November 15, 2009

“Traveling Mercies”
Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18), 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

We are drawing closer to the end of the church year. Next Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the year for churches that pay attention to such things. And so it is fitting that the Evangelist Mark records a conversation between Jesus and his disciples that emphasizes change. The disciple is in awe of the present world. Jesus warns that this world is passing away, that this world will end. Yet Jesus resists a timetable for these events and tells a parable about reading the signs of the times, for “of that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” He speaks of the time detailed in the book of Revelation, what some people call the ‘end times.’

This is a popular subject. You may have seen the commercials on television for the movie, released just last Friday, called 2012. This movie, I assume, is based on the prediction of the end of the world. The Mayan ‘long count calendar’ presents the world having a lifetime; which is presented as lasting 5,125 years and as terminating on December 21 or 23, (depending you’re your analysis of it) 2012. Some people believe that this has to do with the Mayan astronomers good luck at predicting a ‘galactic alignment’ of the planets. Others relate this to the “I-Ching” or ‘book of change.’ Some relate it to “Time wave Zero,” the work of one psychedelic shaman named Terrance McKenna. Some of you may have even seen this idea offered on the History Channel’s program “Decoding the Past: Mayan Doomsday Prophecy” and if it is on T.V., it is of course unquestionably true.

The biblical testimony regarding the end times offers a different view. The biblical view is not one of end, but rather change. Here in the gospel’s account of the end times, they point toward hope and not fear, nor despair. If you think about it, that is how we often look at the future. We spend much of life waiting for things to happen. There is always some future event that, we are convinced, will solve some deep problem. Once that happens, we say to ourselves, we will be able to get our lives together. Scripture is filled with waiting too.

In the texts this morning Hannah is waiting for God’s action. In the Hebrews text, the priests are about the business of the temple, waiting for God’s action. The priests, like Hannah, longed for a coming that would satisfy their aching expectation.

Although there is much about this life that we cherish, who would not want change for the better? This is the stuff of Christian hope.

We are not too different from Mark’s community, which expected that Jesus would return in their lifetime to inaugurate the kind of reign of God envisioned by the Old Testament prophets. Yet despite the cries among early Christians, “Our Lord, Come” (1 Cor. 16:21), Jesus did not return, and we exist “between the times,” the time of the advent of Christ into the world and the time of return. We are not there yet. So, through prayer and ritual the liturgical cycle we renew this experience of anticipation every year.

Often the hope of the return of Jesus can devolve into fantastic speculation about contemporary events heralding the end, or it is dismissed as irrelevant in a scientific age. Yet for the next three Sundays the Liturgy of the Word presents images of the end time. These can sustain lives of faith in many ways. They present a view of human history from the end looking backwards.

What are we waiting for? The view of history from the end presents a vision counter to the way the world works now. Though not described in detail in the readings today, this vision includes images of abundant food (Is. 25:5-7), vindication of innocent sufferers and a reign of peace. The reigning of God that Jesus hopes for as his own ministry nears an end points back to his very first words in Mark’s Gospel: “Repent, for the reign of God is at hand.” These words remind us that our lives can be formed by the kind of world we envision, while we face a world we know could be better. Our hopes should shape our lives as powerfully as our faith and our love. If we hope for a future of justice and peace, we must read the signs of the times so this future may begin now.

Of course we could adopt a “what’s the use” mindset. “I am only one person, one church.” Or we can adopt the idea that who we are and what we do does make a difference, even in a world that is destined for cataclysmic change. We might change our outlook, change our behavior based on the fact that we know our destination, and it isn’t scary. Yet the problem of this unknown timeline gets to us.

When I was a child, my family took a trip to visit my grandparents in Texas. This was before the days of air-conditioning in cars and my dad drove our station wagon, towing our pop-up camper, from Michigan to Kerrville in three days flat. I remember those three long days, with the windows down, sweating on the vinyl seats. It was the second day that was the worst. But then that second night of the trip we reached the border of Texas and Arkansas. My sisters and I just knew that, once in Texas, we were almost there. Soon after we left Texarkana we began to chirp from the back seat, “Are we there yet?” “Are we almost there?” My father began to get irritated. My mother pleaded with us, “don’t ask again, we’ll tell you when we get close.” It was if they had some secret information, which they did, that they were withholding from us. We knew we were much closer to arriving that when we started, but how close are we? We were consumed with anticipation and with impatience.

My mother began to engage us in car games. Did you ever do that? We played the Volkswagen game. My wife’s family called it “bug-bug.” And we looked for signs whose letters worked our way through the alphabet. Then it was license plates. How many different license plates can you see? Before we knew it, we had arrived, but we didn’t spend the time in-between focused on the arrival, or anticipation, or our anxiety.

At the temple that day, as described by Mark, Jesus does not let the disciples wallow in these concerns either. Instead of focusing all their attention on the destruction of the temple and the second coming, we sets out for them a way to live in the ‘in-between’ times.

The last week has been a difficult one in our household. Our oldest son Paul appeared to have contracted the N1H1 virus and spend the week in the hospital as a very sick boy…as sick as I remember him being in quite some time. Because of his complicated medical condition, we have been through this before. We know the territory. He knows the territory. My wife said, “it reminds me of when he was a child and so very sick.” My memory, too, turned toward those times. But it also turned my memory toward all of the beautiful and blessed days that we have had along this road. She and I band together during these times, getting done what needs to be done; the vagaries like laundry, cooking dinner, following up with the other children, and participating in Paul’s care. I have learned how to live during these times from him. He is a person who doesn’t just wait around doing nothing. Under the shadow of grim realities he studies and works, maintains friendships, and pays attention to these matters, not (as he says) ‘his condition.’ “I am not sick,” he says, “I have a condition.”

I have been through similar times along side some of you. It is wrong for a pastor to try and insist, “It isn’t that bad,” or, “I know people who are worse off.” Our own suffering is as terrible as anyone else’s. And we can get mired in it. So as best I can, what I try and do is shift your attention, distract your focus, from the signs of destruction themselves, toward the one who is to come – the one who promises the certainty of blessing. I try to direct us toward what author Anne Lamott describes as “Traveling Mercies.”

Things may seem to have fallen apart. It may appear that anarchy has been loosed on the world. But these texts serve to remind us that the foundation remains fixed, and much to our amazement, we will discover that there is much faithful work to do in the meantime. Holding out for God is not easy, the pressure of the world and its circumstances will be intense. That is why Mark writes these words for the church. That is why we read them. “Beware,” Mark says. Do not resign yourself to the wisdom of the world; or as is portrayed in the movie 2012, or some other escape plan. Instead, endure. Hold out for God’s promises. These blessings are on the way; we are on the way, even though we are not there yet.