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We are approaching the end of the lectionary year B, and as noted, we have this Sunday a reading from the apocalyptic portion of Mark, which in its entirety runs for some 37 verses. Our selection is but the brief, opening portion of that.
Also as noted, the focus on the end times, at the end of the lectionary year, which has its correlates in Matthew 24 and Luke 21, continues into the first Sundays of Advent – Advent in this sense, meaning the Second Coming of Christ and not the First Coming alone. So Luke’s apocalyptic material picks up in Year C where Mark’s 8 verses give but a small summary, on the First Sunday of Advent next lectionary year. And Matthew returns the favor in his lectionary year, providing a summary from his Gospel that in turns sends us to Mark chapter 13’s longer account for Advent 1 of Year B, when it comes around again.
Both Luke and Mark situate the long, final, apocalyptic—end of days—speech of Jesus after the story of the widow’s mite, where it fits naturally enough. Jesus is leaving the sanctuary he has cleansed and where he has confronted religious leaders, the scene of the extended action after his entry from Jericho and the Mt of Olives until this, his final farewell. A sanctuary not made with human hands, as Hebrews puts it, will be and is now his present place of intercession, having laid down his life in the manner Hebrews and Mark know is once for all, for all. The departure from the temple evokes scenes reminiscent from the prophetic witnesses, Ezekiel most especially, where it amounts to an ominous withdrawal of the Lord God himself for a season of judgment. This withdrawal by the Lord, this time, is permanent, the culmination of judgment against human sin and rebellion for one final time and forever, with Jesus the Lord and Jesus himself the sacrificial offering of God’s love for the world he has made.
Upon leaving the temple the disciples, awed at its massive size and seeming permanence – it had stones of huge girth, some weighing up to three hundred tons, and would have been by far the largest structure ever seen by them – they give voice to their astonishment. Imagine the contrast, from a tiny mite in a widow’s palm to the top of the Twin Towers. “All will be thrown down” Jesus says in response to their awe and “not one stone will be left on another.” All standards of measurement will be recast by a single wooden cross about the size the man standing before them.
Whatever one makes of the astonishing details of the end time, about to be spelled out, and their timing–details that have vexed interpreters, including the actual destruction of the temple not long off and how that correlates with the end time, given that it happened now over 2000 years ago and the end time has not come—details our 8 verse section mercifully spares us—one thing is certain. Before going to his death Jesus spoke of a final judgment, and of the end of the temple as it had previously belonged to God’s precious plans. And his own death on a cross is surrounded by just these same apocalyptic features, supplied most clearly by Matthew, and with Mark satisfied to report the dramatic rending of the temple curtain at the hour of his death. With the death of Jesus a new reign of God begins which will take us to the end of time in its significance. The beginning of birth pains, but the conception and the bringing to term are accomplished in this man Jesus and this sets in motion a temporal horizon encompassing all future time, including our own, placing us for the most part gentile outsiders, right alongside Peter and James and John and Andrew.
The Track One reading continues with the roll call of famous women of integrity, following Esther, Dame Wisdom and Ruth. Hannah’s position in the first chapter of Samuel also picks up the Davidic theme at the close of Ruth, where the birth of Obed to Ruth, Boaz and Naomi we learn is in fact the grandfather of David. The hopelessness of the last chapters of Judges, with the refrain, “there was no king in the land; everyone did what was right in their own eyes” represents its own kind of moral famine mirroring that of Ruth. And as the birth of Obed signals a new hopefulness, the barrenness of Hannah overcome opens onto a fresh new horizon in God’s generous and faithful plans with his people. “She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I asked him of the LORD.’” Following this Hannah breaks out in her Magnificat of praise, whose final lines make the pending resolution of Judges and the famines and barrenness of this life clear: “The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” Like all good inspiration, Hannah is given more to sing and say than even she can fully grasp within her own present walk with God.
The paired Old Testament reading from Daniel 12 also gives a vision of the future not for Daniel’s own day, but for the times outside of his understanding. Far beyond the several generations separating Hannah and Samuel and indeed unto the end times. The reference to making wise has rightly been viewed as an inner biblical interpretation and application of Isaiah’s suffering servant song. “See, my servant will act wisely,” interpreted in the light of the whole poem as the servant making those wise who see in his death God’s final purposes—“by his knowledge my servant will justify many”–including even the nations themselves: “many nations will be amazed, kings will shut their mouths because of him.” Daniel is given to see this as an end time judgment where the faithful servants of the one servant are raised and given eternal life, after a time of upheaval and tribulation. A pre-figurement of the work of Christ on the cross and extended to the end times in the manner of Jesus own final teaching of his disciples, his last teaching before that end-time-in-time event now to unfold.
Our psalm lines out his ultimate fate as we await his coming and the final judgment he announced. 8 I have set the LORD always before me; * because he is at my right hand I shall not fall. 9 My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; * my body also shall rest in hope. 10 For you will not abandon me to the grave, * nor let your holy one see the Pit. 11 You will show me the path of life; * in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.
And finally our epistle reading for this Sunday, the final installment of our semi-continuous reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews. We are in the period between the once for all offering, sacrifice for sins, the author of Hebrews is at pains to set before us, undertaken in and by the unique priesthood of Christ; and the end times, when enemies will no longer beset his kingdom and his accomplishment of love.
We can let the exhortation from the author of Hebrews have the last word for this Sunday, as we next move to the Sunday of Christ the King, the last Sunday of this lectionary year. “…since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”