November 18, 2012

“When Destruction Isn’t”
Mark 13:1-8

The temple in Jerusalem was a much more spectacular sight than you can imagine. It was first built in 957 BC by King Solomon, and destroyed 400 years later by the Babylonians. A second temple was erected 500 years before Jesus, and stood as a monument to King Herod. It was here where Jesus taught the scribes and the Pharisees, and it was this venue about which Jesus was speaking in today’s gospel lesson. “You see these great buildings?” Jesus asked, “Not a single stone here will be left in its place; every one of them will be thrown down.” 

When Jesus had finished his teaching, Peter, James, John, and Andrew took Jesus aside and asked him privately, “When will this happen? What are the signs that we should be looking for that will tell us that the end is near?” Jesus seems to oblige his friends, telling them that there will be wars and famines and earthquakes and false prophets. “But,” Jesus adds, “that doesn’t necessarily mean that the end is near.” If we were to read a bit further into Mark’s gospel, Jesus explains that other signs would tell them that the kingdom is near, but even these signs are still more general than specific. 

And then, at the end of chapter 14 of Mark, Jesus lowers the boom. In reality, Jesus says, “No one knows the day or the hour when this will occur; neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son of Man.” Even Jesus doesn’t know! And the final word of the chapter contains Jesus’ final advice to his disciples: “Watch!”

Unfortunately, the idea of when the final times will come is a central question to most Christians. I asked someone this week to consider hosting our 10:30 speaker, Rev. Judy Chan, this afternoon to give her some down time. “I can’t,” she replied, “I’d have to clean the house and I don’t have time.” The question of when, that the disciples ask, is rooted in a similar situation. We feel like we would have to clean up our act if Jesus is coming.

So we want to know when, we profess, so that we can be prepared, so that we can be ready. But perhaps that’s the point: we are invited to be ready all the time. We are not called simply to live our lives with no thought of God or neighbor but keenly looking for the sign of God’s imminent coming so that we can clean up our act. Rather, we are called to live always anticipating the activity of God.

One reason that Jesus got into trouble with the religious authorities is that what he is suggesting here is that God’s activity is not restricted to a particular place. Further, he is suggesting that God’s activity is not dependent upon a particular place, and the sooner the disciples get that through their head the sooner they will understand the good news of the Gospel.

In John’s Gospel (and nowhere else) there is an exchange between Jesus and a ‘Samaritan woman at the well’,

4:19The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet.20Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

She recognizes him as a Prophet. Jesus is a prophet, but his prophecy is not so much foretelling the future, but that he has insight into the present. The same is true here in this reading from Mark.

He tells her that soon true worshipers, that is spiritual worship as a response of gratitude for God’s gift of self, and truth, as a response consistent with the nature of Christ. If worship is not a response of gratitude, if it is not in the shape of Christ, then it isn’t, says Jesus, ‘worship in Spirit and truth.’ I could be that this sentiment is what is behind Jesus’ prophecy about the buildings the disciples admire.

Last Saturday I attended the Fall Meeting of the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference. We met at Zwingli UCC in Souderton. You may have been made aware of this meeting through the Reading Eagle and it’s preliminary article, and follow up piece, on the sale of Camp Mench Mill and the Church House in Collegeville. As you can imagine, emotions run high at meetings such as this.

I was struck by the beauty and function of the church building of the congregation, Zwingli. If you know anything about Zwingli, you know that a few years ago they had a tragic fire that left their education building destroyed and their sanctuary severely damaged from water and smoke. Their senior pastor welcomed the gathering and spoke, not of the beauty of their facility, but of the spirit of the congregation; of how when faced with this tragedy, this congregation of less than 500 banded together and did something no one believed could be accomplished. They built a 2 million dollar building. This fact is even more striking when Rev. Kuykendall told the gathering that they were severely under insured.

Then we began to deliberate the questions of the day. Youth cried about the sale of the camp, and I don’t blame them. Nobody wants to sell the camp. Nobody wants to see anywhere that you once experienced the presence of God thrown down, one stone upon another.

I can tell you, however, because I am on the conference board, the “Conference Consistory,” that the issue at hand is whether we want to spend what gifts we receive on maintaining a facility, or on mission and ministry. To say this does not imply that mission and ministry does not occur at the church house or at the camp, it does. The question for the church is, ‘what would you do with the money we spend on buildings and grounds if we did not have these expenses?’

In Mark’s gospel this week, the disciples marvel at the majesty and grandeur of the Temple. Prior to that Jesus has addressed issues of power, misplaced priorities, and justice—more specifically the lack thereof. Not much has changed. Humans still misplace hope in power, money, and might. Life is still chaotic. In spite of our great scientific and technological advances, many of the world’s people are oppressed, live in poverty, and suffer great violence. Wars, rumors of war, famine, and earthquake continue.

Christ promises us that things will be all right because God has the last word. When death on the cross appeared to be the end, God had the last word at an empty tomb. Throughout our lives, we will experience death and resurrection many times over as the neatly arranged structures of our lives are thrown down. These apocalyptic words of Jesus remind us to hang on and to place our trust in something more than ourselves, our possessions, our relationships, our health, our capacities or our intellect. It is to place our ultimate trust in the One from whom all of these things come. It is to accept our finitude and mortality in a radical trust of God’s unchangeable grace and goodness so that we might be freed from the captivity of anxious fear and finally live fully and freely as God’s beloved children.

What I learned from Zwingli UCC this week, what I pray for if Camp Mench mill is sold, or when beloved ‘we always did it this way’ here changes, is that there is a time when what appears to be destruction isn’t. Instead, it can very well be God’s action, bringing about a new thing which we can barely imagine.