“Not the Problem you are Expecting”
A sermon by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
15 Nov 2015 based on Mark 13:1-8
In this passage Jesus and the disciples are looking at the Temple in Jerusalem. This building would rival any building in Washington DC: the capital building, the White Hose, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson memorial, the Washington Monument. Its large white stones seemed to shine in the sunlight. The huge doors were covered in brass that gleamed. It was the place where God’s finger touched the earth to bring stability and order to creation. But stability and order are not what Jesus sees when looking at the Temple. Jesus directs the attention of the disciples to a longer vision. Jesus wants the disciples to pay attention to what God is doing – even when it seems like disaster surrounds us. Listen to how Jesus tells us to watch for God in the future.
As Jesus left the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, look! What awesome stones and buildings!” 2 Jesus responded, “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”
3 Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives across from the temple. Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? What sign will show that all these things are about to come to an end?”5 Jesus said, “Watch out that no one deceives you. 6 Many people will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ They will deceive many people. 7 When you hear of wars and reports of wars, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen, but this isn’t the end yet. 8 Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other, and there will be earthquakes and famines in all sorts of places. These things are just the beginning of the sufferings associated with the end.“ (Common English Bible)
Weeks ago I laid out some basic worship plans of what would happen week to week. In that planning I had designated two Sundays for stewardship messages, because I feel stewardship is an important expression of our faith and it deserves more than one Sunday. Today was to be the second of those stewardship messages. But world events in the past couple days – indeed, in the past week – have challenged me to set aside that stewardship focus and instead reflect upon those events.
(For those of you who were really who woke up this morning really looking forward to a stewardship sermon, don’t worry: I intend to make stewardship a focus at least once a quarter, and the message I had been preparing for this morning will be used in another way in upcoming weeks.)
In all sincerity, my attention, my prayers, my spiritual energy is focused elsewhere: the attacks in Paris this weekend, the suicide bombing in Beirut, the killing of Jihadi John – these events trouble my spirit and dominate my prayers. Ironically, the very title of the sermon I had planned to preach summarizes my own situation: these are not the problems I was expecting to address this morning.
Those crowded prayers are joined with a number of other incidents from this week’s news: an earthquake and tsunami in Japan; the increased number of earthquakes in Oklahoma; a train derailment in France and a bus accident in Los Angeles; the so-called cleansing of a ghetto in Paris where immigrants lived; political protests turned into violent confrontation with police in South Korea; the overt racism students face in US colleges; our own polarized political system exposing its ugly hatreds; the homophobic condemnation by the Mormon church of not only homosexuals but the children they raise; the list continues.
I am sure my initial prayers echo many of yours: “How long, O Lord, how long?” “Lord, have mercy on us.” “Why?” I so dearly desire that I could provide you with an answer that would clear up all our confusion and tell you the one simple way to respond to these kinds of events. I so dearly desire it, because then I too would know what to do. I am just as confused as you.
I do not understand the motivations of the Islamic State. I do not understand such generalized hatred. I do not understand how such indiscriminate killing and violence are what people of faith conclude is God’s will for them. I do not understand how the ideals of Islam – or Judaism or Christianity or most every other religion – get distorted in order to vilify others.
I can relate to frustration. I can relate to the feelings that cultural patterns have turned away from or even dismiss religious values. I have sat in church meetings in local congregations, in associations and conference, with national officers, with seminary professors, and at times wondered “How can you possibly think that?”
I struggle to remind myself that all people are made in the image of God – whether or not they live up to that image, whether or not I like them, whether or not I think they are seeking holiness: the stamp of God’s image cannot be removed from any person. Perhaps that alone prevents me from seeking to eliminate those who I disagree with let alone seeking to kill.
At a different level, I can accept disease. We live in a material world; our bodies are vulnerable and over time become frail. It is part of our mortality. I do not like it, but I can accept it. On some level I can even accept that our planet is at times inhospitable. The forces that generate earthquakes and tsunamis are the same forces that shaped mountains and oceans; the elements that generate hurricanes and tornadoes also deliver springtime rains and summer breezes.
It is these social disasters that perplex me.
And I know I am not the only one who is confused. There have been a number of internet memes that express the desire for understanding.
(In case you do not know what a meme is, they are those things that get repeated over and over. Here’s an academic definition: “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another, especially by imitation.” Here as better explanation: A “meme” is a virally-transmitted cultural symbol or social idea. A meme (rhymes with “team”) behaves like a flu or a cold virus, traveling from person to person quickly, but transmitting an idea instead of a lifeform. …the concept of memes “is either really deep, or really, really obvious”.
So here are a dozen memes I found on Facebook:
Jesus took the disciples to Jerusalem, and they did some sightseeing. We American Protestants just do not have a sense of how important the Jerusalem Temple is or was to Jews. The Temple that Jesus knew is known as the second temple. The original temple was built by Solomon. There was a sense that God’s finger touched the earth within the temple, and the earth was set to spinning from that spot. The temple was the center place for all Jewish identity.
