I Believe in Life after Birth

A sermon on Mark 13:1-8

November 14, 2021

Let us pray,

O God, you teach us to hope for a better world and place our trust in you. Give us the courage to keep hoping and trusting even when all seems lost. Give us the strength to carry on even when we don’t know where we are going. Give us patience to wait for your timing. Give us creativity to work towards a better world with You. Surprise us with better days. Amen.

Grace and peace to you, dear friends in Christ from God our Father!

Autumn is by far my favorite time of year. Of all the seasons we are so fortunate to observe, however long or briefly, autumn’s nature feels most promising to me. I relish the hidden beauty in the dying that takes place in this quieting season. Autumn brings a sense of comfort and calm after the rush of growing and maintaining summer’s vibrant splendor. But as is so often the case in life, suddenly the warm days with gold and rust-hued pleasantries disappear. Almost overnight the golden glory in the trees can be stripped away, and the lollygaggers are left to wither and shrivel in a boring brown descent to the dead of winter. The vibrancy of life interrupted by the suddenness of death.

We are midway through the season of autumn, but we have reached the end of the church year, and this will be our last foray in Mark – the Gospel that began with a bang – now we take leave of equally so! In two weeks, we will begin to prepare again for a birth.

Yes, life is a continual series of – endings – that give way to seeds of new life. As writer Parker Palmer puts forth “The hopeful notion that new life is hidden in dying is surely reinforced by the visual glories of autumn. (Indeed,) what artist would paint a deathbed scene with the vibrant and vital palette nature uses?”

Unfortunately for us, life apart from the rhythms of nature is rarely so poetic.

I remember the day I woke up in the ICU unable to move freely but able to clearly hear the hushed and anguished voices of my parents. I remember the day I lost the job that I loved, that had defined me and given me a place of recognition in the community. I remember the shock of my mother’s death, my father’s cancer diagnosis a month later, and his death a year after that. I remember the day my marriage ended, and I remember (all too well this damp stormy morning) the day I broke my foot – bringing an abrupt end to my life as a long-distance runner.

With each of these events, one of the great temples of my life was thrown down. The stones that I had built my life upon and around no longer stood. My life would never be the same again and in those moments, I felt completely lost. Each stone or pillar that crumbled took away my sense of certainty, identity, and my place in this world.

Believe it or not, whether you have painful Lego bricks underfoot or not, we are all master architects. We’ve been employed in the trade from our first recognition of ourselves as independent beings. Our area of specialty – temples. Temples of persona, relationships, beliefs, institutions, roles, reputations, and dreams, and sometimes even illusions. Stone upon stone we build them with the idea that these great structures will provide us meaning and direction, identity and value, security and order to our life and our world.

The temple into today’s gospel served much of the same purpose to the Jewish people. More than just a magnificent building, it was the center and anchor of Jewish life. It provided identity, structure, and meaning – the same as do our temples of today.

As a quick recap, when we were last in Mark, Jesus had just given new sight to the roadside beggar on his way to Jerusalem with his disciples. He has since entered Jerusalem to much fanfare (think Palms and donkeys) but it has been pretty much one confrontation after another with the religious authorities since that festive day. Herodians, Pharisees, and scribes – aligning themselves in various and surprising combinations – trying to trap and discredit him, even at times plotting his death. Jesus has been squaring off with his opponents, sometimes with parables and sometimes calling them out quite blatantly. He denounced the seemingly righteous scribe, called out the exploitive religious leaders of the temple, and raised up the poor widow who gave all she had to the temple coffers, easily exceeding the righteousness of those giving what they thought was just enough to satisfy their obligation.

Now, Jesus and His disciples have  left the temple – for the last time until his trial and execution – and all this disciple can muster in response to what he has seen Jesus do is a “by golly gee whiz wowzers” of an exclamation about Jerusalem’s main attraction: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings.”

What the disciple saw was an architectural marvel. Likely the biggest, boldest, and most unshakeable symbol of God’s presence he could imagine. Massive stones that held religious memory and bolstered the people’s identity. Like our Capitol building, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and yes even our iron Jesus out front. The massive gold and marble stones served as a potent symbol of spiritual glory, pride, and worthiness. What took the disciple’s breath away and likely everything he had just witnessed Jesus doing and teaching as he gazed at the temple, was the sense of religious certainty and permanence those glittering stones displayed to the world.

Jesus doesn’t quite see things the same way. He sees ruins. He sees the rubble, destruction, fragility, and impermanence such trust and value in the temple and its broken systems will bring. “Not one stone will be left here upon another,” Jesus tells the stunned disciple. “All will be thrown down.”

Today’s passage from Mark is often alluded to as “The Little Apocalypse.” Called the Olivet Discourse, it is but a snippet from a larger teaching of Jesus here on the Mount of Olives where he speaks of the last days and his second coming.

Jesus stuns his disciples with his ominous foretelling of the last days and His second coming. But his words were not intended to lead his followers (including us for that matter) to speculate on when the last day and his second coming would come to pass. Rather, he meant to encourage them and us to live lives in such a way that we are always prepared.

