November 18, 2018 – 26th Sunday after Pentecost, Gospel: Mark 13:1-8
Over the past two weeks we have seen some horrific pictures come out of California as two wildfires have weaved paths of destruction through the northern and southern parts of the state. We’ve seen footage of skies so darkened by smoke that day appears to be night. And we’ve seen people driving through what seem to be walls of fire as they seek to escape, hopefully with their lives, as the fires overtake not just wooded areas, but homes, businesses, schools, churches, and anything and everything in their paths. Dozens have died and as of Saturday estimates said over one thousand people are still missing.
It is a tragedy of epic proportions and can seem to us almost apocalyptic as images are shown of the fires engulfing everything they come across with their flames and once gone leaving paths of smoldering embers as the only trace of entire towns.
Often when we think about an apocalypse we think about the end times. We think about death and destruction happening as the world comes to an end some day far off in the future. This is an idea we often get from books, television, and movies or even from biblical readings like our gospel reading from Mark today. Yet, while our gospel reading is sometimes referred to as the “Little Apocalypse,” it isn’t quite apocalyptic in the way we tend to think of it.
Because when we talk about apocalyptic literature like we find in the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures or in the New Testament in the book of Revelation or in this part of Mark, they aren’t just offering us up predictions for what we are to look forward to at the end times. The word apocalypse in Greek means unveiling or uncovering or revealing. So, instead, apocalyptic literature in the bible is meant to also give its hearers a new perspective on the here and now. It’s meant to unveil, uncover, or reveal something we need to know now and to offer hope to God’s people in the midst of present times of peril and persecution.
For instance, it is believed our gospel reading today was written to believers around 70 CE either just before the desecration and destruction of the second temple or just afterwards. Either way those early Christians would have been suffering under and against the Roman Empire, struggling for survival, and questioning when Jesus was going to return to save them. So, the author of Mark’s gospel shared this story of Jesus to bring them hope in the middle of desperate times otherwise devoid of hope. The goal was to help them see that what they are going through is temporary. Their situation is transient. After all, even the large stones of the temple will not remain forever because the temple isn’t all it seems to be.
Yet, in the time of Jesus I’m sure to many it seemed those stones would remain forever. Historians say the temple was a sight to see covered in gold so that it shone like the sun and at the right time of day would blind you if you looked directly at it. And those large stones – some as much as forty feet long – that formed such large buildings likely seemed like they could never be moved or destroyed as they dwarfed all that stood in their shadow. No wonder the disciple in the gospel is in awe of them.
However, Jesus sees something else. While the disciple sees large stones and large buildings and a symbol of religious certainty, permanence and identity for the Jewish people, Jesus sees rubble, fragility, and ruins. He tells the disciple that all this that seems so indestructible to him will be thrown down and not one stone will be left upon another.
How could Jesus see something so different than the disciple while looking at the same thing? Perspective.
Just last week our gospel in the verses right before this told the story of the widow’s mite. The story where a poor widow puts her last two coins into the temple treasury. It often seems to some that Jesus is praising her actions in the story as she gives out of her poverty while the rich give out of their abundance. Is he praising her though? Or is he condemning a temple system that is supposed to care for the widow, but instead is profiting off its abuse of the widow by taking the last of her money instead of caring for her as the scriptures called it to do?
While others see the temple as a symbol of right religious practice that is meant to remain forever as a sign of religious identity, from where Jesus stands he sees it as in need of change and transformation. He sees that in order for a new world to be made available by God, the current world as they know it needs to change. While others might be alarmed that they will hear of wars and rumors of wars, nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes will shake the earth’s foundations, and famine arise, Jesus sees that these signs of death and destruction are necessary to give way to new birth. What others see only as an ending of the world as they know it, Jesus sees as the beginning of the birth pangs that will give way to the new thing God is up to.
In the wake of the destruction of the temple this new thing was the decentralization of power from the temple to the local faith community in the rise of the synagogue system as well as local Christian communities that grew outside of Jewish centers of worship. Both were communities better able to serve God and all God’s people, including the widow and orphan that had become neglected in the temple system that had become corrupt and lost perspective on God’s call to it to care for the least of these as they got wrapped up in their glory.
