Monday, November 19, 2012

Sermon on Mark 13:1-13 -- "Are the promises of God still true?"

This week's sermon was knitted up with the hymn of the day, so that text is included also.


Canticle of the Turning verses 1 and 2
Text: Rory Cooney, b. 1952, based on the Magnificat
Tune: Star of County Down

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
and my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the ones who wait.
You fixed your sight on your servant's plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
so from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?


My heart shall sing of the day you bring.

Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn.

Though I am small, my God, my all,
you work great things in me,
and your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and to those who would for you yearn,
you will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn.                                   Refrain


Text: Mark 13:1-13 (NRSV)

As he 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 rumours 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.

“As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them.  And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations.  When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.  Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.  But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”


Click here to listen along.



I did something this week that I have not done in two and a half years:  I read a book for fun.

I’m reading a book called The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, and Some Don’t.  It was written by Nate Silver.  He’s a statistician, and you may recognize his name, because he’s the guy who last week correctly predicted the presidential winner in all fifty states.  He’s a smart guy, and he understands a lot about predictions -- and also about humanity.  In his introduction, he explains that our strength, as humans, comes not from being able to defend ourselves but being able to recognize and anticipate events.  We can recognize patterns.  We remember what happened in the past, and it helps explain our present and plan for our future.

But the problem, Silver explains, is that our ability to find patterns can make us find them where they don’t actually exist.  We want the world to make sense, and so we look for signs that will explain it.

The first hearers of Mark’s gospel, in about 65 or 70 AD, were living in a time of struggle.  Many of the early Christians were Jews.  Their lives had been centered around the Temple, the great work of so many hands over history, a symbol of their struggle to be a people with a home where they could worship God.  And in 70 A.D., the Temple was destroyed.  All that remained was one of the great walls -- the Western Wall, as we know it today.  Their home, and the house of God, was gone.  It was taken over by Rome, the oppressing political power that made their lives and their faith a struggle every day.  They asked each other, “What does this mean?  Are the promises of God still true?”

And the early Christians, both Jews and Greeks, were struggling with their own individual lives.  Family members turned against them.  They were dragged before political authorities and church leaders and declared to be heretics and terrorists.  They were trying to live out Jesus’ message of love, of peace, of hope, and they were condemned for it.  So they wanted to know -- what does all this mean?  Why does the kingdom of God feel so far away?  Are the promises of God still true?

So they turned to one of the storytellers in their community, Mark.  Now Mark, unlike Nate Silver, was not a statistician.  He didn’t have a liberal arts degree in economics.  Mark didn’t analyze the church’s struggles from the perspective of numbers.  They turned to him because his job was to know and pass on the stories of Jesus.  So he didn’t make a blog to predict changes in government.  He wrote a gospel, to help his people see the patterns in Jesus’ life and death -- and to help them see the patterns in their own.  And he wrote chapter 13, which we read today, in the style of apocalyptic literature.

Apocalypse is a Greek word -- two Greek words, actually.  Apo and kalupto.  Kalupto means "to cover", and apo means "away from", so together they mean:  to uncover.  To take the cover away.  To reveal what has been hidden.  Apocalypse is not destruction but revelation.

And in apocalyptic literature, revelation is about the unveiling of something much bigger than what we currently know.  We're pulling back the curtain on something much larger than us.  Apocalyptic writers believe that there is a link between everything happening on earth and the larger ongoing struggle between the forces of good and evil.  Oppression and war and injustice on earth is not only human history but also a mirror of an invisible, spiritual battle.  So apocalyptic writers look at earth now and understand it to have much bigger significance.  Apocalyptic writers look to the future and anticipate a great and final battle between evil and good -- between hatred and compassion, between oppression and justice.

So apocalyptic writers see wars, and rumors of wars, and nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and they want to tell everyone:  "This is what all this means.  This war is a symbol of a much greater war that we can't see."  

You see, apocalyptic writers are usually writing during times of great struggle.  They are writing for communities who feel like they are living in the end of the world.  They see wars and hear rumors of wars.  They are living in famine, or struggling in the aftermath of an earthquake.  They are believers whose family members turn against them, whose government refuses to believe in justice and love.  They're the Catholic teenager in northwestern Minnesota, who supported the Vote No campaign on Facebook and was then denied confirmation and communion by his family priest.  They’re the Palestinians in Gaza, watching as Israel’s three-day air strike turns their neighborhoods to rubble and fills their children with terror.

