This text reminds me of that old story about the optimistic boy who woke up early on his birthday and looked out his window to see a giant pile of manure in the yard outside. He ran downstairs, got a shovel, and started happily shoveling. “What are you doing?” asked a friend. “With all this manure,” shouted the boy, “there’s got to be a pony in there somewhere!”
The Old Testament prophets pile up the vision of a time of suffering which will precede the coming of Messiah. Our Reading from the prophet Daniel, today, is one of those: “And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time.” But the Biblical prophets never stop there! (Like the cartoon figure in a robe and beard, carrying a sign that the end is near.) They always go on to say, as Daniel does, “But…your people shall be delivered…those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake…” Literally awake in the resurrection, but also figuratively awake to new faith in the midst of all our troubles. In other words, no matter how high and deep the prophets pile it up, there’s always a pony in there. Always!
Jesus places Himself squarely in that prophetic tradition with this passage. And the words of woe which He speaks certainly do pile up fast and furious. He doesn’t specifically answer the question the disciples ask: “When will these things be?” The wars, earthquakes, and famines to come, He says, only show that the birth is coming, not when it will come.
This whole discussion in St. Mark, as also in St. Matthew and St. Luke, takes place right before Jesus’ crucifixion, the Wednesday of Holy Week. Jesus is preparing them to participate in His suffering and death, so as to participate in His victory on Easter.
Nowhere does Jesus ever suggest that His followers are going to escape the troubles of the world. Nowhere does He suggest that a lucky few are going to get raptured off of planet earth as it careens toward destruction. Instead, this text shows how Jesus intends to give His followers hope, encouraging a steadfast faith in the face of all the challenges that are to come. Like His own cross, the glory of Easter is buried in that great heap of agony.
On the surface, this text seems to be filled with nothing but bad news and warnings of tribulations to come. And if there is a pony, it’s certainly buried pretty deep! Jesus says, “Nation will rise again nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.” Then He gets really wound up, “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all….”
“Beware!” He intones. “Many will come in My name…” “Beware!” He says darkly. “They will deliver you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for My sake….”
Now all of this throws a wet blanket on the disciples’ exciting day of sight-seeing around Jerusalem. They’re like a bunch of Iowa farmboys in the big city. “Ooh, look at all those tall buildings!” Why can’t Jesus keep His dark mood to Himself?! Why not accentuate the positive?
Perhaps some of you remember the protest songs from back in the 1960s? One in particular, the gritty lyrics of Barry Mcguire: “Don’t you understand what I’m tryin’ to say / Can’t you feel the fears I’m feelin’ today? / If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away / There’ll be no one to save, with the world in a grave…And you tell me / Over and over and over again, my friend / Ah, you don’t believe / We’re on the eve / of destruction.” It captured the mood of the era!
Oh, but…when you hear that song now on one of those PBS retro-specials, with a graying, somewhat paunchy Barry McGuire singing…well…the edge is gone and the effect is almost comical…except for all those aging Boomers in the audience who are going, “Oh yeah, right on, man! Far out!”
Which is what happens when we Christians use these apocalyptic passages to scare people into faith or repentance or whatever. When a person sets a date for the end of the world, and that date passes, the faith looks fool! Whenever fear is used as a motivation for faith…despite any short term gain, it ends in folly!
The prophets didn’t speak this way to scare people. Jesus doesn’t either! It’s a strong shot of reality to religious folk who tend to prefer their faith in terms of rose-colored escapism. These words are a bracing dose of reality, a “thanks, I needed that” slap upside the head. When the going gets tough we do tend to quit, run away, and miss the whole point of what Jesus is trying to say!
What Jesus says here is how He talks about His own death. He is painfully blunt when it comes to speaking about His betrayal, His suffering, and the violence of His death. But He always does so, so that He can then speak about that Third Day. The cross is so very dark because Easter is so very, very much greater. But you can’t have the Easter without the Good Friday!
So buried within all of this bad news, Jesus speaks words of great Good News. He comforts, “Do not be alarmed when you hear of wars and rumors of wars.” “Do not be alarmed, when nation rises against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” “Do not be alarmed when there are earthquakes in various places and famines.” Why? Because when the time comes we will have help.
Jesus says, “Do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” In other words, Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will support us in all the trying times that come upon us. We need not be filled with anxious dread, what to say, what to do, where to turn with all that looms on our horizon.
It’s a word of encouragement from Jesus. But it’s not an excuse to escape our responsibilities and callings in this world. None less than Martin Luther once took these words as an escape. The story goes that Luther was so very busy he decided to take Jesus’ words literally: “Say whatever is given you in that hour.” So he spent no time whatsoever on his sermon that week but worked instead to finish his commentary on the Psalms.
Later Luther recounted what happened when he ascended the pulpit of the Castle Church at Wittenberg and looked out over the sea of expectant faces. He said, “Sure enough, the Holy Spirit spoke to me. He said, ‘Martin, you didn’t prepare!’”
So too the disciples. When the darkness of the cross came upon them, they ran! And how they ran! But when the Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, then they learned to stand and endure. So, pony #1 under this great pile of doom and gloom: we will be helped in our hour of trouble.
Now Jesus also says, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.” The British prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill, knew a thing or two about perseverance during wars and rumors of wars. He once said famously, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never, in things great or small, large or petty, never give in…” “If you’re going through hell,” he said bluntly, “keep going.” But how? Ah…that is what Jesus is talking about.
Pony #2 is His promise buried under this pile of pains and pangs and persecutions, His Easter hidden under the cross. Yes, the one who endures to the end will be saved. That means the one who endures Good Friday will see Easter’s resurrection. That One is Jesus. That’s only Jesus!
But…He says here, “Take heart. Listen!” Because that one also becomes us; us who listen to Jesus and take to heart the things that He is saying to us here. Because, as He says, the Holy Spirit travails with us in our troubles, giving us the Word of God we need in that hour, giving us the Gifts of Christ needed to endure each and every shovel full of trial. The Spirit “bodies and bloods” us together with Jesus. He gives us the things of Christ…right in the hour we need them.
So no matter how deep it all piles up around us and over us, with Christ, by the Spirit, we endure to the end. With Christ, by the Spirit, in the midst of wars and rumors of wars, of persecutions and pains, the piles and piles of this world’s manure…with Christ, we keep going…today…tomorrow…always.