Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 15, 2015

2015.11.15 “What New Thing is Being Born?” – Mark 13: 1 – 8

Central United Methodist Church
What New Thing is Being Born?
Mark 13: 1 – 8
Pastor David L. Haley
November 15th, 2015

TempleStones

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.” – Mark 13: 1 – 8, the New Revised Standard Version

Once upon a time, readings such as today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark sounded fantastic: Jesus’ predictions regarding Herod’s Temple – one of the wonders of the ancient world and the heart of 1st century Judaism – that a time would come when not one stone would be left upon another.

Thirty years ago both preachers and congregations read these apocalyptic passages and wondered what to do with them, wondered what possibly they could have to do with our placid to-the-point-of-boring lives. Surely, we concluded, they were written to deal with such historical events as we can barely imagine, as – in this case – the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD by the Romans. Not one stone left up on another? What did that have to do with us? How does that fit in between Charge Conference and the Christmas Bazaar?

Then came the beginning of the end of our innocence, with the first World Trade Center Bombing on February 26, 1993. Within two years – April 19, 1995 – the Oklahoma Federal Center bombing happened.  I remember exactly where I was when I heard it – walking out of Central Dupage Hospital where I had just visited a parishioner – and I remember thinking, they have got to be exaggerating what’s going on here, that is, of course, until I got home and turned on the TV.  Then came September 11, 2001, a day we all remember exactly where we were and what we were doing.  Not only was there not one stone left on another: two of the most iconic buildings in the world were pulverized into dust, taking thousands of lives with them.

Now comes the 2nd incidence of terrorist bombings in Paris – a city we love – I feel as acquainted with the Isle de France almost as much as I do with the Chicago loop. I can visualize this morning, the inside of Notre Dame, as earlier today a special service was held in the wake of Friday evening attacks.

Not only is our innocence gone, but as John Buchanan said in his Facebook blog yesterday, “With each successive atrocity, I experience the full range of emotion: anger and rage and revenge, always first. Strike back. Do whatever it takes to destroy those who have done this. But then compassion for all those innocent people killed on a gentle autumn evening, and for their loved ones.”

It had to be similarly confused emotions the first followers of Jesus felt, when Jesus said what he said about the Temple.  First, let me clarify, it is not historically clear whether these words were written in the decade before the Temple was destroyed, or retroactively, after that had happened.

Remember, according to the story, up to this point things were looking up for Jesus’ disciples.  They had entered Jerusalem with that Palm Sunday parade, with crowds and cheering. Jesus taught daily in the Temple, surely it was only a matter of time until he would be acclaimed Messiah, and guess who would be sitting in this magnificent Temple then: they would! Of course, they had totally blown off Jesus’ cues that the Temple – despite how beautiful it was – was unjust; driving out those merchants – who had turned what was supposed to be a house of prayer into a den of thieves – with a whip. Even previously last week – Jesus’ Jesus’ upon that poor widow – who while she gave out of devotion, was, on the other hand – being defrauded out of what little she had to live on – for what? Wasn’t it as bad as those prosperity preachers today, who take from people so poor they don’t have enough to live on, in order to buy themselves vacation houses and private jets?

So Jesus saw it coming – but for his disciples, maybe for us – we get distracted by the beauty and the power before us, forgetting the transience of every human structure and institution, and sometimes – their downfall due to their own corruption. So – to hear that a day was coming when the Temple before them would be destroyed, was not only confusing but deeply upsetting, even more so than the World Trade Towers were to us. No wonder they asked, “When would this be, and what are the signs this is about to happen?”  Who wouldn’t want to know that, if it was predictable?

Are we any different?  Still today people today hear of these horrifying events like these terrorist attacks, and begin talking about the end of the world, using the Bible and such passages as this as their proof texts. Even for those of us not so literally inclined, look at the apocalyptic shows we now turn to for entertainment. Anybody heard of “The Walking Dead,” “Hunger Games,” or “Game of Thrones.” Even what we watch on TV has been changed by the apocalyptic nature of our own times, rooted in fear.

In the other scenario, that Mark wrote his Gospel AFTER the destruction of Jerusalem, it only makes sense that Mark would try to deal with the challenges Jesus’ followers were facing, with a word from Jesus. Among those challenges was their disappointment that Jesus had not returned, especially at a time when they really needed him, confusion that maybe he had and they had missed it, the immense social and religious upheaval caused by the destruction of the Temple, possible persecution by both Romans and Jews, and conflict not only between Jewish and Christian leaders, but rival Christian leaders. In short, life was difficult for many Christians, and Marks uses Jesus’ apocalyptic predictions to frame their struggles and questions, in a way that offered both perspective and comfort.

