Getting Back on Track: Going for It
[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/sermons/11-15-09.MP3] I Samuel 2 Mark 13:1-8
We have come to the end of the sermon series we began in September of Getting Back on Track. Through that sermon series, we have been talking about how it is the life knocks us off and how often it is that we find ourselves on unsteady footing. There are things that we can do, and things that we can remember, that might help us to get back on track. We're ending today with an introduction to the series we are going to begin next week as we look forward to Advent and the upcoming Christmas season.
This is a really weird text. It reminds me, in an odd way, of the story Tug McGraw and Willie Stargell. Tug McGraw started out as a pitcher for the Mets and then moved on to the Phillies where he was most well known for being a relief pitcher. One of the batters he often faced was Willie Stargell, the great Pirate slugger. The Phillies and the Pirates, especially in the late seventies, were battling back and forth for the pennant, so McGraw and Stargell would often end up facing each other in these close games. Tug McGraw was once asked, “How do you settle yourself down in those relief situations?” He responded by saying, “get up there, and I’d look at Willie Stargell, and then, I’d think, ‘You know the sun is going to expand in a couple thousand years, and earth will be destroyed, so it doesn’t really matter what Willie Stargell does right now with the bases loaded and two outs.’” So he would calm down and he would pitch. Now that’s perspective.
There is a helpful way that this might illustrate our text in which Jesus is talking about cataclysmic, chaotic thingsk about the end coming and destruction and wars and violence and persecution. But I think it’s important to read this text with little bit of caution. It's my conviction that within the Church (broadly defined) that there is an affliction to read these kind of passages, and indeed all of the prophecies of Scripture, allegorically. In other words, to take these as predictions of specific events to come. Preachers take texts like this and try and figure out which wars and rumors of wars Jesus is talking about. Nation will rise against nation? Well, that must be Iran against Israel! Earthquakes? There was one in Iran. There’s this desire to figure out which of these signs Jesus s describing is being fulfilled right now. I think that's a dangerous way to read prophecy.
For one thing, if you look at all of these descriptions that Jesus gives of wars, or rumors of wars, of nation rising up against nation, of earthquakes and famines, of people of faith being persecuted for their beliefs, can we really name of time in history when this has not been true? It is certainly true in our time and place, but it is was no less true during World War Two, or in the nineteenth century, or in the seventeenth century, or even in Jesus’ times. These conditions are descriptions of a permanent human condition of chaos and violence. And secondly, it's important to remember that we are people as Christians who believe that the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah were fulfilled in Jesus. The sun did not fall from the skies; the seas were not turned to blood; and yet, we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, despite the specifics of what Old Testament prophets might have said.
This is an odd text. It is all taking place in Jerusalem, in the heart of the religious and national identity of the Jewish people. Jesus is in the Temple, and then they head up to the Mount of Olives. The disciples are marveling at these incredible structures. Jesus says, “These are not all that great. They’re going to crumble.” And it paints this picture which is not allegory. It's not meant to be read with this one-to-one correspondence (who’s the nation, where’s the earthquake, etc.), but rather it paints a picture of context, of life, of experience.
When I was younger, I was a big fan of Greek mythology. I loved to read the stories. Reading this story, I couldn't help but think about the ancient oracles. I was reminded of the story of Perseus. The oracle about Perseus came to his grandfather King Acricius, that his grandson was going to kill him. So the King, trying to avoid this prophecy, locks his only daughter in a basement dungeon. Zeus decided that the daughter, Danae, was beautiful, and came to her. And Perseus was born nine months later, to put it delicately. King Acricius, keeping this prophecy in mind, takes the daughter and the grandson and puts them in a chest, locks it, and sends it to Sea. It lands on another beach, and both mother and child survive. Perseus goes on to be this great Greek hero, and the grandfather never knows anything about any of this. Many, many years later, Perseus is competing in an Olympic games, throwing a discus. The wind catches it, and guess who it hits?
