Last evening, I had the opportunity to preach at the Saturday evening service over at PazNaz. This year, the church has been going through the book of Mark and so rather than having a traditional Advent passage, the passage I was given to preach on was Mark 13:14-27.
Do you know this passage? On the surface it appears entirely non-Christmasy. But, I quickly realized that it was absolutely an appropriate, if nontraditional, passage to preach on during this time of year. What follows is my sermon outline notes I used last night. They’re not a script, nor a traditional outline, rather they’re more like thoughts I write out that serve as cues as I move along. If my mind blanks I can look down, but for the most part I just glance at the theme of each paragraph and talk. I’m getting better at it, Amy says.
The service began with Amy leading some songs in worship, and then an advent liturgy. I then talked a little bit about Christmas and the usual thoughts of family, peace, joy, life, hope that come during this season. At that point I read the passage.
14 “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. 16 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 17 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 18 Pray that this will not take place in winter, 19 because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again.
20 “If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.
24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
Merry Christmas? Doesn’t exactly fit, does it? But this is a great passage for Christmas. Let me finish the passage:
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
Still doesn’t quite seem a Christmas passage? But it is! Let me explain why. Though just as a bit of warning, means I’m going to be doing a lot of history and a bit of reading. God works in history, after all, and we can’t just take a passage out of its context and think we know what it means. Mark assumes that his readers know the history, because the Jewish people and the early Christians were, if nothing else, people who knew the Scriptures and in the Scriptures they were reminded of the workings of God throughout time. As Christians, we tend to ignore history, thinking that it’s not relevant for our future or our faith. That’s troublesome because that’s one of the remnants of liberal Christianity that found its way into conservative circles.
Back in the day, scholars wanted a faith but didn’t really believe in God’s working, they liked the idea of God but thought all the stories and miracles and such were a bit absurd. Nowadays, we might affirm the stories, but we do so in an ahistorical way. That’s how this passage is often read too. This passage and others have so much intriguing imagery that teachers and preachers like to fill it in with their own thoughts and in doing that provoking panic and fear and isolation, encouraging people to succumb to their worries, to look for things to fret about.
They cause people to be wary of this world, to see it as us against them, a competition over meaning or resources. But that’s where Christmas comes into play. Reading this passage wrongly makes us afraid and wary of this world. But Jesus came into this world, being born in a manger, participating in it. Not with an attitude that everything is okay as it is, because it’s not, but with an attitude of love, offering the hope of salvation, the hope that what is experienced is not in fact the defining reality of this world.
Which reality do we want to participate in? The one that competes and is afraid, constantly worried about signs or disasters? Or the reality that Christ brings, that of true hope, true joy, true peace? That’s the message of this passage. And this passage immerses us in the history of God’s work with his people so that by understanding this work we might have confidence in his work in our lives and his continuing work in the future.
An abomination that causes desolation? What is that? Well, throughout the Bible we have these sorts of phrases and prophecies that, for the readers, served as an allusion of sorts, bringing to mind events of the past and pointing how these events are not just in the past but are models of our lives and the future of this world. We have this image of the abomination that causes desolation? What is this?
Well, it’s like what is sounds like. It’s this world shattering event or moment in which that which defines us, which gives us meaning and direction and identity, somehow utterly defiled. Everything we put stock in, that which we thought was the most important thing, that’s ruined and it leaves us in desolation. Sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes spiritually.
To understand this issue, we have to go back to the beginning, and by beginning I mean the very first story of humanities interaction with God.
Adam and Eve – the abomination of eating the fruit, desolation in being kicked out the garden. How did that work out? God reached into human history to set things right.
We go on from there, and can talk about Joseph in slavery. Tossed into the well. Abomination that caused his desolation. He did everything right… but everything went wrong. With Potiphar’s wife maybe he could have just adapted to his situation, try to make the best of it. He stood close to God, and desolation followed. Then God worked.
Exodus – the abomination of killing the babies, of slavery made harder, of freedom then starvation and thirst. The abomination of the wilderness, the desolation of the journey.
Abomination passage itself is originally found in Daniel
Daniel (1st Temple): Remember Daniel? Daniel 1:1-6.
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.
3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— 4 young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. 5 The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service.
6 Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.
Daniel was this guy, in every respect gifted in intelligence and good looks. He had everything going for him. Then everything, every part of his life was stolen, he was taken from his destroyed home, and it is quite likely that he was made into a eunuch. He refused for this desolation to give him identity. He clung to the identity of God, as did his friends, even in the face of persecution and isolation and desolation.
Here’s what he writes about the abomination that causes desolation:
25 “Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. 26 After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. 27 He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.
31 “His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation. 32 With flattery he will corrupt those who have violated the covenant, but the people who know their God will firmly resist him.
33 “Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. 34 When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them. 35 Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time.
“From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination that causes desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. 12 Blessed is the one who waits for and reaches the end of the 1,335 days.
