What is happening around us?

by John Howard.

It is most probably impossible to get a true perspective upon history that is happening around you. However, the years we are living through might well look like a highly significant time when viewed from a later age. That is of course assuming that a later age does ever exist! The COVID pandemic has had a huge impact upon human life across the world. The war in Ukraine has brought conflict back into the continent of Europe for the first time in many years and Russia’s threat to use weapons of mass destruction suggest that boundaries are about to be crossed that have never been crossed before. Dwarfing even those challenges remains the threat to the environment that human abuse of the planet is bringing about. We live in troubled times. “When you hear of wars and rumours of wars….” (Mark 13:7 NRSV)

Reflecting upon the chaos that seems to be everywhere around us in the world, Jesus’ dialogue with the disciples in Mark 13 came to mind. The background was of course that Jesus himself lived in pretty unstable times and clearly saw the prospects of the destruction of Jerusalem, and temple worship there, as likely, indeed seemingly inevitable. Most commentators upon this chapter[1] suggest that it needs to be looked at with a consciousness that sections of the chapter refer to differing things, and indeed differing periods of history, verses 1-8 considers the uncertainties of the future, 9-14 looks at coming persecutions, verses 14-23 predicts the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Other sections of the chapter focus upon differing questions and attempting to bring them together is perilous. The writer of Mark’s Gospel has brought into the one chapter a disparate set of sayings of Jesus.

It was however the later verses in the chapter – from verse 28 onwards that had caught my attention recently when I was looking over a liturgy for a service conducted at Greenbelt. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branches become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” The author of Mark is clearly reporting Jesus as saying to his listeners – you can read the signs of the seasons around you – then likewise read the signs from the world around you. The chapter continues with the parable of the absentee landlord with its warning: “and what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

The signs of the times are around us everywhere we look. Signs of the deterioration of the environment, signs of increasing willingness to achieve national ambition by force of arms, signs of humanity’s vulnerability to disease. We might well say that it’s not a lack of signs that is the problem, it’s how to read them! What does this chaos mean? How should Christians respond?

Christians seeking to predict the future have used Mark 13 and other passages of a similar nature to claim an association between events around them in history and these apocalyptic passages. A cool biblical examination of such attempts have always indicated the false nature of such attempts – and I have no intention in engaging in such practice now.

However I do want to ask the question “Given the time we are going through – how should we respond?” A verse from the middle of chapter 13 seems to give a clue – in verse 13 we read “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Tom Wright in his commentary “Mark for Everyone”[2] comments of this chapter “The resulting command then is not ‘sit down and work out a prophetic timetable – always a more exciting thing to do – but ‘keep awake and watch.’ The little church in the first generation cannot afford to settle down and assimilate itself either to the Jewish or the Pagan world.” The church of today has many more resources and many more members but the warning echoes out across the years to us – we too cannot afford to assimilate ourselves into contemporary society either in the materialism that has been a major factor in leading us to where we are today, or the despair and hopelessness that characterises many people’s response the chaos around us. We need to hear the assertion of the chapter and hang on in there. The times may be hard – and they may well get harder still – but the theological response to the chaos around us is the cry from this chapter – “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

Or we could say in the words of a well known hymn….’Trust and Obey!’

[1] See for example Eduard Schweizer The Good News according to Mark, (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 1970)

[2] Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, (London: SPCK, 2014)

16 thoughts on “What is happening around us?”

  1. Trouble is that ”Trust and Obey” generally turns out to be an excuse to escape to an otherworldliness where “All is for the best in the best of possible worlds”, “God will sort it all out” and “I’m all right Jack!”. Escape to a world of personal holiness, personal piety and personal salvation, where we assume apathy is to be preferred to empathy, and whatever we do, we must not protest!


  2. The trusting acceptance of what happens to us as ‘God’s will’ may apply when we are the ones suffering, but is this acquiescence equally valid when suffering is being endured by others or when we see the evil or injustice in the world? Is it enough to watch and wait for Jesus to return and sought everything out? Should we not take what action we can? Perhaps we should stop blaming (or excusing) God for the injustice and suffering in the world and look for the love in it instead which will enable us to do something about creating more fairness and removing some of the causes of suffering. The more we attune ourselves to the God within us, the better we will be prepared to tackle the problems in the world. You cannot destroy darkness; but you can create so much light that there is no corner of dark left.


