Sunday, November 15, 2009

Lectionary 33
Daniel 12:103
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

Thou wilt show me the path of life: In thy presence is fulness of joy; In thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.

I lived in New Jersey for a few years and drove many miles on the roads and highways there. It may have been an unfounded stereotype, but I noticed that most of the cars on the roads were covered with dings and bangs. It seemed to me that more cars in New Jersey were damaged from collisions than anywhere in the road. I’m not sure my opinion has changed much, although I do have to admit that Paris is the most frightening place to drive that I have visited. I often pondered the state of vehicles in New Jersey while I lived there and I think I understand why they are that way.

I did a lot of driving. I worked as a quality control manager of a mobile disc jockey company, and so I often traveled to four or five shows and parties in an evening. It was not unusual for me to put a hundred miles or more in a few hours. I didn’t have GPS or even mapquest, so I was constantly lost as I looked for each new destination. It didn’t help that most people didn’t seem to know how to get anywhere. I stopped at a gas station once, hoping to get instructions to a building I knew must be right around the corner. The station attendant had never heard of it. I went around the block and found the place, so close that the attendant could have heard the party from his back door.

The worst part was the signage. As I drove down the highways, I would see signs for my exit every few feet. “Exit in three miles.” “Exit in two miles.” “Exit in one mile.” Then there were no more signs until, it seemed, it was too late to exit. “You just missed your exit,” the signs seemed to say. I saw more people suddenly veer to the right across lanes of traffic to get to the exit ramp. I couldn’t count the number of times I missed a turn because my road was the one that was missing its sign. I don’t know if it had been stolen, or if the city just never bothered to put one up, but there was nothing indicating I had reached the place I was seeking.

So, I decided that so many cars in New Jersey were covered with dings because everyone is always lost and desperate to find their way. Those last minute turns and illegal U-turns might be the cause of more accidents, thus leaving the cars crunched and crumbled. My theory is probably wrong, especially since New Jersey doesn’t even appear on the list of top ten states with car accidents. I don’t think that matters; I think they just don’t bother reporting most of the accidents.

Signs are important. Signs give us information that helps us know where we are and where we should be. It is very helpful to have a sign that announces the coming of the street and signs announcing the way. It is also extremely helpful to have well-lit and well-placed signs that confirm is what we think it is. I can’t tell you how often I’ve arrived at a place but wondered if it was really where I needed to be because it did not look like I thought it might. Signs also announce events and share information

We have a fascination with a different type of signs these days. In movies, in print and on television, the Mayan predictions for 2012 are very popular. According to some experts, those predictions are validated by other prophesies, especially those from Nostradamus, who has been interpreted to have foretold similar events in the year 2012. Some have even drawn parallels with biblical prophecy. There seems to be signs all around us that the times prophesied have come. Many think we have reached the last days: that now is the time to be watchful and ready.

We might want to approach the texts for this week as prophetic—pointing toward a specific moment in time and a specific event that will be accomplished. After all, every generation has found some need to look into the future, to determine the ways of things long before they happen, to predict how things will come to be. Yet, these texts are more accurately seen as apocalyptic. This form of literature is not meant to foretell of a specific historical event. Rather, the words are spoken to give courage, strength and hope to a suffering people. There were already false messiahs in Jesus’ day. There were already wars and rumors of wars. There were already earthquakes and famines. It would have been very easy for the disciples—left alone after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension—to follow another voice. It would have been very easy for the community of faith established by Jesus to wander down a wrong path. It happened to the Thessalonians, many of whom thought that the return of Jesus was so imminent that they could stop living. It has happened to many Christians of every generation since, even in today’s world.

We meet up with Jesus and the disciples moments after they left the Temple. The day had been filled with questions from the Temple leaders. They were testing His authority from the point of view of the Temple, the secular world and the religious traditions of His people. He established a greater authority and turned the world upside down. The last shall be first. The poor widow gives more. Give to God everything that is God’s. As they left the Temple, one of the disciples was amazed by the large stones and the massive buildings. It was surely an impressive sight: as were, probably, the priests and others who were leaders in the temple. Jesus said, “There shall not be left here one stone upon another, which shall not be thrown down.”

