Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy. In your right hand there are pleasures forever more.
When I wrote about the text from Daniel twelve years ago, I commented on how it had been an interesting week in American politics. I don’t even recall what was so historical, transformational and upsetting or elating about that particular election, but I laughed as I reread that devotion because we have been there so many times in the past twelve years and we are there again. We are still wondering at the outcome of some elections from last week; the contests are still too close to call. There have been many on all sides who have talked with great confidence about victories, but it is impossible to know the final outcome until the last vote is counted.
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. All too often, this type of prediction has a sense of self-fulfilling prophecy. The hope is that if it is spoken in a way that means just what the speaker wants it to mean, then it will happen as that speaker says. It happens in politics all the time. I suppose for some it is the power of positive thinking: if I say it, it will be. Yet, this is not always true. There are some things that are simply beyond our control, some things we can’t make happen with our own hands.
This passage from Daniel is a difficult one, though not because it has something difficult to say. It is difficult because generations of Christians have read these words and interpreted them according to their desires, defining the times and the places to their own benefit. There are others who would like to take the mystery out of the passage, to relieve us of the prophetic nature of these words.
According to the experts, the book of Daniel has the language and flavor of a text that might have been written in the 6th century B.C., long before some of the events found within the book happened. It is written like a prophetic, apocalyptic text, with visual images both frightening and strange. Yet, some claim that it should be dated much later, in the 2nd century B.C. after most of these things happened. Yet, the dating of the text is not necessarily what matters to us today. Just as there are politicians and politicos who spend months discussing the possibilities of every election, there are theologians who spend all their time discussing and interpreting the possibilities of the apocalyptic texts in the Bible. Perhaps our task is not to look into the future to guess what is going to happen, but rather to embrace the grace of God that is found in the words today. So, let’s ponder what these words mean. Should we be interpreting them to fit into our time and place?
The book of Daniel is a fascinating study into the character of a man who lived faithfully despite the struggles of living exiled in a foreign land. He was gifted, but his rise in the Babylonian government and his appeal to the kings made others jealous and determined to destroy him. Even worse, perhaps, was that Daniel’s gifts were hard to handle; the visions even made him ill. Despite all this, Daniel believed in God and was faithful. He wrote to God’s people who suffering from the persecution and oppression of exile, but he gave them a foretaste of what is to come at the end of time, at the revelation of God and the coming of His kingdom. These three verses from the last chapter was a message of comfort, reminding them that God is faithful and that they will be raised up out of the dust and into everlasting life. This is the promise we receive in Christ, the promise that came at the end of the ages and the promise that was fulfilled, is fulfilled and will be fulfilled in Christ Jesus our Lord.
A few years ago I wrote the devotions for a quarterly published by a church publishing house. My assignment was for the last few weeks of the church year. It was a pretty depressing assignment because the scriptures all pointed to the last days. They were passages filled with woe and dread and it seemed like there was not much about which to hope. The focus at the end of the church year and the beginning of Advent is a reminder of the day when everything will finally be complete. We are always looking forward to the second coming of Christ, but the Day of the Lord is not necessarily going to be a happy time. Those who dwell in faith have hope because we know that any apocalypse we face will not keep us from inheriting the Kingdom of God for eternity.
It is tough to preach the apocalyptic passages in the lectionary. Even as we are looking forward to the coming of the King both at Christmas and in the future Day, the fear of what is foretold does not fit our expectation of a loving and merciful God. While we should not stand with our heads in the clouds waiting for the coming of Christ, we should not disregard the reality that the day will come. We need to hear the warnings as well as the promises to give the work we do in this world meaning. God hasn’t sent us into the world just to feed the poor with bread, but to feed the world with the Bread of Life so that all will have faith when the Day comes. As we see in those verses from Daniel, there is hope in the last days because God is faithful to His promises.
While we should not assume that every apocalyptic text speaks to our generation, we should also remember that every word in the Bible does speak to us. The key is to find the right interpretation. We read the words Jesus spoke to the disciples in the Gospel lesson from Mark and think that they are taken right out of the headlines from our newspapers: wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines and false messiahs are as real to us today as they were to those who dwelled in first century Judah. The same can be said for every generation that has lived since the words were written.
