Do not….be alarmed?
When you hear of wars and rumors of wars…do not be alarmed?
When the building that surrounds us comes toppling down, as in an earthquake, one stone on top another…do not be alarmed?
Or, if Jesus were speaking to us today, he might say:
When you’re in the midst of a lingering pandemic, when people you love have died and when people can’t agree on how best to protect one another….do not be alarmed?
Or: in the case of an attack on the US capitol building…do not be alarmed?
Or: when terrorist organizations take control of countries and women’s rights are, once again, at risk…do not be alarmed?
Or: when gun violence is on the rise and 15 guns have been found on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools campuses…do not be alarmed?
Or: when the news on climate change tells us that our planet is in deep trouble if we don’t change our ways…and change them sooner rather than later.
Do you see where I’m going with this? How can we not be alarmed when there are so many causes for alarm?
The first two examples–wars and rumors of wars and building toppling down–come straight from Mark’s gospel. When the disciples marvel and the beauty of the temple, Jesus warns them that such beauty is fleeting and that, like the old nursery rhyme London Bridge, it is “falling down,” or will fall down when we least expect it.
The rest of those examples are more recent causes for alarm, that, and if Jesus were walking this earth today and if Mark were writing his gospel today, might also be included.
You get my point, right? How can Jesus tell us not to be alarmed in the midst of such alarming events? It doesn’t compute, if you ask me, and frankly, seems like a steep ask. I also wonder if we have that much control over our fight or flight responses. I can practice deep breathing all day, but it’s still not going to prevent me from feeling anxiety in the face of certain threats.
Several years ago, for example, I was on one of the worst flights I’ve ever been on. It wasn’t a long flight, but boy, was it bumpy. Everything was smooth sailing until I had gotten up to use the restroom. Suddenly, it became bumpy. The pilot’s voice came over the intercom informing us that he had turned on the “fasten seatbelt” sign and that the beverage service would be suspended so that the flight attendants could remain seated. As I made my way back to my seat, a flight attendant sternly ordered: “You need to sit down.” My palms became sweaty. My heart began to race and there was nothing I could do to control the situation other than confirm that the paper bag in the seat pocket was there in case I experienced motion sickness and breathe. But even my deep breaths failed me.
At about that time, I started to look around me at the other passengers. That’s when I noticed one of the flight attendants across the aisle from me….reading a book. Here was someone who flew the skies daily and who seemingly knew that a little turbulence (okay, a lot of turbulence) was no cause for alarm. That, in the end, all would be okay.
I think that’s what Jesus was trying to tell his disciples. He does, after all, tell them that what they’re about to experience is but the beginning of the birth pangs. It’s not the end.
I think Jesus knew what he was talking about. The trajectory of Mark’s gospel is always toward the cross, and quickly, at that. And, prior to today’s passage, Jesus has already predicted his death three times. And if there’s reason for alarm, it is certainly the threat of death. In fact, theologian Paul Tillich suggests that the threat of death is the root cause of all of our anxiety, or…alarm. But Jesus doesn’t only predict his death. Each of these predictions also includes the prediction that Jesus will, after three days, rise again.
His crucifixion is going to be awful and it’s going to cause alarm and anxiety. But it’s not the end. It will be just the beginning of the birth pangs. New life, real birth, is still coming.
I admit that that’s a tough truth to swallow these days–to trust that this world of ours is not destined for complete eternal destruction, but our faith calls us to believe just that.
I also wonder if it’s not the boldest, most counter-cultural, most hopeful truth we could proclaim today…that, in the end, our world will be okay. Even as I speak these words aloud, I experience a sense of relief and hope.
Of course, we can’t wait for that day idly. We are responsible for reversing climate change, for working to end gun violence, for being vaccinated or otherwise protecting against the spread of disease, for advocating for women’s rights and all human rights for that matter, and working to end violence everywhere.
The author of Hebrews suggests this so beautifully in today’s second reading:
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
We have hope that new life is coming, but we cannot maintain that hope in an idle state. Alternatively, we can work in a way that places all our hope in a better world.
In the end, everything will be okay. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end. Let us hold fast, really hold fast, to that confession of hope without wavering.