Too often we think of apocalypse as the end of the world – a time of fiery judgment and something to fear. Some might say we are in the middle of one now. It certainly feels that way – earthquakes shake the foundations of our world while fires scorch her surface, floods overwhelm our cities, while water is nowhere to be found. A sense of scarcity leaves us empty and constantly searching, our own nation is turning on itself while wars of power and rightness and the rumors of such wars divide and fragment the unity of our lives and relationships. Some aspects of our modern culture perpetuate the us versus them judgment day belief – think the Left Behind series that was popular for a while or tune into any cable news talk show.

My own concept of apocalypse was formed by family friends who preached fervently the need to repent and that “those” people were surely damned on Judgement Day.  When the TV movie The Day After premiered in 1983 – maybe one of the last movies the whole country watched together – it left the 11-year-old me terrified of the imminent nuclear apocalypse – I was sure that our end was soon, and I was terrified that I might be away from my family when it came. But it was not the end – thankfully our instantaneous disintegration did not come to pass – but many other ends in life certainly have.

Apocalypse is actually something quite different – not nearly so lethal but at times may be a bit disconcerting. As theologian Debi Thomas writes, “An apocalypse is an unveiling. A disclosure of something secret and hidden. To experience an apocalypse is to experience fresh sight. Honest disclosure. Accurate revelation. It is to apprehend reality as we’ve never apprehended it before.”

Jesus knew how dire the consequences would be for his followers in the days to come and that to reach his followers he had to stun them to impress upon them how important it was not to shore up their lives in something as temporal as the temple. A temple that would indeed fall as would the entire city of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 AD just 6 years after its completion – fulfilling this prophecy from Jesus and destroying any sense of place the Jewish people had.

Think about the day the walls of one of your temples were thrown down. Maybe it was your own job loss or divorce or the loss of a loved one; a cancer or other life-altering diagnosis. Maybe it was when the tables turned and you became the parent to your own parent. Was it the time someone you loved and trusted betrayed and hurt you? Or that painful day the business you worked so hard to establish closed. Maybe it was the day you realized that you no longer had control of your life but were instead controlled by addiction, fear, anger, or prejudice.

When my certainty in life has been toppled as it was in every one of my own great temple-crumblings – my ensuing bewilderment has always led me into a state of discomfort and disillusionment. In the wake of our apocalypse – we are given fresh sight – we see. See the truth and reality about our self, our life, or our world that we have long denied, ignored, forgotten, or simply refused to see.

In her sermon collection, God in Pain, Barbara Brown Taylor argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life. “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”

It is always a painful process to see our manifestations of self topple and be confronted by the reality and truth revealed in that fall. Any reflection on our past reveals as much and reveals that it will likely happen again. There is always some kind of spectacle that distracts us from what matters, from what’s urgent. We are no different than the four bewildered disciples sitting before Jesus that day, preferring to be the master architect of our next great temple or reconstruct the one that has fallen.

Jesus knows this and so he warns his followers and us not to be led astray, but to be alert and watchful for the allure of those promising instant gratification, easy comfort, or quick fixes. To not let the next shiny thing that makes us feel good or takes away the hurt capture our devotion but rather be present and attentive to what is actually taking place to be aware of what God is doing.

When we sense the stones and pillars of our temples beginning to shake, the temptation is to shore up the foundation, add some mortar, make it stronger. We’ll do anything to avoid the pain, but this inevitably makes the destruction even more painful. Pain does not always mean something bad is happening – (I’m told childbirth is the evidence of this.)

In those moments, Jesus can see what we are not able to. I’m not suggesting God causes or allows death, pain, or disorder to happen to teach us an important lesson or make us better Christians. That is not the nature of the God I know or trust. The God I know has stood with me amid the rubble and the remains – reminding me that this is not the end but the beginning. The unveiling of something new.

Unfortunately for this sermon writer, Jesus announces the apocalypse but does not provide the disciples or us a tidy wrap-up to his teaching. Rather, he tells us disorder must take place, chaos will reign, there will be pain and suffering, and our temples will fall – because they need to fall. He leaves us not with answers but some mighty big questions to ponder:

  • What are the temples of your life that need to fall?
  • What lies and distortions have you mistaken for the truth about yourself, about your world?
  • What truth and reality do you most need to face?
  • How might God be working a new birth in you right this very moment?

We often associate the radiance of springtime with the beginning of life. But something first had to die – come to an end – so that a newer life, fed and strengthened by whatever has been lost, could come alive in its place. It is in the radiant dying in autumn and the barren sleep of winter, that the seeds for the new life born in spring and lived in summer, are first imagined.

Life is not diminished by its ending. It is made more organic, more wholehearted, more resilient, and resplendent. The endless interplay of darkness and light, the dying and rising, the endings and beginnings, the autumns and springs of life remind me that everything is forever being made new.

Everything alive in the world and in us is made up of things that have passed before us. Nature is a never-ending apocalypse.

Apocalyptic days confront us – God never does. The apocalypses of our lives force us to decide between reality and illusion, between life and death. We have confidence that God stands firmly in and for our life. Apocalypses help us examine where we put our trust. Know that God never loses sight of us. The day our temples fall is the day we face our own fallibility and impermanence and see the perfect permanence of God. We face our temporal nature but discover God’s eternal nature. Something must die away so that we can know the joys of the birth pangs. Our God ensures that there really is life after birth!

Thanks be to God!   Amen

Let your light so shine!

 

 

 

 

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