And exactly what does Jesus say, of value not only to them but to us, as we sit here in the wake of more innocent people killed by terror attacks?

Note that our reading today is abbreviated, so we do not get Jesus’ full apocalyptic discourse according to Mark (it comes around again in two weeks in the Gospel of Luke), but even in today’s passage, Jesus says three very important things.

The first is, “Do not be deceived by pretenders.” “Beware,” said Jesus, “that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” In Jesus’ own time and afterwards there were many Messianic pretenders (today we call them candidates or commentators), and the Romans became very good at nailing them to crosses. (Today we just submit them to debates, which doesn’t accomplish the same thing.)

Since then, it has been true throughout history that apocalyptic religion and writing (and TV shows?) have arisen at times of historical upheaval, such as the fall of the Roman Empire in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Sadly, time and again believers marched onto battlefields and hilltops believing the end was near, only to be, at worst, slaughtered by the swords of their enemies, or at best, left deceived and disappointed. Only a few years ago, Harold Camping – who has since died – warned us the end was near. No wonder Jesus continually warned, “Do not be deceived.”

The second thing Jesus says is, “Do not be alarmed.” “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 2,000 years now, there have been wars and rumors of wars, then it was the streets of Jerusalem; now it is the streets of Paris.  Still the end is not yet. “Do not be alarmed,” said Jesus, easier to say than to do.

At least now we have social media which can help us not only not to be so alarmed, but to be informed, and – even more importantly – to reach out in “solidarite.”  I loved it in the last few days as not only Facebook, but landmarks the world over, were transformed into the colors of the French flag – red, white, and blue, just as the world stood with us – including the French – after 9/11.

And did you hear that in response to the Paris bombings Facebook activated “Safety Check” for the first time outside of a natural disaster, so that you could mark yourself “safe” or check on friends and family? We may wonder if the Internet and social media hasn’t finally given us the global community that religion, government, and economics have failed to deliver, up to now.

The final thing that Jesus said in this text was this: “Do not be alarmed, these are but “birth pangs.” “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.”

Interesting choice of words, isn’t it; not one that I would have chosen. Is Jesus suggesting that as horrible as these events are, that – even out of disaster and death and destruction – something new – something better? – is being born?

As terrible as the events of AD 70 were, new things were born. In its previous form, Judaism was a temple-based, sacrificial system; but with the destruction of the Temple it would be reborn as a home-based religion centered not in sacrifice, but family ritual, which would sustain it through all the pogroms and holocausts that would come.

Christianity, too, spread out into the world, not just for Jews in Jerusalem but out into the Diaspora, even welcoming Gentiles, carried by the Apostle Paul as far as Rome. If that had not happened, we would not likely be sitting here today. Something new was born.

After all, when we think about it, isn’t this what happens in our lives? When we must go through difficult change – the kind of change where apocalyptic language is appropriate – as painful and terrible as it sometimes is, don’t we find that God can use it in our lives to turn crisis into opportunity?

As an example, 12 years ago, Michele and I attended a Clergy Retirement Seminar sponsored by the Northern Illinois Conference, led by some guy named Bob Burkhart (the former pastor of Central Church). The most memorable presentation of the seminar was when a retired pastor and his wife shared what had happened between them when he had retired from the ministry in 2001. Suddenly – as many couples find upon retirement – he was in the house again, not running out the door to go to a meeting every night, but now trying to tell her how to run her life. Over meals, once the topic of church was subtracted, they found little to talk about. Stepping out of one church before finding another, they found themselves without the support of the parishioners and friends they had known for a decade.

To their credit, they set aside a special time to sit down and reacquaint themselves with each other, by talking not only through the lost years, but about the painful changes which were going on differently in each of their lives. Two years afterwards, they still could not talk about it without tears. Though life as they had known it for so long had ended, slowly a new, more appreciative, more intimate relationship with each other began.

In similar ways, we have to ask ourselves – at such a time as this – out of crisis – out of the struggles of our life and times – what new thing is being born? While it is a time of fear and anxiety, it is also a time of solidarite and opportunity and hope. May God grant these words of Jesus may inspire not only vigilance, but courage and hope in our hearts.

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