1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is again in the temple of Jerusalem watching the ornate display of religious social engagement taking place. One of his disciples was so awestruck by the scene that he felt compelled to point out to Jesus the magnificence of all he saw. Jesus was not really impressed though, and in response he put it all in perspective. Jesus said, “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” I imagine when Jesus walked out of the temple that day with his followers; he was probably shaking his head. He must have been frustrated with the religious institution which on the outside, appeared to be devoted to God and God’s mission of restoration, justice, mercy, and reconciliation; yet on the inside it was a system that glorified injustice, oppression, and division.
Last week in Mark’s gospel, we heard Jesus admonish the religious leaders who savored flowing robes, greetings of respect, seats of honor, and questionable piety of long prayers. Jesus challenged their insincere offerings to God, which came not from a response to God’s grace, but obligatory donations, which came from a desire to appease and support a debase temple system. The temple on one hand raised up the false piety of people seeking self-aggrandizement, while at the same time, it perpetuated poverty, injustice, and oppression of poor widows.
No wonder Jesus said, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Jesus was offering a warning to religious institutions that claim piety to God and yet, function as self-serving social gatherings. Jesus was warning his disciples (both then and now) that we must not rest our hope on ourselves, or upon systems that stand in contrast to God’s mission. We must put our hope in the promises of God and the hope that God’s kingdom, a kingdom where justice abounds, oppression ends, mercy overflows, reconciliation happens, and the restoration of creation bursts forth. In other words, Jesus warns the Church that she must be a reflection of God’s kingdom, a messenger of hope to the world, and she must be that witness in all she does. The church must live as if Christ’s return is imminent and expectant.
In the first century Christian church, the people of God lived with an imminent expectation of Christ’s when the Kingdom of God would be inaugurated, the powers of evil and the failures of the religious systems would end, when judgment would happen, and creation would be restored. This “last days” expectation of the Church came on the heels of apocalyptic events (wars, famines, earthquakes, etc.) In other words, before the Kingdom could burst forth, the old had to pass away.
Today, we see end times imagery coming to life in pop culture. How many of you saw the movie “2012” a few years ago? It was the story of a family’s survival through the cataclysmic destruction of the world as a result of climate change. Television is on board with apocalyptic themes and can be found in such dramas as “The Walking Dead” on AMC. It is a story of human survival after a mysterious cataclysmic disease that systematically transforms the population into mere shells (zombies or remnant creatures) who exist on primal urges that destroy the human population.
In such dramas, whether the destruction came because of climate change or because of an unimaginable biohazard, the catastrophe changed life forever, and for all humankind. For the survivors in these dramas, they came to realize that what was, is no more, and what will be, has not yet emerged. For the survivors, those facing ultimate destruction, what spurs them on, what keeps them fighting and surviving, is hope of new life. Often times, life changes, and with major changes, we find ourselves in liminal places, where we become discomforted, but in places where we are called to action, where we are called to adapt, so that we might move to a new way of being.
Jesus alludes to this when he said, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Jesus’ warning about the temple’s destruction informed the disciples that the coming Kingdom of God was going turn everything upside down, and life as it was in their time, would never be the same. Jesus warns us of coming changes. He uses imagery of the wars, famines, and earthquakes, but he also compares the struggles associated with change, to that of the birth of a child.
The blessed event of new life emerging into the world happens through the life threatening, body changing, and agony of childbirth. On the other side of that event, life for the parents is never the same. New parents tenderly embrace new life in their arms and live in hope of a recreated relationship, a family, a new way of life; but they also must know that they will wrestle with raising a child in difficult times, with the challenges of bruised and scraped knees, challenging academics, and all the rest. There is a tension between the now, and the yet to come. The church and the world live in such times of tension as well.
Injustice, oppression, and war thrive in the world today. Turn on the television and you hear about wars and rumors of wars, terrorism and threats from pseudo nation states, the growing plague of homelessness and poverty, and the never-ending human evil of oppression. These social injustices are not merely somewhere over there, in some distant land. These evils, along with the imbalance of power, the inequitable distribution of abundant resources, and the lack of concern for each other can be found in our own neighborhoods. These evils that aim to thwart God’s kingdom, can be found in even subtle ways as well.
Let me give you an example. A small non-denominational church in my old home state was known for its local mission work. They had a great cold night shelter for the homeless, they provided food packs for local school kids, and they distributed knitted shawls for folks living in the local retirement village. Despite their commitment to local mission work, something was wrong on the inside of the community. One of the men living on the streets, to which the church served through their cold night shelter, came to church one Sunday and sat in the front pew. This happened every Sunday for about a month until one day, one of the members went to the pastor and complained that the man smelled, and was disrupting worship. The member asked the pastor, to ask the homeless to not come to church on Sunday. It may be hard to believe, but this is a true story my friends.
Like the temple system in first century Jerusalem, some of our faith communities today become distracted from God’s mission, and become a little too internally focused. Some churches begin making choices about what is important in the life of the faith community, choices that do not align with justice, dignity, hope, resurrection, self-giving love, and reconciliation. We need to make sure that in all things, we live as if Christ were coming back today, as if the Kingdom of God was imminent and expected. We must strive to challenge things in our community that stand in contrast to God’s Kingdom. We must remember, that God’s kingdom begins with us, and the mission the church has been given by God is becoming more and more difficult in the 21st century.
Did you know that there are more people in this country today who do not attend church, than there were just 20 years ago? Pew Research reports that 22.8% of the U.S. population claims no affiliation with a religious institution, and that number was only 8% back in 1988. The world around us is changing and that means, we must adapt, or face potential obliteration at worst, or irrelevance at best. This sounds hopeless, but only so, if we refused to adapt, fail to constantly evaluate our witness, and refuse to live in the hope of God’s promises. When all seems to point to despair, we must live in hope. We must focus on being the people of justice, mercy, reconciliation, and love in all we do, and in all ways, anticipating, expecting, and living as if Christ was returning today.
Let’s live in hope and anticipation despite ominous threats, for even if “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down,” it will not matter. Nothing shall deter us from God’s mission for which God has a church, and that mission is “to bring all people into unity with God and in each other in Christ.”
“So let’s do it—(let’s become) full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out. Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. Jesus always keeps his word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do, but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:19-25, The Message)
1 Anderson, Mary W. “Time’s Up.” Christian Century 120.22 (2003): 19-318. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 16 Nov. 2012.
2 McGrath, Alister E. “Christian Theology: An Introduction” Blackwell Publishing, 2007, Oxford, p. 475