What Really Matters

A Sermon for 15 November 2015 – 25th Sunday after Pentecost

 A reading from Hebrews 10:23-25. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for the One who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

A reading from the gospel of Mark 13:1-8. Listen for God’s word to us.

“As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 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. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Before jumping into the sermon today, listen one more time to this text from Mark. This time I’ll be reading it from the version of the bible called The Message. See if it doesn’t offer greater insight into this portion of Scripture that so often has been interpreted as a message about an apocalypse – a terrible, final end to God’s beloved creation. Listen for God’s word to us.

“As Jesus walked away from the Temple, one of his disciples said, “Teacher, look at that stonework! Those buildings!” Jesus said, “You’re impressed by this grandiose architecture? There’s not a stone in the whole works that is not going to end up in a heap of rubble.” Later, as he was sitting on Mount Olives in full view of the Temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew got him off by himself and asked, “Tell us, when is this going to happen? What sign will we get that things are coming to a head?” Jesus began, “Watch out for doomsday deceivers. Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities claiming, ‘I’m the One.’ They will deceive a lot of people. When you hear of wars and rumored wars, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history, and no sign of the end. Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines. But these things are nothing compared to what’s coming.

This too is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

I’ve been getting texts for about the last week from a friend who is off for a celebratory trip to South Africa before returning home to jump into a new call to ministry! He and I became friends several years ago during a doctoral course in South Africa so it’s great to get such updates. I find myself smiling each time I get one because it was just three years ago almost to date that I spent a lot of late night phone time listening to his gut-wrenching panic. Though he had been in a pastoral position for over a decade and had been doing amazing work, someone started going after him because they sat at opposite ends of the theological spectrum. If you’ve never been in a church fight – or worse yet an all-out clergy attack, then you’re probably not aware of how awful it can be for everyone involved. My friend was convinced his world was coming to an end – not only because of the mess being caused in his professional life, but also because his mental and physical health were started to be effected greatly. It was a really dark, scary time.

Many of us know a lot about such difficult situations – different circumstances, same gut-wrenching panic. . . . I’ve heard teens tell how things are just over! Because they couldn’t get the grade they wanted and now they won’t be able to get into the college of their choice. The world seems to be absolutely falling apart. And for those driven-dreamers, their world really is. . . . We’ve had friends or loved ones tell us of the unexpected diagnosis – or lived through the doctor telling us about our very own bodies. We’ve witnessed children break their parents’ hearts with self-destructive behavior that leads to life-altering consequences. We’ve lived through divorces and natural disasters and death and so much more – like the horrible events in Paris this week. . . . Spoken or unspoken, we even see lots of angst among churches these days. Because the pews aren’t filled like they used to be some twenty or more years ago. The updated research came out two weeks that the number of those claiming to be spiritual but wanting absolutely nothing to do with the church has increased more rapidly than expected since the last polling. Those of us still here sometimes may wonder if church as we’ve known and loved it soon will be extinct. . . . Especially weeks like this one, we know days when it feels like the world is absolutely falling apart.

If we can get inside those feelings, I think we can come close to understanding the buzz in the air as Jesus and his disciples exited the Temple that day. The gospel of Mark records it as the final time Jesus will exit the Temple. Just two days before that Passover in Jerusalem when he would gather with his friends in an upper room in order to get them ready for what was yet to come. He can feel it. Certainly they all can feel it – the tension rising between Jesus and those who just weren’t understanding his message. And those who understood entirely but for whatever reason felt incredibly threatened by what he had to say. I dare say it feels for them all – Jesus and his disciples, and the opposition too – it certainly must feel for them all like the world is falling apart. . . . Experts tell us that we all can handle a different amount of stress before we end up going reptile. And we go reptile in predictable ways. Hiding from it all like a turtle snapping away quickly in its shell. Darting about like a lizard to scurry from whatever’s coming. Hissing to any who will listen like a snake when the pressure’s at our boiling-point. Or worse yet: attacking whatever’s in our path like an alligator because we just can’t handle it any more. These are typical and predictable patterns of behavior for those who feel like their world is falling apart. It’s probably helpful for us each to ponder which way we end up going reptile.

