PRAYER OF INVOCATION: God of new beginnings and endless possibilities, grant us the courage to reach out and claim the promises of your faithful love. As we pour out the deepest desires of our hearts, fill our souls with peace, for you alone are our hope and our salvation. For you are our rock and our hiding place. You are our fortress in times of trouble. Be with us in this time of worship and heal the pain we carry in our hearts. Amen.
Let us pray: Holy Spirit come to each one of us at South Plains this morning. Let your words encourage us for the future and discipline us to be ever more faithful disciples and to be the church you have called us to be. Amen.
Everyone likes to know how the story ends. Have you ever flipped to the end of the book to see what characters are on the last page? How many are still standing? I have. It’s part of human nature to want to know how things turn out. But life is not a book, a mystery to be solved. It is a mystery to be lived. And there’s the rub.
When the disciples walked out of the Temple in Jerusalem with Jesus, one of them pointed to the great stones in the buildings around them. “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” The stones in these buildings were so immense that they needed no mortar between them to stabilize them. A quarter of a million people could easily fit into the Temple; no modern sports center in America comes close to these numbers. Jesus, to the disciples’ surprise and dismay, tells them the end of the story. Jesus replies: “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” Jesus was right. In 70 AD, forty years later, the Temple was destroyed by Rome.
When Jesus announces the destruction of the Temple, he is announcing the destruction of what was the center of national life in Israel. The temple was built to look big, heavy, and eternal. But Jesus said that “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” The disciples were scared. Who wouldn’t be? Think about how frightened we were after 9/11, and how scared we have been as a nation that this kind of terrorist attack could take place again. The Twin Towers symbolized a great deal about what was at the center of American life.
Jesus had made predictions before, but this one the disciples could finally understand. Perhaps it’s that fear that motivates Peter, James, John, and Andrew later when they are sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite that temple to ask Jesus privately “Tell us when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Ok, Jesus says, I’ll tell you. War. Rumors of war. Famine. Earthquake.
But here’s the interesting thing. Jesus is telling them not to be distracted by these things. Although Jesus uses apocalyptic imagery here, it is NOT meant to mean the end of things, as it is usually interpreted. Apocalyptic means “unveiling” or “revealing.” Before Jesus goes to his death on the cross, he is going to give his disciples one last look at the future. “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” In other words, these verses tell us that these events are not the end, but the beginning of something entirely new. These verses are meant to comfort us, not to scare us.
What we can learn from the Scripture today is that the bedrock of faith rests solely in Jesus Christ. Even when the sky in our lives seems to be falling, we are not to be led astray or to be fearful. We are to endure.
How do you tell someone who is waiting by the side of a loved one’s hospital bed, or someone who has just lost his job to “hang in there?” The truth is that we don’t always feel the presence of God, and there are times when God doesn’t even seem real, much less near by. But I have to tell you that every major struggle in my life – divorce, the deaths of my parents and friends, and changing careers, came with much uncertainty and fear because something old in me was dying, and the new was not yet born. If you cannot see the hand of God in the event itself, look for it in the aftermath when you were putting your life back together. I promise you, God’s hand will be there.
The writer of Mark would have been on the other side of the destruction of the Temple. The society in which he lived was coming apart at the seams. And one of his goals is to reveal God in the midst of chaos. Mark is always telling us to keep watch, to hold on, and to hope. After the recent election, regardless of whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, some people were jubilant, some were not. But really no one won. We are still divided. There are still wars and rumors of wars. In times like these we need to fall deeper into our faith journey, to pray, to seek kindness, and be cautious of false prophets.
A story told in my lectionary group this past week was of a three-year old who was brought into a hospital in Richmond severely beaten by the girlfriend of the child’s father. It is so easy to destroy life, much harder to build back up, to find hope in the midst of tragedy. The parents and the grandparents of the child prayed around the bedside when they were told the child was brain dead. The parents decided that they would donate the child’s organs. It was their resurrection hope that others would have a better and longer life and that resurrected new life could come from tragedy. No one said hope is easy.
We also need to remember, as the church, to hope, to keep watch, and to hold on. Church membership, as we are painfully aware, is declining in the Reformed churches. Yet, in the midst of all this angst, God is already doing something new. South Plains stands on the edge of something new. We don’t know the end of the story and that can give way to anxiety. But we can be sure that God is in the midst.\The writer and theologian Peter Steinke has identified “triggers” that raise anxiety in churches. One, as you might expect, is conversation about money, another is “buildings and grounds,” and a third is “new versus old.” These three triggers, Steinke points out, can lead people astray in churches because the well-meaning people can become focused on things that are not of ultimate importance. A powerful thread in prophetic witness of scripture is that certain structures have to be torn down in order for new things to emerge. Yet, our human urge is usually to circle the wagons and hunker down.
The noted director of biblical epics – Cecil B. DeMille was beginning work on the movie Ben Hur, and he was explaining to the star Charlton Heston the importance of the chariot race at the end. DeMille decided that Heston should learn to drive the chariot himself rather than use a stunt double. After days of lessons and rehearsals, Heston reported “I think I can drive the chariot all right, Cecil, but I’m not at all sure I can actually win the race.” To which DeMille replied: “Heston, you just stay in the race, and I’ll make sure you win.”
These might be God’s words to us through turbulent times. Mark’s text, which is often referred to as the little apocalypse is meant to give us hope, not fear. Jesus talks about the beginning of birth pangs. Paul will speak of all creation groaning toward redemption. The theologian William Barclay wrote that “what the doctrine of the Second Coming conserves is the tremendous fact that there is one divine, far-off event to which the whole creation is moving; there is a consummation; there is a final triumph of God.” Mark’s text is a perfect segue way into Advent. At the height of the Roman Empire, the Christ Child was born in the backwaters of this empire to a teenager. God is with us. Come, Lord Jesus, come.