Sunday, November 15, 2015

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 13
As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
5 Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 6 Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.

Once more—it would seem—world events overshadow our gathering, and compel us to address pain and terror. Utterly reprehensible attacks in Paris, the ongoing war against ISIS, the civil war in Syria—all of these press in from beyond these walls to add urgency to our prayers.

And so we pray for the victims of violence in Paris, for their families, for a free nation that must confront terror without becoming something else altogether. We pray for world leaders as they seek to respond, and we pray for our enemies, that they be disarmed by the grace and peace of God, the very God they distort and misrepresent. Amen.

Sadly, world events and our reading from Mark dovetail this morning, with world-ending predictions sounding painfully familiar. “Wars and rumours of wars” along with the prediction that “nation will rise against nation” could well be today, and so our task is to place scripture and world events side-by-side in an effort to understand both.

But before we do that, we need context. Mark 13, most often called “Mark’s little apocalypse,” is a catalogue of what Jesus’ followers can expect in the time to come, and what they must do to prepare. It is part of Jesus’ own preparation for his passion, giving his disciples what they need to confront the future.

And so there are seemingly two world-ending events in this passage, the trouble predicted where ‘not one stone will be left on another’ and the trouble that will follow the death and resurrection of Jesus. Reading further in Mark 13, it is obvious that Jesus is preparing his followers for persecution, where brother will betray brother, children will rebel against their parents—and in his clearest prediction—”everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

I said seemingly two world-ending events because the third isn’t identified my Mark—even though it would have been painfully obvious to the first readers. The third world-ending event is the Great Revolt, also called the First Jewish-Roman War, which began in 66 and finally ended with the Roman siege of Masada in 73.

The revolt began as these things often do, with taxes and religious tension leading to conflict. Rome made a habit of making examples of trouble-makers, and this only served to strengthen the resolve of the rebels. They took control of Jerusalem, expelled the garrison and in doing so shocked the Roman world.

This shock was compounded when the 12th Legion, based in Syria, was defeated by an rebel army at Beth Horon. The success of these Jewish rebels was not to last, of course, when Vespasian and his son Titus—both future emperors—were dispatched to settle the matter. Jerusalem was destroyed, along with the Second Temple, and rebels would make their final and ill-fated stand in the south, at Herod’s fortress Masada.

The key part of this story is the destruction of the temple, very nearly matching Mark’s description and prediction: “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” In fact, there are several courses of the Second Temple still standing, including the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. The destruction of most of the temple, and the longing it provoked, long led people to call it the ‘wailing wall’ instead.

So Mark is describing a current event like a future event, and using the resonance of this experience to underline the world-ending nature of the death of Jesus. He is trying to twin the persecution that has already begun in the period he is writing, with rebellion and war that will define this late first-century generation. And he has to provide some hope, though it is in decidedly short supply at this moment in the story.

Ironically, it falls to St. Paul to summarize the prosecution that will follow as this nascent church emerges from the synagogue and begins to attract gentiles. Ironic, since Paul as Saul is chief among the persecutors, describing himself as extremely zealous in defense of his former tradition. Following his conversion, however, his zeal shifts to defending the Gospel. In his words:

I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. (2 Cor 11)

He never mastered humility, but he does make a strong case. Carmen will tell you that a tremendous amount of ink has been spilled trying to substantiate his claims, or at least understand them in the context of Roman judicial practice, but that is for another sermon. It is enough for us to understand that present trauma and future hope are easily conflated, that what we experience today will colour what we long for going forward. And once again, Paul has the answer:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of God, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom 6)

You will notice that this was not the preamble we used before baptism this morning. We chose the more appropriate Luke 18, although we didn’t use the wonderful language of the King James: [Jesus said] “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

Instead Romans 6 is held in reserve for this moment, when we shift from baptism to remembering our baptism, to pondering the way in which our baptism is part of the “little apocalypse” of today’s passage. We have trouble in the world and trouble in the text (Paul S. Wilson) and we are confronted by baptism. I say confronted because it begins with water and the spirit (and unbearable cuteness) and then it becomes what we live each day.

Baptism is never a one-off. It is the context of everything we do: how we respond to the world, and how we respond to the world-ending events that confront us and the people we love. So how does this work?

First of all, we are already resurrected. Baptized into his death, buried with him, raised from the dead, and walking in newness of life. We can set aside fear, because for us death has passed and new life has already come.

Second, we can demonstrate this new life to others. We worship a God who stands with the persecuted, blesses the merciful, and promises life in all its fullness (John 10). This commanding vision leads us, because it is a resurrection vision of newness of life.

Finally, we pray. We pray that wars may cease, and that children may grow and experience the fullness of joy that God imagines for every child. And we pray for ourselves, that we may live our baptism, free to be a channel of God’s peace. Amen.


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