Saturday, March 16, 2024

“It’s the End of the World As We Know It” - March 17, 2024

Text: Mark 13:1-8, 24-37

Susan and I had a friend back in Illinois, a retired pastor named Dick.  Dick had a bowl of cereal for breakfast every morning.  His system was that he had five boxes of cereal and he would rotate each morning which cereal he would eat that day.  He told us that one of the cereals he ate he really didn’t care for.  

We asked him, “Why on the world would you have a cereal you don’t like in your breakfast rotation?”  And he told us, “It’s a good discipline.”

I thought about Dick this week.  We have been making our way through Mark’s gospel.  Some passages are tougher than others, but I have to confess that I am not all that enamored with the scripture for today.  I considered skipping it, but then I thought of Dick.  “It’s a good discipline.”

The 13th chapter of Mark is sometimes called the “Little Apocalypse.”  My inclination is to avoid preaching on such apocalyptic passages that can be confusing and lead to all kinds of wild speculation.  And I suppose I have too many memories of my youth, when people I knew were overly enthusiastic about the Rapture and end of the world scenarios and the Mark of the Beast and so forth.  

But we have been reading from Mark since the beginning of the year.  We have tried to follow the story line, and it doesn’t seem fair to Mark to ignore it, so here we are in chapter 13.  And it’s good discipline.

Jesus has been in the temple complex, made up of buildings and outdoor areas and an outer wall.  He has been teaching and responding to detractors.  He has just answered a question about which was the greatest commandment and then made an observation about a widow who gave her two coins, which we looked at last week.  As Jesus and his disciples left the temple, some of his disciples commented on how magnificent it all was.  “Look at those massive stones,” they say.  “Look at these ginormous buildings.”

The temple dominated the Jerusalem skyline.  While not as extravagant as the first temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, this second temple was nevertheless very impressive.  

Like everything in the ancient world, construction was done with manual labor.  And it really is amazing to see the massive structures built in antiquity and contemplate how in the world they moved such massive stones and managed to build such impressive structures.   

Micah Kiehl reports that when later Greeks saw the stonework from abandoned Bronze Age settlements, they called the style “cyclopean” because, to their eye, the only way such large stones could have been moved and arranged would be if a Cyclops had done it.  Many of the stones used in construction of the temple were about 2.5 x 3.5 x 15 feet and weighed about 28 tons, but some weighed well over 100 tons.  Think about moving and setting a 100 ton stone in the ancient world.  The temple in Jerusalem was a monumental structure.  The disciples didn’t just see this kind of thing every day.  They were rural folk from Galilee.  Of course they commented on what a phenomenal building it was.

But Jesus is not thinking about stonework or architecture right now.  He is in the midst of the last week of his life.  His arrest and death are near.  He says, “Yeah, these are big buildings.  And guess what: it is all coming down.  Not one stone will be left upon another.”

“From there, it only gets worse,” he says.  “False prophets will lead people astray.  There will be arrests and persecutions.  There will be earthquakes, famine, suffering, the sun will go dark and the heavens will be shaken.  And then the Son of Man will come in great glory.”

I read passages like this and that song starts playing in my head: “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.”  Images of wild-eyed prophets on street corners with signs saying “The End Is Near” come to mind.  Folks who have maybe overdosed on Bible prophecy announce the exact day that the world will end, and how the elect (which somehow always includes them) will be saved while there will literally be hell to pay for everybody else.

But you know, it isn’t just that particular Christian subset, God love ‘em, that sees an end of the world coming.  This is a time of anxiety for an awful lot of people.  

We can list off the concerns.  Ecological and environmental threats: global warming, rising sea levels, increased drought, more extreme weather, wildfires, water shortages, climate refugees.

And then the rise of terrorism, both global and domestic.  Gun violence and mass shootings.  A dysfunctional political system and the specter of political violence.  Increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots.  An increasingly uncivil society.  And as our text puts it, “wars and rumors of war,” which certainly describes our world today.

A lot of people are anxious.  Many of us are feeling anxious.   In times of trouble and stress and persecution and great fear, apocalyptic literature and language is often employed.

One commentator said, “Contrary to what you have been led to believe, when Jesus goes apocalyptic, and talks of the end, he’s not predicting the future; he is speaking of the precariousness of the present.  This temple, this world, is not as stable, not as eternal as it appears.”

Scholars believe that Mark was written sometime around 70 AD.  Guess what happened in 70 AD?  The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.  It was a cataclysmic event for Israel.  The temple was the center of worship and national life, and it was a powerful symbol of the nation, going back centuries, back to the temple that preceded it and all the way to King Solomon.  

Without the temple, it was hard to imagine that they could even exist as a people.  Take 9/11 and multiply it a hundredfold, and you start to get a sense of what the loss of the temple meant to the national consciousness.  This was very much on the minds of Mark’s first readers.  

It really was The End of the World as They Knew It.  And this is exactly what Jesus is talking about.  This temple, this magnificent structure that holds so much meaning, that represents so much – it is just a building.  It is just a building made of stones, even if they are big stones, and it is all coming down.