The world had been falling apart for a goodly long time for those living in First Century Palestine. In fact, things had been, and even now continue to be, pretty dicey in that little eastern Mediterranean byway. Throughout the centuries that little land had been ransacked by on-the-move armies over and over and over again. The stronghold of Megiddo – also called Armageddon – just 15 miles southwest of Nazareth, reveals 20 layers of re-built cities dating all the way back to 4000 BCE (The Holy Land: The Land of Jesus, Palphot, p. 70-71). That’s a whole lot of beginning again after endless conquering armies. The city of Sepphoris just four miles north of Nazareth, was overrun by Herod some thirty years before Jesus’ birth (Ibid., p. 26-27). We seldom remember that the stories of Jesus start with declarations of his time and place: “In the days of King Herod of Judea” the first chapter of the gospel of Luke reveals (Luke 1:5). Matthew records Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem followed by his family’s flight to Egypt to get out of the path of the enraged King (Matthew 2). At long last, they end up in the fertile land of the Galilee in Nazareth, which itself would face near destruction in the Jewish revolt against Rome three decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection (The Holy Land: The Land of Jesus, Palphot, p. 12-13) . These weren’t places far far away, half-way around their world. They were right in their own backyard. Several being geographically closer to them than many of us travel each day from home to work or the store or even here to this sanctuary. . . . It can leave us wondering if they all had just grown accustomed to such unsettling violence or if their nerves were absolutely fried – like some of our soldiers who return home these days with severe PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder. . . . The world for Jesus and his contemporaries routinely felt as if it literally was falling apart. The Temple leaders had been doing their best for years to keep Rome from coming in and totally taking over; though in the year 70 CE (right around the time we believe the gospel of Mark was written) it all would come crashing down, when the grandiose Temple of Jerusalem was totally destroyed by Rome, never to be re-built again. . . . In a lot of ways, Jesus wasn’t saying anything on that day upon his final exit of the Temple that everyone already hadn’t been speculating, and working to avoid, and fervently praying never to take place again. . . . It was as fragile as a time as our world seems today.

Into that context – into that time and in that place, Jesus seeks to speak a word of hope.

I love the way it’s presented in the version of the bible called The Message. “’When you hear of wars and rumored wars, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history, and no sign of the end. Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines’” (Mark 13:7-8). Even after God in-flesh was in our midst, that much about the world wasn’t brought to an end. Because Jesus wasn’t here to transport us out of it all but to teach us how to live and die and live again amid the raging storms of life. . . . Today he might put it to us like this: “When the boss calls you in to say it’s time to retire. When the doctor phones with the results of the test. When the unthinkable happens. When it feels like it’s all falling apart. Keep your head. Do not panic!” . . . I picked up a prayer card in the gift shop when some of us where at the monastery in Alabama last spring. It’s a Prayer of Saint Teresa of Avila, sounding a lot like Jesus here and peppered with some wisdom from the Psalms: “Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you. All things are passing away. God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing. God alone suffices.”

We know this. We know we know this. But when things seem to be falling apart, it’s really hard to remember. Thank God we have each other to remind us! . . . “These things are nothing compared to what’s coming,” Jesus continues according to The Message. Something so much better is on the way! The New Revised Standard Version captures it like this: “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs” (Mark 13:8). In other words, something amazing is about to be born! That’s what the birthpangs announce, right? A new life bursting into the world. Something beautiful trying to emerge. . . . It’s so easy to forget that God will make something new – even in our deepest loss. We’re not sure what – even with all the ultrasounds in the world, the doctors still can’t tell us what a new baby will be like. We’re left to receive it and enjoy the adventure of watching this new life unfold before our eyes. See what it will be like, what impact it will have, and how it will emerge into the world. . . . If Jesus were a coach, we’d hear him say: “Keep your eye on the ball. Keep your eye on the ball.” In the whirl and swirl of our days, don’t panic. What truly matters is what always has been true, God never changes: we love and serve and are sustained by a God who always brings new life. As sure as winter turns to spring, and birthpangs bring the baby. . . . Keep your head. Do not panic! God always makes something new.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

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