This was literally perceived to be God’s earthly home: the Holy of Holies was like God’s living room and the ark of the covenant was God’s footstool. That ark contained the rubble of the stones on which the 10 Commandments were written. The Temple is the physical embodiment of Torah observances, Torah being how the Jewish community held itself together as a witness to the stability of God’s orderly love.
That temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians around 600 years before Jesus. It was rebuilt around 500 years before Jesus. By the time the second temple was built, Jews had been scattered around the known world. Wherever they were, Jews established synagogues – not quite a temple, not quite a place of worship, instead a place to study God’s ways, a place to gather as God’s people and hold one another to the covenantal promises that made them God’s people.
But the temple – while God might be encountered elsewhere, the temple was still the guaranteed place to know the holiness of God.
The temple was the ritual center of the world, and thus was perceived as a place of stability – the anchor between creation and heaven. And so the disciples are in awe of this holy place. In their hometowns most of the buildings were of clay brick and mud. The temple is made of massive blocks of limestone. About a generation before Jesus, King Herod had remodeled the second temple. He surrounded the temple with a massive courtyard and huge walls. These are probably the stones this story refers to. Herod is a strange historical character. He’s paranoid, cruel, and only nominally Jewish – in fact, rabbis of the time stated he was categorically not Jewish. And yet he undertakes these massive building projects in the attempt to raise the status of Judea to rival any major Roman city. At the center of Jerusalem’s refurbishing is the Temple complex.
The disciples stand in awe of this massive building. In response to their awe Jesus responds: none of these stones will remain connected. Jesus took what the disciples perceived to be holy, what they perceived to be the manifestation of God’s presence on earth, and he essentially dismissed it. “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” Jesus’ comments are not so much about the fate of the Temple as they are commentary on the trauma leading up to the end.
“When?” the disciples ask. We might hear this as curiosity, as a desire to be prepared. It is also a question of worry: “When will the temple no longer be the source of stability? Our ancestors faced that kind of instability, they reflect; when will we face that insecurity?”
I do not find the way Jesus replies to be very comforting. “Pay attention that you are not led astray” – the Greek here might also be translated as “seduced” or even “deceived.”
“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.”
I have to say, the professors of pastoral care who I studied under and worked with would probably fail Jesus for this response to the disciples worry. But on the other hand, Jesus is also saying “Rather than worry about the timing of future historical catastrophes, concern yourselves with God’s timing. It matters very little when the end will arrive. Instead of becoming preoccupied with the moment of the end, be aware of the danger of being led astray.”
Jesus is also saying “These things happen. They recur throughout human history. This war or that war, this famine or that disaster is not necessarily evidence that the end of time is near.” Yes they are tragic, yes they call us to prayer, to service, to reinvest in our faith; they are the opportunity for faithfulness to be born in new ways – but have clear perception about how God is at work in the events of your life –the historic events, the wars, the famines, the suffering of people, in the international politics and in the relationships between yourself and the people you love. God is at work. And the joy of seeking God’s ways must be greater than the experience of disaster and the possibility of destruction.”
So yes, we pray for Paris – and Beirut, and Japan and the University of Missouri and for our children and grandchildren and for the finances of Lyonsville Congregational and for health and peace for our own spirits. These are not the problems we expected – but they are the problems of the time in which we live, and thus the opportunity for us to be faithful to a God who loves us. And perhaps that is the stewardship sermon I really needed to deliver today.
When you hear the phrase “O God” you may respond by praying aloud “hear our prayer.”
In trust let us pray to the One who even now, is giving birth to new future.
hear our prayer.
You are generous God, and we give you thanks.
As a congregation, we are grateful for the successful Harvest Home Turkey Dinner we hosted last night.
Yes, we are thankful for the money it raised,
but we are also thankful
for the fellowship it offered,
for the moments of sharing your joy with our neighbors and friends,
for the strengthening of relationships within this congregation,
and for the opportunities to serve in your name.
hear our prayer.
Holy Lord, we bring to you in prayer
the world you love,
calling your attention to places where
there is conflict, poverty, or hunger.
Our hearts and spirits are heavy with the news of violence in many places of the world.
We pray for wisdom that we may all better pursue peace –
in our individual ways,
in our governments,
between our religions,
throughout our cultures.
hear our prayer.
for all who suffer in mind or body,
for those who are in prison,
for those who live without hope,
for those who mourn
and for those who wait.
May your healing presence be known.
hear our prayer.
we pray for the transformation of our human ways –
for systems and bureaucracies that control gender relations, race relations, social divisions, and all stereotypes of age and ability.
Help us Lord to better appreciate difference –
racial and ethnic differences,
hear our prayer.
We come to you this morning, Lord,
praying for ourselves
and the child within each one,
that we might gain the ability to let go of the old and the courage to take on the new.
hear our prayer.
We come to you, gracious Lord,
With thanksgiving and praise for all you have done.
Trusting you have heard our prayers,
we now receive your mercy,
through Christ who guides us. Amen.