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Discernment, Patience and Hope

This is the message I preached on Sunday, 11/15 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church.The text is Mark 13:1-8. 
Our world seems to have gone right off the rails. Crazy and awful things are happening everywhere; we have massive swings in the weather, huge hurricanes and typhoons, a giant el nino in the Pacific, unprecedented climate change and upheaval in the middle east;  the latest of which is the 3 simultaneous terror attacks last Friday in Paris, France. When we see such images, don't we sometimes think, "Here we go again. When will the madness stop?" 
It seems that today's gospel reading with its apocalyptic overtones is exactly what we need to hear. Apocalyptic describes the style of writing where the heavenly and earthly worlds seem fused. It's like the curtain in a theater being drawn back--and suddenly we see things that until now were hidden from view. Imagine a cosmic curtain, drawn back by an angel of God, that suddenly reveals the world as God sees it, the world as it should be, the world as it will be in the future when God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven (Grieb).
The Jerusalem temple, which had been newly reconstructed by Herod the Great was impressive. It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The temple complex was twice as large as the Roman Forum and four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis with its Parthenon. Today what remains of it are the huge retaining walls that supported the temple. The enormous Herodian stones are as long as 40 feet, some of which still stand as part of the Western or Wailing Wall.
Leaving the temple, one of the disciples said, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Don't the disciples remind you of country boys coming to the big city and can't you hear John Denver singing "Thank God, I'm a Country Boy" in the background? That's who they were. We can certainly understand why the disciples would be so impressed and why Jesus' words that there wouldn't be one stone left on another, were so puzzling and seemingly impossible. After all, this was the dwelling place of God in the center of the known world--the symbol of God's presence with Israel.
In today's gospel, three facts are pointed out. The first is that God's people need a spirit of discernment, the second is the church's precarious situation demands incredible patience. The third is perhaps the most difficult, the church is invited to be hopeful.
The first fact is that God's people need a spirit of discernment. The disciple's very public statement about the glory of the temple is followed by private time together with Jesus at the Mount of Olives. There the inner circle of disciples ask Jesus two questions: "When will this be and what will be the sign" when all this will happen?Jesus' response is not what they were looking for. Those come later in the gospel. Jesus said, "Beware that no one leads you astray" (v. 5).
Those who would come in Jesus' name may not claim to be Christ, but they claim to speak with his authority. Not only was Jesus warning his disciples, but the church of Mark's time and our own were also being warned against such false prophets. Sometimes what they say sounds so good and seems like the right formula, but at heart, they worship at a different altar. They offer a religion without the cross, something Martin Luther called a "theology of glory."
False prophets are still around. Remember Harold Camping who declared the end would be May 21, 2011? When that didn't happen, he changed the date to October 21st of the same year. Can you think of other false prophets that have been prominant over the last 10-20 years? Throughout the ages there have been false prophets. This is just as Jesus predicted. The point is that the wars, famines and earthquakes are not the signs of the time (as the false prophets proclaimed) but only the beginning of the last period of history. As Christians, we should be skeptical of anyone who claims to have inside information when our Lord Jesus didn't even have it.
There is a psychological phenomena known as "the Jerusalem Syndrome." People that seemed perfectly normal at home would make a trip to the Holy Land. While there, especially in Jerusalem, they would see themselves as prophets. I saw a number of such people while living in Bethlehem. One man we referred to as the karate prophet. He would stand by one of the gates of the Old City, dressed in a white outfit that looked just like karate gear and proclaim his message.
There were others as well, like the woman who would sing at bus stops in the Jewish part of Jerusalem. She carried an autoharp and would repeatedly say "Brrrrrrr" as she strummed away. There were many other odd people that one could not avoid in Jerusalem. The funny thing was, they were perfectly normal once they returned home.
A spirit of discernment is so important. We can nurture one by listening carefully and thinking clearly.
The second fact in today's teaching is that the church's precarious situation demands of it incredible patience. Rather than being alarmed, we are to take the long look, to be patient. The calendar is in God's hands. As Peter wrote, "...with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day" (2 Peter 3:8). If Jesus didn't know when the end would come, what makes us think we can figure it all out?
Whenever there is a new major world crisis, books appear describing these events as evidence that the signs in the book of Revelation are being fulfilled. Do you remember the Left Behind series that was popular about 10 years ago? It's great fiction, thrown in with a little theology, but still it's great fiction. The desire to use apocalyptic prophecies about the end time to make sense of traumatic upheavals in the world remains a significant temptation for many Christians.
Our one concern is to give testimony to the gospel. Apocalyptic prophecies do not constitute the testimony about which Jesus speaks. 
The third fact in today's teaching is that in spite of all that transpires,  the church is invited to be hopeful. Wars, threats of wars, earthquakes and famines are nothing new and are not unique to our day. History is riddled with a list of wars too numerous to mention, and natural disasters such as the destruction of Pompeii in 77 A. D., the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, and the San Francisco earthquake of 1904, not to mention the plagues that ravaged Europe come to mind. The readers of Mark's gospel found themselves living in such chaos. All of it was and is to be understood as "the beginning of the birth pangs" (v. 8).
Mark's gospel does not discount, but takes seriously the reality of present suffering. Suffering's purpose is to signal the end of a long time of waiting and the coming birth of new life. It is not meant to lead us to despair, but to hope--to the anticipated dawn of God's new day.
So, do we still live in an apocalyptic world? Natural disasters, which seem to behave more and more erratically are warning us that as Hamlet said, "the times are out of joint." And we have the massive displacement of people longing for a stable and peaceful life. They flee violent, oppressive regimes. It is difficult to comprehend the terrors that human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another (Grieb).
Church historians and those who watch the culture say we're on the edge of an end time for the church's traditional role in society. It may be the beginning of what God plans to do with his church. Church in the rest of the 21st century may look radically different, but there will still be God's people gathering to worship. Jesus has warned his followers to be aware and watchful for the signs that accompany the changing of things. "Mark 13 warns against confusing religious institutions with the Kingdom of God or thinking God's future is tied to their success or failure (Williamson, Mark, 241).
The feelings of fear and anxiety are the birth pangs of something new. It is not something we should fear, but embrace, as the in breaking of God's truth and justice into our world (Smith).
The Christian life is not about stones and bricks. What goes on inside is what really matters. The life giving waters of baptism are splashed, stories of faith are told, the meal of bread and wine are given to all, and we gather as a community of faith, to build each other up, to spread God's love in the community and to worship our Creator by  bringing God our sorrows and joys. The stones and bricks may fall, but God's church, the community he has called together, will continue on--living and breathing in the unconditional grace of God.

Brian K. Blount & Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices.
M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary.
M. Eugene Boring & Fred B. Craddock, The People's New Testament Commentary
Rev. Scott McNally, pastor, Lutheran Church of Hope, Broomfield, Co.
Pheme Perkins, The New Interpreter's Bible: Mark.


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