Newspapers make grim reading at the moment. The TV news makes grim watching. There are wars and rumours of wars, overwhelming natural disasters, and we seem to be seeing the financial system of the last twenty-five years collapsing about our ears.
It is strange to find ourselves in two of the grimmest of the books of the Old Testament and so drawn to one of the grimmest chapters in the New Testament.
I believe there are connections to be made … but not perhaps quite the connections you may well have heard some make.
Nahum and Zephaniah are with Habakkuk linked to Jeremiah. They speak truth to power with their prophetic message in and around the reign of Josiah and his successors. It is the time when the Assyrian empire has destroyed the northern kingdom, and the Babylonian empire is on the rise and threatening the southern kingdom. Josiah’s reforms instigated by the prophet Huldah are too little too late.
Corruption, violence, immorality is rife in Jerusalem and Judah.
And for Nahum and Zephaniah it feels as if the world as they know it is coming to an end. And their critique of the domestic situation, and their analysis of the world situation proves all too accurate.
The Babylonians are going to sweep down and all the people have held dear for half a millennium will be destroyed.
The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast;the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there. 15 That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish,a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom,a day of clouds and thick darkness, 16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cryagainst the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.
17 I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord,their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. 18 Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath;in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed;for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.
Today we have been thinking of Stefan and Birgit and their work of mission in Brazil. They followed on the footsteps of Jurgen who had also studied at the University. He was fascinated in his studies with this kind of language.
It is quite wrong to say that these passages are talking about the end of the world. They are using ‘end-of-the-world-language’ in order to talk about the collapse of the world as they knew it.
We do the same – the whole world is collapsing about our ears. It isn’t – but it feels that way and it might just as well be happening. That’s how to understand these words.
Note the analysis – the people had attached all their confidence to silver and gold. Finances will get us out of this mess. No they won’t says Zephaniah. And Nahum is even more bleak. Later Zephaniah speaks scathingly of Jerusalem – as soiled, defiled, oppressing city that has listened to no voice of prophetic warning in the name of God, that has accepted no correction and failed to heed any of those prophetic voices declaring the word of God. It is a city that has not trusted in the Lord, and has not drawn near to God (Zephaniah 3.1) The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves; they leave nothing until the morning.
What is even worse is that there are people claiming to be prophets, who are reckless fatifhless persons. And the religious, the priests charged with honouring God have brought dishonour to his name – its priest have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law.
Only God is righteous. Only God is just.
Zephaniah, Nahum, like Huldah before, like Habakkuk and Jeremiah now are looking to the specific collapse of the world as they knew it – the devastation of the south as the north had been destroyed – the devastation of the temple itself.
But it is not unadulterated gloom. Look again at these books, much more so Zephaniah than Nahum. And there is that wonderful rhythm we have come to expect in the prophets of the Old Testament.
Beyond the gloom there is yet hope.
When the cataclysm comes it will be the start of something new.
Therefore wait for me, says the Lord, for the day when I arise as a witness.
In the midst of the catastrophe …
9 At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech,that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord. 10 From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia* my suppliants, my scattered ones, shall bring my offering.
What will happen in that restored kingdom? The rich and mighty will be brought low, the humble poor will be lifted up.
11 On that day you shall not be put to shame because of all the deeds by which you have rebelled against me;for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones,and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain. 12 For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly.They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord— 13 the remnant of Israel;they shall do no wrong and utter no lies,nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths.Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.
This vision then gives rise to a song of joy.
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 15 The Lord has taken away the judgements against you, he has turned away your enemies.The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. 16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory;he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you* in his love;he will exult over you with loud singing 18 as on a day of festival.*I will remove disaster from you,* so that you will not bear reproach for it. 19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time.And I will save the lame and gather the outcast,and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you;for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth,when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.
The analysis and critique proves justified for the nation collapses. But the hope is well-founded for in the fullness of time the people return from exile, the city is restored and the temple re-built.
But things unravel and fall apart again. As successive empires rise and fall – and the people are oppressed.
Until Jesus comes along – and his message is that the kingdom is at hand. Mary in the Magnificat sings that the rich and mighty will be brought down the humble poor lifted up. Jesus speaks of the kingdom being in their midst – and tells his followers not to fear.
But Jesus is living in troubled times.
He is scathing of the oppression he sees in Jerusalem. Only days before he has wept over the city as it could not see the things that make for peace. Only days before he had carried out a great prophetic action cleansing the temple – my house should be a house of prayer and you have made it a den of thieves.
And now In Mark 13 it is as he comes out of the temple that he talks to the disciples – look at this incredible building – there isn’t another like it for hundreds of miles in any direction, as Tom Wright points out in his excellent commentary, Mark for Everyone. Not one stone will be left here upon another.
Then comes a very specific question. When will this be? What are the signs that it will be accomplished.
What Jesus goes on to say then in the rest of Mark 13 is in direct response to this very specific question.
It’s not talking about the end of the world … it is talking about the end of the world as Jesus, his followers and all his contemporaries knew it.
He goes on to speak of the time when dreadful things will happen to the temple and once again be devastated as desolating sacriligeous things are done to it.
It will seem very much as if the whole world is coming to an end – it’s the same kind of language. It is the same kind of event.
And there is the same kind of rhythm.
Verse 8. This is but the birthpangs.
Everyone was very much closer to the pain of childbirth in Jesus’s day than in our society. Though many of those societies that have been in the news in the Children in Need appeal have child birth and its pain so much closer. But the birth pangs hearld something new.
And so too, while this event will happen, says Jesus we are to see it as the beginning of something new.
And the vindication of that will be seen as the Son of man comes to God in all his glory through resurrection and his ascension once more.
It may be necessary on that day to flee, says Jesus. Flee Jerusalem, don’t stay there when the Romans invade out of a false sense of loyalty to that location. Flee.
That Jesus is speaking of events that would happen, and actually did happen in AD 70 is demonstrated in verse 30 when he says that this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
The whole world as we know it will collapse, but my words will not pass away.
And then watch and wait.
If Christ’s words do not pass away the task is to put those words into action.
I believe that when we read Nahum and Zephaniah and all those other prophets in this way, and when we read Jesus in Mark 13 in this way, it speaks massively into our society today.
Tom Wright says this:
It is vital to read this passage as containing Jesus’ prophecies fulfilled 40 years later, against the Temple. That is what Mark, at least, believes this whole chapter is about. But we should not suppose that there are therefore no messages for our own day nearly 2,000 years later. Where human societies and institutions set themselves up against the gospel and its standards, producing arrogant and dehumanizing structures, deep injustices and radical oppression, there may once more be a place for prophets to denounce and to warn …
We too can make the same critique, the same kind of analysis.
The prophetic critique that Jesus is very much a part of has no time for wealth as the key motivation for life; and it has all the time in the world for the poor, the disposed. It stands for justice.
Prophetic voices have spoken out. And been disregarded.
Maybe when we do read those newspapers, and switch on to the TV news and it feels as if the world is falling apart … it may be that the world we have come to know is falling apart. It may be that we are going to have to work through the consequences of the way we have sought to build our world as we see it falling apart.
But in all of that we have something to hold on to.
Can we hold on to the rhythm of those ancient prophetic books and hold on to a hope that out of all that collapses something new will come.
Can we see what’s happening as ‘birth-pangs’. Out of this will come something new?
What is our task?
To hold on to the values outlined by the Prophet – justice, humility, concern for the poor – this is what we are to live out.
Everything may fall apart but Christ’s words will not pass away.
So Feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and maybe in this Prisons week this as much as any of the others have a thought for the prisoner.
For as much as you do it the least of these members of my family, you do it to me.