In the Name of the God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
The title of the book might well be: “Don’t take life too seriously; No one gets out alive.” Scary stuff in that Gospel! It is not a pleasant reading. I began this sermon on Thursday, well before the horrible events in Paris unfolded just twenty four hours later. Somehow, it makes a much deeper impression than it did a few days ago.
Who wants to focus on the signs of the end times? 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. Apocalyptic literature is concerned with the end of human history. The writing is highly symbolic and is meant to provide encouragement to the faithful during times of trial.
How so? The context in which the first century church understood this message was a lot different from ours. Being a Christian then meant persecution, ridicule, false accusations, torture, and even death. When Mark’s Gospel was written, the fear of persecution was directed toward the Emperor Nero, who was scarcely more sane than Caligula who claimed to be a god. Our ancestors in the first century church read this passage and it gave them hope—a hope for the end of the madness and oppression. God was going to put a stop to all suffering and restore justice, freedom, and peace. To a people facing imminent persecution, these words of Jesus come as a comfort and not judgment.
Today’s reading from Mark 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 things 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, he bursts their bubble: “There will not be one stone left here on another—not one that will not be thrown down.”
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 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 oppression and suffering of the first few centuries of Christianity.
This text 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 basis 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. God does not want us to obsess on horrible disaster and suffering, the end of the world, great tribulation and destruction but rather on creation, grace, and redemption.
The notion of divine violence has no place in our understanding of the Gospel. The theme of this apocalyptic writing is human terror, not divine terror. The potential of apocalyptic violence would be generated by human beings, not God. We don’t have to think too hard to appreciate how that can happen. We don’t need to think at all. We’ve just seen it in spades.
I wonder if we have not become a culture of apprehension and worry—whether real or fabricated—anticipating when the other shoe will drop. The distinct smell of fear lingers in our cultural air, and the rancid smell of hatred is not far behind.
And there is no scarcity of religious fear mongers who are ready to do their part in heightening our hysteria with their warnings and judgments. But listen up! Jesus tells us plainly, “False prophets will appear and produce signs and omens to lead you astray.” In other words, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Don’t believe them and don’t follow them. They are not of God.
The truth is, however, that the world has always experienced massive suffering and catastrophic disasters: famines, wars, virulent disease, genocide and holocausts, tsunamis and earthquakes and floods, tornadoes and hurricanes and colossal fires, refugee migrations, life-threatening illness, and economic collapse.
When these things happen, it is our great tribulation. For 129 people in Paris and for their loved ones, the world as they knew it has ended. Hundreds of others wait to see how their wounded lives will unfold in the days ahead. And we all sit on the edge of our seats in various stages of anxiety.
The lessons today tell us that we are not alone in our fearful response to what we perceive as frightening and world-altering events in our time. Whether it’s a fiscal cliff, a Mayan calendar, a terrorist attack in Paris, or other disastrous event, we must hear the words of Jesus: “Do not be alarmed.”
Humans still will misplace hope in power, money, and might. Life is still chaotic. In spite of our great scientific and technological advances, many of the world’s people live in poverty and suffer great violence. Wars, rumors of war, famine and earthquake continue.
These texts about an “unveiling” or “revealing” are found at the tail end of the church year but I don’t think that they are there to make us focus on endings, but rather to point us towards beginnings. God did not just create the world, set things in motion, and then sit back and retire.
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.
The other side of fear and anxiety is hope and a radical openness to what God may yet do, as well as discerning our place within the story of the coming Kingdom of God. We are to be people of God and about God’s work in this world—right here, right now. The gospel compels us to confront the hatred, the suspicion, and the darkness of our contemporary life. Now more than ever, people need to find communities of faith where they are welcome, where they can come just as they are.
No, this is not a Gospel about destruction and endings. It is the good news of beginnings and new birth. It is an 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 we are offered a glimpse of God’s grand vision for the world and what part we can play in that vision?
God is still creating, working passionately to remake this world in all of its goodness and fullness. And you and I are part of the big picture. Episcopal priest and author Barbara Crafton suggested yesterday in her blog that maybe that’s why we have these spooky scripture passages. Not to learn when we’re going to die. But to learn how to live.