It is so easy to read Mark and think of war as far off — especially if you are someone living in a neighborhood or region that has a semblance of peaceful times. For non-military families and organizations it is easy to miss that “wars and rumors of wars” means that families, perhaps right next door to us, are bracing for the possibility that parents or children may be leaving soon. Annually, on Nov. 11, Americans honor the service military members and their families provide the rest of us.
The portion of our population in the military is staggering. According to 2013 reports, approximately 2,220,412 of our population were on active duty in the armed forces and reserves. Family members out-numbered military personnel 1.4 to 1. There were 689,344 spouses reported and more than 1.2 million dependent children living in active duty families.
In Mark 13:7, Jesus sounds an alarm and offers comfort when he says, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.” Unfortunately, “alarm” and “watchfulness” is how many of us respond to such news in our midst (Mark 13:33, 37). We turn to media outlets, monitoring reports about victim totals and the fallout from tragedy. Absorbed in media sound bytes, it is easy to forget that “rumors of wars” also means military families are put on alert.
Children are wrestling with fears of the unknown because they may relocate to a new area. Spouses are arranging to function as single-parent households again and managing feelings of loss that accompany distance. Parents are bracing for the fact that their daughters and sons will be in harm’s way again. Likewise, the soldiers of those families may be anxiously anticipating the stress and depression that accompanies deployments. According to a 2007 Mental Health Advisory, signs of combat stress or depression appear in 12 percent of service members during their first deployment, “19 percent exhibit signs during their second deployment and 27 percent exhibit signs in their third deployment.”
Whether in war-torn zones or in the quiet horse-country of Kentucky from which I hail, announcements of conflict and war surround us. From the frosty relations between Russia, Egypt, and the West; to the ongoing civil war of South Sudan; and the increased violence and insurgencies in Afghanistan and Syria, unrest is commonplace.
The phrase “wars and rumors of wars” hardly appears like a take on times past. This phrase appears more appropriate for our current global context than when Mark penned Jesus’ announcement to his disciples approximately 2,000 years ago.
Mark 13:1-8 does not gloss over the likelihood of turmoil. In fact, it is so attentive to the possibility of conflict and danger, it shifts the gospel’s language, style, and content to address it. Up to this point in the gospel, the author has had a singular focus — namely, telling the story of Jesus’ life and ministry. In our passage, the gospel turns to telling the story of others.
What will happen to everyone when the Second Temple is destroyed?
Historically speaking, Mark appears to focus on the events leading up to the First Jewish War with Rome in the mid-first century in Palestine (66-70 C.E.). Literarily speaking, however, Mark’s goal is not to capture a historic moment, but offer warnings and encouragement. Mark cautions his readers to be suspicious of teachers, recognizing that not all are proclaiming what is true and real (Mark 13:5-6, 7-8, 21-23). Jesus tells his readers there are many uplifted voices in the world, but they are not all going the way of Christ. They are not all going the way of love and acceptance (Mark 9:42; 10:14).
For Mark, Jesus’ messiahship is characterized by suffering and death (Mark 8:31, 10:45). True to its apocalyptic character, Mark 13 offers comfort by balancing an honest assessment of present circumstances with a vision of what is possible for followers of Christ.
On one hand, Mark’s images of war and catastrophe echo prophetic announcements of conflicts between world powers (2 Chronicles 15:5-6; Jeremiah 4:15-16) and natural disasters (Isaiah 13:13; Daniel 9:26) in the Old Testament. No doubt, Mark 13 forewarns readers of what lies ahead in the not so distant future.
But what if Mark is not just broadcasting what could be? What if Mark 13 is describing the situation for what is right now? There are bodies in our midst that brace everyday for experiences of micro-aggressions, oversight, and erasure. Everyday bodies enter so-called “safe public spaces” such as college and university campuses, knowing that these spaces just aren’t so safe anymore. As an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, rarely does a Sunday service or weekly bible study pass that I do not think about the heinous mass shooting that took place at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church on June 17, 2015. We have unsafe spaces right here on our shores because hate and prejudice live on.
I also recognize that everyday a military family laments the death of a loved one. Daily, a mother, father, child, and sibling pray for someone in active-duty abroad. Everyday rumors of war bring real transition and an entrance into the unknown for segments of people we may not be in the habit of thinking of and considering in the church.
The voice of Mark 13 enters the conversation and takes a specific platform. It urges readers to endure present distresses (Mark 13:9-23) and future ordeals (Mark 13:24-27). It reaffirms an essential confession of Christianity, which is that Jesus Christ has already suffered in obedience to save others. As such, discipleship is cast as obedience and service in spite of difficulty.
In our current context, some form of service and obedience is visible in the lives, actions, and sacrifices of service-oriented people. Mark 13 raises a flag for communities of faith. It is not okay to forget about the people who are facing danger so that others can be safe and at peace. As this Sunday falls immediately after Veteran’s Day, we should encounter Mark 13:1-8 with a degree of sobriety and thankfulness. We should be compelled to do something to help veterans' lives be a little easier.