning: In the event of rapture car may be left driver-less!.” Unfortunately apocalyptic texts are easily trivialised, ignored or exploited.
In the face of the polarised voices of his culture Mark knew the “spin” most appropriate for wartime was to be found in the powerful resistance literature of apocalyptic. Apocalyptic symbolics used dualism and myth to scratch the surface of warmonger’s propaganda in order to “lay bare” the true character of historical events. (In much the same way that a culture jammed billboard seeks to today. (Pic #1 above.) This biblical tradition was forged during political/military upheaval. Daniel, for example, was written during the Maccabean revolt; the apocryphal 1 Enoch during the breakdown of the Herodian dynasty; and Revelation during the pogroms of the Roman Emperor Domitian. I often describe apocalyptic as the Michael Leunig cartoons of the ancient world!
In the face of war and myths Mark’s Jesus engages the battle of the senses by delivering two of his own style of anti- terror advertising campaigns calling us to be alert but not alarmed! (I knew the Australian Government got their ideas from somewhere!) The first “fridge magnet” calls people to “Listen!” (4:3,9,23,33), the second to “Watch!” (13:5,9, 23,33).
Earlier in Chapter 13 Mark’s Jesus has called people to beware of deception. All is not as it seems. “The war” is not to be seen as a sign of world transformation. He parodies the claims of those who would market conflict as a great struggle for a “drug free society,” or “freedom and democracy” or jihad. Mark’s Jesus tells us that war is not the end, but rather the beginning of suffering (13:5-8). It is the ‘predictable consequence of the arrogance of the elite, here exposed as “false prophets and leaders” (13:6,21-22). War therefore should not come as a surprise, and it’s easy to be deceived!
Marks counsel in the midst of life threatening media wars of Jewish Nationalists and Roman Imperialists….. “head for the hills” (13:14-20). In short, refuse to participate in violent and polarised conflict, remain radically critical of both sides, see the way that war damages those who are weakest and in the long run serves only to strengthen systems of power they claim to be reordering.
Critical detachment (or is that irresponsible cop out???) is obviously both difficult and dangerous ground to hold in a war zone and so Mark’s story concludes with this weeks lectionary as a reminder to look for the true transforming alternatives. Mark starts with a “shakedown” of the dominant system (Vs.24-27). In conservative Hellenistic thought, the “powers in the heavens” were a metaphor for the highest structures of law and order, upon which both the cosmos and society were built. Like Isaiah before him (Isaiah 24:18-23) Mark deconstructs their claim to be an eternal reality. Their power is relative and ultimately subject to one crucified by that very system.
Mark then goes green with the plea to consider figs, but the cross reference (again with Isaiah) shows us that this is far from escapist tree hugging.

“All powers of the heavens will melt, and the heavens will roll up like a scroll, and all the stars fall as leaves from a vine, and as leaves fall from a fig tree” (Isaiah 34:4).

