November 14, 2021
We jump back into the gospel according to Mark today. This is the final chapter in the year of Mark – all that’s left is the passion story, which we heard during Lent. This is the final ‘regular’ Sunday in the church year – next week is Christ the King, and then Advent begins. Advent is always a two-fold expectation of Christ’s arrival. It’s no coincidence that we are getting ready to look forward to Jesus’ birth, just as Jesus is telling us to get ready for his coming again.
But right now, the story takes us from the temple, across the valley to the Mount of Olives. The disciples following Jesus can see the Beautiful Gate. According to tradition, Messiah will come down from the Mount of Olives on the Day of Judgment and the dead will be resurrected as he enters the Temple through this gate. This is why those who are buried on the Mount of Olives have their feet pointing toward the Temple, so they will already be facing in the right direction when the resurrection happens.
Yet Jesus has just told his disciples that the Temple will be destroyed, and they are having a hard time absorbing this information. If the temple is going to be destroyed, Jewish tradition holds that this must be a sign of the end of the world. And if the world is about to end, where does that leave the disciples? Where does that leave us?
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 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 13:3-8)
Jesus has just told his closest friends that the temple they can see across the Kidron Valley will come tumbling down. And sure enough, less than forty years later, it happened. Every stone was thrown down by the Roman armies in 70 A.D.
There might be a word here for today’s churches – for our church. Particularly in North America, we seem to make a big deal about the buildings where we worship. Those buildings serve important – and often good – functions, but they are not the church. In other parts of the world, when people speak of the church, they aren’t referring to a building at all. They are talking about a group of people who have staked their lived on following Jesus, who gather to pray and praise God, who invite others to join them in following Christ. That’s church, Church.
When the news is filled with stories of climate change and polarized thinking that spills out into violence and hatred, it feels like all our systems and structures are coming apart at the seams. But it’s right there, where everything seems to be coming apart, that the Kingdom of God is coming together.
What Jesus is talking about here is apocalypse. We sometimes think of apocalyptic writings as scary predictions about “the end of the world as we know it.” But the word “apocalypse” comes from a Greek word that means to uncover, or reveal. That’s why the last book of the Bible, called “Revelation” in English, is “Apokalypsis” in Greek.
Jesus is being about as straightforward as he can be, as he reveals what will happen. But even though the disciples ask Jesus for a sign they can trust, he doesn’t give them one. Instead, Jesus tells them what won’t be an indication that the end is near. False prophets, wars, earthquakes, famines – these are all just potential distractions along the way. They are the birth pangs of what will come. In other words, what we see as the end is really just the beginning.
It’s easy to look at events today and think, ‘surely this must be it.’ We can be fooled by catastrophe and war and rising violence. It’s easy to get caught up in the signs that are only the beginning of birth pangs, and forget to look where those signs are trying to point us: toward the hope that Christ offers. Not fear, hope. Hope urges us to be ready. Hope calls us to action.
So what do we need to do to be ready? How can we prepare for an event that may be tomorrow or a hundred million years from now? Well, it doesn’t mean storing up water and food and blankets in a survival shelter.
Christ calls us, first of all, to prepare our own hearts by paying attention to the presence of God, and living in that presence every day. This is why we practice those spiritual disciplines of prayer and worship and fasting and feasting daily on the Word of God.
This is where we meet Jesus.
This is how our hearts stay prepared for his coming.
Then, Christ calls us to encourage each other to be prepared by meeting together as the Body of Christ, gathering around his Table as we remember Christ’s death and resurrection until he comes.
This is where we meet Jesus.
This is how we help each other stay prepared for his coming.
And Christ calls us to walk with other believers in the kind of close fellowship that provides encouragement and accountability. As we band together with a few trusted friends in Christ, we meet Jesus and keep each other faithful to stay prepared for his coming.
Finally, Christ calls us to share the gospel in meaningful and authentic ways. This is why we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and care for the sick and welcome the stranger and visit those in prison.
Because this is where we meet Jesus,
and how we stay prepared for his coming.
These are not just spiritual practices and good deeds we ought to be doing out of some sense of religious duty. This is our LIFE as followers of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to live and move and have our being in the presence of the God who made us and redeems us because He loves us.
This life in Christ is the way of hope, about as far away from apocalyptic anxiety as you can get. The point isn’t to spend time and energy trying to figure out when and how Jesus will come again. The point is to be ready, whenever it may happen. And to be ready, we need to be doing the work of the Father, just as Jesus did.
We are called to share the good news that, no matter how bad it gets before it gets better, there is hope in Christ Jesus, who suffered as we suffer, who died for our sakes, and who now lives and reigns with the Father, just as we who put our trust in him will do.
The word “apocalypse” has its roots in revealing, or uncovering God’s plan for the future. These days, ‘apocalypse’ has come to mean devastation, destruction, and torment. It breeds fear and anxiety.
But let me throw another fancy theological term your way this morning. One of my seminary professors told me that, in order to graduate, I had to have at least 20 “-ology” words in my vocabulary. I was really glad to add “eschatology” to my list.
Eschatology is the study of end times. Its focus is on the ultimate goal of creation, the framework of last things. Good eschatology is based in hope. Now, eschatology tells the truth about the future. The end times will not be easy. There will be pain and hardship. But a greater reality is being born in the midst of it all. Instead of focusing on signs of impending doom, eschatology focuses our vision on God, and the ways we participate in God’s kingdom that is coming into its fullness.
“Apocalyptic anxiety sells books and blockbuster movie tickets. Eschatological hope steels faith and emboldens holy love. … Jesus … commands us to fix our eyes on the future in such a way that it impacts every decision we make in the present. He is leading us toward a future that inspires nobility, faith, courage, and love in the face of despairing conditions.”
The great creeds of the Church are filled with eschatological hope. Yes we confess a final judgment but we also proclaim the Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of Sins, the Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting!
Friends, we are people of hope in a world that desperately needs it. We are people of resurrection in a world that is hell-bent on death and destruction. We are the people Christ sends out to announce the good news that these are just birth pangs. Something amazing is about to be born.