As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For 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 birthpangs.
Mark 13 is often considered the "Little Apocalypse" because of its similarity in a message to the book of Revelation. I must admit, in my teenage years, I was fascinated with all things apocalyptic. I was drawn to the message of Hal Lindsey and Tim Haye and his Left Behind series. To me, it felt like a science fiction or thriller story where we figure out our own place in the divine time scheme.
Were we truly living in the last days? Would we be raptured before the suffering got too bad? Would we get to come back as part of Jesus' vanguard force to reclaim the earth from Satan? Both Hal Lindsey and Tim Haye answer these questions in favourable terms. To them, the signs were indeed present, and so apocalypse is around the corner.
But if we look at the word apocalyptic, it simply means to "unveil" or "reveal." For example, Jesus' opening sermon in Mark 1 is apocalyptic because it reveals the Kingdom of God: "The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near" (Mark 1:15). Jesus performed exorcisms and considered them to be signs of the presence of the "Kingdom" and the beginning of the end (cf. Matthew 12:28; Luke 11:20). In chapter 13, Jesus continued unveiling other signs of the end.
In short, apocalyptic literature represents a worldview that believes that everything happening on earth represents and correlates with a larger, cosmic struggle between good and evil. It, therefore, reads cosmic affairs into earthly events. It anticipates future events on earth in light of the coming battle between the forces of good and evil. This is why it often tries to make sense of current events and experiences by casting them in a larger, cosmic framework, giving comfort to those currently suffering. Due to its symbolic nature and an overarching dualism between good and evil, apocalyptic literature seems readymade for reading all kinds of things into it – like predictions about the end of the world.
But this chapter in Mark – and other passages, notably the book of Revelation – were not written so that we could search out signs of the end. Rather, they were written to comfort first-century Christians struggling to make sense of their world and lives. For this reason, it is helpful to read this and similar passages in light of the challenges its original readers were facing, challenges that might be parallel to some of our own.
From this passage, we can gather that Mark's community was facing two critical challenges. First, the fall of the Jerusalem Temple. Second, people claiming to be Jesus or some other messianic figure returned. Mark's people were literally caught up in "wars and rumors of war" and probably found comfort in the belief that Jesus had already anticipated this and was offering words of reassurance to them through this Gospel.
When it comes to our own day and age, that kind of reassurance is still valuable. Undoubtedly, our wars are different, yet there is no shortage of claims that the world is falling apart. To us, just as to first-century disciples, Jesus says the same "do not be alarmed."
So I invite you to consider that apocalyptic literature is not exclusively future-oriented as it may seem. It's also very much about the present.
For instance, when Peter, James, John, and Andrew ask, "When will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to happen?". They are talking about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, of course. That occurred in 70 AD.
But we ask similar sorts of questions about the multitude of things, expectations, and promises. We want to know what, when, where, why, who, so that we can be prepared, so that we can be ready. I wonder, though, if the main point of this passage is that we are to live as if we are always ready. It is not about passively looking for the sign of God's imminent coming so that we can clean up our act. Instead, we are called to live always anticipating the activity of God.
I guess when we live looking for the activity of God here, and now, we begin to see it. In the act of a friend, in an opportunity to help another, in the outreach ministry of our congregation, in the chance to listen deeply to the hurt of another. Don't you think that God is revealed in all sorts of places, working with us, for us, through us, and in us?
So perhaps Jesus' response entails an indirect answer. To, When will this happen? The answer is Now, for it's already happening. To What will be the sign? The answer is: When you see people acting as Jesus did. Here and Now.