  3. Excellent Pavel! But which “God” are we referring to “when we attune ourselves to the God within us”. Came across a list written by Jim Palmer on another Methodist blog that identifies the problems with the traditional, credal view of God. I disagree about number 4.
    Ten things about Christianity that Jesus would not be happy about if he returned:
    1. That his vision for a transformed society, got twisted into an afterlife fantasy about heaven.
    2. That a religion was formed to worship his name, instead of a movement to advance his message.
    3. That the gospel says his death solved the problem of humankind’s separation from God, instead of accepting that his life revealed the truth that there is no separation from God.
    4. That the religion bearing his name was conceived by the theories and doctrines of Paul, instead of the truth Jesus lived and demonstrated.
    5. That he was said to exclusively be God in the flesh, putting his example out of reach, rather than teaching that we all share in the same spirit that empowered his character and life.
    6. That the religion that claims his name, teaches that his wisdom and teachings are the only legitimate way to know truth and God.
    7. The idea that humankind stands condemned before God and deserving of Divine wrath and eternal conscious judgement, requiring the death of Jesus to fix it.
    8. That people are waiting on Jesus to return to save the world and end suffering, rather than taking responsibility for saving the world and solving suffering ourselves.
    9. That people think there is magical potency in uttering the name of Jesus, rather than accessing our own natural powers and capabilities to effect change.
    10. That people have come to associate Jesus with church, theology, politics and power, rather than courage, justice, humanity, beauty and love. What do you think?


    1. Pavel, has already made the important point that intellectual agreement is not of ultimate importance but I would wish to go further in a critique of this list. For me both the supposed traditional view and the apparent view of Jim Palmer about what Jesus’s attitude might be (I say ‘apparent’ because Robert gives no reference so it may be unfair to suggest Jim Palmer is really claiming to know Jesus’s mind) is that they are being too literal.
      Theological consideration can only ever be metaphorical.
      If I were forced to choose between the two views above (and I utterly reject that choice) I would certainly side with Palmer’s views (not of course that I agree entirely with them, let alone that other people should be forced to accept them), but how much is lost with not seeking to engage the truths that may lay behind the so called traditional views (even if we see them as deep perversions). The Palmer view , if I may call it that, for me lacks a sense of the engagement and empowering love of a God who choose to be incarnate. Yes, not a magical rescuer but equally not just leaving us to ‘accessing our own natural powers and capabilities to effect change’.


  4. The rock on which faith is built isn’t intellectual agreement with (or new interpretations of) religious propositions about God; it’s the heartfelt commitment to a life of love and service which comes from knowledge of God’s love and creative power that one feels from the very centre of one’s being. That’s what people of faith need to share – complete with all their questions and doubts, their hopes and dreams. If they do communicate that confidence through their own commitment, they’ll understand what St Paul meant when he wrote: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”


  5. Thank you, John Howard, for your article. Two sentences in particular leap out at me:
    ‘we too cannot afford to assimilate ourselves into contemporary society ….’ and
    ‘the one who endures to the end will be saved.’

    I think it is naive in the extreme to believe that God sent his only begotten son into the world to teach us how to be kind! Loving kindness existed in the world long before Jesus came. But so did evil, and the signs of the times would indicate that evil is getting the upper hand. It’s not just national and global events, it’s what is happening to society in our own towns and villages. Schoolchildren stabbing each other to death. A nine year old girl shot dead in her own home. An elderly man on a mobility scooter stabbed to death in broad daylight. Politicians murdered as they carry out their civic duties. And countless other heinous crimes that we hear about every day in our newsfeeds.

    Since the middle of the last century, the British people have rejected the Church and turned away from God. We thought we could manage without him, and what we are witnessing on our streets is the result. Human kindness is a wonderful thing, but trying to heal the sick society we live in with acts of kindness is like trying to clean up after an earthquake with a feather duster. The power of human love is grossly over-rated; it is only God’s redeeming love, shown in the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ, that has the power to save the world.

    We need God. We need Church. We need the Bible. And we need strong, devout Christian leaders, committed to preaching the Gospel and sound Christian creeds and doctrines. We need to bring Christian worship and Religious Instruction back into our schools. We need to instill basic Christian principles of humility, obedience, faith and hope into the hearts and minds of our young people.

