Speaking Of Life 3001 | To Photograph the Unseeable Greg Williams In April of 2019, a strange picture hit the newsfeed and went viral. After ten straight years of work by a team of 200 scientists, they were able to photograph the unseeable. Most of us remember this picture of Sagittarius A, the first black hole to ever be photographed. This blurry image shows the silhouette of the black hole against the radioactive gas around its event horizon. The black hole can’t be seen because it swallows and destroys light itself. Sagittarius A is 26,000 light-years away, 156 quadrillion miles. Looking at it is like trying to read a newspaper in LA while sitting in New York. The picture of it is the work of lasers, telescopes, satellites, and acres of equations we can’t even imagine. This image is an approximation of a reflection of an idea of what it might be like. Prophecy in its biblical form is similar, a reflection of a refraction of a reality. It’s usually rendered in the language of the apocalyptic like Mark 13: “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” Mark 13:24-26 (ESV) This genre of writing is wild, highly symbolic, and more interested in conveying feelings than events. Jesus is talking about the apocalyptic events of the destruction of the temple, which would happen in the next generation. This is also a brief glimmer of the great apocalypse at his second coming. Again, the writing is meant to explain feelings, not catalog events, or map out timelines. As we enter the advent season, we reflect on the miraculous events of God entering our world in human form and the hope of a Messiah! Whether we become mesmerized by the puzzle pieces of scripture coming together, a child from the line of David, born in Bethlehem. Or cosmic events, a new star appearing in the east and angels in the sky. The real event is Immanuel himself. God with Mary and Joseph in the animal stall. God with us today in our place and space. And God with us in his pending return. In spite of all of the trappings, attractions, and details of the season that can vie for our attention it is the presence and person of Jesus who is the star! I’m Greg Williams, speaking of life.
Psalm 80-1-7, 17-19 • Isaiah 64:1-9 • 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9 • Mark 13:24-37
The theme this week is all passes away, mercy endures. In the call to worship in Psalm 80, the poet pleads with God to bring mercy on them and reclaim them as his people. In Isaiah 64, the prophet begs for mercy for God’s people who are clay in the hands of the Potter. In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks to this troubled community about how God will keep them and hold them until the last day. Our sermon is based on Mark 13, which gives the terrifying apocalyptic image of the temple’s destruction in AD 70, an early signal that God’s glory no longer rests there, but with the new community in Christ.
A Seat at the End of the World
Mark 13:24-37 ESV
One of the most memorable artistic events of this generation surrounds a very simple painting called Balloon Girl. This piece was painted by Banksy—an anonymous painter and activist who quickly paints graffiti art that often has an underlying, alarming message for the modern world. He uses images to stimulate discussion and draw attention to various causes. And nobody knows who he is!
Balloon Girl is a stencil image he’s used many times and which has become part of his brand. A framed original of it was recently sold for a million pounds at auction in London. When the gavel dropped, an alarm went off inside the painting and a shredder turned on in the frame, shredding the valuable work into pieces!
Banksy triumphed again, renaming the painting “Love is in the Bin” as a protest against capitalism and the commodification of art, which is meant to belong to everyone. Whether or not we agree with this firebrand artist’s methods or message, one thing is for sure, he presents a message in a startling way.
The language Jesus uses in Mark 13 is similar. Let’s read it.
Read Mark 13:24-37 ESV.
Here Jesus is using a highly symbolic, bombastic, terrifying way of communicating called the “apocalyptic.” Like Banksy’s message-laden theatrics, apocalyptic was a way to draw attention to catastrophe or life-changing, world-changing realities. Apocalyptic language was used in the Old Testament in Ezekiel, Isaiah and primarily in Daniel to talk about cataclysmic events of the time and sometimes to shine a light toward future events.
Daniel’s recurring image of the Son of Man was an esoteric way of prophesying Jesus’ first coming to earth. Jesus took on this title as a signal that these events Daniel foretold were happening.
In the New Testament, apocalyptic is also used in this passage here, and then most famously in John’s Revelation. These bizarre images—beasts, dragons, blood moons—were used to talk about events at the time of the Roman Empire and to shine a dim light into the future.
