The Not-so-Little Apocalypse

by Bert Newton

Scholars often refer to Mark 13 as “The Little Apocalypse.” In this chapter, Jesus talks about the destruction of the temple, seems to talk about the end of the world, and makes allusions to his own crucifixion. (I have written a more complete exegesis of the passage here).

The passage starts out with the disciples expressing awe at the magnificent structures that comprise the temple. Jesus responds by telling them that these structures will one day lie in ruins.

It must have been difficult for the disciples to believe that such a grand edifice as the temple would one day be destroyed. Not only was the temple physically imposing – it sat on 35 acres, with white marble columns and parts of the exterior covered with gold – it also had considerable political support. Both the Romans and the Judean elite held considerable interest in the complex. It constituted the religious, social, economic and political center of Israel. Only fringe groups spoke against the temple, and not freely, for speaking against the temple could be considered a capital crime.

There seemed to be every reason to believe that the temple would live on indefinitely.

In 70 C.E., however, not only was the temple destroyed, but the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and many other towns and villages in Judea. Thousands of Judeans were killed, thousands were enslaved and thousands fled into a new diaspora. Israel was effectively destroyed.

For the Judeans of that time, the events of 70 C.E. felt like the end of the world. That is one reason that Jesus uses end-of-the-world imagery to describe this tragedy.

As I consider the ecological crisis that we face today, it seems to me that we are very much in the same sort of position as Judeans at the time of Jesus. For the most part, for most of us, everything looks okay. Our society has some problems, but it seems very permanent, strong and resilient. We walk outside, and we hear the birds chirping, we see the trees standing tall, and business goes on as usual.

Yet we are facing an imminent global ecological disaster. Humanity now uses 150% of the regenerative capacity of the earth, an unsustainable drawing down of the earth’s resources. The rate at which species are going extinct has increased by between 100 and 1,000 times the natural rate. Global warming’s virtually unstoppable momentum looks to bring us an average global temperature increase of between 4 and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, resulting in climate conditions that human civilization will likely not survive.

At this point, we may not be able to avoid driving off of the ecological cliff. It’s not that we have already crossed the ecological tipping point – although we may do that soon. It’s that our economic system propels us toward it with almost irresistible force. For example, Bill McKibben has perceptively pointed out to us that the market imperative is to take the 2,795 gigatons of carbon sequestered in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies and transfer them into the atmosphere. That process alone will lead to transformations in the earth’s environment that will make the survival of human civilization as we know it nearly impossible.

Given our dire situation, what can we do?

Jesus, in Mark 13, prepares his disciples to be ready to suffer both for the work of spreading the Good News and the conditions that will prevail in their world. In doing so, Jesus declares that the Good News will be proclaimed to all peoples (v 10).

From earlier in this gospel, we know that the Good News is the news about the new society, the Kingdom of God. In this new society, people will live cooperatively, not competitively (8:1-10; 9:33-37; 10:13-31, 35-45); love, not Mammon, will be its currency. There will, therefore, be no race to exploit the earth’s resources.

It is the Good News of this cooperative society that we must preach . . . and live. We are to bear witness to it before city councils, governors, and presidents (v 9). It is only this Good News that will save the planet.

In verses 24-27, Jesus breaks into full apocalyptic discourse, a rich genre of symbolic imagery, saying that the sun and moon will go dark and the stars will fall from heaven. While this section sounds like a description of the end of the world, it actually refers to Jesus’ crucifixion and victory over the powers[1]. The celestial bodies, in apocalyptic genre, represent the major worldly powers (e.g. Is 14:4, 12); their darkening or falling represents their demise. Additionally, the darkening is something that happens at the crucifixion. The crucifixion in the Gospel story is the moment of Jesus’ defeat of the powers.

Through this imagery, Jesus tells his disciples that through the good news of God’s cooperative society and the nonviolent power of the cross, the powers and authorities that destroy the earth meet their demise.

The sermon ends in verses 32-37 with the admonition to “keep watch” and to “stay awake” (foreshadowing of the disciple’s inability to stay awake in Gethsemane).  Being alert and not falling asleep, not just going along with the consumerist and competitive spirit of the age, seems to me to be the most crucial point; without it, bearing witness to a cooperative ethos simply dies on the vine. Our society has an abundance of rationales for being consumerist and competitive, and probably the most potent of these rationales claims that such behavior proves us to be healthy people, people who know how to be good to ourselves and to “better” ourselves.

Now, more than ever, it is crucial that we reject competition and consumerism. It is no longer a matter of ideals; it is a matter of our survival.

The big difference between us and the people that Jesus preached to is that our crisis is global, it may truly bring about the end of the world. The powers and authorities that have perpetuated this crisis will likely fall, which will give us an opportunity. We may be able to construct, out of the ashes, a new society where people take care of each other, and resources are allocated according to need; a society that can survive on what is left of our earth. To capitalize on this opportunity, however, we will need to “stay awake” and preach and live the Good News of God’s cooperative society so that we can lay the ground work for this new world.

[1] This imagery probably refers both to Jesus’ crucifixion and to the fall of Jerusalem, both end-of-the-world type events. Apocalyptic discourse often collapses time, collapses events, to get across its message.


One thought on “The Not-so-Little Apocalypse

  1. Jason, thank you for publishing this piece. It points us to a critical text for our time. Though seldom acknowledged, like Jesus’ disciples we in MC USA congregations face a decision much like the disciples faced: do we continue to pin our hopes on the dominance and durabilitiy of the existing powers or do we begin anticipating a new and very different society that God in Messiah Jesus is calling us to be part of?

    Before this text can help us, however, we must begin reading it in the historical context that Bert describes. How often does that happen? In all my years of listening to sermons and participating in Sunday school classes, I’ve never heard this text explicated as it is here.

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