No matter the tragedy these days, some religious leader or blogger will attempt to connect it to God's judgment. Some say superstorm Sandy was God's wrath on liberal New York and New Jersey. Others fault 9/11 on "the homosexual agenda," whatever that is. Many argue July's shooting in Aurora, Colo., would have been prevented were it not for liberals or conservatives.
This instinct to interpret current times through the broader lens of God's judgment is not new. Examples appear throughout the Bible. For those who believe God's Spirit does work in the world through signs and miracles, such tragedies can function as intellectual puzzles, but they should never stop us from responding with heart, head and hands.
Jesus Explains the Signs ... Sort of
Jesus spoke often about the end times and certainly not in ways supported by a modern scientific worldview. For Jesus, the belief that God controls history was fundamental to his perspective.
Not long before his arrest, Jesus was with the disciples in the temple. As they came out, one of the disciples exclaimed his awe of the structure. "Look, Teacher, what large stones and large buildings!" he said (Mark 13:1). Indeed, ancient historians wrote that the temple in Jerusalem was magnificent. If its massive size was not impressive enough, much of it was covered in gold.
Jesus' response must have caught the disciples off guard: "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down" (Mark 13:2).
The disciples too must have been in a mood to discuss the end times because next, when Jesus was sitting opposite the temple on the Mount of Olives, some of them asked for further explanation. "When?" they wondered aloud, "What will be the sign?" Jesus responds in his trademark roundabout way.
Jesus warns of those that would lead them astray. He tells them not to be alarmed by "wars and rumors of wars" which, if you ask me, are some of the most alarming prospects imaginable.
A more troubling time would be coming, Jesus explains. It will include war, earthquakes and famines. But they are not to be afraid since, "This is but the beginning of the birth pangs" (Mark 13:8).
Jesus' response is the first century equivalent of the famous propaganda poster produced by the British government during World War II that boldly proclaimed, "Keep Calm and Carry On." (Note that Jesus did not call for casting aspersions at one's political opponents.)
We Long to Know More
Like the disciples, something makes us want to know every detail about when and how our future -- and God's ultimate justice -- will take place. Certainly, knowing the severity and destination of future superstorms will help save lives, but the disciples were longing for more. They wanted a blueprint. Perhaps they hoped for a way to save themselves as they interpreted the signs of the time.
In this passage from Mark, Jesus uses language and terms common in other biblical books to help reveal what is currently hidden to the disciples. It was common, around Jesus' time, to mix visions, symbols and dreams to disclose a future more important than the present reality.
Mark 13:1-8, and similar passages in Daniel and Revelation, long for a future in which oppression is a thing of the past, but they should not be read as an end time recipe book with detailed step-by-step instructions. The coming times are sometimes described in vague, rough, violent terms, but the ultimate end is full of God's justice and peace.
Trust in God means living a life expectant and hopeful for Christ's return; it need not be consumed by explaining every world affair in terms of God's super-plan.
Discipleship calls for a faith in which ultimately, despite our present struggle, God's love is sovereign. We need not micromanage the signs of God's judgment. Instead, we are called to manage our lives and conform them to God's vision of justice, love and peace.
How to Wait for the End
Believers today take many different approaches to waiting (and interpreting) the end times. Some read into the Bible explanations that simply are not there, mislabeling storms like Sandy and causing more hurt in the process.
Note that in this passage, Jesus does not suggest interpretation of the troubles ahead will be easy. In fact, he warns of exactly this danger of overly-clear explanation. Many will come in his name, Jesus cautions, but they are not he. Since we are so prone to confusion, Jesus explicitly advises against alarm and overreaction.
The faithful response to disaster is not pointing a finger, or making shocking headline-grabbing accusations, but service to God and neighbor. Superstorm Sandy has left horrific devastation in parts of New Jersey and New York. Sadly, we know too that one day there will be another storm, another shooting, another earthquake.
We must break the cycle of interpreting these events in ways Jesus specifically warned against, and instead, follow the one who healed at every opportunity, who urged care for those without food and shelter, who loved beyond all love even in the most desperate of times.
Jesus gave a vague answer as to when God will renew the world in God's justice, but his instructions for caring for our neighbors were abundantly clear. When disasters hit, Jesus' followers should get to work and leave the end time prognostication to God alone.
- Mark (Belief) by William C. Placher
- Barbara Rossing speaks about "the rapture" on "The Last Word" with Lawrence O'Donnell.
- Frontline Documentary: Apocalypse: the Evolution of Apocalyptic Belief and How it Shaped the Western World.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.