Mar 29th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Mark 13:1-37
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I can tell you that when the good people, who formed the Narrative lectionary, were putting together today’s readings, the idea of a world-wide pandemic was not on their minds. This thirteenth chapter of Mark’s gospel is unsettling and disturbing. It speaks of destruction and the end of all things. We don’t want to hear that on most Sunday mornings - or any other morning - and we sure don’t need to hear it during a time when tens of thousands of deaths are being reported because of the corona virus.
On our best day, we Presbyterians are not particularly in the camp of getting ready for the end of the world. Others are. I saw an advertisement this week on television with Franklin Graham, urging people to accept Jesus as the Lord and Savior. I’ve got nothing against anyone accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior, as long as they aren’t making money doing it, or using fear as a tool to enlarge the fold. But Brother Franklin, bless his heart, was just making sure that everyone has their “ticket to ride” and continuing the family tradition of making the gospel little more than fire insurance.
So, with as calm a heart and spirit as possible, let’s consider what Jesus is telling us about the end of the age. Why would he tell us such things and how are we supposed to hear them? Let’s go.
The scene is set: Jesus is leaving the Temple and he is not coming back. Not in Mark’s gospel. Jesus has been in the Temple, challenging the religious authorities, and having seen enough of their backs, he’s leaving. Ezekiel had a vision of God’s glory leaving the Temple and pausing on the mountain east of the city - the Mount of Olives. Is Mark inviting us to see Jesus’ departure from the Temple in the same manner?
On his way out, someone says to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” The person was probably a first-century realtor. “Great construction, beautiful aesthetic, and the location is perfect!” And since everyone knew the history behind the building of the Temple, its permanence and presence was expected to be there forever.
But Jesus responds by saying, “Not one stone will be left here upon another…” Is Jesus remembering Haggai’s words, “Before a stone was placed upon a stone in the Lord’s temple, how did you fare?” (Hag. 2:15b). Haggi was talking about the building of the temple. Is Jesus talking about the “unbuilding” of the Temple?
And where does Jesus go when he leaves the Temple? We find him on the Mount of Olives. That location holds deeper meaning than we may know. The Mount of Olives is the setting for the establishment of God’s Empire at the end of the age. Zechariah tells us:
On that day his feet shall stand
on the Mount of Olives, which lies
before Jerusalem on the east…(Zech. 14:4)
If the disciples who were with Jesus had been unclear about the topic of conversation, they were completely aware of the subject matter now.
Little wonder the disciples begin asking questions. “When will this be?” “What will be the signs?” Tell us what we need to know, Jesus.
And Jesus complies. Jesus begins to tell them what they need to know.
First, Jesus says, “Beware that no one leads you astray.” (Mark 13:5). Beware of deceptive leaders. Beware of those who would take you in a way other than God’s. Moses warned the people:
If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul.
False prophets, deceptive leaders, those who claim to speak for God but don’t: be careful around such people. They are like pastors and preachers who tell their people that it is perfectly safe to assemble for worship in a time of pandemic, because God will keep them from contracting the virus. That is a false prophet and a dangerous human being.
Spoiler alert #1: Steer clear of those who claim to speak for God but don’t. They are not that hard to recognize.
Then, says Jesus, watch for times of social upheaval. The world will be in turmoil, says Jesus. Now, don’t get ahead of the Lord and don’t get ahead of the gospel. Yes, the world is in turmoil now. But, when is the world not in turmoil? We are hardly interested in the turmoil that is ever-present in the world. We only get worried when it comes near us. Privilege has its privileges.
But Jesus warns against wars and rumors of war, earthquakes, and famines. Those are anxiety-causing enough. Add to those the unspecified implications of wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines: extra taxes, co-opted supplies, loss of land, troops rampaging through villages, burned houses, defiled women and children, enslaved captives, lifetime injuries, and untold death. And who will bear an unnecessarily large portion of the burden? The poor, the powerless, those living on the edge of society, and those pushed beyond the margins. When you see the world existing in a manner completely unlike the way in which it was created to function, pay close attention, says Jesus.
Spoiler alert #2: When the world turns against itself, and people engage in conflict, war, and threatening behaviors, pay attention. Something is up.
And, while there will be chaos on earth, there will be chaos in the heavens. The coming of the Son of Man will be accompanied by cosmic upheaval: the darkening of the sun and moon, stars falling from the heavens, and the shaking of the powers in the heavens. That sounds a little strange to us - a little pre-scientific.
What we often fail to understand is that the power of the Roman Empire and the power of the Emperor were thought to have been established in the heavens. The moon and sun and stars figured prominently on many Roman coins. The existence of the Empire was as sure as the stars in the sky. So, maybe Jesus is telling us that when the Empire of earth is in upheaval - when the world is in chaos - when governments cannot provide what is needed for the people - when greed and avarice take the place of leadership and competent management - then its time to pay close attention.
Spoiler alert #3: Don’t put all your trust in earthly leaders and governments. They are susceptible to error and corruption.
Here’s the thing that we might want to keep in mind, during these days of pandemic pandemonium. In this whole discussion between Jesus and his disciples, nowhere is God presented as angry or vengeful. God isn’t “out to get” anyone. God doesn’t cause the chaos.
God often works in the chaos to establish God’s purposes. God often works in chaotic times to establish a foothold for God’s Empire. When you see people behaving more like animals than people, it’s easy to believe that the end is near. When someone puts a video of people fighting over goods at a store, we are ready to believe that the world is coming to an end.
But, there are so many more instances and stories and reports of people becoming so much more than animals. There are heroic stories of people going above and beyond their own perceived limitations to be the fullest expression of that word we bandy about so freely: neighbor. Compassionate employers, caring neighbors, tireless workers, families foregoing their own plans for the benefit of others - these are the stories that are rarely told and seldom shared. Could it be that God is, in fact, at work, establishing new toeholds of the Empire of God?
If we are uncomfortable with passages like our passage for the morning - where we are told about the end of the age - does our discomfort arise from the possibility that we are the comfortable and well-resourced who are being required to face the realization that all our money, and prestige, and perceived power are useless in the face of potential disaster? The coming of the Empire of God brings joy to the poor and the powerless and the dispossessed. Why does it not bring us joy? Is it because we can’t imagine life without all our stuff? Do we subscribe to the lie that there is not enough to go around for all, so we need to hoard what we have for ourselves and try to get a little more?
Spoiler alert #4 - and this will do it for the day - spoiler alert #4 is just this: God wins. We can’t beat God. We can’t outsmart God. We can’t out maneuver God. God wins.
The promise that Jesus is making is that God will be victorious and that the world will be as God intended it to be, way back “in the beginning.” No false prophets or preachers, nor disasters, nor governmental malpractice, nor profiteers, nor virus, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor nothing in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God wins.
That’s the ultimate spoiler alert. And will remain so. For now and evermore. Amen.