The disciples heard this statement as a prophecy about the future and they wanted to know what signs would point to the time it would happen. Now, we know that the Temple fell in 70 A.D. so it is easy to set this passage aside as past history, something that has happened rather than something that will happen. But apocalyptic literature does not point to a specific event. It helps us through the events of our own time, events that might seem frightening. When we face persecution for our faith, as we try to find our place in this world that seems out of control, we can look at the comforting words of Jesus: that God is among us.

Jesus warns us, however, that at those times we are susceptible to those who claim to know how to interpret the times, those who want to take advantage of our fear and uncertainty. False prophets and false messiahs will always be with us. We are cautioned not to be led astray. The false prophets and false messiahs will make claims to be sent by God, but they will lead people on the wrong path. Think about all those end times books. Some say one thing. Some say the exact opposite. Which is true? Which is right? Beware not to believe in their words. Rest in God’s Word only.

If today were the last day, what would matter? Is there something that we need to do? False prophets and false messiahs will call people to action. “Follow me and you’ll be saved.” “Go to this place.” “Do this thing.” In every time and place there have been actions required for salvation: except in Christian faith. In the days of Jesus, the priests worked day and night providing for the forgiveness of God’s people. Offerings of every kind were accepted, to cover the sins of the people. The writer of Hebrews tells us that the priests offered day after day the same sacrifices that did no good. It was Jesus who offered once and for all the blood of the sacrifice that would bring salvation to the world.

The life Christ was calling the disciples to live would not be one of power or authority. It would be one of service and distress. They would know about the wars and rumors of wars, would face the earthquakes and famines. Yet, many would claim to be the Christ, the savior, the deliverer from suffering and pain. They would claim to come in the name of Christ, providing a Gospel of prosperity and a promise of comfort. Instead of offering the disciples the answers to their questions, Jesus simply answers with a warning. “Beware and be aware.” Be careful who you believe and who you follow. Not all who claim to be speaking in the name of Jesus Christ are true. Some will be led astray.

Through the work of Christ, God’s people found real peace. By the blood of Christ, God’s people are invited to dwell in the presence of God. Jesus was no ordinary priest. He was no ordinary messiah. He was the Son of God, sent to save the world. His promise was not that the world would be different: there are still wars and rumors of wars. We still need to be comforted as we are persecuted for our faith. We still suffer at the hands of those who do not know the forgiveness of God. But we can live in hope for what is to come, dwell in God’s grace now and look forward to the day when we will dwell with God eternally.

The writer of Hebrews encourages us to live a different life. We are called to hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering because God is faithful. Jesus warned the disciples not to make them afraid, but to remind them that God can and will overcome it all. God is near. He is not lost when the walls tumble down. Rather, He is set free from those human constraints to be the God who is Creator, Redeemer and Comforter.

Instead of wasting our time trying to define or manage something that is completely outside our control, we are called to live faithfully in the midst of the pain and suffering sharing Christ with the world. The temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., but the need for the temple was destroyed the day Christ died. That day the curtain was rent from top to bottom, loosing the Spirit and set the one true and living God free from an oppressive and abusive religious system that had little to do with the Creator’s intention and purpose for His people. The sacrificial system gave no real assurance of the forgiveness of sin, and left room for abuse by the leaders to ignore justice, devour widows and coerce payment to the temple treasuries out of guilt and a false sense of duty.

The passage from Daniel tells of another time when God’s people will suffer. The passage does not leave us in fear, however. It leaves us with a promise that God will deliver His people. Instead of spending time trying to decipher the signs, to figure out when these things will happen, Daniel tells us the wise will teach people the ways of the Lord by word and by example. Living in faith, acting on the hope of true peace, bringing others into the dwelling place of God: this is what we are called to do. Don’t be led astray by those who claim to know what will happen tomorrow. Find comfort in the reality that God is always near. His promises are true. His Word is real. His forgiveness is eternal.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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