The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Christmas, Apocalypse, Rebels and Bell Choirs

How are we to interrupt this call to follow Jesus from our place of privilege?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading:  Mark 13:24-37

For Sunday, Nov. 27 , 2011: Year B—Advent 1

The Legions are forming on the edges of the city; the rebels are preparing to defend Jerusalem and the temple. Many in Mark’s community are wondering if this is to be the decisive Messianic battle that turns away the Empire for good and reestablishes David’s throne once and for all.

Should they throw in with the defenders of Jerusalem?

Run for the Hills!

This is a proposed context for the writing of the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, according to Mark. Chapter 13 can be imagined to be the point where that question is specifically addressed.

Mark’s author pens a sermon of Jesus to provide the answer and Jesus says:  Run!

Run for the hills. When you see the desolating sacrilege (the Roman standard, the eagle), do not defend Jerusalem, give over the Temple to destruction and get out of there.

The Little Apocalypse

The sermon that comprises Mark 13, known as the “Little Apocalypse” (not to be confused with Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes or la petite mort or the Little Prince, but perhaps sharing some resonance with all three) is a response to the disciple’s astonishment at Jesus’ matter of fact reference to the assured destruction of the temple.

The implication is that the forming Roman Legions will sweep in and destroy the city, defeat the rebels who occupy Jerusalem and desecrate the house of God. When will this happen? What should we do? —they ask. They are of course, quite concerned. This isn’t the Messianic resistance they signed up for. Jesus does not say anything reassuring, but instead tells them, “This is the end of the world as we know it.”

The Final Advent

Jesus points beyond the religion of empire currently represented by both Rome and Temple to its ongoing presence in opposition to the “religion of creation” (to borrow Wes Howard-Brook’s terms). In the final section of the little apocalypse sermon, Jesus paints the coming of the fullness of the religion of creation and the final collapse of the religion of empire. The disciples are to be ready, not for the coming of the Romans or the resurgence of a Jerusalem/Temple reign, but for the final advent of the Human One.

The Hardest Question

Advent, yes, I know this reading of the text is a far cry from the bell choir and the hanging of the greens for the first Sunday in Advent, but I cannot help, this year especially, approaching the pulpit with Bible in one hand and newspaper in the other.

This Sunday we mark the beginning of the celebration of the Advent of the immaterial made material, God becoming flesh and the numbers floating in our bank’s computers becoming packages all tied up in bows. The fullness of the final Advent is not yet, but the religion of creation still beckons us to come out of the religion of empire. But how?

How are we to interrupt this call to follow Jesus from our place of privilege in the heart of the empire?


Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Keaton says:

    One could write a book on all of the variables that would be required to fully address this question. What is most difficult for us to swallow, though, is that we have been living in these ‘end times’ for the past 2000 years. How do we pull ideas from writers who thought the world would be long gone by now? I am bombarded with hermeneutical tensions.

    But then, as I sit at my desk with all of my books trying to figure it out, I playfully imagine Jesus standing in the corner of my room. He asks me, “How are you helping the poor?” and “Are you loving your neighbor?” I realize that following Jesus in the heart of my empire is obeying his commands. It is rejecting any preconceived notion of who he is and what he is doing, in order that I may help usher in the Kingdom.

    I do not mean for this to be a cop out answer. Sure, there are still more specific things to address, but for now that’s the best I can do.

  2. Pat Pickett says:

    I keep thinking about Elijah. After that earthquake, Yahweh told Elijah he would not find Yahweh in storms and fire like that again. So what’s this? Is it that people only understand when there is something catastrophic? Are we so immune to the idea that one can find wonder in the birth of a baby…any baby? Why all the hell fire and brimstone? I really don’t like what the Lectionary writers have done with Advent. Where are the women stories? Where is the tenderness of the God I know? I don’t like preaching anything apocalyptic and tend to go in any direction other than fire and angels and clouds and disaster.

How do you read?