Making a Difference

November 18, 2018

(Proper 28/ 26th Sunday after Pentecost / the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

1 Samuel 1:4-20

Mark 13:1-8

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

 

13:1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs. (Mark 13:1-8, NRSV)

 

Let us Pray – God our rock, you create all moments of our lives, giving each its meaning and purpose. Strengthen us to continually witness to the love of Jesus Christ, that we may hold fast in times of trial, even to the end of the ages. Amen.

 

We like Jesus most of the time, don’t we?  I mean what is not to like about turning water into wine, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, welcoming children?  All that is great!  But what about the Jesus who we meet today in this apocalyptic story?  He is not so likeable, is he?

 

This Jesus sounds kind of like the guy, I have seen on the street corner with a bullhorn shouting out that we had better get right with God, because hell is hot. He shouts out a litany of sins for which he believes there is no forgiveness.  But that is for another sermon. You know the guy I am talking about, I have seen him at Taste of Cincinnati and most recently I saw him on the corner near Kenwood Mall.

What do you do when you see someone standing on the sidewalk screaming about the end of the world, our destruction, and false messiahs?

 

Do you stop and listen?  Do you shout back at them?  Or do you casually cross to the other side of the street to avoid them at all costs?

 

In the story from Mark, we find Jesus and his disciples as they are leaving the Temple where Jesus has been teaching.  As they are leaving one of his disciples, notices the size of the Temple, and blurts out, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”

 

Now Jesus has been doing some serious teaching, so the remark from the disciple seems to come straight out of left field.  Jesus has been discussing their mutual obligation to God and to the Empire.  Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  In response to their inquiry regarding the greatest commandment Jesus said, “Love God with all your heart… and your neighbor as yourself.”  They’ve just had a stewardship lesson as Jesus pointed to a widow who gave her last two pennies, and then Jesus said about her that she had given more than even the most generous, rich member of the community.

 

Jesus had been imparting a lot of truth, deep truth.  So, while it may seem odd that a disciple is distracted by the architecture and the size of the Temple.  Perhaps it really isn’t.  Perhaps, the truth, the deep truth, is at times too much for us; we need a distraction. “Hey, guys, look at this building and check out these large stones!”

 

They were very large stones.  According to the first century historian, Josephus, they were massive stones: thirty-seven feet long, twelve feet high, eighteen feet wide.  The Temple must have been an impressive structure. The Romans destroyed the Temple in the year 70 C.E., all but part of the west wall, which remains to this day.[1]

 

After 70 C.E., anyone, hearing of Jesus’ words about the destruction of the Temple, must have been in awe of his prophetic powers.  They must have also wondered how, a building so massive, so impressive, and so permanent could be thrown to the ground, it must mean the end of the world.

 

What was it Jesus said? “Do not be alarmed…”

 

Then Peter, Andrew, and James privately offer a follow up question: When will this happen?  Jesus does not directly answer their question, but he does admit that no one knows when it will happen.

 

All the natural disasters, violence, wars, and the struggles of our world it is enough to make you wonder.

 

A recent cartoon in “The New Yorker Magazine” pictures two people on the street, carrying signs. One reads, “The end is near for ecological reasons.” The other says, “The end is near for religious reasons.”

 

People have different reasons, but as Pheme Perkins writes, every major world crisis brings its share of books describing events as evidence that the signs in the Book of Revelation are being fulfilled.  Perkins speculates that such claims are a way that human beings try to make sense of traumatic upheavals.

Here’s how Jesus makes sense of these upsetting disturbances, when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; they must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

 

Jesus clearly does not want his disciples or anyone else for that matter to read more into the trauma and chaos of his prognostication than they should.  What is happening now is not the end, but instead it is the beginning.  The beginning of a period that will only come to an end in God’s good time.   “Do not be alarmed… This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”    Just as labor pains are a hopeful, wonderful indication of good things to come.  Do not be alarmed; something is being born.  The Apostle Paul puts it this way, “The creation is groaning in expectation.”[2]

 

Jesus takes seriously the reality of suffering, both the suffering of his hearers or our suffering today.  He doesn’t ignore the pain and death in our world.  He is not ignoring the terrorism or the wars or the genocide or the fires or floods or the more personal traumas of human life.  Jesus is not a Pollyanna, he is not denying pain.  Yet, when he compares suffering to birth pangs, he makes a rather radical and comforting theological claim: In the Kingdom of God, suffering has a purpose… it does not, lead to despair, instead it leads to hope, to the anticipated dawn of God’s new day.  Something is being born.

 

And Jesus’ words encourage us to persevere.  So, often we think that our efforts might seem meaningless in the face of the difficult events and troubling news of our day, but we are encouraged to press on, to keep going.  This is not the end; these are birth pangs. Something’s being born.

 

I read an interview recently with Reverend Calvin Butts, he is the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City.  It is located just north of 125th street in Harlem; it is a beautiful old Gothic Church that rises up above that street in all of its Gothic splendor.  Reverend Butts was asked to describe the ministry and work of his church.  He said, from the spire of that old church one can see just about anything that you could want to see.  Or perhaps more accurately, just about everything that you would not want to see.[3]

 

Blocks and blocks of burned-out apartment buildings.  Shabby little pawn shops, boarded-up storefronts, roach-infested bodegas…vacant lots, which have become illegal dumps.  The street corners are run by prostitutes and crack dealers who ply their trades.  Nights in this neighborhood are punctuated by the sounds of gunfire and sirens, and in the daytime, you can see the school-age kids roaming the streets in gangs.

 

You would think that churches – even big ones like Abyssinian Baptist Church – would want to move out of this sort of neighborhood to somewhere else.  But there they are!  In the middle of Harlem, they just keep on hoping through the birth pangs.  Under Reverend Butts’ leadership, they have set up latchkey programs for children so they have a safe place to go after school, they have put together neighborhood redevelopment agencies, they’ve conducted successful boycotts against corporations that price-gouge the poor, they’ve set up Bible studies in the near-by housing projects.

 

In this interview the writer asked Reverend Butts, “Yeah, sure, you’re doing great stuff; but is it making a difference?  It is hard to see any success in all you do, so what keeps you folks going?  What gives you hope?”

Reverend Butts responded, “Here’s what gives us hope and keeps us going. We’ve read the Bible, and we know how it ends. We aren’t at the end yet,” he said, “but we know how it ends, and that makes all the difference in the world.”

 

We, too, have read our Bibles; and we, too, know how it ends, don’t we? That’s what keeps us going, keeps us supporting IPM and MEAC, volunteering the PWC and Saturday Hoops, and sheltering homeless families with IHN; and feeding the hungry through MEAC and IPM and La Soup, the Free Store Food Bank, it is what keeps us doing our part in the full confidence that we are sharing in God’s grand plan.

 

Life can be overwhelming.  The world seems to be in such a mess, and our efforts so insignificant.  But we believe Jesus words: These are but birth pangs. This isn’t the end of the story.  It’s the beginning.  But we know how it ends. It ends with God.

 

Let us pray:

 

 

 

[1] Reverend Dr. KC Ptomey, A Homily on Mark 13:1 10, Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, November 19, 2006. The Westminster Pulpit Sermons Preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church 3900 West End Avenue Nashville, Tennessee 37205-1899.

 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.