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 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” 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!’
 See for example Eduard Schweizer The Good News according to Mark, (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 1970)
 Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, (London: SPCK, 2014)