What would you choose?
The following story I found in one of my Dutch exegetical magazines as an introduction for children to the words of Jesus in Mark 13.
Dick was sitting in his mothers lap. He had brought her a picture book from the cupboard to read. His favourite picture book, called: Which would you choose?
Mum opened the book: Which would you choose?
And Dick had to make a choice: Eat cobwebs with an old witch or slobbering slime with an old ghost? Would you rather eat spicy frog drill with a dragon or devour rabbit dung
in a bats nest?
Dick looked at the pictures. They were exciting and revolting at the same time.
Which are you going to choose? Asked Mum, come on, tell me!
And Dick pointed to picture with the rabbit dung because he had had a taste of that, and he knew it wasnt to bad.
Where would you rather live? On a small boat in shark infested waters or in a desert hut surrounded by hyenas? In an Iglo watched by hungry polar bears or in a tree house surrounded by swarms of bees?
Dick touched all the pictures once or twice before he decided: The polar bears
I had been listening intently. Who would want to chose any of those horrid things!
Wont this give him nightmares I asked Leo, his older brother. He grinned and explained patiently: It is to prepare him he said, so hell be more ready
Prepared, I asked, for what?
For when he will have to eat spinach later on or brussel sprouts explained Leo. Or for when he meets a nasty dog in the street, or his tonsils need to be taken out ..
Leo was right, doing a bit of shuddering every now and again is good. To be prepared.
Im not sure if it actually works that way: That it will be easier to reconcile yourself to discomfort easier if someone has given you some worst case scenarios first. In my experience I am no better of having imagined the worst before something slightly less dramatic actually happens, then if I have not been worrying at all. A reaction of unsuspecting astonishment to a disaster in my case often inspires a far better and more resilient response than long suffered anxiety finally turning into fact.
I do not believe Jesus is giving his disciples a worst case scenario so what actually will happen will be easier to bear. I dont think that the picture he paints is an exaggeration of what actually is going to happen to them. We know from history that it wasnt.
A couple of years after his death the Romans will smother an insurrection of Jewish Nationalists in blood and destroy just about everything in the country, killing people indiscriminately, committing some of the worst atrocities in history without bothering too much about who was actually involved in the revolt and who was not. The smoke rising from Jerusalem after it had been ransacked probably so thick that the sun was darkened and the moon invisible at night for several days if not weeks after the event.
So it happened, and at the time, when Jesus was speaking to his disciples about the future some of what was coming probably was already in the air. Striking fear in the hearts of many who knew all too well what the Romans, once incensed, were capable of.
Revelations was written in the midst of all that happening. It was a letter of one who was lucky enough to have been sent into exile rather than be thrown to the lions. A letter to give courage to those who were taking the brunt: Christians persecuted and cut down randomly and indiscriminately, just because somebody had decided they were a threat to the system.
But that is 2000 years ago, a time of war and trouble now almost forgotten, except by people who read ancient history or are involved in Biblical exegesis.
What do these messages convey in the 21st century however?
I imagine that that would be largely dependent on where one would find oneself on the planet and in what situation. Imagine reading Mark 13 in present day Iraq, or in some areas of Africa which were referred to as "Dantes inferno and worse" by a friend who visited there recently? What would they have to say if we were living in a place riddled with landmines or fighting for the bare bones of life?
I imagine they would give comfort and hope. That they would give us support and some idea that life, even where it goes through the valley of darkness and death, can still look forward to better times and the rule of another than those whose power is built on power and terror. The images Jesus conjures up in Mark 13 are happening, now, in places like Iraq, in the ravages of Aids in Africa, in the minefields of war torn areas in so many places in our world. And we can see there that where people give up hope, stop believing that better times will come, and stop trying to seek reconciliation and peace all is lost and total anarchy ensues.
But what about us, who read those passages here in Toorak? What meaning do they carry for us who live in a world that seems to be moving faster and faster, where instant gratification is the norm and community effort or commitment seems to be disappearing rapidly? How do we read those passages in a situation where faith, spirituality and attention to the needs of others is rapidly fading into the background of our existence, exchanged for an ever increasing idolisation and isolation of the individual?
Where will we end up some ask. And more fundamentalist Christians will tell you: The sun will be darkened, the moon will no longer give light, the stars will come tumbling down and there will be an end to the world as we know it.
I think they might be right. Not because some apocalyptic event will happen and the end of days are at hand, but simply we can, as Jesus could in his time, see it coming:
If there is no compassion left, no commitment to community, no charity done, when the support structures of Church and social life no longer hold, when instant gratification and me, myself and I have become more important than caring for those around us and supporting the weak and the vulnerable in society, then the world as we know it will come crashing down around is.
Not that we are anywhere near that point yet. Fortunately not. But if we look at places like Iraq, where war rages out of control and terror and destruction seem to rule the hearts and minds of people, we can no longer assume we are exempt of anything like that ever happening to us.
Terror could strike here, fear and panic could cause enormous upheaval and bring down the fabric of society as it is. And in a way it already does. The threat of international terrorism, the fear of immigrants, the insecurity the drought and its economic implication cause us are influencing our decisions, our political choices, the way we look at others, at our commitments, at our priorities.
What Jesus says to his disciples is not only to prepare them for what is awaiting them in the future. It is also an encouragement for them not to let themselves be disturbed by it. To not let their judgement and commitment to love and care for the neighbour and dedication to the pursuit of peace and fullness of life for all Gods people be clouded by fear inducing violence and disturbance around them.
And that I belief is a message that is very pertinent to us, here and now, in Toorak.
Where do we put our energy and efforts? What is our life committed to? Who and what guides our live and in whose hands do we see our future? Do we trust the truth Jesus tried to instil in his disciples that whatever happens and however bad it gets there is only one power we should serve and pay tribute to? And that that power will, in the end, be victorious over violence and death. The power of love and the commitment to peace? Will we stay true to our beliefs and vision that Christs life is a life worth imitating in our life, bringing life, light, and peace to a world that would otherwise go under? Or do we give in to the fear mongery of those who only trust in their own strength and seek to secure their future at the cost of others?
The challenge that comes to us through those words of Jesus in Mark 13 are, is I believe, the question if we are prepared to dedicate our life as a congregation to living out the love, justice and peace that incarnated in Christ in this world. To live, committing ourselves to gods people in gods world, living a life of community, commitment, care and charity towards each other and anybody else who might needs our care and support without worrying about the future or what it may cost us? To live out our faith and nourish spirituality regardless of the fashion of the day.
Do we really believe in what we preach and are prepared to hold on to it, live it, breathe it, practice it, no matter what?
Or will we let ourselves be pulled down into the deep darkness of despair this world is subject to if it loses sight of the values that God gave us the live out and Christ embodied?
The choice is ours, a choice the gospel encourages us to make, prepared for the worst, but not daunted by it. Amen.