The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Certain Christians believe God has called them to a specialized ministry. That ministry is to watch diligently for signs that the end of time is coming soon. With that, Jesus comes back, and they are certain that this time he’s going to be mad. So repent while there’s still time. They also believe God calls them to wealth – off the books and fictional stories they write, and the DVD’s they make. They prey on those who really believe them and the sky is falling – those who fear the dark. Mark 13, from which we read today, is on their top ten list to support their theories.
In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus has just left the Temple after condemning a religious system that rips off the poor. Outside, as they walk away, a disciple points back at the majesty and splendor of the Temple. Jesus sees the Temple, too – but in a different way. For him, it’s empty, lost its mission: “Don’t waste your breath or admiration. It’s coming down soon.” They are stunned by Jesus’ words. The Temple is the center of God’s coming reign. When Messiah comes, he comes to the Temple.
The disciples ask Jesus: “So when will the Temple fall? What are signs to warn us?” Jesus answers with strange, wild, unimaginable pictures: “Don’t believe false messiahs who come along. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars – stay calm. That’s not the end; nations fight nations – earthquakes and famines will occur. These are birth pangs. Trust God who holds you securely, regardless of what happens.” The Temple did fall – and many Jews lost their lives when they revolted against Rome. For Mark’s readers, they must have believed the end was coming – and God wasn’t doing a thing. And every generation since could think theirs is the end of time, too. Apocalypse is not a one-time event. The Apocalypse keeps recurring over and over in history.
For nearly two thousand years the final end has not come, and I wouldn’t bet on 2012 either. We seem stuck in the birth pangs. You’d think the end of the world crowd would get tired after awhile and find something else to do. Do you still think about such matters?
An Ethics professor once told our seminary class about letters sent from people who wanted to know what he teaches about the end of time and the return of Jesus. If he disagreed with them, that meant the seminary’s teachings were corrupt and he needed to be fired. Dr. Barnett’s standard response – “If Jesus comes back, I’ll be for him.”
Honestly, nobody knows when, how, or what. I am for Jesus, too. Faith says God will take care of the end. Nothing we can do to control that. And besides, God wins – and has already won. In the meantime that confidence and hope free us do the work Jesus left for us in the here and now, like welcoming the outcast, feeding the poor, healing relationships, clothing the needy, embodying Christ’s love, restoring the lost to God and loving all for Jesus’ sake. These works we do are the true signs that God’s reign is coming among us – not fully here, but others can glimpse.
The texts today are apocalyptic, meaning they let us glimpse the end – but not literally. They take us beyond the surface of our present world so that we can see know what’s really going on. By faith we can see a God who intervenes and is present to us with love and hope – a greater reality that helps us to endure the present, as bad as that may sometimes seem.
Are these words relevant for us? I suspect we have all been through times when the foundations of our personal worlds shake and crumble. Maybe some of you here this morning are struggling to keep faith, to hold on; you might be fighting mental wars against darkness and depression; you look for some ray of hope when things you counted to be there crumble.
Today, we have Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, a rotten economy, and if that’s not enough, how’s your personal life? A diagnosis of terminal cancer will change a family’s world. Lost a job? Live in fear of a pink slip? Know someone with Alzheimer’s disease? A child who becomes lost in a haze of drugs? If you don’t fear, you may not be paying attention. Yet Jesus says – stay the course. God will not lose us – we are God’s beloved forever.
Yes, bad stuff happens to us all in some form. So heed Jesus’ warnings: don’t fall for false saviors, rumors, immediate gratification or be swallowed up in fear. Pay attention to the hope God sets before us – stay the course. God does intervene – with a new creation in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. That’s the sign we are given – and the hope set before us.
Maybe endings are the openings to new beginnings. And if God’s life and love in Jesus is with us always, in each moment, then you might understand Jesus’ coming again in a conversation you recall with a friend who is there to listen and care; in a tug on your heart that might be God; when you come to receive Christ’s Body and Blood at this table; when you draw your last breath. These are moments ripe with God’s presence. In our endings God can bring us into new beginnings.
I know a man who lost a good job a year ago because of the economy, and has been out of work since. His wife divorced him. He’s lost his house now. In the midst of all these endings, he still finds a center that holds him. Prayer each day connects him with God, so he doesn’t get lost. He often comes to pray and be silent with God during his week. He comes here, to St. Paul’s, in this room of worship. This is a sacred place for him. In the midst of hopelessness and despair, he reconnects with a greater hope.
If anyone wonders if what we do here, what you support with you gifts is important – you bet. Sometimes as we offer ourselves – God works through us in ways beyond our seeing, and we don’t know how others find God’s new beginnings at places they think are endings. We just need to stay the course – God will do the rest.