Sermon - 26 Pentecost
In the Name...
A grizzled old man stood on a park bench and started shouting, "The world will end soon. The world will end soon." A young fellow passing by stopped and said, “You're a bit old-fashioned, my friend. You need to start a website, get on to social media and, every so often, predict an exact date. Then you’ll get a following. Nobody pays attention to generalizations.”
Suddenly, a massive fire ball flashed down from the sky and smashed into the Earth, triggering earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions and general catastrophe. The young fellow turned to the old man and exclaimed, “Why didn’t you say it was going to happen today?” The old man calmly said, “Nobody would have believed me.”
The 13th Chapter of the Gospel according to St. Mark reads very strangely from beginning to end and seems to have nothing to do with the surrounding story line. We just heard a few verses today, but, I would urge you to read it in its entirety because it's fascinating and not least because it seems that the disciples are finally beginning to pay attention to what Jesus says. For three years, he has said the most mind-boggling things and each time, it seems, the disciples either ignore him or argue with him.
He talks about his crucifixion and they blow him off. He talks about servant leadership and they want to know which one of them is going to be Prime Minister in the new kingdom. But, today, he predicts the destruction of Jerusalem, God's Holy City which exists to house God's Holy Temple and they don't tell him he's nuts. Instead, they ask, "When will this happen?" Of course, they don't get the answer they want, but, at least they're listening for a change.
But, what do you think they made of what he said? For that matter, what do we make of it? The Gospels record that when Jesus spoke of the End, he emphasized three things. First, that there would be a great sacrilege in the Temple; second that people would need to flee; and third, that destruction was inevitable.
Scholars have long debated what the sacrilege in the Temple could be about. On one level, many have determined it predicts an incident in 68 A.D. In that year, the Zealots, the ultra-nationalistic group, of which St. Simon had once been a member, launched a rebellion and, in the fighting, they barricaded themselves in the Temple and turned it into a fort.
Now, this was bad enough, but, in one of those moments of historical irony, they fell out among themselves and not only killed each other, they heaped the dead bodies in the Holy of Holies - an act of unprecedented sacrilege and committed, not by pagans, but, by those who should have known better. When the Romans finally suppressed the revolt they razed the Temple to the ground and it has never been rebuilt.
Of course, the world didn't end back in 68, so, much discussion as to what the prophecy could mean has been spiritualized. And, since the New Testament often refers to us, individual Christians, as "temples of the Holy Spirit", another interpretation, with some merit, is that it refers to whenever individuals substitute themselves for God in their lives. Does that happen? Hmm. It seems fair to say, then, that temple sacrilege, in that sense, is, indeed, an on-going problem.
As for flight, that's a powerful image. We're very familiar with watching scenes of refugees on our TV's, but, that's a luxury for us because in most of the world if you're not a refugee you just have to look out of the window to see someone who is.
A refugee is someone who has had to make a choice between being alive or dead. Refugees often also leave their families behind. I was actually in seminary with a fellow whose father had been a refugee from Communist Poland. That man had fled his country and never again saw his parents, brothers, sisters, etc. He had had to choose. And refugees also don't let discomfort deter them. There's that wonderful scene at the end of the movie, "The Sound of Music" where the Von Trapp family flee in the night from their concert to safety in Switzerland. They didn't wait for the morning.
But, again, what does this have to do with us? From what are Christians supposed to be running away? Well, St. Paul makes what it is clear in his letters to Timothy. Christians have to flee, he says, from harmful desires and evil. Now, to use the word "flee" implies that something is chasing us and I don't think we usually think that. I'm sure we agree that there is evil in the world, but, have we ever considered that it's chasing us? We often talk about resisting temptation. Well, my friends, if we have to resist it, that means it's already caught up with us. So, St. Paul says stay ahead of it.
These are powerful and disturbing images Jesus uses in this chapter, but, they underscore the urgency of what he is saying, that destruction is coming. And, again, what kind of destruction? Global? Universal? How about just the destruction of our personal world? Some crisis, some tragedy, some loss, of persons, position, possessions - these can be as devastating as any cosmic cataclysm.
Two thousand years ago, the world was not so different from today. The Roman Empire was busy declining and falling. Institutions a thousand years old crumbled; the legions which kept the peace disbanded; the economy collapsed. It seemed as if the world itself was ending. And, in the midst of this, the Church grew phenomenally because people who had lost meaning and certainty saw, in Christians, a people who remained, hopeful when surrounded by despair, faithful as everything vanished - a people who lived with purpose and direction.
Do we share that spirit? Or, are we living like everybody else - becoming overwhelmed with the world as it is and not stopping to consider the world as we are supposed to make it.
In a couple of weeks, we're going to be in the Advent season and we'll hear its message of "Jesus is coming." But, when we stop and think, we realize that Jesus has already come and he's left us, you and me, to get on with his work. And when he comes back it won't be to clean up our messes, but, to ask us if we have been keeping the temple of ourselves, our souls and bodies, a sacred space; if we have been fleeing from the evil of the world and making the hard choices; and if we have been providing hope, if we have been pointing to him, when people's worlds collapse.
The Apocalypse is a daily event for millions of people and they need to know the presence and power of the Saviour which only we can give them.
Yes, the world is ending today for somebody, somewhere. The Good News of Christ is that they, and we, do not have to be victims. We can prevail, together.
In the Name...