Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 18, 2018
Mark 13:1-8 Commentary
Digging into the Text:
We have just gone through a tumultuous election campaign in which one of the candidates banked on the theme of fear. He wanted us to see that our country is going to hell in a handbasket, and he was the one who will save us. Most of us have had enough of that. Now let’s think about something good, something wonderful.
That’s what the disciples are doing when they admire the large gleaming white stones of Herod’s temple. “Look Jesus, What a sight; what a wonder. Isn’t that impressive? And Jesus replies with his prophesy of doom. “You know what? In a little while, the whole thing will be a rubble, not one stone left on another.”
The disciples are sufficiently scared by all this; a little later they ask Jesus when this is supposed to happen. I suppose they are hoping to escape the mess. They want a little good news, some uplifting words. But Jesus doesn’t oblige. Instead, he tells them there is not escape.
“There will be any number of false messiahs who will try to lead them astray. They will say, ‘Trust in me. I will take care of you. I will make things better.” Don’t listen to them. Don’t believe them,” says Jesus. The fact is, things will probably get worse.
When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.
There has always been a brand of Christianity that makes it seem as though faith in God means he will smooth out all the wrinkles of our lives in the world. We are surprised and dismayed, and our faith gets shaken when things go from bad to worse, when bad things happen to good people.
You’ve probably seen those Allstate insurance ads where the bandaged, disheveled guy wreaks mayhem on unsuspecting people. Jesus tells us we can expect mayhem to visit us, it’s inevitable.
The biblical story is divided into two parts: this age and the age to come. In Jesus Christ, by his death, resurrection, and ascension the new age, the age to come has broken into human history. But for a time, a long time, it seems, these two ages overlap. While the age of decay and destruction stumbles along, the Kingdom of God is at work, often unseen and unheralded, beneath the surface of history.
There are wars and rumors of wars, disease, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and starvation. In the past century experienced a crescendo of violence, genocide, and tyranny. At the present time, it’s not unreasonable to predict an increase of unrest with stark signs of trouble to come. The technologies we all love because they promise to make our lives more “connected” can easily connect us with evils we want to avoid.
As I write this, I’m sitting in my lovely study on a sunny afternoon overlooking a ravine bursting with autumn color. I am thankful for it, but I cannot expect it to last. Winter is coming, and beyond that, the threat of global climate change makes me wonder what will happen to this delicate and intricate web of nature I love so much. I’m over 70 years old and in the autumn of life, which means I can expect that my life will grow more difficult, my powers will wane, and my body will succumb to disease and and finally to death.
Biblical theologians have been telling us for a long time that the gospel is deeply eschatological. It’s always straining forward as it moves its way through history. Congregations need to hear that, or else they are susceptible to the kinds of false messiahs Jesus warns about here. “Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.”
Those seductive voices can take many forms. One voice comes from within the church itself, the fairy tale of a prosperity gospel. Jesus did promise us a rose garden. If you just have enough faith God will heal your diseases, solve your problems, and prosper your bank account. The future is now!
Another voice comes from the career atheists who argue that the life in this world is meaningless. We are merely the product of random forces that have evolved from the primordial soup. Life has no purpose but whatever purpose we assign it. We are specks of dust in the vastness of space destined to live out our short momentary existence and then sink back into the soup. There are no values but those we invent, no purpose but what we dream, no God but what we make up.
That almost sound like Jesus’s message to his disciples in this text, but it’s not the whole message. There is one last phrase that changes everything. “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” One of my daughters went through two miscarriages before she carried her first child full term. There were awful times of grief and loss, and even the full-term pregnancy was difficult. But that was all erased when she held that beautiful, healthy newborn in her arms.
Birthpangs. There’s a new world coming, and it’s already here! The Son of God has come into this world of death and sin and bore it on shoulders. Death has been defeated, the grave is robbed of its power. The powers of evil, mighty though they seem, a doomed to destruction. Sin is forgiven, nailed to a cross. A new community of love and peace is forming all over the world, and people filled with hope are humbly serving the world in the name of Jesus.
In the Orthodox tradition, the church buildings are typically built with a huge dome above. And in that dome there is typically an icon of Christ Pantocrator, ruler of all. Each week, as they come to worship, it is entering the kingdom, joining the worship of heaven where they sing to the Lamb that was slain: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”
Isn’t that what worship is all about? We gather each week to enter the kingdom, to live into the future. We sing our songs of praise, we lament our losses and pains, hearts stirred by the Word of God, anticipating the wedding feast of the Lamb at the Eucharistic table. Then we are ready to go back into this dying world, this age of decay, to live as God’s redeemed people who are pilgrims, sojourners, and servants in this world of pain, while we are marching to Zion.
Please Note: Year C Advent and Christmas 2018 Resources are available on CEP.
Preaching the Text:
1). At the end of her story “Revelation”, Flannery O’Connor offers a vision of the future of God’s kingdom. Mrs. Turpin, the main character, is an opinionated, petty aristocrat in a small southern town. She had everyone classified, from (in her words), “the “[blacks] and white trash” on the bottom, on up to the nice Christian ladies like herself on top.
But something shocking happens to her one day in a doctor’s office that turns her world upside down. I won’t tell you what it is; you’ll have to read the story. At the end of the story we find Mrs. Turpin, humbled and shaken, leaning on the rail of a hog pen, contemplating this new revelation of herself. She experiences a glimpse God’s coming kingdom.
There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dark…. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast hoard of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of [blacks] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.
And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those, who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right….They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away….In a moment the vision faded, but she remained where she was, immobile.
At length she…made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”
2). Children’s book author Katherine Patterson (“Bridge to Terebithia”) once said that all the great stories have a plot line that can be described in three words: Home, Adventure (always including pain and suffering), Home.
If you think about it, all the great epic stories fit that framework, from “The Lord of the Rings, to Star Wars, to Harry Potter. But it’s also the plot of the story of God, the Bible, from creation, through the pain of redemption to new creation.
3). A fine short and easy read for this week might be Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved). Bowler, a young theologian teaching at Duke Divinity School, who studied and wrote about the “health and wealth gospel” in America, was diagnosed with incurable cancer. This book puts those two realities side by side, and sheds another light on Jesus’s insistence that lots of bad seemingly meaningless things will continue to happen in our lives as “birthpangs” of the new creation.
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