These are people who want to know what’s going on.  And because they believe that there is more to life than the world we can see, they want to know where God is in all of it.  They want to know, “In the face of all this, are the promises of God still true?”

Wars and rumors of wars have always been with us, from the time we realized we could kill one another.  As long as there have been nations, they have been fighting.  As long as we have known solid ground, we have known earthquakes.  As long as we have known food, we have known famine.  As long as we have had religion, we have had leaders who take it and try to gain power, who claim, “Follow me!  I’m the one!”.  And as long as we have had religious beliefs, we have fought over them, condemned each other, killed each other.  We see all this struggle and war, in our sliver of human history, and we ask, “Are the promises of God still true?”  And Jesus says:  “This is not the end.”

This sliver of history where we live is a small part of a great span of time.  We live at only a single point of the cloud of space and time that God has made.  And into our sliver of history, God speaks through Jesus and says, “This is not the end.  I can see the end.  My promises are still true.  Love and justice will reign.”

This is good, and yet it’s so hard.  It's a condemnation of our desire to get a schedule, to try to know everything.  We keep looking for patterns.  We keep wanting statistical answers and firm dates.  Peter and James and John and Andrew ask for us:  "When will this happen?"  We've been trying to answer that question for two thousand years.  Will it happen with Haley's Comet?  Is it the Y2K bug?  What about May 21, 2011?  What about December 21, 2012?  What about now that Hostess is closing and there will be no more Twinkies?  

Many have come in Jesus’ name and said, “I am he!”  There are still wars, and rumors of wars.  There are people dying in the Gaza strip.  There are earthquakes, and hurricanes, and destruction we cannot prepare for.  There are family members turning against each other.  There are forces of evil that say “No”, over and over, to a message of compassion.  It tells us instead to hate, to fear, to compete.  To shoot and bomb the bad guys.  To protect ourselves from each other.  To earn more money and buy more stuff.

So we see lies, and oppression, and war with other countries and within ourselves.  And our human brains, looking for patterns, want to know:  Is this the end?  When will the kingdom come?  When will love and justice reign?  

Maybe you’ve noticed that when the disciples ask Jesus questions, they don’t usually get a straight answer.  And they don’t in today’s story, either.  But they do eventually.  Jesus predicts the coming destruction, all the struggles and pain, and then says in verse 32:  “But about that day or hour, no one knows.”

God stands outside of time, and yet enters into our little sliver to promise:  “I can’t tell you when we’ll be there.  But we’ll be there.  I already know the end.”  We're drawn from our small point of experience into a much bigger picture, where God stands and looks at the whole of history and then says to us, "Don't be afraid."

Jesus says, “Let go of your worry.  Let go of your fear.  Let go of your need to know the schedule.  Let go of your need to prepare.  Be alert, but not afraid.  Don’t look to buildings to house you, or institutions to protect you, or government to fight for you, or money to save you.  The end of the story is that all of that will be gone.  Not one of these stones will still be standing.  Be alert, but not afraid.  You already know what to look for:  look for love.  Look for love of God and love of neighbor.  That is where the kingdom is already here.”

It’s a hard promise, really.  That all of this will pass away.  That none of the things the world offers will save us.  That we will still have troubles, and trials, and hate.  God did not say: You will never be troubled; you will never have difficulties; you will never be anxious.  God said:  you will never be overcome.

Jesus promises:  all this will pass away.  But the one who endures will be saved.

And we will not endure because of our fear, or our knowledge, or our preparations.  We will not survive because of anything we have a grip on.  We will be saved because of God’s grip on us.  We will endure because the One who endures will save us.

The God who created all of time and space, who stands at a place where you can see the end and the beginning and everything in between, entered into a sliver of history to tell us just how much we are loved.  How much we are wanted in the kingdom.  How hungry God is for justice.  How much the heart of God wants to see wars cease, oppressors fall, and peace reign.

In all of this, God holds us fast.  The promises of God are true.  The reign of love and justice is coming, brick by brick, heart by heart.  The world is already turning, and the kingdom is here.


Canticle of the Turning verses 3 and 4

From the halls of pow'r to the fortress tow'r,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
ev'ry tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
there are tables spread, ev'ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn.                                

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn.

Though the nations rage from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God's mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror's crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard
is the promise which holds us bound,
till the spear and rod can be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around.                           Refrain

1 comment:

  1. This is beautifully written, and very inspiring. Thank you.