We lived in England for four years and took advantage of our time there. We visited historic sites as often as possible, almost every weekend. Some of the places were still in use after a thousand years: castles and cathedrals that still are home to people and faith. We worshipped at some of the most famous places in the world; we received communion at Westminster Abbey, took in evensong at York Minster, prayed in the chapels of Salisbury Cathedral. We visited the palaces of the monarchy, saw the ancestral home of George Washington and even visited the towns where my own ancestors lived before immigrating to America.
We also visited a lot of ruins. We saw ancient Roman sites that have been uncovered, often accidentally, by modern construction. We went to old abbeys that were destroyed during the Reformation and castles that have fallen apart due to a lack of maintenance. Some of my favorite photos from that time are of my family wandering through the rooms of roofless buildings. One photo shows Bruce, Victoria and Zachary playing follow the leader along the ruins of a wall. Other photos show grand window casings of churches left standing without walls as the stones surrounding them were taken by the village residents to build homes and fences.
These were grand buildings. They were built to last forever, to honor God or house the nobles. They often took centuries to build. I noticed during so many of our visits that there was always scaffolding along some wall or around the domes and steeples of these ancient places. The builders, whether their work is still standing or are nothing but ruins, thought they were building something permanent. But nothing built by human hands will last forever. They might be able to make it stand for a thousand years, and may be around as ruins for longer than that, but in the end they will disappear like everything else made by man.
It isn’t just time that will bring down the manmade walls. Hurricanes, earthquakes and war can destroy something in a matter of minutes. Cities are left unoccupied and rotting as people move to better places. It doesn’t take very long before the earth takes back the land in these places; weeds grow in the cracks and ivy climbs the walls. Windows break and roofs cave, graffiti artists mark their territories. Fires weaken what is left until the walls can no longer stand. Scavengers steal the building materials to make something new. Bustling cities can become piles of brick in a matter of years when left to the ravages of time.
Imagine you were one of the disciples who had been following Jesus in that magnificent Temple that had recently been rebuilt by Herod the Great. It was a massive structure, nearly as large as ten football fields. Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “All the cloisters were double, and the pillars to them belonging were twenty-five cubits in height, and supported -the cloisters. These pillars were of one entire stone each of them, and that stone was white marble; and the roofs were adorned with cedar, curiously graven. The natural magnificence, and excellent polish, and the harmony of the joints in these cloisters, afforded a prospect that was very remarkable; nor was it on the outside adorned with any work of the painter or engraver. The cloisters - (of the outmost court) were in breadth thirty cubits, while the entire compass of it was by measure six furlongs, including the tower of Antonia; those entire courts that were exposed to the air were laid with stones of all sorts.”
It was magnificent and beautiful. It stood at the top of the hill and was built with the best of everything. Josephus described it this way, “To the stranger who suddenly came over the mountain, the Temple was like a snow-clad mountain for all that was not gold was gleaming white.” It is no wonder that one of the disciples said, “Teacher, see what kind of stones and what kind of buildings!” I experienced the same awe when I have visited the grand cathedrals and palaces of Europe.
Last week Jesus called our attention to one small woman giving one very small offering to the temple treasury. This treasury was used for the care and upkeep of the temple, to make it even more beautiful. The widow’s coins were worth so little that they were nearly useless to those who kept the treasury. How much could a penny buy in today’s dollars? It is so worthless that most of us will not even bother to bend down to pick one up off the ground.
After the story of the widow, Mark reported that the disciples were very impressed by what they saw at the Temple. “Teacher, see what kind of stones and what kind of buildings!” The widow’s tiny coins seem even smaller when compared to the huge stones and magnificent buildings of the Temple complex. Jesus told them that what they saw would be useless. “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone on another, which will not be thrown down.”