It isn’t easy to go through these times of death and destruction though is it? They are times that can cause alarm, fear, anxiety, worry, anger, or grief for those of us who are comfortable with the current systems. Yet, it depends where we stand how we hear this message of Jesus. It is likely in his day the religious leaders would have been alarmed to hear news of the destruction of the temple that was their livelihood. And so too, the faithful Jewish people who were of means and who were comfortable and accustomed to how it worked would likely be anxious to hear of change as well. Yet, would the widow who contributed all she had in her mite have heard Jesus’ message in the same way? Or would she have heard it as good news that the system that oppressed her was ending?
In this “little apocalypse” in Mark’s gospel we find Jesus helping to change the disciples’ perspective so that they could see the death that was coming not as the bad news it seemed to be to the comfort of their status quo, but as a way to unveil, uncover, or reveal the new and wonderful thing God was giving birth to in their midst.
Like those in Jesus’ day, we live in times of great upheaval, destruction, and desperation in our religious systems as well. Organized religion is on the decline across the board so that the largest growing religious group in the United States now is the Nones or those who identify with no religion. This is no surprise to those of us in congregations who have seen attendance and giving waning for years.
We can relate to those feelings of alarm, fear, anxiety, worry, anger and grief that the religious people of Jesus’ day felt facing the destruction of the temple system as the church as we know it is rapidly changing right before our eyes. Yet, I think there are also those who likely hear of the decline of the church as it has been as good news. Like those who have been oppressed and excluded from full participation from the current system for their gender identity or their sexual orientation. Or those who have suffered abuse at the hands of clergy. Or those who have been cast out and ostracized for whatever sins some in the church have judged them guilty of and punished them for. How we hear and experience the change is about perspective.
I think many here at Christ the King-Epiphany we can relate to many of those emotions of loss of the church as we know it, as almost everyone who is part of this community has to some extent felt at least one of those emotions as the two congregations – Episcopal and Lutheran – have come together. You’ve dealt with issues around church buildings, changes in worship practices and traditions, changes in community membership and participation, and changes in clergy just to name a few.
Episcopalians have had to deal with Lutherans and all their weird idiosyncrasies and Lutherans have had to deal with Episcopalians and all their weird idiosyncrasies. Some members of each community have heard this merger as bad news, just as others have heard it as good news. Yet, for both groups through the upheaval and change of how we each had been church separately for so long, God has been in our midst doing a new thing by bringing us together.
There have been birth pangs and at times very painful ones. Ones that have included grief, anger, fear, and discomfort as we have said goodbye to beloved members of the community who have left, to worshipping at a much loved church building, and to practices and traditions that were embedded deeply in each separate congregation. However, those birth pangs have also included joy and surprise as together we have discovered new friends, new traditions, and new experiences of God, faith, and wonder at what we can accomplish together.
The birth pangs have not been easy and that likely won’t change as we continue to come together and transform from the communities we used to be separately to the one God is giving birth to in joining us as one. However, here in our gospel today Jesus offers us an apocalypse, a new perspective, an unveiling or uncovering or revealing, of what God is up to in the dismantling of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany and Christ the King Lutheran Church as two separate congregations and forming one congregation in Christ the King Epiphany Church. He is showing us how in endings, God is bringing about a new beginning. And in the death and rubble of what we once knew, God is bringing new birth.
What that will look like is still being worked out by God, but like the emergence of the synagogue system and the first early Christian communities from the destruction of the temple system, what I see emerging is a community more nimble and agile for being the church today. A community better able to focus on God’s mission and serving others through the power and strength of their combined resources – both human and financial. And a community deepened in faith as God has changed our perspectives and us, through the process of death and resurrection that God has been working in and through us.
These are not easy times we live in and in the turmoil and chaos of the world of these days we may feel as if the apocalypse or end is near. May we no longer hear that only as the bad news it seems it might be as our comfort and security are disturbed though. May we instead hear it the new perspective Jesus calls us to in our gospel, as the promise and hope of what is to come as God does a new thing. Of new beginnings and new life in Jesus Christ which would never be possible without the pain, death, and destruction God has led and is leading us through to new birth. Amen.