It is also an allusion back to Jesus’ earlier table turning temple blockade and cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-25). Note the tight rhetorical link of the disciples: “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (11:51) and “Look, teacher! What great stones and large buildings!” (13:1).
The parable suggests an answer to the disciples earlier inquiry about signs of “The End”.(13:4) It is not to be seen in war, which is merely symptom of how status quo power continues to work in our world, but in nonviolent resistance that understands and attacks systems of oppressive power at their roots—in Mark’s case the fig tree was a symbol of the temple-state, the ideological and economic foundation of an oppressive social order.
So what does it mean for me to stay awake, dig for the roots of power and resist the superficial (yet deadly) wars that surround us? To steadfastly watch in the same way as “The Sentinel” does (Pic#2 above) over the headquarters of corporate power in Collins Street?
Of course there are wars and wars! Staying awake for me means SEEING the connections between various conflicts. Most of the world’s heroin for example comes from marginalised places such as Afghanistan and Burma and funds both terrorists and corrupt anti-terror police forces alike.
This week I’m awakened to the fact that Singapore has strong economic links to places like Burma and that the sacrificial killing of Van Nguyen (one of “our own” children) to the idol of “the law” and “security” will do precious little to address the real causes and evils of the drug trade. (He will be simply one of thousands of drug users/dealers executed in Asia and beyond each year.)
Federal Government Minister Amanda Vanstone last week awakened us rather graphically to the limitations of our own measures at creating safety in response to threatened violence. By suggesting she could take out the Prime Minister with a well aimed pencil through the eye and into the brain, she highlighted that various airline security measures were as much to calm the public fear as effectively reducing threat! Just don’t say such a thing when you’re lining up to board a plane Amanda!
I’m awakened to the ways that such security measures, be they on our houses, churches or public space in general (eg. gates and cameras, anti-terror laws, etc) can easily backfire, and literally serve to lock us away in fear with increased distance from real people and issues. Instead of being alert but not alarmed we can easily end up alarmed (in both a psychological and technological sense) and less alert, with a false sense of security.
As the anti terror squad cased out our laneway recently in preparation for the Commonwealth Games I was mindful of the things that create true security and the lament of Jesus over his own city. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… would that you knew the things that make for peace.” The refrain of Mark 13:.29, “He is near, at the very gates” reminds me of who is usually excluded by our security measures…..The Christ who comes to minister to us as the outcast, the stranger or our enemy!
I’m awakened to the drug use of “our own” kids, be they travelling private school students or underwear models. I resolve to work harder in my work of education locally and to LISTEN to hear the stories which reveal the real causes of drug use amongst our own.
I’m reminded of Michael Douglas’s character, the crusading anti-drug politician, who confesses at the end of Steven Soderheim’s classic movie Traffic, “The war on drugs is a war against our selves.”
Finally I’m awakened to the reality of a higher power and that our safety and security are not of our own creation. Mark suggests that ultimately the how and when of the powers being overthrown is not something that we can control or predict (13:32). This is not a way of obviating the need to act, far from it (the rest of the chapter has counselled costly decision making!) In this way Mark does however suggest that power is not for us to grab and, like Gandhi after him, severs the practice of nonviolent action from the tyranny of visible results.
This makes me think back to my crazy religious uncle. Wes Howard Brook says
It’s all too easy to make fun of the extreme examples of prophecy belief that we encounter on bumper stickers and best-seller lists. When people talk breathlessly of the dangers of Universal Product Codes and automated teller machines as signs of the impending Tribulation, giggles and head shaking are hard to repress. But in many ways, adherents of premillennial faith in the Second Coming of Jesus and the battle of Armageddon show themselves to be more astute analysts of our times and exhibit more trust in God than many who fancy themselves “liberal” Christians….. The idea of the rapture may be bizarre to many, but those who proclaim it are at least witnessing to a faith in a God who is powerful and involved in human affairs. For many Christians caught up in the socialized mindset of our secular world, the idea that God actually is capable of breaking into everyday reality with strength and justice is embarrassing. We profess belief in Jesus’ healings, exorcisms, and resurrection, but as a practical matter we often put our faith more in science, reason, and other fruit of human striving.
Faith in a God who breaks in!!!?? Pretty tricky when everyone is claiming God’s intervention for their own side!!!
I have always considered the “Jesus Loves Junkies” graffiti (Pic#3 above) from our back laneway as a sort of apocalyptic image. One of the most popular images of the early church was Jesus as thief in the night (1Thess 5:2,4; 2 Peter 3.10; Rev 3:3; 16:15). I have often thought that perhaps it’s more likely to be Jesus who is knocking off your VCR! Of course Jesus lifestyle was probably a lot more akin to that of a homeless drug user than we are often comfortable admitting.
If Advent is about the coming of Christ we need to recall Jesus own words that his mission was one of “breaking and entering” in order to plunder “The Strong mans” house. (Mark 3:27) Its easy to point the finger at strong men like Bush, Osama, the drug barons etc but what about ourselves!
The advent of Christ “breaks in” to our status quo, questioning our own relations of power, challenging any sense of security we may have constructed for ourselves behind the gates of our well entrenched opinions as the wars rage on outside.
Whatever the strongman, whatever the war, John the Baptist does a Morpheus and reminds us in next weeks lectionary (Mark 1:1-8) that One is coming who is stronger.
May we see clearly what it means to remain Alert but not Alarmed in this Advent of war!
This reflection draws heavily upon two articles from Sojourners magazine. A Gethsemane Awakening. by Ched Myers. Sojourners Magazine, April 1991 and Apocalypse Soon? by Wes Howard-Brook. Sojourners Magazine, January-February 1999.


2 Replies to “Mark 13:24-37: Year B (Advent 1)”

  1. Wow. That was pretty big stuff especially to quote Wes Howard like that. I think the way you encourage people to question there own ideas and turn them unside down then on the side is good. Good point about everyone claiming God’s intervension for their own side. Good luck with the war on collins.

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