Only the Beginning 11-18-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 13:1-8, Jesus gets apocalyptic. This is normal at the end of the church year. Unfortunately we’re only given little glimpses but we are given the promise that we will never be left alone in it.

You can listen the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/only-the-beginning-11-18-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

The Grace and Peace of the Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

Just out of curiosity…how many of you out there were raised in the city? Any city…doesn’t matter which one? (Pause) Okay now on the flipside…how many grew up in a small rural town, or even out in the country? (pause) Okay, now I know what I’m working with.

As many of you know…I was a farm kid growing up…living a few miles outside of a town about the same size as Underwood…roughly 800 people. Now one difference was the proximity to urban areas. Around here we’ve got the Omaha/Council Bluffs metro just a few minutes down the road…but we often joked that my hometown was 3 hours from everywhere. The Twin Cities…three hours.  Des Moines…about three hours…Omaha, yep, that’s three hours. Sioux Falls…OH!!! That’s only 90 minutes. (pause)

It probably goes without saying…that in my normal day to day life growing up…I was pretty used to open fields…and the tallest structures out there were usually a silo or the local elevator if you happened to be in town.  And because of this…the rare times when I ended up in the downtown area of a city were eye opening.

I can remember being in downtown Des Moines during high school for state FFA convention…and thinking how crazy busy it was as we small town boys made our way around the skywalk.  And maybe even more memorable…my freshman year when we traveled to Chicago for a music trip…and I found myself standing on the sidewalk beside the skyscraper known then as the Sears Tower…just staring up at this monstrosity of architectural and construction achievement.

It was just so huge…I couldn’t even begin to understand how anyone would make something like that…and on the flipside…now that its there…I couldn’t imagine anything ever bringing it down. (pause) Anyone know what I’m talking about?  Standing there looking at something, whether man-made or something in nature…that is just so huge…so grand…so massively immovable, that you find yourself in awe? (Pause) Well, as we consider today’s gospel lesson, you are in good company…as Jesus and his disciples go walking out of the temple courtyard in Jerusalem.

As we start to think about this…remember that the 12 disciples were likely pretty young…maybe in their teens or 20’s…and most of them, perhaps not all, but most of them were from small towns or communities…particularly the small communities from the somewhat backwater region of Galilee…communities where the biggest structure they would ever see was the local synagogue.

But now they find themselves in the middle of the city…staring up that enormity of the temple…which by every description we have available…must have been impressive.  Keep in mind this is the 2nd temple…completed by Herod the Great a generation before…and it was comprised of many different structures and courtyards and staircases…all surrounded by a giant wall, all built over the course of decades…it must have been a site to see…and for these small town boys…I can only imagine how overwhelming it must have been…and we hear it from them…Teacher, look at these enormous, magnificent stones and amazing buildings.

I bet it was impressive…I’ve seen first-hand some of those stones that are still standing today in what’s called the Western Wall…or Wailing Wall…the only part of that entire enormous structure that is still standing…and those stones alone are huge…roughly 4 or 5 feet cubed…and solid rock…can you imagine trying to put those into place? We’d need a crane of some sort now, but they did it with basic human labor…and even more amazing…those were the smaller stones…recent work in Jerusalem has uncovered massive foundation stones that were upwards of 20 feet long and 10 feet high. (pause)

Starting to see why these simple farm boys and fishermen were so impressed? (pause) But here’s the thing…no sooner does this one random disciple make his wondrous statement to Jesus…then Jesus makes a prediction that must really rain on his parade.  You see these stones…the day will come when not one will be left on another…and then apparently with no other explanation…he walks away.

With that, we find a scene change, as Jesus and the disciples have gone out of the temple area and crossed the Kidron valley to the east…and then plopped themselves down on the Mount of Olives…a vantage point where they can see the glory of the temple mount from a distance…and the first four disciples that Jesus called…Peter and James and John and Andrew…the epitome of the backwater country bumpkins…they figure its up to them to figure out how this is all gonna happen.

Master…what will be the sign that this is about to take place? (Pause) It seems that they want to know what it is they better be looking for…because anything that is massive enough or strong enough to destroy the utter gloriousness of the temple mount…well that’s probably gonna be a bad thing isn’t it?

But Jesus doesn’t really give them a straight answer does he? He starts off with a warning that they not allow themselves to be led astray…and then he gives warnings about wars that will come and go…and nations rising up against nation…and natural disasters…and all kinds of stuff. Stuff that sounds…REALLY BAD…stuff that if we found ourselves on the receiving end of it…would be something we’d call “the end of the world.” And, to be honest…isn’t that type of thing what we all hope we’ve got a little advanced warning for? (pause)

Now…this first portion of chapter 13 is actually part of a larger account of Jesus teaching the disciples about (air quote this) “the end times.” And the fact that we run into it here in late November is quite normal…as we come to the end of another church year, we always run into these texts…texts often described as “apocalyptic” in nature…texts which we all commonly think of as describing those end times.