13 “As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.”
Do you know the story of Hanukkah? [Here I summarized, but if I had more time I would have read a passage in Josephus and one from 1 Maccabees — here’s a link that summarizes those]
So, Hannukkah celebrates this restoration of the Temple and the restoration of the Kingdom.
Romans (2nd Temple): The people forgot their devotion and things went bad, so bad the corrupt descendents of Judas got into their own corruption and problems. I won’t go into the details, but basically this all led to Rome taking over in Israel. And that leads to the situation we encounter at the time of Jesus’s birth. We know Herod, yeah, but we don’t know how vicious and mean he was. He did all sorts of terrible things to keep the peace, to keep the peace of Rome that was imposed upon the people. He wasn’t the only one. Up in Galilee, where a Roman governor was in charge there was the story of Sepphoris. [I summarized Rome, Herod, Sepphoris abominations]
Herod himself creates abominations, he rebuilt a majestic Temple, one of the grandest buildings of the time, sure. But then he killed all the boy babies in Bethlehem. Echoes of Pharaoh and Egypt? Sure! The people were living in a reality where others were imposing on them what it meant to live in this world. There was rebellions and disasters, and massive amounts of violence, so much so that it would take weeks and weeks to talk about all the stories of suffering and sacrifice.
And it wasn’t over when Herod died.
What did the readers of Mark think about? Maybe all the things I shared. More immediately, to them, though, they thought of the Roman siege of Jerusalem. Scholars think that Mark was written not long after Jerusalem was destroyed, and that destruction involved its own desolation and abomination. Let me read a little bit about that from a passage written by Josephus, that the early church historian Eusebius quotes.
That was, no doubt, in the minds of the earliest readers of the book of Mark. They knew abominations, they experienced desolations.
So, what was Jesus talking about here? Remember the passage in its context!
Prior to this, the whole book, he’s talking about the kingdom, what it’s like, what the people are like who live in this kingdom.
Don’t get distracted. Don’t give into competing claims. What was Jesus talking about earlier in the chapter? The importance of love, the sacrifice of the widow in giving what she had. These are messages of what it means to live in God’s Kingdom, a way of life that won’t be defined by other attempts to define rule and law and identity in this world. More than this, however, in this passage Jesus is telling us that life is absolutely not going to go fine just because we claim Jesus as our savior. The people of God experience suffering, and this story of suffering is throughout the Bible.
We’re told to expect this. But we’re also told not to obsess about it. There’s the hope that comes from God, and there’s a false hope that comes from people trying to use suffering or evil or problems in order to take advantage of those who want, who need, to hear a good word. The trouble is that so often they then point to hope that isn’t God, and because we’re so desperate for hope we look to those other people to give us wisdom and guidance, who to be for and who to be against.
When we follow those false prophets and false messiahs, we’re no longer following Jesus.
So even if they sound like they’re talking about Jesus, or using Christian words, if they’re pointing to a sort of Kingdom that is different than what Jesus talks about, they’re not of God. If they’re pushing us to be afraid, or to worry, or to get caught up in this sign or that sign or obsess about all the details of Christ’s return, then, according to this passage, they’re not from God.
The message here is that we should not, can not, define our suffering as the true reality. Jesus is telling us not to get distracted by the competing claims or those things which seem to destroy our whole sense of meaning and purpose.
As bad as it can get, and it can and will get very bad, we are to stick to being the sorts of people that live in accordance with God’s Kingdom, people of love, of hope, of life and light, not people of fear and worry and constantly fretting about this event or that supposed sign. God is in charge. God wins.
So, what does this have to do with Christmas?
Another image of possible devastation. Isaiah – Isaiah 7
1 When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it.
2 Now the house of David was told, “Aram has allied itself with Ephraim”; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.
3 Then the LORD said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field. 4 Say to him, ‘Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. 5 Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah’s son have plotted your ruin, saying, 6 “Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it.” 7 Yet this is what the Sovereign LORD says:
“‘It will not take place,
it will not happen,
8 for the head of Aram is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is only Rezin.
Within sixty-five years
Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people.
9 The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son.
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
you will not stand at all.’”
10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”
12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.”
13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.
We make it about competing kingdoms, one winning is the other losing. We’re tempted to pick sides, to make it about competing over the same piece of the pie — the land, the schools, the whatever.
However, God is not competing with the other kingdoms. He defines reality.
They are suggesting one kind of reality, we are participating in another. This is not other worldly, this is true worldly, God the creator re-creates, he does a new thing. A baby is born. Both sides are liberated.
It’s not that we don’t feel it, giving into a religious soaked denial of our circumstances. No, we’re in the midst of the suffering, we feel the desolation at times. We are rightfully enraged by the abomination.
It is in this experience of suffering that we hear a voice crying in the wilderness. A Son is Born. Christ is with us. God is working. We have true hope.
Joy of the Redeemed
1 The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and those the LORD has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.