The texts for this sermon are: Hebrews 10:11-25 and Mark 13:1-8
Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down. (Mark 13:2, NRSV)
Make no mistake about it, this is an apocalyptic reading. The 13th chapter of Mark is considered by some to be the earliest apocalyptic text in the New Testament.
Mainstream Christians tend to be a bit embarrassed by apocalyptic texts in the bible. I think that perhaps the apocalyptic texts smack too much of Christian fundamentalism or maybe snake-handlers in America. But we ignore such texts at our peril, not the least because if we fail to engage with them by bringing to these texts our understanding of who God is and what God is like, then it will be the cultists who define them.
“Repent! The day is coming when God will come again in thunder, lightening and wrath and the world as we know it will be destroyed! The Temple will fall! There will be false prophets and wars and rumours of wars and it is by these events that humankind will know the end of the world is near!”
So say the doom-sayers.
This theology may have sold a lot of books, but I personally don’t think it’s very good theology and it is most certainly not Methodist theology.
The Persecution of Christians
If we put away this dooms-day idea, and look closely at the text, when Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, the disciples ask him the question, “So will the Temple’s destruction signal the end of time?”
Jesus’ answer is something along the lines of “Don’t be deceived by these false prophets of doom. There will always be wars and rumours of wars, so do not think that these things signal the end of time.” Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that all of his followers can be expected to be persecuted as a consequence of following him, but that Christians are only to be concerned with following Christ. They are not to worry about trying to justify themselves to the earthly power on its own terms; they are simply to rely on the power of the Spirit to give a faithful Christian witness.
Now, many biblical commentators believe that this message may very well have been pointedly directed at Mark’s own readers, who lived at a time when Christians were just beginning to be persecuted by the Roman empire. So you can see that there would have been a very real and concrete message here for those readers. In such an historical setting, it is a message of encouragement to persecuted Christians.
But what is there in this text for us who are lucky enough to live in a land where we are relatively free to express our faith?
I think that there is a great deal, but first we need to turn on its head any notion of the idea that “wars and rumours of wars” are tools that are used by God and instituted by God to bring about the end of time.
War is not God’s tool
We need to understand that “Wars and rumours of wars” – and I use this term metaphorically as well as literally - are not God-made. They are human-made.
The reason that they will always be with us - at least until God’s Kingdom comes - is because they are the fruits of our own sinful natures.
The word “apocalypse” means “uncovering”, and we need to ask ourselves what it is that is being uncovered in events of destruction and violence. I honestly don’t think that it is God’s nature or God’s will that is being uncovered; not if we believe that the fruits of God spirit are things like joy, peace, patience and kindness. And, if the fruits of an UNgodly life are things like hatred, discord and factions, then it seems reasonable that what is being uncovered is our own sinful nature.
The standard human solution for maintaining peace and social cohesion is “war or rumours of war”. In effect, human beings attempt to solve the problem of sin through an approach that is sinful itself – by reciprocal violence or the threat of reciprocal violence.
When we act our of our sinful nature, we get caught up in the human notion that justice cannot be served until the person who hurt us hurts as least as much as we do.
If we do not look beyond our sinful human solutions, we will forever be stuck in a vicious cycle of retaliation. And we may go on and on throughout our lives convinced that our retaliation is a manifestation of justice rather than a manifestation of sin.
It is only by looking outside of our worldly and sinful perspective that we are able to escape the vicious circle of revenge. What is the escape-hatch out of this vicious circle? The escape-hatch is forgiveness. Specifically, the sort of forgiveness that was brought into creation by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus and the Sacrificial Cycle
Today’s Epistle reading makes interesting reading in this context. In the Epistle reading, we have a picture of the futile task of the Temple priest, forever making sacrifice to God for sin. The priest repeats his sacrifice day after day because the people of Israel – and the priest himself – do not stop sinning.
However, we are told that Jesus is the final and perfect sacrifice. The never-ending sacrifice of the Temple priest is no longer needed because Jesus has done what is necessary to end the cycle of sacrifice. And the necessary thing that Jesus has done is to bring forgiveness into the world.
In the apocalyptic terms I’ve been using for the Mark reading, we can say that Jesus has interrupted our sacrificial cycle of revenge and retaliation and he has broken into our vicious cycle of sin with a new possibility, a new alternative: the alternative of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the totally new alternative to our sinful, worldly ideas about how to be at peace with each other and with God. Forgiveness breaks into our vicious circle because it is God’s idea, not our idea. Forgiveness is not of this world. Forgiveness belongs to the Kingdom of God.
A Foretaste of the Kingdom
The amazing Good News of the Gospel is not “repent and be forgiven”. The Amazing Good News of the Gospel is “You are forgiven, therefore you are free to repent.”
God’s forgiveness breaks into the world before anything we can do. We do not deserve forgiveness, but we are given it by God’s grace. Actions have consequences and our violent actions ought to have violent consequences, but God in his mercy gives us forgiveness. Forgiveness is an act of God and it belongs to the Kingdom of God.
The Amazing Good News of the Gospel is “You are forgiven, therefore you are free to repent.”
In a few minutes, we will come to the Lord’s Table, in a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that Jesus has prepared for us in his Kingdom. Jesus invites all individuals to his table; he extends his hospitality and his forgiveness to everyone. In celebrating communion with him, every single one of us is invited to encounter Christ’s forgiveness for ourselves as individuals.
But Holy Communion is also a communal act. We come not just to find strength and forgiveness from Christ as individuals, but also as a local community of believers and as a worldwide Church. What we receive at the Lord’s Table we are also called to bring out to the rest of the world. The forgiveness that we receive at the table of the Lord is something that we are called to take out to the rest of the world.
It is no good coming to church in order to receive forgiveness from God for ourselves and then to go back out into the world and play by the worldly, human rules of revenge and retaliation.
Forgiven by God and strengthened for the journey by the food from his table, we are invited to spread that forgiveness throughout the world. Indeed it should be our joy and our delight to do so.
The Kingdom is now and we encounter a taste of it here, at the table of the Lord.
The Kingdom is not yet because the world does not yet operate by the Godly rules of self-giving love and forgiveness.
By his life, death and resurrection Christ has changed the nature of our reality and he has redeemed the fabric of the cosmos, replacing the rule of sin with the rule of God. Where forgiveness was once not even possible, in Christ, forgiveness has the potential to transform all of human society: past, present and future.
The Kingdom of God is here. The Kingdom of God is coming. May God’s Kingdom come and his will be done. Maranatha: Come, Lord Jesus! Amen