    Will it happen? Probably not! Those times are gone. The chance is lost. The Devil is leaping for joy. All we can do now, as we watch the world go down the pan, is stay alert and trust. Trust that the one who endures to the end will be saved. My trust in God is non-negotiable.

    He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
    I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress; my God in whom I trust.”
    (Psalm 91 vs 1-2)


    1. In the USA, 31% attend church regularly; their children have orthodox doctrines instilled into them. The trust in the bible is such that 40% believe in the biblical account of creation. “In God we trust” is a state statement of belief. Just what you are asking for? Yet there are almost 20,000 murders a year in the country. 40% of households own at least one gun. I have actually watched sermons in which pastors have urged their congregations to use violence to overturn democracy and put Donald Trump back into the White House and threatened that anyone who votes Democrat would automatically be condemned to Hell.


  6. James. What if the situation in the USA spread to the UK with the loveless judgmentalism and condemnatory attitudes of the fundamentalists taking over? As I see it orthodox doctrines, biblical inerrancy, creationism, salvationism, belief in a “chosen people” etc. have nothing to do with the Jesus we meet in the bible whose unconditional love is totally inclusive and non-judgmental. I attended a service last Sunday given by a C of E vicar. Started by telling us about God’s unconditional love, but then proceeded to tell us what conditions we had to fulfil to earn that love! In particular he told us we must repent from our sins and when we have done that we would be acceptable to God, and righteous, and worthy of His love. As if we can earn love! I was not the only person to recognise this as silliness, and wonder what is taught at theological colleges these days. Been thinking about preaching that tries to justify biblical inerrancy and came up with this:- If “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof,, and for training in righteousness” 2 Timothy 3:16 then what do we make of Psalm 137:9 “Happy they shall be that take your little ones and dash them against the rock”.Should I trust and obey that?


    1. Of course God’s love is unconditional. We can’t earn it by any amount of religious rituals or acts of kindness. God loves us, unconditionally, regardless of our actions or inaction.
      He loves us even when we choose to reject him, go our own selfish way, refuse to repent and feel we have no need of his forgiveness. He still loves us, just as a good Father would, even when we think we know better than all the church fathers, all the theologians throughout two millenia, all the ordained ministers, all who worship the God of Israel, and even Jesus himself.
      Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi; he preached from the Scriptures which became our Old Testament.
      God goes on loving us, unconditionally, even when we reject his offer of salvation, and throw his redeeming grace back in His face!
      The father longed for the prodigal son to return to his loving care, but he could not welcome him back until the son made the decision to repent.


  7. I agree “we cannot afford to assimilate ourselves into contemporary society either in the materialism that has been a major factor in leading us to where we are today, or the despair and hopelessness that characterises many people’s response the chaos around us”. But what about protest! Do we leave protest to contemporary society and sit here and let it all happen? In my opinion being told to “trust and obey”, “endure to the end” or, worse still, “leave it to God to sort out” is a woefully inadequate response. Worship, praise, readings, singing etc. may instil a sense of His presence, but this seems beside the point to me when there are people trying to survive and deal with poverty, homelessness, illness, hunger and anxiety. I am with Amos: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; I cannot stand your assemblies. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”. Perhaps you may detect a little anger here. Yes! I am an angry young man (aged 80) that sits in the pews Sunday by Sunday and in some services feel that God has left the church and gone to spend Sunday down at the foodbank!


    1. Why do you even sit in the pews if you despise church so much?
      Why not just leave those who want to worship to do so in peace, and use your time to build something good instead of trying to kick something to death?
      I know you of old, Robert, and I always got the impression you loved the battle more than the cause!


  8. Despise the church! Fifty years every Sunday taking part in something I despise! It is because I wish to see the church thrive that I question those aspects of liturgy and theology that alienate and discourage those who come to the church for answers. Most of the preachers I hear respect a questioning faith, but sometimes we are blessed with someone who present us with dogmatic statements and judgmental doctrines that appal me. I want to shout out – Where is the love?


    1. Would you spend every Sunday morning on a golf course if you didn’t like playing golf? Or in a gym if you didn’t like keeping fit? So why go to a church service when you clearly dislike Christian worship? If you think God has abandoned your church why would you want to be there?
      I certainly felt the love at Mass tonight as we confessed our faith by reciting the Apostles Creed. If you can’t feel the love in your church, maybe it’s time you looked elsewhere?


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