24“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
“After that suffering.” We can’t read the whole Gospel at once – at least not on a Sunday morning. The readings in the liturgy are mere fragments of a story the community is supposed to know. When you hear the piece you ware supposed to remember what comes before and what comes after and how the pieces all fit together. As if you could pick up a small jigsaw puzzle and at first glance know where it fits.
We can’t read the whole Gospel at once, because of the time constraints of worship, but those who have heard this Gospel recited talk about how incredible is the experience. Mark was an oral Gospel, told to the community – preached to the community in the best sense of that word – proclaimed, and only later written down. It is full of the urgency of a breathless witness. I think of my brother about 10, giving my mother a blow-by-blow rendition of “the best movie ever!” She is struggling to get groceries in from the car; he is oblivious to everything but the story.
“After that suffering.” It is a haunting reference to the struggle the community has endured. Mark’s is not a nice rural or suburban congregation in Middle America. It is like a refugee community on Syria’s border, surrounded by war and its aftermath.
Since the death of Jesus, his followers have suffered violence for their perceived betrayal of communal values – think about Paul participating in the stoning of Stephen, and he himself victimized, including by stoning, for the message he preached. He is nearly murdered by a mob in the temple and escapes an organized plot against his life only by being secreted out of Jerusalem at night by a detachment “of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen.” (Acts 23:23)
Conflict within the Judean community in the city of Rome, apparently involving hostility against the followers of Jesus, led to their expulsion in AD 49. Judeans return to the city, but the Christians become numerous and identifiable enough to get blamed by Nero for the burning of Rome in 64. Among the tortures they endured, some were dipped in pitch and set alight as torches for the emperor’s parade route. Then in 66 the Judean revolt began. The leaders of that revolt were acclaimed as the anointed of God – in Hebrew, ‘Messiah’, in Greek, ‘Christ’. When Jesus warns about false Christs, Mark’s community knows their names. The followers of Jesus are perceived as enemies of Romans and rebels alike. Those who fled Jerusalem were captured by the Romans and crucified in a circle around the city, facing the wall so that all inside could know the fate that awaited them.
In the first year of that war, as Vespasian marched through Galilee, refugees flooded the city. They would later starve or perish in the zealot reign of terror. There is a reason Jesus tells his followers to flee to the hills.
So when Jesus continues his discourse with this simple phrase: “After that suffering,” the crowd listening to Mark tell the story of Jesus knows the suffering of which he speaks. It is the suffering of their community squeezed on all sides.
But Jesus doesn’t offer them consolation; he speaks a promise: “After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
The sun, moon and stars are divine beings in the ancient world, spirit beings inhabiting the realm of the air. We would think of them as forces, spiritual realities that drive human existence, like ideologies and isms. We see these forces at work on a grand scale in the clashing and mutually incomprehensible perceptions and experiences of the world between Palestinian and Jew or black and white in Ferguson. Fascism, Communism, Capitalism, Fundamentalism, Racism – these are forces that seem beyond human control, but wreak their wrath upon people and children, communities – even on the earth itself as carbon dioxide levels rise far beyond anything earth has known in 90,000 years, changing not just the weather but ecosystems and the chemistry of the ocean. Polar ice melts and orca now plunder the once protected nurseries of the narwhal and bowhead. Polar Bear are reduced to eating seaweed and trying to learn how to fish for salmon.
Before such transcendent powers Mark’s community seems helpless. But their story doesn’t end with suffering. “After that suffering” these powers will be thrown down. The Son of Man, the crucified and risen one, will come with power and great glory.
It is not pie in the sky. It is very far from pie in the sky. It is faith and courage and hope and continuing testimony in the face of great powers – born of the confidence that they are witnesses of a far greater power.
This is Mark’s urgent and compelling and liberating story. The unimaginable has happened: the true Messiah has been crucified but made alive by God – and he is coming to reign.