St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Beth Christianson
Endings and Beginnings
We are fast approaching the end of one season in our church year and the beginning of another. In Trinity season, we have been working our way slowly through Mark’s gospel, following Jesus as he taught, healed the sick, raised the dead, and annoyed the Pharisees. Only today and next Sunday remain before Advent begins again, and today is in fact our last day in Mark’s gospel.
We have fetched up at last in Mark chapter 13. Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem. Jesus entered the city in the triumphant procession we commemorate on Palm Sunday. He drove the moneylenders and merchants out of the temple, and there he taught the crowds and alienated the Pharisees, who wanted to kill him, but couldn’t because he was so popular with the people.
Immediately before our gospel lesson today, there is a small story in which Jesus watched as many wealthy people came to give money to the temple, and then an obviously impoverished widow came and gave only two coins of the smallest denomination. Jesus points her out to his disciples. “i tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything — all she had to live on.”
And then we come to today’s lesson. It’s almost a bad joke by this point, but the text tells us that after pointing out the widow to his followers, Jesus leaves the temple. As they are walking away, his disciples are exclaiming over how magnificent the temple buildings are; how impressive the architecture, with it massive stones. Once again, Jesus’ tone-deaf followers seem to have missed the point. “This temple? This edifice built on the backs of people like that widow?” Jesus asks. “This whole thing will be coming down soon enough. Not one of those stones you’re so impressed with will be left resting on another. It’s all going to be rubble.” You almost have to feel bad for his disciples. They always seem to be putting their foot in it.
The rest of Mark chapter 13 is one of Jesus’ longest sermons in this gospel. The essence of it is repeated and expanded upon as well in Matthew chapters 24 and 25. and Luke chapter 21.
Jesus is giving a description to his followers about what the end of the age will look like, and in particular, he is giving them instructions about how they must behave in light of that coming end. We get only a taste of it in our gospel lesson this morning: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.”
We have come to a bit of a crossroads. We are ending one church year and beginning another. Jesus in this passage is preaching his last sermon, on his final trip to Jerusalem. The Passover is fast approaching, and after this chapter, events move swiftly to the cross. It is at such times appropriate for us to reflect on where we’ve been, and where we are going. Hence. Jesus’ looking forward to the end of this age, and the responsibility of his followers in light of it.
“When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” l found a study published by the Canadian Mennonite University back in 1990. They estimated that since 3600 BC, or about as far back as we have reliable historical information, the world has known only 292 years of peace. There has been a war going on somewhere in the world for 95% of the last 5,600 years. 14,351 separate conflicts, (at that time — more now), and they estimated more than three and a half billion people dead. We honoured our own share of those dead just last week. Such things must happen, Jesus said, but they are not the sign of the end. That is still to come. “Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.”
Okay, so we can’t look at the state of the world today and think, man, things are so bad. God must be planning to end things soon. War has happened before, and will again. Natural disasters, famines and plagues. These could come upon us at any time, as they have in the past. If these things aren’t what we should be watching out for, what are we supposed to be doing?
Jesus has a simple answer to this question. Watch out that no one deceives you. You must be on your guard. How do we do that?
It’s really easy, and can be really tempting, to get caught up in the news cycle. I don’t know about you, but I like being one of the people who’s “in the know.” No one likes feeling as though they’re always the last to find out about stuff. But I’ve had to unplug lately. I realized that l was living with this low-frequency hum of generalized anxiety. I was experiencing so much emotion and angst about things over which I have zero control. Now, I’m not saying that reading the news, or knowing about current events is bad. But there is a particular posture, a particular attitude, that Jesus teaches his disciples to take towards news of the world. Watch out that no one deceives you. You must be on your guard.
How should we guard against being deceived by the world? By filtering everything we see and hear, everything we experience, through the lens of Scripture. We have the Bible, we have our Church community, we have the testimony of all the saints who’ve gone before us, to teach us what the true perspective on the world is for Christians. Science teaches us that the relation- ship between events in the universe is one of cause and effect, one thing leading to another infinitely. But the Bible teaches us to look at the same evidence through a different lens. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the hinge-pin of history. Everything before Christ was leading up to him, and everything since is changed by his coming.
Our New Testament lesson from Hebrews said that priests of the old covenant with God had to continually make sacrifices, because none of those sacrifices could ever take away sin. But Jesus offered one sacrifice for all time. “When this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”
This is what sets us as Christians apart from the world. We filter everything we see and understand about the world through the lens of belief, that we are saved, that our lives have meaning, because of the sacrifice of Jesus. Faith in Jesus is what puts us back into right relationship with God, and with everything else.
The passage in Hebrews goes on to say, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God. let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”
As Christians, we understand this to be the purpose of our lives; to draw near to God. Absolutely everything else has to be peripheral to this, has to be understood in this context. What does this look like practically? How do we live lives oriented in this way? Hebrews goes on to give us three instructions.
First: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” Now, let’s all acknowledge that this is a pretty tall order. Hold unswervingly. To drive your car unswervingly, you have to pay constant attention. Our bodies, our minds aren’t designed to sustain that level of intensity forever. It’s easy to hold on to hope when things are good, or at least okay. When the faithfulness of God in our lives is obvious to us. But we live in a broken world. Things are not going to stay okay. Jesus warns his disciples further on in Mark chapter 13 that they will be arrested and brought to trial for following him; that when the final apocalypse comes, it will happen so fast that anyone who doesn’t drop what they are doing and run for their life will be swallowed up by it. Jesus wants his followers to be clear-eyed about what being his disciple means. Hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Nevertheless, our hope is not a false hope, because the one who promised is faithful.
The second instruction in Hebrews for drawing near to God is this: “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” We are all on this journey of drawing near to God together. You are not alone. It would be so discouraging to keep this vigil alone, to guard yourself, as Jesus said, against being deceived. But thanks be to God, none of us has to keep vigil alone. Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. We are together, and we are meant to be active, and working while we wait. Working on what? Love and good deeds. Maybe we can’t do much about famine and floods far away from us. But each of us has a circle of influence. We are meant to be encouraging each other to bring God’s love to the people in our circles. Let’s take care of each other!
And the third instruction in Hebrews for drawing near to God: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” It is really, really important that we take this journey of faith together. This right here is pretty basic stuff. Come to church, people! When we are isolated from our fellow believers, that is when we become vulnerable. We need each other, fundamentally. We need the vibrancy of our common worship. We need to tell over our common story, our common faith, so that we are not deceived. “Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many.” How do we guard against that? That’s what our liturgy is for. That’s what our church calendar, our cycle of seasons, the way we read through Scripture together, year after year, is for. We fill ourselves up with the truth, so when the lies come, we see them for what they are. We strengthen one another when we come to church.
So where are we? We are leaving one church year, and entering another. Leaving Trinity season and entering Advent. it is natural, and to be encouraged, that we stop at these times to take stock, and re-orient. There will always be wars, and rumours of wars, earthquakes, and famines. These are not the end, Jesus says. but merely the first pangs of labour. We need to stay on our guard, stay focussed. How do we do that? We hold tight to our hope in Jesus, knowing and believing that he is faithful and will fulfill his promises. We spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Who is in your circle of influence? Do they experience God’s love through your life and actions? Encourage one another. And finally, do not fail to meet to- gether. “Where two or three are gathered together, there I am in the midst of them.” This Christian life is not made to be lived alone. I need you. And you need me. And this is where we find each other. Amen.