Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Mark 13:1-8
25Pentecost, Proper 28, Year B
At seminary a few years ago, my classmates and I would sometimes amuse ourselves by visiting an apocalypse Web site to see when the end of the world is coming. This Web site sifted the global news for wars, disasters, famines, dictators claiming to be God, et cetera, and calculated the likelihood that today would be the day that Jesus would return and the world would end. The thing I remember most about this site’s apocalypse calculator was that EVERY SINGLE DAY was rated a high probability of Jesus’ imminent return. I went looking for this site this week, but couldn’t find it, alas.
Of course the REASON I tried to find this site was today’s lessons. Our Old Testament reading is from the Book of Daniel, which along with the Book of Revelation tells us how our reality will come to an end. And our gospel lesson is from Mark chapter 13, which is called the “Little Apocalypse” because Jesus clearly knew and talked there about the end of the world in the same way that the Book of Daniel does.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like “apocalyptic Jesus,” the Jesus we hear in our gospel lesson today. I would much rather have “compassionate Jesus,” or “healing Jesus,” or even “teaching Jesus” than the one who predict apocalypse, the time when the world we know will cease to be.
But did you notice that Jesus didn’t start out talking about the end of the world? As he left the Temple in Jerusalem for the last time, an unnamed disciple oohed and aahed over the splendor of the Temple. Jesus remarked that the Temple wasn’t permanent. He said that not one of the mammoth and oh-so-impressive stones would be left standing. He said that this splendor of the ancient world would be tumbled to the ground like so many Legos.
Unthinkable! Didn’t God dwell in the Temple? Why would God do this, or even allow the Temple to be destroyed? For Jesus’ disciples, THIS was apocalypse, the end of the world. Never-mind that Jesus had told his disciples on the way to Jerusalem, not once but three times, that his own personal apocalypse would occur in Jerusalem, that he would be killed there. This was, in fact, Jesus’ last visit to the Temple.
The disciples must have thought a lot about Jesus’ prediction about the Temple’s ruin. The four who were closest to Jesus later asked him in private the human question, “When?” When would the Temple be destroyed? When would the end of the world come?
Jesus eventually answered this question, in a way, but not until verse 32, long after today’s lesson ends. I thought about letting you look up Jesus’ answer, but many of you will remember what he said, “When isn’t for us to know; only God knows. But here are the signs: false prophets, wars, earthquakes, famines. Et cetera.”
From this we understand that Jesus’ original point about the Temple wasn’t to tell us what the end times will be like, or to tell us when they are coming. His point was that nothing material is permanent, that all material things will pass away. And so to be careful where we place our trust: in things that seem permanent, or in God.
We KNOW this lesson, as much as we don’t want to. Because the apocalypse doesn’t just come at the end of all time. Our lives are full of little apocalypses, aren’t they?
- Some of us have lost a child. This is one of life’s greatest apocalypses. Our world, as we know it, ending.
- Some of us have lost jobs, careers, houses, dear friends, and spouses. Our permanence, evaporating.
- Some of us are contemplating the end of our own lives, or at least dealing with needed but unwanted changes in living arrangements. Apocalypse!
As much as we ask the other human questions—“Why?” and “Why me?” and “Why now?”—we know the deeper truth: God can work new realities into being amid the destruction of our old reality. Chris Yeannakis tells the story of asking some preschool children where God was after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, and having one child tell her “God is in the rubble.” God is in the rubble.
This reality is bittersweet, though! However, whenever something is taken away, there does seem to be the offer of an addition, the promise of something new, not so much to replace the old, but something new that could only arise because of the loss.
At the end of our gospel lesson today, Jesus explains apocalypse this way, “This is the beginning of birth pangs.” What seems to us as death is merely the beginning of new life. Jesus himself is the ultimate example of new life from death. We’re not talking “phoenix rising from the ashes to make something second-rate out of doom.” We’re talking new life, and the ashes being the vehicle of that new life.
Candy Lightner, for example, began Mothers Against Drunken Driving after her 13-year-old daughter Cari was killed by a driver operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol. I’m sure that this mother would rather have her daughter back. But MADD has given meaning to an otherwise senseless loss, and saved many lives in the process of advocating that our society and our laws recognize the hazard of drivers whose substance abuse impairs their abilities. I doubt that Ms. Lightner would have had either the vision or the passion for this work, except as fueled by her pain. Did God cause Cari’s death to accomplish the birth of MADD? No! But God always provides the way of redeeming apocalypses, both the ones that befall us and those we ourselves cause. We later can understand the apocalypse as birth pangs.
I know countless people who have turned the devastation of loss into growth: new careers, new purpose in life, new faith. I know others who have failed to accept the opportunities that arose as a result of their apocalypse.
I could go on, with other examples, but I won’t. I will just observe that, in the year 70 CE, Jesus’ prediction about the Temple came to past. The Jews revolted against their Roman conquerors and the Romans razed the Temple. As a result, though, Jews left Jerusalem in great numbers, among them Christ-followers, and Christianity flourished throughout the Roman Empire. Birth pangs.
What is your apocalypse, small or ultimate? Look for what may arise from the devastation. And remember to place your trust in what is truly permanent.