Apocalyptic language was often used to emphasize how something feels rather than what literally was happening or going to happen. it’s similar, in some ways, to Banksy’s work. He doesn’t believe the world is shredding up little girls and balloons, but sometimes it feels like it!
Jesus’ words here described the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 and the slaughter of thousands. It wasn’t the literal end of the world, but it certainly felt like it! The sun wasn’t literally extinguished and the stars didn’t fall from the sky, but it felt like it!
The ancient historian Josephus described the siege of the temple:
Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, butchered wherever they were caught. Round the Altar the heaps of corpses grew higher and higher, while down the Sanctuary steps poured a river of blood and the bodies of those killed at the top slithered to the bottom.
This graphic account is what Jesus predicted in this chapter using symbolic apocalyptic language. Be ready. Be alarmed. This is how this day will feel.
This kind of language is an important part of our interaction with Scripture and therefore our relationship with God and life itself. This passage is, as we’ve said, primarily about the fall of the temple, but it also sends some echoes to the end of the world itself, as John described later. That’s something we can approach today and learn from. Let’s look at three ideas when it comes to reading some of the most difficult scriptures and talking about one of the most difficult topics—the “end of the world.” (This is not the end of earth, however – it is the end of the world as we know it, the world under the sway of sin.)
Let’s break this down into three cautions:
- Keep watch!
There’s a great old bit of church commonsense wisdom that we should never be too heaven-bound to be any earthly good. If we are constantly watching the sky for Jesus to return or trying to make these texts into a horoscope of the future, we are missing the point. We can become too “heaven-bound” to engage in the world, which Jesus called us to and modeled for us.
When we get fixated on the end of all things, it can be easy to forget what and—more importantly—who is right in front of us. Jesus had a lot more to say about how we should love and treat others than when the end of the world is exactly going to happen. Obsession over signs and symbols can lead to distraction and fear, or worse.
James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior in the 1980s, was very public about his faith but not very careful about what he said. He became known as an extremist who said that environmental concerns were unimportant because Jesus was going to come back before it was a problem. He justified several irresponsible ecological moves by saying that Christ was going to come back anyway, so why bother?! He became an embarrassment to the country, and to the faith, furthering a stereotype that we are unconcerned about the reality in front of us.
This kind of perspective entirely misses Jesus’ words about his glorious coming. He never told us to give up our responsibilities for stewarding resources and relationships. He sent us, again and again, back to working out our relationship with him by working out our relationship with the world around us.
Paul dealt with this escapist mindset in writing to the Thessalonian church. This was a small, beleaguered community that was being hounded by their neighbors for their newfound faith. They had been excluded from society, losing jobs and livelihood because of Christ, even to the point that some were martyred for their faith.
They became fixated with the apocalypse, dropping the responsibilities of daily life so they could watch the skies. They’d fallen into irresponsibility for their society, and even in their moral standards. Paul doesn’t offer them justification for this laziness. Instead, he paints a picture that is very industrious:
To aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 ESV)
He doesn’t tell them to build bunkers or hoard food to prepare for the end, but to live gently with the great hope that God will take care of them. The cure for fixation is HOPE, and that is our Advent theme today. We have the greatest HOPE that God will put things to rights, and this world isn’t all there is.
I’ll refer to the opening line from C.S. Lewis’s classic Screwtape Letters, a work about a demon trying to tempt a soul:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.
The same is true of the apocalypse. Neither extreme is helpful—fixating on it or forgetting about it. Fixating on it tunes us out of our blessings and responsibilities in this life; forgetting about it tunes us almost too far in. We become so obsessed with building our house in this world that we forget it’s on sand.
The modern world is imminently distracting. We are bombarded with information right at our fingertips. We can bring up more literature in front of us in ten seconds than was even published two hundred years ago in all the world! Throughout most of human history, you saw your family, a few interactions in a village and maybe up to fifty people on a Sunday at church. Now you can interact with hundreds, thousands of people online before you eat breakfast!
It’s easy to forget that the world is here in a delicate balance, only at the mercy of God. It’s easy to forget that one day it will all come to an end and the new age will begin with Christ enthroned again on earth. Jobs, titles, status, commissions and corner offices won’t matter at that point.
