As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains” Mark 13:1-8 (NIV).
Often, when people read this chapter in Mark (it is called the Olivet Discourse, and is similar to passages found in Matthew 24 and Luke 21) it makes them think about the end of the world. This is probably because some people think about the end of the world a little too much.
But in 2011, you could kind of, almost, get away with having some eschatological thoughts. 2011 has been a crazy year. So many dramatic events, and many of them corresponded to what Jesus was warning about:
Earthquakes – Japan
Famine – Somalia
Wars – Iraq and Afghanistan, of course, but also Libya
Rumors of wars – Iran
Revolutions – Tunisia, Egypt, Syria etc.
It is not for nothing that “The Protestor” was named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” for 2011. It seems like all over the whole world people were partying like it was 1789. Or 1989. In other words, in 2011 you could be forgiven for using phrases like “birth pains,” even if you don’t usually talk like that. You get a pass.
And many people were (and are) hoping for the birth of something really good. Hopes ran very high in 2011, especially with the excitement of the Arab Spring and the removal of dictators such as Mubarak and Qaddafi (and even Kim Jung Il, even though it is not sure that the people of N. Korea have heard about the Arab Spring yet – maybe next year). It seemed in 2011 like freedom was being demanded all over the world, by a new generation of people, armed with cell phones (and cell phone cameras), blogs, facebook and twitter accounts and hungry for change.
Now many people are disillusioned (already!) with the changes that have taken place, and it is fair to ask, have these changes been for good or for bad? I think the jury is still out on that one. It is too soon to say what will come of the tectonic shifts that happened in 2011, but what is certain is that real change has occurred. It will probably take years to sort it all out, but we have witnessed something significant.
But if you continue reading Mark 13, Jesus says something else that is interesting. He says that no one knows when the end will come:
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” Mark 13:32 (NIV). Strong. Not only that, but he warns about false prophets as well. “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” Mark 13:21-22 (NIV). This reminds me of the false prophets in Jeremiah; the ones who say “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). By the way, a false prophet could also be someone who says, “War, war,” when there is no war.
Clearly, when it comes to predicting the future, we know that we don’t know, that we can’t know. And we know that we should beware of those who say that they do know, because they are lying. Ok, good. So where does that leave us? What are we supposed to do? Jesus answers this question at the end of chapter 13 with a little parable:
“It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” Mark 13:33-37 (NIV).
We are supposed to watch and not get caught sleeping. But what does this mean? Are we supposed to sit and stare up at the sky, waiting for some kind of final judgment? This can lead to a particular kind of fatalism that is prevalent among the rapture-ready set. It is particular because people who hold this view think they know exactly what is going to happen, whereas other types of fatalism are dependent on the whim of God or the gods (or the fates). These people know how it all plays out, and in the end (spoiler!) the world will be destroyed. So what is the point of trying to make the world a better place? Why wash the windows of a house that is on fire, that kind of thing.
Here in Niger, many people have a similar attitude, but for different reasons. They say a word that is familiar to me from the Middle East, “Inshallah,” or “God willing.” I say, “Ok, see you tomorrow,” and invariably, the answer is “Inshallah.” Its not that they don’t want to see me tomorrow, its just that they know that if God doesn’t want them to see me tomorrow, it is not going to happen, and they are fine with that. Almost every time people bring handicapped children to the hospital, they say, “God made the child this way, so we accept it.”
Either way, you end up with the same thinking. Why should we do anything? Why should we try to heal a child with clubfoot? It takes months, even years. If the world is going to end anyway, or if God is the one who made that child like that, there is no point. Of course this is a ridiculous statement. Most people do seek healing for their children, in Niger and elsewhere.
Jesus talked a lot about the future, and predicted doom and gloom, but look at what he did! He went around healing and helping people. He prayed, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Watching and Sleeping
Watch and don’t sleep. If we are staring up at the sky while people are suffering and dying around us, we are not watching. We are sleeping. Watching means keeping your eyes open to see how you can help people, how you can be of use. If we are not actively watching in this sense, then we are in constant danger of nodding off. In Subversive Christianity, Brian J. Walsh points out that the false prophets in Jeremiah, the ones who say “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace, are putting us to sleep. In fact, they have knocked us out cold. That is why Jeremiah has to speak with such force, it is the only way to get through to us. Walsh writes,
“The prophet must speak with passion because the community is in a coma. Or to shift the metaphor, we are numb. To be numb is to be without passion; it is the absence of pathos; it is a-pathy. We are so numb that we don’t even realise what has happened to us…We are numb, we don’t notice the perverse abnormality of affluence. We are numb to the precariousness of our times, numb to the danger of the earth, to the pain of the poor, to the impossibility of our present affluent lifestyles.”
God doesn’t want us to spend our time watching the door, waiting for the master of the house to come home. He wants us (to shift parables) to invest our talents wisely, and to work towards his kingdom here and now.
 Who knew that these irritating, narcissistic add-ons that started gracing cell phones a few years back would eventually play such a revolutionary role in the history of humankind. I officially apologize for all the eye-rolling I have done over the years whenever anyone said, “Wait,” while fumbling in their pocket to pull out their i-whatever, “I have a camera on my phone.”
 Brian J. Walsh, Subversive Christianity, Imaging God in a Dangerous Time, (Alta Vista College Press, Seattle: 1994), pg. 36-37.