Talk to my children and they will tell you I am not a fan of wild rides. Talk to them a little longer and they will tell you what I call a ‘wild ride’ is pretty tame. And then you won’t be able to stop them. They’ll be off, telling you a series of stories about rollercoasters, and how embarrassing it is to have me as a mother. Stories which – thanks to what the roller coaster industry does – are substantiated by images like this…
It might rehabilitate my reputation to tell them I once had a boyfriend who rode a motorbike, but I wasn’t a big fan of that either. You had to wear jeans everywhere, it was cold coming home at night, and I was always in trouble for leaning the wrong way. Apparently, when you are taking a corner on a motorbike you must lean in – not lean the other way to balance the bike. That relationship did not last.
Mark chapter 13, where our lectionary reading comes from this morning, is also a wild ride.
It starts tamely enough with the disciples and Jesus in Jerusalem, with the disciples openly admiring Herod the Great’s greatly expanded temple. “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” But then it’s off and racing with Jesus first describing the total destruction of the temple, then wars and rumours of wars and earthquakes and famines, followed by persecution, families turning against each other, and a desolating sacrilege and false prophets. And then in the section we read; the sun and moon being darkened, and the Son of Man coming in the clouds and the significance of fig trees and the need to keep alert and keep awake….!
It’s hard to imagine anyone could sleep after all that!
And it’s very hard to imagine what all this, on this first Sunday of Advent, has to do with hope.
The reality is that the period this passage is describing was a wild ride for the Jewish people. It relates the years of the Jewish revolt, 66-70 AD, which ended with the Romans starving out the people of Jerusalem and burning and destroying the temple and the city, killing thousands of civilians and armed rebels and enslaving thousands as gladiators or slave labour. The Arch of Titus found on the Via Sacra in Rome memorialises this victory over the Jewish rebellion.
And what the commentators say is that this speech in Mark is crisis literature or apocalyptic literature, spoken in the voice of Jesus, but written decades later, after these events had occurred. And following the conventions of apocalyptic literature, it is wild! It speaks of the end times, it uses colourful and sometimes encoded language, it borrows apocalyptic motifs from the Old Testament, from Isaiah and Daniel…but, as Professor David Jacobsen, Boston University School of Theology writes, “The purpose of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Mark is not scary, but a call to a praxis of wakefulness….Mark’s Jesus gives an apocalyptic speech in the early 1st CE for a church needing a word in a late 1st CE crisis.” This passage is for Mark’s community – and possibly even for us – a word of hope.
But I want to reframe what Jacobsen calls a ‘praxis of wakefulness’ and what the passage says – repeatedly – “Beware, keep alert…..be on the watch….keep awake.” I know its a metaphor, but from personal experience, I also know that constantly being awake and alert is not good for you. It does not lead to the kind of ‘wakefulness’ Jesus calls us to here. Instead I want to borrow the words of my ex-boyfriend and talk about ‘leaning in’. This is what the writer of Mark is saying to his community. On this wild ride, you must lean in…lean in to hope.
Firstly, Mark says, you must lean into reality, and into your vulnerability in that reality. Yes, there will be wars and rumours of wars. Political events and natural events will affect you. Yes, there is going to be opposition – painful opposition. And yes, sadly, there will be division – even among the community of faith. You are human and, therefore, vulnerable, but just as surely, just as certainly, you will be sustained by the Holy Spirit even in the darkest of times, and on the other side of that darkness there will be a gathering of the fragmented community, from the ends of the earth; new life signalled by new growth bursting from fig trees.
I am reminded of the psalms of lament we’ve been examining; testimonies to honest-to-God wrestling with pain and questions, and the pain of the world; leaning into the reality of what is before moving to expressions of joy and praise.
Secondly, Mark says, the community of faith must lean into ‘not knowing’; ‘not knowing’ how long the present situation will last; not being tempted to invent our own timeline. As Professor William Loader writes, “2000 years of failed guesses and expectations have sobered such predictions.”
And, finally, Mark says, the community of faith must keep leaning in… keep watching for the signs of God’s presence, keep waiting for their fulfilment and keep doing the will and the work of God. “All too often,” Loader continues, “[comes] a withdrawal from the events of the world, not to speak from the cries of pain, so that not much watching really happens except watching one’s private footsteps and moral goodness….It makes for an attractive religion, but it has little to do with eh engaged alertness which recognises the new leaves, feels the shaking, and sees what the powers of this world are doing.”
I am struck that both our psalm this morning and Isaiah 64, the other Old Testament lectionary reading for today, call on God to act. “Stir up your might and come and save us,” says the psalm. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” begins Isaiah 64. But Mark calls on his community to stir, to be stirred up, to wake, to work, to reveal God’s presence in God’s apparent absence, to keep leaning into God’s way of love in the world.
And this message of leaning in, of hope, is not just a message for Mark’s community, but for us because we, too, have had a wild ride this year.
Haven’t we! Bushfires, smoke, hail, pandemic, lockdown, economic uncertainty, church on Zoom, you name it.
This week I was sent a video which seemed to me a modern retelling of Mark’s message of leaning in on this wild ride – from a couple who performed this for the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky, virtual program this year, earning them a New York Time’s critics pick – speaking of leaning into the reality of what is, leaning into ‘not knowing’ and discovering, as they say, “we are making this up as we go” , and leaning into keeping on going. It’s called, appropriately, The Keep Going Song.
On our wild ride, let’s keep leaning into what is and our vulnerability knowing God is with us. Let’s keep leaning into ‘not knowing’ knowing we have to make it up and keep making it up as we go. And keep leaning into God’s way of love in our world.
With the writer of Mark and with Abigail and Shaun Bengson, we pray:
I pray my rage is a fire that cleans my mind out and makes me ready to listen.
I pray my pain is a river that flows to the ocean that connects my pain to yours.
I pray my happiness is like pollen that flies to you and pollinates your joy.