Sunday, November 19, 2006

Twenty-fourth Sunday of Pentecost
Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.

The church year calendar follows through the story of God in Christ Jesus from beginning to end to beginning again. During Advent, we see the coming of the light into the world, the waitful expectation of God’s people as they long for the anticipated fulfillment of His promises. At Christmas the promise is fulfilled in a manger as Jesus Christ is born. The light is given to the world at Epiphany, as the wise men come looking for the promised one as directed by the star. Lent leads us through the life and ministry of Jesus until Holy Week. On Palm Sunday we see the victorious procession of Jesus into Jerusalem as the crowds hail Him king. By the end of Holy Week, Jesus is arrested, tried and crucified. Easter Sunday brings new hope and resurrection. The Easter season focuses on the joy of the resurrection and the new life in Christ. Pentecost ushers in the Church era as the Holy Spirit is showered upon believers. The season of Pentecost is a time of learning how to be Christian, of seeing the ordinary and practical ways we live out our faith in the world. These past few weeks we have been drawn back into the last moments of Jesus, not to relive Holy Week and Easter in the autumn, but rather to hear Jesus as He tells us of what will come.

This is the last ordinary Sunday of the current church year. Next week we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. For today, however, Jesus presents to us a warning. Is the warning one of what is to come, a prophecy of the future destruction of the world and the end of all time? In some ways what Jesus has to say in today’s Gospel text is a glimpse into the future. After all, Jesus was right to say that the temple would one day come tumbling down. Yet, we are quick to take the rest of the passage and juxtapose it against the headlines in our newspapers, certain that we are the generation to whom He was speaking.

Throughout history there have been times of distress in the Christian community. As a matter of fact, even the writers of our sacred texts had seen persecution for their faith. Mark’s writing is filled with urgency as he tries to share the Gospel story and encourage the community of believers. To him, the day was upon them, the end times were imminent. Two thousand years later we can still hear, and feel, the need for immediacy. The end times are near. There are wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines, just as Jesus predicted.

As we look more closely at the text, we see that there was some time between the discussion at the temple and the warning by Jesus. As they were leaving the temple, the disciples were awed and amazed at the building. The large stones were beautiful – perfectly formed out of shining stone. The pictorial representations I’ve seen of the temple show a building that nearly glows. The sheer size made it an imposing feature on the landscape, perhaps seen from miles around as pilgrims and traders approached the city. Besides being a landmark, it was the center of faith for the Jews. It was the dwelling place of the Most High God, the place where believers went to receive God’s forgiveness.

It is ironic that we see this episode immediately following the story of the widow’s mites. Her small offering will be used for the care and upkeep of the temple. The offering is almost worthless, not enough to make any real difference. It is like a penny in today’s economy. Most people would not even bend down to pick one off the ground. The disciples quickly notice the size of the stones used to build the temple. The irony is that the tiny mites and the large stones will come to the same end. The day would come when the temple would be gone. The center of Jewish religious life would be completely destroyed and as worthless as those two small coins.

This idea must have frightened the disciples. Though Jesus had been teaching them about the difference between the kingdom on earth and the kingdom of heaven, the temple was to them still the dwelling place of God. Where would God go if there were no temple? Would He leave them? If the temple were destroyed, where would they go to worship and offer their sacrifices? 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? Could they survive the suffering they would face?

They went to the Mount of Olives, which overlooked the temple. Peter, James, John and Andrew were alone with Jesus. They asked Him how they would know that the time had come. “What will be the signs?” Their fear was probably quite obvious to Jesus who did not mean the prophecy to bring fear to the hearts of His disciples. He did not answer their question by giving them dates or point to a specific moment for these things to be accomplished. Instead He gave them a warning. “Beware and be aware.”

Jesus was not the only one in His day to claim to have a direct connection to God. Others appeared to be the messiah for whom the people were waiting. For many in Jerusalem, the false messiahs offered a better image, a more earthly and powerful picture. They were going to fight for peace in Jerusalem, and battle for freedom. Jesus offered little for those who were looking for vengeance and victory. He offered forgiveness and humility. He also offered persecution and suffering.

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.

There are even those in our world today who believe that it is necessary to rebuild the temple and restore the ancient practices performed within. The restoration of the sacrifices is thought to be the catalyst we need to bring about the final fulfillment of Christ’s promises. The wars and rumors of wars are just the birth pangs. When things appear as they did in that day – when the temple still stood shining beautifully over the landscape – then Christ can return to stand as King over all.

Yet the writer of Hebrews tells us something different. From a Christian point of view, sacrifice is no longer necessary. The priests of old took blood to the altar day after day and year after year but it was all worthless. The offering was little more than the widow’s mites, the forgiveness was not lasting. “…but he, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever…” 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. He has done so, on the cross on that hill in Jerusalem. We are warned to beware and to be aware.

We might want to approach these texts 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 even in today’s world.

All too often, 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. We can’t make Jesus come back and we can’t define that moment according to our earthly knowledge or limitations. The coming of Christ in Glory will come according to God’s time and in His way.

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.

During hard times we are tempted to give up the very things that will give us the strength and courage to go one. We will hide faith to avoid persecution. We will follow the crowds, throwing our money and support at all the wrong things. We will rely on false gods and believe false messiahs, just to avoid suffering and pain. We will wander down a path that leads to destruction rather than facing the destruction that will ultimately bring us blessing.

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 come tumbling down. Rather, He is set free from those human constraints to be the God who is Creator, Redeemer and Comforter.

The psalmist writes, “Preserve me, O God; for in thee do I take refuge.” One of the most common temptations for all Christians is to see this as the solution to all our problems. While this is the true place to find comfort and peace, we often misplace our trust in some personal and private faith. How many times do we hear, “I can worship God on the mountain top better than in a church”? Oh, the mountaintop can truly be a place of inspiration and peace. There at the top of the world we can leave behind our troubles. Church does not offer such peace. As a matter of fact, some of our most difficult trials can come at the hands of other Christians. However, this is no reason for abandoning the fellowship of believers.

It is through Christ that God has provided us access to the Holy of Holies, but it is the Church through which the world sees Christ. We have come to know His grace through the lives of the saints, through the perseverance of those who have come before us. We hear God’s word from their mouths and we see Him in their lives. Even when we have faith we still continue to need to hear the story and to see it displayed in lives of today’s saints. And they need to see it in our lives. In Hebrews we are reminded to never forsake the fellowship, but encourage one another, especially as times get tough.

We will face difficulties in this life. We will be affected by wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes or other natural disasters and even times of famine. The times of famine might even come within and at the hands of the religious authorities of our days. Yet, like the widow whose mite was as worthless as the temple was to become, we are called to be faithful even to give our whole selves for the glory of God. In the face of persecution, injustice, dis-ease and discomfort, we have the assurance of God’s grace to get us through. Christ opened the door and calls us to enter. There, amongst the saints and the sinners we will see God’s hands and experience God’s peace, secure in the knowledge that God is in control. We can trust Him because He is faithful. He will come again. He has come again. He continues to come again over and over and over again in the hearts and words of those faithful who have gone before us through all manner of trials for the past two thousand years.

On this last Sunday of the church year before Christ is crowned King, we are reminded to beware and to be aware. We need not fear tomorrow, or even today, even if the world is crumbling beneath our feet. God is faithful and He has promised deliverance to all whose names are found in the book. As Daniel writes, “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” We need not worry this day when this shall be or what shall happen to us when it comes. We have the confidence to approach the throne of God in faith, to hang on to the hope to which we confess and to live a life of love and good works, provoking and encouraging one another to share God’s grace with the world.

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