There is a prophetic voice in this text; the temple was destroyed just a few years after Jesus spoke those words. It must have been disheartening for the disciples to hear such a prophecy. Though Jesus had been teaching them about the difference between the kingdom on earth and the kingdom of heaven, the Temple was the dwelling place of God. Where would He go if there were no temple? Would He leave them? If the Temple were destroyed, where would they go? In the past, destruction of the Temple came with invasion by enemies and the exile of God’s people. What would happen if this came to be? Jesus’ disciples asked Him for more details when they were together in private. They were curious: when? how? What will be the signs? Jesus changed the conversation. Instead of answering their questions, He warned them to beware.
This text is an apocalyptic form of literature. It is not meant to foretell of a specific historical event; the words are spoken to reveal the truth of God, and to give courage, strength and hope to a suffering people. There were already false messiahs. There were already wars and rumors of wars. There were already earthquakes and famines. It would have been very easy for the disciples to follow another voice when they were left alone after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. 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. The letters to the churches in the book of Revelation remind us how easy it is to turn from God. It has happened to many Christians in today’s world.
Those who heard the words from Jesus were living in a time of difficulty, but Jesus was not the only one who was crying out in the wilderness. False messiahs were rampant, some of whom were killed at the hands of the Romans and the Jewish authorities. There were Zealots determined to fight until Israel was freed from Roman oppression. Jesus warned the disciples not to follow the wrong path. Wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines will always be a part of our life. We will suffer because of these things and we will be persecuted because of the way we respond. We are called to be faithful, to keep our eyes focused on Christ and doing that which He has called us to do.
This is the last ordinary Sunday of this church calendar. Next week is Christ the King Sunday when we celebrate that victorious return of our Lord and Savior. This passage is the final warning we hear before Christ comes as King, and we are called to an immediate response. Mark’s language is always urgent and immediate response is imperative. So, we are called to heed the warnings to beware, to be ready and to be active in the work of Christ in the world today. Dwelling in God’s presence will bring with it persecution, hardship and sometimes even death. The apocalyptic nature of our texts this week call us to keep our eyes not on the future hardships that will be, but rather on the God who will be with us through it all.
When the disciples asked to know the hour, Jesus told them to beware and be aware. “Do not be alarmed but believe.” He warned them that some will claim to be “I AM” but they should not follow the false prophets but trust God. The things they see will just be the beginning. Jesus warns that there will be persecution. The hope of this apocalyptic text is that the one who endures to the end, who believes, will be saved. Jesus warns us that it will be bad but the Son of Man will come again. We’ll know the time is right when the signs are right.
We don’t know when it will happen, but Jesus calls us to a life of faith and watchfulness today. We are to live according to God’s Word in faith and live according to the commandments of love of God and our neighbors. “Beware and be aware,” Jesus tells us. He warns us to be careful who we believe and who we follow. Not all who claim to speak in the name of Jesus Christ are true. Some will be led astray. Some will willingly follow the false prophets because the promises seem so real. But we can trust that God will set things right in the end.
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.” Works righteousness requires action for salvation, but Christian faith is different. 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.
From a Christian point of view, sacrifice is no longer necessary. When the priests of old took blood to the altar day after day and year after year it was worthless, “...but he, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever...” The forgiveness from Christ is lasting. It is eternal. There need be no more sacrifice for sins today or ever. No Christian need look for the restoration of that ancient practice. If they are, they being led astray by those who preach a gospel of vengeance and victory. We need not win the victory again, and neither must Christ because He has already won.
We find peace through Christ. By His blood, God’s people are invited to dwell in the presence of God. Jesus was no ordinary priest. He was no ordinary messiah. He is the Son of God, sent to save the world. His promise was not that the world would be different. There will still be 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 God. But we can live in hope for what is to come, dwell in God’s grace 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, has 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.
The Psalmist understood the lesson Jesus was teaching His disciples. He knew that apart from God he had no good thing, that God alone was his refuge. He knew the joy and peace that comes from trusting in God rather than the things of this world. “You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy. In your right hand there are pleasures forever more.” This is the lesson that will keep us through the hard times. Faith that God is faithful to all His promises will help us endure to the end.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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