But Jesus is saying more than that.  He is working on more than one level.  Jesus has three different times spoken of the destruction of the temple that is his own body, and of rising again after three days.  After he is arrested, accusers will conflate the two temples, saying “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’”

While Jesus may have been speaking of the temple, he is also speaking of himself.  Much of the language and imagery of this chapter comes to pass in Jesus’ passion and death.  Jesus says “Stay awake” – which he will repeat to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The sun will turn dark – which we read as happening during the crucifixion.  The temple will be destroyed – which happened in 70 AD, but which in a sense takes place when Jesus is crucified, as the curtain of the temple is torn in two.  And the glory of God will be seen – as voiced by the Roman centurion, who said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

This was as much about the present as it was the future.

Jesus is near the end.  And when you are near the end, there is a lot of fear.  There is a lot of anxiety.  There is a lot of pain.  In one way or another, we all know about this.  We have all experienced those times when it seems to be “The End of the World as We Know It.”

Before moving to Ames, we lived in the small town of Arthur, Illinois – that’s where we knew Dick, the guy who had cereal every day.  The high school was very small, with around 150 students.  For such a small school, they had an excellent music program and an award-winning show choir and did very well in sports.  The football team had made the regional playoffs.  The town took great pride in these accomplishments.  But there was one group in particular.  

There was a group of girls in the same grade.  In 5th grade, 6th grade, you could see how talented they were in basketball.  This group was special.  When they were freshmen, the high school team started 4 freshmen and a senior, and one of those freshmen was the star of the team.  As the years went on, this team made the playoffs, but inevitably had to play a school 4 or 5 times its size with two 6’3” post players and didn’t advance very far.

But when those girls were seniors, there were great expectations.  The star player would be going on to play Division 1 basketball.  The team had been playing together for years and knew how to play together.  They started those same 4 players, all seniors now, and one junior.

In the first round, they played a powerhouse team from a school of 750 students.  Not many people gave them a chance, but they won easily.  Folks were talking about going to state.  It was our own version of Hoosiers.  I went with a friend to the second round of playoffs.  And it was awesome; again, we were crushing a much bigger school.  The mood was absolutely jubilant.  

Early in the second half, our star was driving to the basket when her knee gave out.  She collapsed in a heap on the floor.  The crowd, which had been cheering and celebrating, became deathly silent.  You could hear a pin drop.  Our star was carried off the floor.  Nobody had to say a word.  We all knew what this meant.  The other players held on to win that game, but that was it.  Literally years of hoping and dreaming, and it all ended with a torn ACL.

I am not equating missing out on a chance for a championship with some of the deep pain that life can throw at us.  But there are those moments when everything suddenly changes.  There are those moments when it seems to be The End of the World As We Know It.

You lose a job.  Immediately there are concerns over paying your bills, but it can be more than that.  Your job may have been a big part of your identity, and you are not sure what you are going to do.  Where will you live, will you have to move, what about the kids?   

Tyson Foods announced the closure of its plant in Perry this week, and a lot of people are feeling like it is the end of the world as they know it.  

You or a loved one receive a difficult diagnosis.  It hits you like a ton of bricks, and you know that life will literally never be the same.  

You go through a breakup.  You go through a divorce, and in an instant you know that your future will take a different course from what you had planned for and hoped for.

A parent, or spouse, or friend dies.  A child dies.  The world will never be the same.

We have all experienced, in different ways and to different degrees, “The End of the World as We Know It.”  We read this chapter in Mark, and it seems very dark.  It is depressing.  There is a reason that a lot of preachers steer clear of it.  And yet, there is hope to be found here.

William Willimon told about a student mission trip to Honduras.  A group was working in an impoverished village at a health clinic.  Each night they built a fire and sat around the fire singing with villagers.  One night a student had the bright idea that they all go around and share their favorite Bible verse.  Of course, some didn’t have much of a favorite verse – some mentioned John 3:16 or “The Lord is my shepherd.”  And then a Honduran woman said through an interpreter that her favorite verse was from Mark 13.  “Not one stone will be left, there will be earthquakes and famine and fire.”  She said, “That passage has always been such a comfort to me.”

Willimon was stunned.  How could this possibly be a comfort?  It sounds more like Jesus having a really bad day.  How could a warning of coming apocalypse be comforting?  
But then a nurse told Willimon, “I was talking with that woman.  She has given birth five times and three of her children have died due to malnutrition.”

We hear that God is going to dismantle all of this, upend the status quo, and it sounds frightening.  The way things are is not too bad for most of us.  But for this woman, the status quo has been hell.  And the notion that God was going to end all of this and turn this world upside down was welcome.  It was hopeful.  

That is where she found hope in Mark’s Apocalypse.  But what about us?  Jesus says that when all of this happens, it will be but the beginning of the birth pangs.  The beginning of something brand new.

That is the way it often works.  We may suffer loss that is devastating, but it can lead to something new.  An ending may serve as a beginning of something else.  Sometimes, it is only after suffering painful loss that we are open to new possibilities.  Sometimes, on the other side of loss comes new life.  As we will celebrate two Sundays from now, after death can come resurrection.

Jesus warns his friends that changes are coming, changes that will shake the earth, and so they should be ready.  But it is not only the end.  It is also the beginning.

We need to keep awake, says Jesus.  We need to pay attention.  Be awake to the life we have right here, right now.  And pay attention because God’s kingdom is coming, and it is changing everything.  Even in the midst of a time filled with anxiety, there is hope, and there is life.  Amen.


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