Year B; Proper 28; 11.18.2018
My sister Marilyn texted me from the Costco parking lot in her San Diego neighborhood Saturday to tell me that she was in the Costco parking lot 8 minutes before they opened. And, she wrote, “It looks like the Indianapolis 500 with all the cars lined up competing for parking places!”
We wondered why it was so crowded. Could it be a pre-Black Friday event? Or pre-Thanksgiving shopping? It certainly wasn’t because a snow storm was predicted or an advancing hurricane. “Maybe,” I sort of joked with her, “Maybe it was the ‘end of days’ – you know, people stocking up on those large packaged items to store in their shelters.” A “Costco Apocalypse”, I joked.
Except that I shouldn’t have made a joke, for all the real-looking apocalypse happening right in front of our eyes north of San Diego. The devastation of the fires.
At last count approximately one thousand people are missing. Sixty-three are confirmed dead. San Francisco is distributing respiratory masks to protect people from the toxic smoke that is coming off of the decimated land – truly, literally “scorched earth.” A modern day image of what the end of days might look like.
In the gospel of Mark this morning we heard Jesus speak to his followers in his last days on earth predicting some similar dire things. He said, “For people will rise against people, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places, there will be famines.”
To put this story into context, Jesus has finally reached Jerusalem for the Passover. He entered the City gloriously with people shouting Hosanna! And waving their palms over him. Yet, Jesus was pretty clear that he was going to his “end of days.” He knew the hard news that he would be crucified probably that week.
His friends and followers did not believe him. But he was clear. His first stop in Jerusalem was at the temple. The magnificent Herod-the-Great, bejeweled temple. He saw that it had become a place where poor pilgrims were cheated by rich money changers as the poor people bought their modest sacrificial animals to burn as an offering to God.
The irony is that as angry as Jesus became and as physically passionate as he was turning over the money-changers tables, he himself was going to be the offering to God in a few days. He was going to his death, as an obedient son, not as an offering to appease an angry God. But as an offering of love to redeem and repair a very broken and hurting world. He would be the ultimate offering for the world’s repentance and God’s forgiveness.
In modern times, we are hearing stories and seeing the results similar to what Jesus predicted to his disciples: You will see people fighting against people. In Yemen, for example, there is a famine. A huge population of children is starving to death because of the civil war there. Not only is food being redirected to rebel forces, fighting at the key port is blocking food from being distributed.
Fires, famines and war are breaking out all over the world. It’s all pretty scary. And it is essential to our faith that we do NOT ignore these tragedies. That we do NOT sit just waiting for the “end times” to be revealed. That we do NOT rest only on the grace and mercy of God for ourselves. We do what we can to pray for and serve those in distress. As people of faith living in a concrete world, we give our time and money to do what we can to support the work of God right here, right now.
And yet, as people of faith, even in the midst of destruction and suffering, Jesus calls on us to hope that God will bring new life. All this suffering Jesus says, are “….but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
The image of “birth pangs” telegraphs a glimmer of the hope that it is not only up to us to bring relief to a hurting world. We must also trust in God’s providence in otherwise hopeless situations.
Brooding over the evil in the world threatens us from claiming the blessing that God is in our lives. I was watching a documentary last week that marked the 100thanniversary of the end of World War I. Known as the “war of attrition,” attrition was a horrifying, losing strategy for both sides of the fight. Clearly an evil, ruthless and cynical way to conduct a war.
An expert being interviewed for the documentary said, “There was so much suffering and death that many asked the question why God would allow such a terrible thing to happen.” That question made me think that it was not God who “allowed” such suffering. It was fellow human beings that allowed the destruction to happen. Why do we never ask the question – “Why do human beings allow other humans to commit such atrocities? Isn’t it up to US to live in harmony with our own species following God’s blessing of love and mercy?”
Jesus told his disciples, “…do not be alarmed….” His aim was to teach his followers NOT to focus all their attention on evil, on “temple structures being thrown down” or war or famine or fires.
Jesus teaches us that our faith must not be dwell on the signs, the devastation themselves. Rather, Jesus calls us to focus on the one who is to come – “ “…the one who enables us to look up – yes up – after…devastation, and claim the certainty of [God’s] blessing.”
The focus for us is the certainty of God’s forgiveness, God’s mercy, God’s love and God’s blessing. That is why Jesus commands us not to be alarmed, even as he lists all the evil that happens in the world. Our focus is to trust that “God’s judgment and rescue are sure [things.]”
“God’s judgment and rescue are sure” all the while magnificent buildings may be “thrown down” and false prophets spew phony good news. Still, still, a shoot of green cracks through the dry, parched ground, a leaf buds on the tree outside of a concentration camp, a blessing comes out of a loved one’s death, a friendship begins to bud between arch enemies, or a newborn appears in a manger on a silent night.
Jesus calls the faithful to claim God’s blessing and to trust the Good Friday prayer, that “things which were cast down are being raised up, and things that had grown old are being made new,” and trusting in whatever future God has for us is our delight.
And now it is my delight to invite Phil Studwell forward to share a story of faith for our stewardship talk.