A father knocks on his son's door. "Jaime," he says, "Wake up!" Jaime answers, "I don't want to get up, Papa." The father shouts, "Get up, you have to go to school." Jaime says, "I don't want to go to school." "Why not?" asks the father.
"Three reasons," says Jaime. "First, because it's so dull; second, the kids tease me; and third, I hate school." And the father says, "Well, I am going to give you three reasons why you must go to school. First, because it is your duty; second, because you're forty-five years old; and third, because you are the headmaster."
Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest, tells this story at the beginning of his book, "Awareness." He uses it to send home his message that in order to lead a spiritual life one has first to wake up.
The Gospel passage today is also a wake-up call. It comes from the chapter of Mark that has come to be known as "the little apocalypse." Apocalyptic is the loud knock, the harsh voice, and the cold floor meeting your bare feet when you would rather stay safe and warm in your comfortable bed. Apocalyptic is always a call to wake up to spiritual reality.
Jesus is always saying things to startle his followers into wakefulness. At the beginning of this chapter in Mark, Jesus comes out of the Temple with four of his disciples. One of them comments, "Look, teacher! What huge stones! What wonderful buildings!" You can imagine a sunny day, the smiling disciples, and then, splash!, Jesus throws the cold water of apocalyptic by telling them, "There will not be one stone left here on another - not one that will not be thrown down." The disciples smiles turn to anxious frowns and they ask, "When - when will this happen - how will we know when it's about to happen?"
Jesus does not answer their question directly. First, he warns them of the sufferings and persecutions they will suffer and exhorts them to endure. Then, finally, he tells them more specifically about the destruction of the Temple. He says the sign that the moment has arrived will be the appearance of the "desolating sacrilege." This phrase comes from the book of Daniel where it refers to the altar to Zeus set up on the altar of burnt offering by Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 BC. This act of idolatry was "desolating" because it put an end to temple worship at that time.
Now Jesus is using this historical phrase to predict a future and similar event. There will be some future desecration that will lead to the end of the temple. Although we're not sure what that desecration was, we do know that the temple was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans.
In this passage we see two aspects of apocalyptic: the predictive and the historic. The passage was predictive when Jesus uttered it, but it was predictive in the historical setting of his time. But is that all this passage has to say to us? Doesn't this reading render the passage moot for us today?
Now, trying to make apocalyptic relevant for today is where many, many people get in serious trouble. How many of us shudder when we remember the utterly convinced friend who assured us that 666 stood for Henry Kissinger? Or, in the next decade, the person who said 666 stood for Ronald Reagan? There is even an independent church in Amarillo, Texas that only last year said the true identity of the antichrist might be -- Prince Charles! Using apocalyptic as literal predictions of the future of the planet earth -- and trying to match up symbolic language with actual people and events will only lead to terrible abuses. One has only to remember David Koresh in Waco, and before him Jim Jones in Jonestown. Beware of anyone who thinks they can tell you exactly how the end times will be or when they will come. As Jesus said, no one knows this -- not angels, not even Jesus himself -- but only God, the Father.
So, when I suggest there might be more in this passage, I am not suggesting we go down the predictive road which leads nowhere. And although the historic reading of the text is important, there is a third way to think about apocalyptic. According to Richard Hays in his book "The Moral Vision of the New Testament," one can also think and interpret apocalyptic as theopoetic. In other words, poetical language used to make a theological point.
The point of what Jesus says in this passage is not: go sit on your rooftops and wait for me to come again. Neither is it, roll over in bed and go back to sleep, because this has no meaning for you. This passage paints a picture of terrible disaster and suffering and it implies that this distress is the great tribulation which precedes the end of the age. The truth is the world has never been without massive suffering: wars, famines, refugee migrations, mass murders and holocausts, natural disasters - when they are happening to you and to people you love it is the great tribulation - it is the end of the world as you know it.
And when this great tribulation hits - are you awake or asleep? Do you come prepared with a knowledge of God's love and care, which can give you hope and stamina to endure? Or do you come as people who have postponed knowing God? Do you come as casual or nominal people of faith? Or do you come with commitment and trust? Do you hear this wake up call as a call to greater responsibility for the stewardship of your life and all creation? Or do you hear it as an excuse to abdicate responsibility - and project onto God your own destructiveness?
The great tribulation is here. And those who are awake are called to stay awake - to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who have no reason to hope and to minister to any in need.
Jesus wants you to wake up to the fact that the decisions you are making today have eternal weight. You can decide to roll over and go back to sleep. God will not force you to wake up. Or, you can get up and discover you're forty-five or twenty-one or seventy years old and have a job to do. It's time to get up.