Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sermon: Only the Beginning

Grace Presbyterian Church
November 15, 2015, Ordinary 33B
Mark 13:1-8; Hebrews 10:19-25

Only the Beginning

Wars, and rumors of wars…”. I think we’ve got that covered.
This is not the week I’d have chosen to preach this passage. In fact I’d quite likely not have chosen to preach this passage any time soon, to be blunt about it. It’s a pretty disturbing and unpleasant thing to preach on, and it’s the very kind of passage that is so easy for a certain kind of preacher, one who is more keen on using the Bible as a code book for deciphering end times than a revelation of Jesus, is so readily wont to abuse. Frankly, part of me thinks I am taking my study leave a week too late. However, the lectionary leaves it sitting here right in front of me, and I’ve been busily working through the gospel of Mark in the lectionary this year and even sometimes going off lectionary to stay with this gospel. It would be a pretty shameful thing for a preacher to do to bail out with just this one scripture left to go.
And besides, perhaps this is the week we really need to confront this scripture. Perhaps this week, reeling from the headlines as we are, is the very time we most need to confront a scripture like this, words directly attributed to Jesus by Mark, and be clear about what it does say to us, and what it does not. Perhaps we need to confront this disturbing passage with its pointing towards the future and sort out what it means for us here and now.
It happens while Jesus and his disciples are in and around Jerusalem during the last week of his earthly life. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the event we celebrate on Palm Sunday, has already happened, and the final supper with his disciples is just a couple of days away. Jesus has been in the Temple already this week, creating a major disruption in cleaning out the Temple’s marketplace one day, and teaching to the embarrassment of the scribes and Pharisees another, with a brief bit of commentary on a poor widow along the way. And it is on the way out of the Temple, for some time for reflection on the Mount of Olives, that one of the disciples looks up and notices the Temple. It’s a big and thoroughly impressive structure, to be sure, but after the challenging and provocative discourse Jesus has been giving in the Temple this particular week, maybe this wasn’t the time to get all goggle-eyed about it. In response, Jesus utters a bit of prophecy; this impressive and magnificent edifice would all be thrown down and destroyed.
Depending on when you believe Mark wrote his gospel, his immediate readers have either seen this event come to pass, or can see it coming and are under pressure to declare their allegiance. In the year 66 revolt broke out against the Roman government and military. Initially successful, the revolution was set back when new Roman forces advanced on Jerusalem. However, unrest in Rome interrupted the campaign in 68, but the final crushing defeat of Jewish forces in the year 70 brought the revolt to a close, as well as bringing about the destruction of the Temple (along with other parts of Jerusalem). So, Mark’s readers were either seeing the rebellion going on but in trouble, if you believe the gospel was written before 70, or they had witnessed the destruction of the Temple, if you believe it was written after that year.
Either way, this leads us to the first lesson in dealing with apocalyptic passages like this one: never forget we are not the first readers of scripture. For all we are eager to glean some divine plan for our lives out of such a text, we must remember that the first people who read this gospel had very specific reactions to the text and knew very clearly the horrors of which Mark wrote, and that our attempts to interpret those texts for ourselves cannot trump the meanings the text had for them. The “desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be” that Jesus mentions in verse 14 might seem mysterious to us, but Mark’s readers didn’t need to be told what it was to see Roman soldiers rampaging through the Holy City of Judaism.
Another caution to keep in mind; don’t claim to know what Jesus doesn’t know. I’ve picked on this one before. As Jesus goes deeper and further afield on the sufferings to come for his followers, one question he refuses to answer directly is when all of these things will happen. In fact, he very specifically avoids giving much of anything away. While Jesus is quite willing to speak of signs that will come, of persecutions to be endured and deception to be practiced by false prophets, Jesus will not be nailed down to any specific time frame. It is made bluntly clear in verse 32: “no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” This is not an invitation to turn every last bit of difficult scripture into a code to be broken or a puzzle to be solved. You don’t know. You are not going to know. If some preacher tells you he (and it always seems to be “he” in this case) knows when it’s all going to come crashing down, run! Get away as fast as you can. You are in the presence of one of those false witnesses.
The third, related lesson in dealing with this chapter is perhaps the most important for us, in the brutal and violent times in which we live. Apocalyptic scripture is not an excuse to quit, and not an escape route. We don’t get to look at this chapter or other apocalyptic passages like it as a means to drop out of life. Our call to live in “the Kingdom of God … come near,” that message Jesus proclaimed way back at the beginning of this gospel, is not changed by this chapter one bit.
The reading from Hebrews captures this dynamic very effectively. Following on the account of Jesus as “great high priest” that serves as the theme of this extended sermon, the preacher’s counsel to his readers is pretty simple: keep your hearts true, in full assurance of your faith; hold on to hope, “without wavering”; and continuing to find ways to  provoke one another to love and good deeds.” For good measure, the preacher even cautions the flock about “not neglecting to meet together”! If you’ve ever been looking for a direct scripture command to keep gathering together like we do each Sunday, here it is! And these instructions don’t change in the face of impending, unknown … whatever. If anything, we keep on doing what we are called to do “all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Whatever we are to make of apocalyptic literature, whether this passage from Mark or even more elaborate writings such as are found in Daniel or Revelation, none of them are a reason to stop being the body of Christ. If anything they are reason to be even more faithful and more determined in doing Christ’s work in God’s world. A barrage of violence such as we have seen in just a few days, in Beirut, in Baghdad, and in Paris, is not a call to drop out. It is not a call to take up arms in ill-fated revolt. It is a call to keep being God’s people, or even to be God’s people even more. It’s a call to keep praying, to keep mourning, and yes, to keep rejoicing. It is a call to keep singing hymns and praying prayers and studying God’s word. It is a call to keep feeding hungry people, housing those with no place to live, caring for the sick and the dying, and even more so. It is a call to double down on imitating Christ, and nothing less.
We don’t know when “these things will come to pass,” and all the “wars and rumors of wars,” earthquakes and famines that we can see around us, as Jesus himself says, are not the end, and not even the beginning of the end, They are only the beginning. Our call does not change. We are to keep awake, yes, but we are also to keep working, to keep being followers of Christ.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (all PH ’90): “O Worship the King, All Glorious Above” (476); “Near to the Heart of God” (527); “My Lord! What a Morning” (449); “In the Cross of Christ I Glory” (84)

Again, nails it.

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