Look at our passage here, which is a prophecy about something right at hand and a fore-echo of the future. Think of this rural, agrarian society without weather balloons and maps—they would have to be experts on the movements of the world around them as just a matter of survival. Jesus’ apocalyptic picture says even this rudimentary navigation will be done away with:
And the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. (Mark 13:25 ESV)
All of your coordinates, everything you know, will be shaken up when Christ returns. All of the ways we try to orient ourselves in the world, by this star, that direction, or this mindset, will “fall from the sky.” Everything that we once held as a sure thing will be shaken.
This happens over and over, not just in the ultimate cataclysmic end. Jesus is describing the “apocalypse” of the Jewish way of life with the destruction of the temple. For people of that day, the Temple was a given. It was their North Star, and their whole emotional universe orbited around it. No wonder Jesus used such strong language to describe its destruction.
But we see these institutions and “sure things” fall in our world, don’t we? It’s easy to forget that Washington, DC, is just a collection of buildings with very normal human beings working inside. It’s easy to forget that the economy depends on a gymnasium-sized room in New York teeming with normal folks.
This year, the coronavirus gained momentum globally. The headlines seemed to change every hour, announcing new outbreaks, school and business closings and travel shutdowns. Grocery stores were gutted of basic supplies. In a matter of a week, the world changed and was waiting anxiously to hear where it will all go. In some ways, it felt like the stars are falling from the sky.
And just the week before we were worried about which famous person had a breakup or which basketball player got a new pair of shoes!
Again, this is the time to anchor our HOPE beyond what we see in front of us. Don’t forget about the world, but don’t let it blind you either. Your hope is bigger and stronger and eternal, not temporary.
One powerful moment in this discussion turns a popular apocalyptic activity on its head. Jesus alludes to the timeline because he knows someone will be trying to map out the moment:
But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. (Mark 13:32-33)
Jesus is talking specifically about the fall of the temple, but he’s also providing us lessons and insight into the second coming. He says, “No one knows when this will happen, not even me.” What stronger warning could we get that trying to predict the apocalypse is pointless! Jesus himself doesn’t know when it’s going to be!
He doesn’t offer us any ciphers or riddles about how to predict the exact date this will all happen. His directive for us is simple: stay alert. This is the best approach when looking at some of the stranger scriptures around the Second Coming: Jesus is returning, so be ready.
Look at the context. Jesus spends about 45 seconds talking about apocalyptic matters. Turn the page, and he spends hours and days talking with the apostles at the Last Supper—instituting the day-to-day reality of what it means to be God’s people. Stay alert, be ready, live your life in hope.
Jesus gives us an image of his ascension to the throne:
And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. (Mark 13:26 ESV)
This verse offers us a strange image, which is a reference back to Daniel about the powerful, esoteric character of the Son of Man. This is often misread as a picture of Jesus coming down to earth in a thundercloud at the second coming. That’s going to happen in some form, but this is a picture of Jesus returning to the Father and taking his rightful seat at the Father’s right hand.
In other words, this is Jesus’ coronation as King, which happened in the first century. He is the King now, and he will be the King then. Reality will never be the same; the relationship with God and humanity is changed fundamentally. We await the day when this is fully expressed with Christ’s Second Coming, yet we also live in kingdom reality now, every day.
Small Group Discussion Questions
Questions for Speaking of Life
- Have you ever seen something so beautiful and glorious that you can’t put it into words? A mountain peak? The birth of your children? How do you explain it to others?
- Is your spiritual life like this? How do you put it into words?
- Is it hard to stop over-describing something and just worship? Why?
Questions for sermon
- The sermon used Banksy’s art as a way to describe the apocalyptic form of writing—chaotic, bombastic, messy and unforgettable. Have you ever seen art like that? (paintings, movies, plays, etc.) What made it unforgettable?
- Do you personally tend to err on the side of fixating or forgetting when it comes to thinking about Christ’s return? How do you stay balanced—holding the mystery without obsessing over it or disregarding it?
- This kind of apocalyptic destruction seems to happen in cycles in our world, with everything from our governmental institutions to the religious ones. Does the fact that all these institutions are temporary change our attitude toward them?