If prophecy is true, and these are the kinds of things that are to come, there may not be much we can do about them. Jesus is facing betrayal, trial, crucifixion. This is all coming within a matter of days, within a matter of a few verses here. But he doesn't turn from the situation. He decides to head into Jerusalem anyway. Now this text is very difficult to interpret. Is this just a word to the disciples? Is Jesus just speaking to those four disciples who have approached him, asking him for signs? Because these are things that are going to happen to them. They will be brought before councils and synagogues. They will be put to death. They will be persecuted. If it’s only to them, then this is merely history. Is the word to all that follow, including us? Then this is fearsome.
Christianity is not, in the mold of Greek mythology, a fatalistic faith. But I do wonder, if these things are to be, is there anything we can do about them happening?
It’s because of the difficulty of these texts that the allegorical interpretation can be so enticing. But I want to propose to you that there might be a different way of treating these texts. I may be underselling this, but I think that I can summarize Jesus' description here in a few simple words: “Life is tough.” Especially the life of the faithful. Life is difficult. It is not easy. Chaos comes. Life is unpredictable. There are wars. There are rumors of wars. Countries are in conflict. Being faithful will not always lead to being successful in the way the world defines it. Relationships can be severed. Families can be torn apart.
But: God is still at work. If it were not so, I don't think Jesus would have headed into Jerusalem. From where he sat on the Mount of Olives, knowing what was to come, would he have gone into Jerusalem if he didn't know that God could be trusted? So maybe this text is encouraging us to be faithful, but not reckless. Trust that God is at work and know that Jesus has already triumphed. It's only a few verses before the story gets a lot worse, especially for Jesus. He is betrayed by one of his closest disciples. He is taken into a trial before Pontius Pilate. He is crucified, he dies, he is buried. But then, if you think this story is weird, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The tomb is empty. Jesus is raised. Death is defeated. Jesus has triumphed.
This, to me, is the very thing that undergirds our faith. We do the things that we do, we do actions that we consider merciful and gracious, not because we want to avoid the things that are coming; not because we think that if we are good enough we will get into heaven. Instead, we do these things because this has already been accomplished. Jesus has accomplished forgiveness for us. Jesus has triumphed on our behalf. And when we know that, when we know enough to trust that, then our response is gratitude. It is giving generously of ourselves, recognizing that God is always at work.
This story may apply to you in very different ways. I've been struggling with it, both personally and pastorally, trying to find some way that it connects to life. It struck me that there are some ways where this whole conversation about God being a work, even when the foundations of the earth are shaking, might have something to say to us as a church in the midst of a stewardship campaign. I'm always hesitant to talk about money in church, recognizing that your generosity pays my salary. So take my words with a grain of salt.
I do think that it fits within this conversation. Over the past few years, and indeed, throughout our history, we have struggled with money as a church for a long time. From what I have experienced, I commend you what I have seen to be Session leadership on this issue. Your elders do not take their financial responsibility for this church lightly. Instead, they wrestle with him. And I also want to commend you, and all those who have come before, for your generosity and your stewardship of our gifts. It is because of all of these things that we are able to have the conversations as leadership of the church that we're having now. We have been, and I expect that we will be, in a short-term debt-spending mode. We're spending more than we're taking in. It is my conviction that we're not doing this with abandon; we're not doing this recklessly; but we're doing it with a deep sense of faith and gratitude and trust that God is at work.
The fundamental reason that we're doing this is that our fellowship is a precious one. I’ve heard from many of you about why you come week after week, why you are involved, why you give of yourself to this place and to this community. This place is an amazing gift to the broader community. And it is my conviction that our community can continue to be a vessel of grace for those who seek to know God, for those who've been taught about God in harmful ways, for those who have never heard of God in the first place. The bottom line, no matter what might come, is that the heart of our text is good news. This good news comes to us, to all those who are struggling with life and what we can see. Because this morning as we read this text, just beyond, in the verses to come, is what we cannot see: the promise of life everlasting. The promise that God is that God is with us no matter what. The promise that Jesus has already triumphed and accomplished it all. What is left to us is the possibility to respond in gratitude and in thanksgiving. May we do so this day and always. Amen.