Mark 13:1-8 – The Rev. Helen Havlik
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 25, 2019
Being physically or mentally fit means that we’re in good condition or health. So what does it mean to be spiritually fit? This summer we’ve been looking at what it means to be Fit for Life—the life God is calling us to live as followers of Jesus Christ. If we want to be spiritually fit we have to clear some hurdles that can hold us back. We’ve already talked about the hurdle of pride—and the perfectionism that goes with it—along with the hurdle of conformity to the values of this world. We’ve looked at the hurdle of wealth and the hurdle of attitude. This morning we’re looking at the hurdle of resistance to change. I’m reading from Mark, Ch. 13, beginning with vs. 1. Here’s the holy word of God.
If you look up the word “Luddite” in the dictionary, you’ll find my name there! Well, not quite. You’ll find the name Ned Ludd, a 19th century British worker, who went around literally smashing the machinery of the industrial revolution that he and others believed to be taking jobs away from people. The term’s come to apply to anyone who’s anti-technology—or even anti-change-under-any-circumstances. I plead guilty to ambivalence about both technology and change. And it’s not the technology or the changes, really, but how fast they come. It’s hard to get my mind around them. I don’t have time to process the new information. I like my change to be nice and slow, so I’m hardly aware of it. But that’s not how it works usually, is it? Birth, death, those events, personal or civic, that happen often without warning. That’s what challenges me—maybe you, too. Like giving birth is painful, adapting to change can be painful, too—so that too often we resist even good changes.
Here’s another word to ponder this morning: apocalyptic. We often hear that word referring to zombies, as in “zombie apocalypse,” but apocalyptic actually means something being revealed or disclosed. Peter, James and John and the other disciples live in an apocalyptic age. The first century AD was a time of great turmoil for the people of the Middle East. A fresh word from God hadn’t been heard for centuries and people were looking everywhere for signs that God was still present, that God still cared about God’s people. Was something about to be revealed? The air was electric with anticipation. Of what no one knew for sure and then into the discouragement and the longing came the carpenter’s son from Nazareth.
Turns out that even though people were longing for a fresh word from God they didn’t really want anything to change. Jesus walked into the public arena and was immediately accused of blasphemy. Something new from God? Not on your life was the reaction of many, especially religious and civic leaders who had a stake in things staying just as they were. And even those who were drawn to Jesus were afraid that what he said and did would lead to disruption of everything they knew. It was like the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land: facing an unknown future, even with the reassurance of the Son of God, was too scary. Let’s hang on to what we know—even slavery to Pharaoh is better than trusting God’s way!
Like the first disciples, we live in an apocalyptic age ripe for revelation. We’re 19 years into the 21st century, 18 years past September 11, 2001; we’re still at war in Afghanistan, our most recent election sent many new people to Congress. Employment is great, the stock market is nervous, Alaska and Brazil are literally on fire—and we yearn for a fresh word from the Lord as we obsess about the future. And we, too, are a people living in fear. The air is electric with anticipation and discouragement and longing as life as we’ve known it tears at the seams. Many people are scanning the signs, looking for anything that will tell us what’s to come. If we can just read the signs correctly, if our intelligence data is good enough, if our economists can crunch the numbers well enough, then we can be prepared, the thinking goes. We’ll have choices, we’ll have control—that’s the best way to cope with change—right?
I imagine the disciples aren’t all that happy with Jesus for bringing up the end of the world—and neither are we. The Temple in Jerusalem was one of the grandest, most beautiful buildings ever built, and part of its beauty and fascination was the belief that God’s presence on earth was centered there. Though the disciples had seen the Temple before, I imagine it never ceased to awe them. And now they’re seeing it with Jesus, their teacher and friend. Is he as impressed as they are? Apparently not so much. See that big beautiful building? See those magnificent twin towers? Now imagine it knocked to the ground, is how he answers their awe. I doubt they’re ready to hear what he says—about the walls coming down and the wars and the famine and all the rest. We don’t want bad news—can’t we just relax and enjoy life? Didn’t Jesus come to bring peace on earth, joy to the world?
As he sits on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple, Jesus is talking about the end of the Temple—which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and never rebuilt, changing the lives of the Jewish people forever. He’s also talking about events that will lead to the end of the world at some unknowable point in the future —people may obsess about that even today, but it’s still unknowable. Mostly Jesus is speaking about himself, about the end of his life and the agony to come for him and for his followers. In just a few days their lives will change forever and he’s putting it all in the context of God’s bigger plans. The birth pangs of a kingdom being born that is more magnificent than any Temple, any towers built by human hands, more intimate than any being born of flesh and blood. For Jesus to rise again, he must die. For the disciples to gain their lives, they must lose them. In God’s way, for there to be winners we must be losers. And it won’t be easy and it will seem that the very foundations are crumbling. Yet God promises a winning outcome —God promises to do a new thing. And for the new thing to come, the former thing must pass away. Cliché, but true: we have to let go and let God.
Change happens no matter what—often it’s the anticipation that causes us the most grief. A Chinese poet, Lao Tzu, wrote that “life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them—that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” “Don’t be alarmed,” Jesus says to his friends and yet they must have been alarmed anyway. The signs and signals and birth pains of change have a way of making most of us fearful and anxious as we dig in our heels and resist. But his message is one of hope that all our times are in God’s care and keeping. It’s through Jesus the Christ that we see God and God’s purposes for creation. It’s through Jesus that we come to know God in a way that wipes out our fear and replaces it with love. When all around us crumbles, the empty cross, signifying God’s win over suffering and death, still stands. After the birth pains comes the joy of new life.