Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
On Friday the 13th, a new disaster movie hit the theatres, this one called “2012,” an apocalyptic sci-fi thriller following the prophecy stated by the ancient Mayan calendar, which says that the world will come to an end on December 21, 2012. It’s not the first, nor will it be the last of its ilk. Nor is it a new phenomenon. Historians think that end-of-time thinking originated in ancient Persia with Zoroastrianism. It is called “apocalyptic,” from the Greek word meaning “a revelation.” During the period of the Hebrew Exile and beyond, this kind of literature took hold in Hebrew religion and, eventually, spilled over into early Christian thought, where it took firm root.
Today’s reading from Mark is one such apocalyptic text. It portrays Jesus and his disciples walking by the grand edifice of the Temple constructed by Herod. It was one of the great wonders of ancient architecture, built of huge stones that gave one the sense that it would be there for all eternity.
Now we know that Jesus has this knack of saying thing to startle his audience—to make them sit up and pay attention. So when his companions marvel at the beauty and majesty of this fortress of a Temple, he bursts their bubble: “There will not be one stone left here on another—not one that will not be thrown down.”
Can you imagine walking in lower Manhattan in the years before September 11, 2001, admiring the stately, tall twin towers, and hearing something like that? There will not be one stone left here on another? It would have been beyond belief. Buildings like the World Trade Center or the Empire State are metaphors for stability, endurance, perpetuity. If you heard such an awful prediction like this, you’d want to know more—as did the disciples. The apocalypse—or revelation—Jesus gives them is a forecast of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70 A.D. He also warns them about the suffering and persecution they will endure because they chose to follow him.
But that’s all in the past. The Temple in Jerusalem is long gone as are the persecutions of the first few centuries of Christianity. Where is the meaning for us in this Gospel for our today world? Certainly it has been used along with many others to make literal predictions about the future, even matching up the symbolic language of the bible with actual events and people. The end result is a terrible abuse of God’s Word and the foundation of a culture of fear, suspicion, and terror. So if we want to find more in this passage than that, we need to delve more deeply and think more expansively. We need to hear this Gospel the way God intends us to receive it.
There are preachers and religious bodies who use this passage solely to paint a picture of horrible disaster and suffering, to focus mainly on the end of the world, on doom and gloom, on the great tribulation and destruction—rather than on redemption, grace, and creation. But the truth is that the world has always experienced massive suffering and catastrophic disasters: famines, wars, virulent disease, mass murders and holocausts, tsunamis and earthquakes and floods, tornadoes and hurricanes and colossal fires, refugee migrations, life-threatening illness, economic collapse and great loss. When these things happen to you or those you love it is your great tribulation. It is in a very real sense the end of your world. And it startles you and makes you see things in a very different light.
These texts about an “unveiling” or “revealing” are found at the tail end of the church year but they are not there to make us focus on conclusions, but rather to point us towards beginnings. We tend to think of God working to create the world, set things in motion, and then sit back and retire. As if like in TV cartoons, having created the world, God took a paint brush and writes in big letters across the screen: “The end.”
What prevents us from seeing that God is always creating and creation can be fashioned only when there is some dismantling? When Jesus tells us about the destruction of the temple, he is talking about any and all arrangements that are not what God intends for this world. God wants us to have the world that God intended us to have and will continue creating and creating until we do.
One of the places where it is sometimes difficult to see that is, strangely enough, in the church. The church can become our “temple”—eternal-looking and fixed, a metaphor for the unchanging, stable, permanent. But what if God wants us to come here to keep looking for God’s intended new heaven and new earth? I wonder if the reason so many churches are not growing is because they aren’t willing to do that.
During the retreat in Lenox last weekend, we talked a lot about growth—our own personal growth and how that is related to and affects the growth of the entire community. A significant aspect of that is how able we are to look beyond this local expression of the church and claim the blessing that we are called to bring the Gospel to the wider world by witnessing out there to what we have found in here. Do we see our lives—the way we live and experience and treat others—as the way to preach the Good News?
What might God want to dismantle in our temple in order for the new creation to emerge? Clearly, there has been a lot of dismantling in this church over the past ten years. Some old ways have died to give birth to new ones.
But if God is still creating, we need to be ready to receive the fruits of that creation. What ways and structures may no longer work in a community that has moved from a pastoral to a program sized church in a relatively short span of time? Will you step into the new creation that looms around us and help us give birth to new ways of being faithful to God’s plan for this community so that it can be a more effective presence outside our doors as well as inside them? What are the “temples”—the structures in our lives that God may want to dismantle in order to bring on some new creation? This is not for me a Gospel about destruction and endings. It is rather a Gospel of beginnings and new birth, but it is about God’s getting our attention—making us sit up and take notice—recognizing that God’s creative work did not end with a nice story in the Book of Genesis.
One of my favorite places to be and vacation is Provincetown, Massachusetts. There you will find the most incredible sunsets. The rector of the Episcopal Church there describes such a sunset in a recent parish newsletter. “A few days ago,” he writes “as I was driving along Route 6 the sky looked as if it were on fire. The October dusk had begun to wash over Cape Cod the way the tide creeps into the marshes of Herring Cove and overtakes them. As my car breeched the hill leaving Truro, I was blinded by what appeared to be an enormous orange ball sitting on top of Provincetown. With eyes squinted you could just make out the Pilgrim Monument and the brilliant solar halo surrounding it. I was compelled to pull to the side of the road and watch in awestruck silence with a group of people I had never met, who like me were mesmerized by this splendid ethereal vision.
“I suspect there are times we all find ourselves driving through life without a clue that we are being immersed in God’s light. Our preoccupation with the mundane and the mediocre does much to desensitize us to the sacredness of life, much to God’s disappointment. Yet like a four year old, God will do anything to get our undivided attention, even if it takes setting the sky on fire. It is as if God is gleefully saying: Look at me! Watch what I can do!”
The Gospel today is a wake up call to greater responsibility for the stewardship of our life and for all creation. It is another invitation to rethink our role in the continuing work of creation that God is unfolding around us. How much in life do we miss because we are too busy to see that? Do we lose perspective without realizing it and end up missing life’s grace-filled moments wherein God gives us a glimpse of God’s grand vision for the world and what part we can play as a community of faith? God is still working to make this world in all of its goodness and fullness. This is the beginning of the birth pangs and we are being summoned as midwives to bring forth new life.