February 4, 2021

Preparing for the End of the World

We’re almost through with the Gospel according the Mark, this year’s selection for the Good Book Club. This Gospel gets right to the action, forgoing the sheep and the mangers to instead launch us into the life and ministry of Jesus with the prophet calling us to prepare the way of the Lord. In other words, this is the “let’s get down to business” Gospel.

We’ve seen Jesus’ healing miracles. We’ve seen Jesus eating with sinners. We’ve heard Jesus’ parables. We’ve seen Jesus transfigured. We’ve seen Jesus riding into town on a colt.

And now we hear Jesus telling us about the end of the world.

We’re approaching Lent, after the lentiest year that many of us alive have ever experienced. And now we have Jesus talking about “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

That’s 2020 (and now 2021, it seems…) for you, I guess.

But if the Gospel is indeed Good News, where do we find that hope in such a heavy piece of scripture as the thirteenth chapter of Mark? What good news is Jesus Christ trying to share with us when he talks about the temple being destroyed, rumors of war, and false teaching?

I see at least two main lessons we, both as church leaders and as the Church, can take from Jesus’ warnings in Mark 13.

Be Discerning

Twice in Mark 13 Jesus warned His disciples not to be led astray by false claims and warnings (vv. 5-6,21-22). The warning of Scripture is consistent: use discernment in listening to those who claim to have everything figured out.

From the day that in-person, indoor worship was suspended in churches across the country, we’ve been inundated with webinars and conferences and books and everything else trying to tell us what we should do. I’ve certainly been guilty of peddling that “expert” information.

Sure, there are subject-matter experts that have helped teach us to get church online, or to engage in our communities in new (and safe) ways, and do all sorts of ministry in the midst of a pandemic. But our job as leaders, as the people that know our communities and contexts better than anyone, is to be discerning.

Do we need to invest in livestreams, or can our congregation grow and thrive when our Sunday liturgy is broadcast on a conference call (the answer to the conference call question, at least in the case of one of our congregations in EDUSC, is a resounding YES). We need to be discerning.

Do we need to move heaven and earth to keep afloat mission and ministry that is no longer sustainable? Maybe, and maybe not. We need to be discerning.

These past 11 months have given us opportunities to reflect on what we are called as the Church to be and do, right here and right now. Sometimes that means shutting down ministries, closing churches, and otherwise doing things that may feel like the end of the world to some. But maybe those are just opportunities for new life to take root in new ways.

Be Disciples

Jesus warned of troubling events as we near the end of the age, no doubt. Then he added that nothing—not even hardship or persecution—should distract us from the one necessary thing: proclaiming the Good News to all (v. 10).

Then jumping ahead in the story a bit, before ascending into heaven, Jesus gave the church its marching orders: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The very next verses report that the disciples just stood there looking up into the sky. Two angels appeared and spoke the words the church today needs to hear: Why are you standing there gazing into heaven? He told you what to do, so get busy! (Acts 1:9-11, paraphrased).

Last year, and the beginning of this year, have been difficult times for many of us, and for many of our congregations. But our call remains clear: proclaiming the Good News, even in the midst of a pandemic. Proclaiming the Good News, even in the midst of racial strife. Proclaiming the Good News, even in the midst of civil unrest. Proclaiming the Good News, even in the midst of bitter divisions.

Even in the midst of the “birth pangs” Jesus describes in Mark 13, we are called--we are commanded--to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, full stop.

I’ve been privileged to witness the amazing work done by congregations across our diocese, from the resource-sized congregations that have helped feed a city’s children, to the tiny congregations that have been a place of comfort and solace for many.

Yes, hard decisions have been made. We’ve seen ministries and churches close, and we are certain to have more hard decisions ahead of us. But even in the midst of all of that, as Mark 13 makes clear, we are to first be discerning and trust that God will guide us in our discernment. And we are to be disciples and to trust that God is with us as we proclaim the Good News.

As Jesus said, “When you face trials, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but proclaim whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who proclaim, but the Holy Spirit.” (v. 11, paraphrased).

How have you and your congregation proclaimed the Good News in the midst of the “birth pangs” of the past year?

This blog is part of a series for the Good Book Club. Learn more about the Good Book Club here.