And after many different conversations with people based on this type of text over the years…I know its pretty common for all of us to hear them and think “well that doesn’t sound good…but it also doesn’t give us a whole to go on either.” And isn’t that true? I mean, its so true…and fairly universal interest in it is so real…that many people have made attempts to explain it away…even “read the code” to uncover just when it’ll happen…and how all the bad stuff that happens in the world…whether natural disasters or human centered misery…is actually a roadmap that points to just when “the end” often called the rapture…is going to be.

I always chuckle and shake my head when I hear these predictions on the news…and then I flat out laugh when the day comes and goes and the person who made the prediction in the first place sheepishly reports “We may have misread the signs.”  DUH!

But all sarcasm aside…I think it is human nature to look at the state of the world…to see horrible event after horrible event and think…Well this must be the end.  Oh no…well now this one is it…Oh I guess not, but THIS time is it right? (pause)

Maybe, just maybe, we humans have a really hard time seeing beyond whatever is staring us right in the face…whether its marveling at giant buildings or natural features like mountains or cliffs that we think will never be knocked down…or on the other end of thing to see forces at work which we are powerless to stop…like category 5 hurricanes or tsunamis or even the apparently blind hatred expressed by one group for another group.  And as we witness these different things we can only think “this is it” and nothing I can think or do or say is going to change it.

And that’s daunting isn’t it?  And maybe, just maybe, if we bring things down to a smaller scale we begin to realize that sheer size or magnitude isn’t the sole factor either.  Think about the lost job.  Or the cancer diagnosis.  Or the balance due notice…or the family standing at a graveside to bury their loved one…those moments when it feels like life is over, even as the rest of the world is going on about their business.  Are the dire feelings that come with those moments any less real than the sense the disciples felt when Jesus tells them the temple will be destroyed? (pause)

So are we in “the end times?”   Is Jesus about to come back? Well…I hope so…but honestly I don’t think so…and I don’t think that’s the point of all these different apocalyptic texts in the first place. Something that we especially see if we pay attention to Jesus’ final statement in today’s little section of this larger teaching.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. (pause) This is the beginning.

I am, as you may have noticed…a guy…and I will never ever know the pain and agony of childbirth…and honestly, as my two kids were born by c-section I’ve never really been adjacent to it either.  But I do remember a mom being induced at 6am the day after my son was born…and she walked the halls of that OB ward in the hospital for more than 25 hours before finally going to delivery…and then spending 2.5 hours pushing before her baby was born…and I can only imagine that for her…or for any of you moms out there that went through labor…that in the midst of it…it must feel like an eternity and that it will NEVER end.

And yet it does…and at the end…there is new life in that child…and maybe, just maybe…that’s what we need to remember as we consider these troublesome texts that point towards something unknown, but seemingly pretty earth shattering…just as labor pains leads to the joy of new life…it would seem that there’s new life on the other side of this unknown future that’s coming…and the idea of looking for something good and wonderful and joyful on the other side of things…there’s a name for that…Hope.

Now as followers of Christ…we’ve been given a promise…an assurance that the kingdom of heaven has come near to us…that it is here now and that we are invited into it…and at the same time we are also promised that there are aspects of this kingdom that haven’t come around yet…and that whatever they are…they lie out there on the other side of that unknown future…and for many of us, they lie on the other side of the boundary of death…and because of these promises of Christ…we hope…we are united by our common hope in this promised but unrealized future.

And there’s one more little detail from today’s story that points us in this direction. Jesus and the disciples are sitting on top of the Mount of Olives, looking across the valley at the Temple…now the temple pointed them towards God…it was the place where God is…the sign of God’s presence and God’s promises…that’s what they were looking at.

But the valley that lies between them…even back then…was a graveyard…and it still is today…they sat on one mountain…looking across the literal presence of death…and beyond it was the embodiment of hope.

I can’t tell you what that embodiment is for you. Maybe it’s the cross…or maybe it’s a song that’s especially meaningful for you…or maybe it’s the truth that is revealed to you in the scriptures…or maybe it’s the sacraments…the washing in the waters of baptism and the shared meal of holy communion…those physical elements that combine with the promises of God to reveal the reality of God’s grace and love for you…made real through the life death and resurrection of Jesus.

Remember these promises are made for you and TO you…not just once, but always…and we are given these blessings and mercies…new every morning.  No matter what the situation is…remember…this is only the beginning.  Let us live out this day…let us live out every day which will follow…and let us experience whatever it is that lies on the other side of this existence as we know it…secure in the hope given to us through the promises of Jesus Christ. Amen

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