Tuesday, November 29, 2011

a word we can rely on


"Words that won’t pass away"
Mark 13: 24-37

Woody Allen once said that at “more than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and the other to total extinction.” He then added, “let us pray for the wisdom to choose correctly.” There’s an American poet that was quoted as saying that “if we see any light at the end of the tunnel, it’s the light of an oncoming train.”

I think it’s fair to say we live in a pessimistic world. You know, after a while life just has its way with us. The things we love, the things we rely on, all seem to pass away. And while this experience of the things we love passing away may be unique to each one of us, we all know that gut-wrenching feeling. Because – to live is to constantly change and when everything’s always changing some good things just come to an end. Our time in college ends. Our children grow up, they move out of the house– our time with them ends. Watching the things we love, the things we rely on, pass away is just part of the human experience. And yet, it’s an experience that can cause so much suffering.

Now, to put today’s Gospel in its proper context, Jesus has just finished warning his disciples about a time of great suffering. And to be more specific, he predicts the destruction of the Jewish temple. And for Jews in Jesus’ day, the Temple was the epitome of everything they loved and relied on. For some, the Temple was the sole mediator in their relationship with God. The temple was God’s home, where God literally chose to dwell. It’s also where sacrifices for sin were offered and accepted by God. And so the forgiveness of sin was mediated through Temple. I mean, that’s a pretty big deal! And so imagine what the disciples were feeling when Jesus told them that the temple would pass away. In other words, what Jesus predicts, and what Mark is looking back on, was a real historical event. In 70 AD the Jewish Temple was obliterated by the Romans, which means that from the perspective of many devout Jews, God’s home was demolished. How does one even begin to articulate what it’s like for the center of one’s religious world to pass away? Well, borrowing the imagery of their Hebrew Scriptures, they talk about how the sun and the moon just stop giving light; about how even the stars fell from the heavens. And so today’s Gospel lesson actually isn’t about Jesus predicting the end of the world. But that doesn’t mean that faithful Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t wish that he had. Because when the Temple passed away, so did their hope. After all, it was a symbol for everything they loved and everything they relied on. And it passed away. And it left them wondering, and it leaves us wondering, is there anything good that will last?

As a Church I suspect that’s a question you’re wrestling with. A week from today is your rector’s last Sunday. For the last 10 or so years Fr. Puckett has been your leader. His leadership has been good, and you’ve relied on it. But his time here is passing away. And let’s be honest. Patrick Hall isn’t too far behind. His time at Holy Spirit is also passing away. Now, I know that to most of you Fr. Puckett and Fr. Hall represent everything that’s good and everything you love about this church, and you’re probably having a really hard time imagining the future of this place without them. Well, I think the lectionary was looking out for you because there’s a word or two in today’s Gospel that God would have you hear.

First, when life gets the toughest, when our pain is the greatest, and when our fear threatens to undo us, that’s actually the moment that Jesus Christ is closest to us. As Jesus puts it in today’s Gospel, “when you see these things taking place” – remember, these horrible, world ending things – “you know that the Son of Man is near.” And so that’s the first word God would have you hear this morning. In the midst of whatever scary change you find yourself in, as a church and as individuals, Jesus Christ is near: “at the very gates.”

Second, because Jesus is near, this is a time more so than ever that as a church you resolve to “keep awake.” It’s a season to expect, to prepare, to work and to wait. More so than ever, this is not the time for the people of Holy Spirit to take a spiritual nap. No, it’s the time to chew on Revelation 21:5, which says “Behold, I am making all things new.” It’s a time to pray, to get intentional about reading scripture, to take responsibility for the future of this parish, to get more serious about leadership and evangelism; this is a time to get more serious about Jesus and about the place Jesus has in our lives. “For you do not know when the master of the house will come,” but when he does let’s not let him find you asleep.

You see, there is no room for pessimism in the Christian faith. The word Gospel doesn’t mean good advice, it means good news. Christianity is news; the good news that heaven and earth may pass away, but that Jesus’ word never will. And what is that word that Jesus speaks to the people of Holy Spirit? As he says in Matthew, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age;” or in Hebrews, “I will never leave you or forsake you;” or in John, “I go to prepare a place for you.” Heaven and earth may pass away; but Jesus’ word never will.

And it’s important to Jesus that we know that, which is what today’s Gospel is about. It’s Jesus reminding the Church that the Temple, the economy, your health, your loved ones, your job, your peace of mind, your marriage, your rector, your associate, your time in college, your time with your kids, heaven and earth itself – they may all pass away. Even the stars may fall and the sun stop shining. Those lights may pass away. But my light, my word, my promise never will.

And that’s why chronic pessimism has no place in Christianity. The promise of God is that with Jesus’ arrival the Kingdom of God has already been launched and that a future day will arrive when the Kingdom of God is all that will last. And so on this first Sunday of Advent – a Latin word that literally means “arrival” – this is exactly what we celebrate. Today we’ve gathered to celebrate because God’s Kingdom has already been established, and because a day will arrive when God’s kingdom will come on this earth as it is in heaven.

And because of this, Advent is a season of hope, which isn’t to be confused with optimism. Optimism is built on the conviction that the old order of things will eventually get better, that we’ll somehow manage to repair it. But hope is much different. Hope is built on the conviction that a new order of things, a new Kingdom, already exists – and that one day the King himself will repair everything that’s good, and everything we love, about the old order of things. And so don’t be pessimistic. Advent’s not the season to be gloomy or sad or scared. On the contrary, it’s time to be intentionally hopeful. It’s a time to expect. It’s a time to prepare for the new thing God wants to do in our midst. It’s a time to prepare for the new thing God wants to do in this community. Jesus has given us his word – he’s at work even now making all things new – and Jesus’ word will never pass away.

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