It is the end of the church year. Two Sunday’s hence, the start of Advent, is the church new year. And in the last two Sundays the texts turn to last things. In the year of Matthew you get the parables. In the year of Mark you get Jesus’ sermon itself from Mark 13. Which means it is the perfect time to preach the doctrine of the 2nd coming. There probably isn’t a more misunderstood doctrine with worse effects on Christian life than the 2nd coming. And the text itself isn’t easy to comprehend as there are at least 5 threads running through it, some of them very Jewish, others off in the future. What this sermon does is point out the two ditches that we often get stuck in when contemplating the 2nd Coming and why they are ditches. We shouldn’t necessarily feel back about these, because they are perennial. They are what the disciples wanted to turn towards. The second part of the sermon listens to Jesus’ answer to those disciples as they tried to steer him into the ditch. Jesus this week explains what it means for a Christian to watch or “be on your guard”. Once you are “on guard”, then next week he turns to some actual answers that we can hear about those last things.
“The first woman (let’s call her Sally) told me she was having trouble finding an Episcopal Church that she liked. I suggested she try St. Such and Such, ‘Oh no,’ she exclaimed. “I could never go there.’ ‘Why not?’ I asked. To my amazement she said, ‘I would have to look at that big cross they have behind the altar with that figure of Christ hanging on it. It would upset me terribly.'” – Fleming Rutledge
Fleming Rutledge is a great preacher. I say that with a bit of envy at her skill, but also with the recognition that her style is just not something I could pull off. That quote is just the shortest from an even better string of stories making her point. (It is in the book Bread and Wine, a great little Lenten reader.) I could never pull her style off because of two reasons: a) something guilty about using specific people at their worst and b) I always think these are “preacher stories” which are just a little too good to be true. But she makes it work, and stick, and if she used me I’d thank her for putting me on the narrow path instead of being mad (that is her greatness by the way). And her point here is simply that we are told to watch, and that biblical injunction is really to watch ourselves. Because when we do, we don’t like what we see. It is much easier to look away. To look at our neighbor. And to draw that line of grace for thee, but I don’t need it. Staring at a crucifix is recognizing that I put Jesus there. And there is only one way out. His grace, alone.
Three problems with the what the Bible actually has to say about the end times. 1) It’s real message is incredibly boring. One word. Watch. About that day and hour, nobody knows. No elaborate timelines. No warnings or signs. 2) So much of it is given to us in a language that we just don’t understand anymore. It is not that we can’t understand it. It is just that it takes either a bunch of time cross referencing Old and New Testaments and looking up apocryphal literature of the time and when you do that you get a sense of time wasted because it is boring. (I did all that and I don’t have a date or at least a Mayan calendar?!? 3) Much of it happens to refer to a historical which requires us to know history. 3a) Ok, one more. There is a deep hermeneutic question that is just really unanswerable and really is something that just can’t be brought into the pulpit.
If you want to discuss the hermeneutic question, come to bible study next week. (We started it this week and will continue next week). That question to me is to what extent can AD70 and the parts of Mark 13 that talk about it be treated in a typological way. Not typological to THE LAST DAY as that is ruled out by the text, we don’t know, but typological to churches or an End of An Age. My question in study started with what would a modern abomination that causes desolation look like. I think there are some modern parallels that don’t point to an easy future if read typologically. But, that is not pulpit type stuff because it is ultimately just refined speculation.
It does lead back though to what I did take into the pulpit – watch, be on your guard, wake up, lest when He comes suddenly, He finds you asleep. Now is the time of grace. Fill your lamps.
This is a deeply reflective article by a Washington Post Photo-journalist who recently photographed and watched the death of a snake handling preacher.
There is a medieval university phrase that “theology is the queen of the sciences”. What that meant was that all the other subjects studied were fed into theology as well as theology influencing how those subjects were studied. What we think about God changes what we can see. Likewise what we know (or think we know) about the world influences what we think of God. If I come at God knowing that he doesn’t exist, I won’t find him. (Luke 16:19-31 Dives and Lazarus) If I think God is all about signs, I will see them everywhere or go to great length to see them. (John 2:23-24) When Jesus says he is the door (John 10:7) or I am the way (John 14:6), or that all these testify about me (Luke 24:44-45) what he is saying is that the starting point of good life giving theology is Jesus. The Christian is conformed to Christ.
Bad theology distracts us from Christ. It places the emphasis elsewhere. In this particular case it comes from an incredibly stupid error. Mark 16:17-18 is part of a larger section Mark 16:9-20. The gospel according Mark, as we know because of modern critical biblical studies, ends at verse 8. All good study bibles readily accessible explain this. All good pastors should be able to explain this. Mark 16:17-18 should not be part of the scriptures. It was at best somebody’s attempt to add an ending to the Gospel according to Mark. The snake-handling preacher was attempting to live out these verses that shouldn’t be there. But here is the thing. The emphasis is moved from Christ to: a) the preacher, b) the signs and c) what faith can do for me. Because of Bad Theology, the unwillingness ignorance or inability to take into theology the evidence from other paths of study, this 44 year old man was handling rattlesnakes and drinking poison. Because of Bad Theology those that were following him are left with questions and guilt – instead of the gospel of Christ crucified and risen.
“Sometimes, I feel like we’re all guilty of negligent homicide,” one man wrote to me in a Facebook message following Mack’s death. “I went down there a ‘believer.’ That faith has seriously been called into question. I was face-to-face with him and watched him die a gruesome death. . . . Is this really what God wants?”
Likewise because of bad theology – a relativism that this man’s authentic faith should be recorded but not confronted, an ignorance of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:33-34) or the woman at the well (John 4) – the photojournalist takes pictures of a death instead of helping.
We all have a theology. We all have ideas that govern and shape how we view the world and interpret events. Bad theology kills. One other of Jesus’ I am sayings is “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) Centering on Jesus, conforming your theology to Christ is coming into the light. Coming into the light is starting to see the world as God intended. No longer blinded by bad theology. And having a good theology, centered on Christ, gives life. There is nothing more practical than good theology. Our culture no longer teaches good theology as a birthright. In fact much the opposite. Bad theology comes in the air. Which means that Christians need to take more seriously than maybe our grandfathers Jesus’ warnings to watch. (Luke 21:34-36)
[Picture is Fra Angelica – Virgin and Child with SS Dominic and Aquinas – not bad theologians, who along with Mary point to the Child in the middle – a visual picture of good theology]