RCL, Proper 28, Year B: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
[Listen to the sermon here.]
I have a confession to make: I am a Netflix junkie.
For those of you unfamiliar with Netflix, it’s a company that offers DVDs by mail and video streaming so you can watch movies and TV series at your own pace in the comfort of your home. For most of our time in Jackson, we’ve been subscribers. We’ve watched some incredible dramatic series, including Mad Men, The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Justified, and most recently, Treme (which is about post-Katrina New Orleans). You know you’re hooked when a text message from your wife that says “MI-5 tonight” makes your day.
Of course, one of the downsides to watching these series on Netflix is that most of them have websites that give a summary of each episode. So if you hit a cliffhanger, the temptation to go on-line and find out what’s going to happen next can be hard to resist.
Then again, that’s always been a temptation. Be honest: how many of you have ever read the ending of a book before finishing the whole thing? Do you happen to know anyone who won’t go to a movie unless they know everything turns out ok in the end?
It’s been said that we human beings are “story-telling animals.” Whether tucking a child into bed at night, gathering around a campfire with family and friends, or making small talk by the water cooler at work, it’s part of human nature to share stories. Stories help us navigate our world and make sense of our experiences. And when we find ourselves in times of anxiety, uncertainty, or fear, we long to know how this particular story is going to turn out. What will happen next? How long will this go on? Will everything turn out ok?
That’s precisely where Jesus’ disciples find themselves in today’s Gospel reading. They’re walking through the Temple in Jerusalem – one of the most magnificent structures of the world in that day. And they’re so overwhelmed by it that they can’t help but say to Jesus, “Wow, this is incredible!” But instead of joining in on the awestruck excitement, Jesus responds by saying, “Oh yeah, well everything you see here – all of this towering beauty – is going to end up one big pile of rubble.”
Well, there’s definitely a story there! And the disciples want to hear it. “Teacher, tell us when this will be and what will happen to show that the time has come for all these things to take place” (cf. Mark 13:4 TEV). And so Jesus gives them a sneak preview. “Be careful not to be led astray,” he warns them. “False messiahs will come and fool many people. There will be wars and rumors of wars, with nations fighting each other and kingdoms on the attack. Natural disasters will kick in with earthquakes and famines. And that’s just the beginning!”
Going beyond our assigned reading for today, Jesus continues the preview by warning his followers that some of them will be arrested, others beaten, and many put on trial. Families will be divided, with siblings and parents betraying each other. And as a sign that the end has come, “the sun will grow dark, the moon will no longer shine, the stars will fall from heaven,” and the Son of Man will gloriously appear in the clouds with legions of angels (Mark 13:24 TEV).
The storyline and dramatic imagery are worthy of a director like Stephen Spielberg or George Lucas. And yet, to our 21st Century American ears, all of this may sound bizarre. Indeed, for some of us, passages like this may even be scary. And that’s because scripture like this has been used by some Christians to instill fear and foreboding about living in the last days and preparing to meet a righteous, perhaps even angry, judge when Jesus returns.
So what in the world are we to make of all of this?
Some context will help us out. The 13th chapter of Mark is an account of the political unrest, natural disasters, attacks on the church, and appearance of false messiahs which Jesus says will precede his coming again. It reveals that Mark’s faith community was suffering intense hardship and persecution. We know, for example, that Mark’s Gospel was written during the turbulent 60s of the 1st Century. It was a time when nationalist Jews rose up in rebellion against their Roman overlords, with many claiming the authority of messiahship for their actions. Rome responded with a heavy hand. In the year 70 A.D., 3 legions of Roman soldiers – as many as 18,000 fighting men – destroyed the city of Jerusalem, tore down its walls, burned its buildings, and slaughtered its citizens. One can only imagine the fear and chaos whipped up by these tragic events.
Living immediately prior to this disaster, Jews and Christians must have felt the tension in the air, as though something awful could happen at any moment. Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse confirms this sense of foreboding anticipation in the early Christian community. But it also affirms grounds for hope. Using dramatic language, Jesus’ words convey a sense of reassurance that the suffering will come to an end. The message to Mark’s original readers is clear: Be faithful and stay the course, for in the long run, everything will be ok. God will set things right.
In spite of our very different social and religious context, Jesus’ sneak preview of things to come still offers us grounds for hope in the midst of life’s uncertainties. For it reminds us that we are not the authors of the story of our lives. God is. And while initially that may challenge our need to be in control, it’s actually very good news in the midst of a broken, and often chaotic and scary, world.
We desperately need to hear that good news because, just like our forebears, we who live in the 21st Century have plenty of reasons for waxing apocalyptic. We still fear terrorism at home and abroad. We see the social decay of widening gaps between rich and poor. We hear of wars and rumors of wars in various parts of the globe. We see Christians suffering persecution in Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, China, North Korea, Syria, and Sudan. We live in a nation deeply divided along political lines. Economic turbulence and insecurity continue to plague our nation and the world. Fires, floods, and hurricanes wreak havoc. When we really take a look at what’s happening in our world, it can be very overwhelming!
And then there are personal crises of faith. It could be a scary diagnosis, an unexpected surgery, or the death of a loved one. Or it might be the challenge of finding a job in an anemic economy, or the fear of losing a job.
All of these things challenge our faith by tempting us to live in the fear that it’s all up to us. If we can’t somehow manage to control current events – if we can’t write the story’s ending – then we are doomed beyond all hope of redemption.
It’s been said that fear is a greater evil than the evil itself. And that’s because fear motivates us to act in ways contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. For as the first epistle of John tells us, “fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:18). But the message we hear from Mark today is not about punishment. Jesus is not giving us reason to be afraid. He’s giving us reason to hope.
In our Sunday worship, we proclaim the mystery of faith that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. Saying this, we affirm Christ’s lordship over the past, over the present, and over the future. Jesus Christ stands at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of all things. And so even though our earthly journey may take us through times of trial and tribulation, we Christians know something hidden from the rest of the world – something revealed in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. And that something gets summed up beautifully in the Nicene Creed, because when we recite that Creed in our worship, we are saying that “God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the powers of evil have been defeated, [and] that God’s new world has begun” (N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope). And that is the true story of this world.
By virtue of our baptisms, our life stories are interwoven into this larger story of God’s healing and redeeming work in Jesus Christ. And so we can look to the future with confidence and joyful anticipation. For the Good News of Jesus Christ frees us from fear of what may or may not happen in the future so that we can stay centered in the present. We are free from a fear of dying that keeps us from really living. We are free from fears of punishment that keep us from really loving. We are free to see beyond the changes and chances of this life to the joys of eternal life. And so we are free to focus on our true purpose – to be bearers of God’s coming kingdom, heralds who sound the Good News that this world’s troubles are not the whole story. There’s a conclusion that brings God’s gracious and loving purposes to fulfillment.
That fulfillment includes the eradication of death and disease. It includes the re-creation of all things into a new and eternal order of peace, love, and justice. It includes the healing of every hurt we’ve ever inflicted or suffered. And it includes reunion with those we love but see no longer in the most joyful celebration imaginable. That’s where the story of our lives in Christ is heading. And that, my friends, is an awesome ending.