Sermon for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – November 18th, 2018
Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
It was among the worst things the disciples could imagine happening: that the temple, the pride and joy of Israel, the architectural wonder of the ancient world, the very dwelling place of God, would come crashing down, reduced to a pile of rubble. And yet that’s exactly what Jesus said would happen. As they marveled at the great stones and large buildings of the temple complex, Jesus said to them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another, all will be thrown down.”
It had happened once before, of course, when the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s Temple in 586BC, but it had been promptly rebuilt when Israel returned from exile and had been standing tall again for about 500 years. In fact, it had recently gone through extensive upgrades under Herod the Great! To have that magnificent building, the center of Jewish cultural and political and religious life, destroyed again would be devastating.
“When will this happen?” The disciples asked. But Jesus wouldn’t tell them. He warned them about people coming along claiming to know. He also warned them that there would be wars and rumors of wars, that nation would rise up against nation, that there would be earthquakes in various places, and famines, but in the midst of all this he said to them: “When you see these things happening, do not be alarmed.” Do not be alarmed! When the worst things you can imagine happening actually happen, Jesus says, do not be alarmed! And why? “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” Jesus says. When it seems like the end is nigh, Jesus is saying, don’t be afraid, don’t be alarmed, live in hope – because God is bringing something new to life!
Well, the temple was eventually destroyed, and it didn’t take all that long for it to happen. The Romans destroyed it in 70AD. By that time, it is likely that the gospel of Mark had been written and was in circulation among Christians. And so as sad and scared and confused as they must have been as the temple was lying there in a smoldering heap, they could turn to Christ’s word and hear his promise. They could turn to Jesus’ words of hope: “Do not be alarmed. These are but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
What is the worst thing you can imagine happening? Maybe you’ve already experienced it. For the older generation the date December 7th, 1941, looms large in your memory. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, on American soil, was a devastating event. Two thousand four hundred and eight Americans were killed, eight Naval ships were damaged as they sat in harbor, four of which ended up sinking.
For my generation, the date September 11th, 2001 will always tug at the heart. On that day one of the worst things you could imagine happening, happened! Who would have ever thought that those tall buildings of the World Trade Center would ever come crashing down, not one stone left upon another?
For many of us, the worst thing we can imagine happening doesn’t play out on the world stage. It isn’t reported on the 24-hour news stations. It is much more personal. It comes when pillars of our personal lives come crashing down. This, too, is something many of you have experienced already in one way or another. These devastating events come in the form of a divorce, or a disease, or a death. These have a way of shaking the very foundations of a person’s life, leaving you sad and scared and confused.
When the worst thing we can imaging happening happens, we have a word to hold onto. We have a promise to cling to. Jesus says to us, “Do not be alarmed.” Jesus tells us, “This is not the end, which is still to come.” He tells us it is but the beginning of the birth pangs. Jesus tells us that no matter what is happening in our world or in our lives right now, the future belongs to God, who is birthing something new, who will bring us life. Jesus gives us a word that brings us hope.
As we look at the world around us, it is easy to lose hope. It doesn’t help that the media we are constantly connected to with our phones and our computers and our televisions thrives by giving us a steady drumbeat of bad news, convincing us that things are worse than they’ve ever been before, constantly in crisis mode. The effects of all this bad news aren’t pretty: record levels of anxiety and depression, an increasingly angry culture, and widespread feelings of hopelessness.
We must not fall prey to this hopelessness. We don’t need to, because we have a promise from our Lord and savior. He tells us, “Do not be alarmed.” I wish people would write that on a sticky note and put it on their TV or their computer monitor! Jesus says to us, “When you see these things taking place, do not be alarmed. These are but the birth pangs.” This is a word that fills us with hope whenever it feels like our world or our lives are crashing down around us.
As Christians we are realistic about the world. We should know that the world isn’t going to be fixed if we just elect the right person or party or pass the right law. We should know that we won’t usher in some kind of utopia simply by convincing everyone to adopt our ideology, left or right. We should know that the world needs more than for us all to just get on some imagined “right side of history.” We know that the world is deeply broken. We see it all the time as there continue to be wars and rumors of war, nations rising up against nations, earthquakes and famines.
But we also know where this is all going. We know that the future belongs to God. We know that the only right side of history is the side where Jesus and his kingdom are found, and this Jesus tells us: “Do not be alarmed.” He says to us, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
This doesn’t mean we sit around and twiddle our thumbs while the world burns – in some places, literally. No, the hope we are given from Jesus empowers us. It prevents us from being paralyzed by our fears. It helps us to move out into the world to love and serve our neighbors, especially those whose lives are collapsing. It frees us to live our lives, to carry out our callings in this world with bravery and confidence. It empowers us to be the people of God, to be people of hope.
On September 11th, 2001 I was serving as pastor at American Lutheran Church in Chinook, Montana. I was hosting the clergy in my conference for a gathering, and after our meeting we went to lunch at a sports bar in town where we watched the second tower of the World Trade Center come down live on TV. We gasped and we wept and we prayed. Not one stone was left upon another.
Amy was eight months pregnant with our oldest son Luke at the time, and that night we went to our first childbirth class. We called to make sure the class was still on, and it was. So on the night of September 11th, 2001, we found ourselves sitting on mats with eight or ten other couples, each of us sad and scared and confused, but also filled with hope and even joy at the new life God was bringing into our lives.
Around that time someone asked me if I felt bad about bringing a child into the world as it was in the wake of 9/11. I told them no, that it hadn’t even occurred to me. At first I was angry that someone would even say that, but then I was sad for them. I was sad that they were so without hope that they questioned whether children should be born into this world. That’s what hopelessness does. It paralyzes us from living our lives. It prevents us from carrying out our callings. It prevents us from going out into the world to love and serve others.
But that’s not you. That’s not who you are. You are not without hope, because you have heard the voice of the Lord Jesus. He has said to you, “When you see these things taking place, do not be alarmed.”
We gather together in this place like those expectant couples did on the night of 9/11. We might be sad or scared or confused, but we are also full of hope and even joy. For we know that the frightening and painful things we see around us and experience ourselves are but the birth pangs. They are not the end. We know that no matter what is going on in our world or in our lives right now, the future is in God’s hands. We know that when the worst thing we can imagine happening happens, it does not have the last word. We know that God will be there to bring to birth new life among us. In fact, he’s doing so even now as we gather together around his word and his supper and are raised up to a life of hope and peace and joy in Christ Jesus.
And so, as it says in our reading from Hebrews, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is indeed faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as we see the Day approaching.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church