Monday, April 15, 2013

A New World: Wait for It

Preached on Sunday April 14, 2013

Scripture readings: Daniel 7:7-14; Mark 13:1-13, 24-37 

Over Sunday supper, a family talked about that morning’s sermon. It was about the second coming of Christ. The kids had a lot of questions, and their parents tried their best to field their questions.

Photos from around home; Washtucna WA
After a while the dad said, “There’s an awful lot we don’t know. The main thing, I guess, is just to live each and every day as if it were your last.” At this point the teenager spoke up and said, “I tried that once, and you grounded me for a month!” (From Robert Jarboe, in “Parables, Etc.”, July 1993)

The Temple in Jerusalem was one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was a shining mountain of white marble and gold. It was visible for miles and miles around.

There was much more to the Temple than its size and beauty. It was the physical symbol, in this world, of God’s presence with his people. It was the place of sacrifice and mercy and protection.

The destruction of the Temple would mean the end of mercy and safety, and the coming of judgment. It would mean the end of this world as we know it, and the beginning of the kingdom of God on earth. The beginning of the kingdom of God on this earth would be a great, good thing; something to long for, something to hope for. But the end of this world as we know it often looks very hard, and scary, and painful.

So many of the changes in our life, and in our world, are hard, and scary, and painful. There are plenty of good changes, but we usually manage to take those for granted. We don’t spent nearly enough time savoring those good changes and giving thanks for them. Human nature without the grace of God wallows in worry, fear, blame, and anger. We may deny that we love a good crisis but, in this world as we know it, crisis sells. Crisis sells so many books that Christians buy and ministries they love.

The disciples wanted to be prepared for the crisis of the end of this world as they knew it and they wanted to be ready for the coming of the kingdom of God. “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to be fulfilled?” (Mark 13:4)

They wanted to be prepared. They wanted to know when it would begin and when it would be over. So they asked Jesus for the signs. They wanted to know how to know.

We can only understand what Jesus says about living through the greatest crisis of all by taking him at his word when he says, “No one knows that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know then that time will come.” (Mark 13:32-33)

I know a minister who says that no one knows the day or hour, but that doesn’t mean we can’t know the month and the year. That is simply playing with the words of Jesus. It shows us how even Christians get impatient with Jesus. Even those Christians that seem to hold the Bible up the highest want to make it say things that it does not say.

Jesus said, “Watch”. It is as if Jesus said, “Wait”. We are like children who don’t want to watch or wait. How can we ever hear anything that Jesus wants to tell us if we will not listen to the simplest things he says?

Most of the signs that Jesus gave us about the end of the world as we know it are the very things that are happening in our world all the time: wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues. It is not that these are not important things. They deserve our care, our compassion, our generosity, our attention. They tell us not to take this world lightly. They tell us to remember how fragile and vulnerable this world is.

Even persecution happens all the time somewhere. The people of Jesus always need the Holy Spirit to encourage them, and to give them courage, and to give them the ability to speak and act to meet the trial: a real trial in court, or to meet any kind of trial in which they might be tested. Even we are surrounded by people who are watching, and listening, and putting us on trial to see or hear whether we produce some honest evidence of Jesus.

They may hate us if we give good evidence. They will definitely hate us if we don’t. They will hate us with laughter and contempt.

This idea about persecution is a challenge, even to us. There are many times when we think that other people are not being fair to us. We may even think this has something to do with our faith. Jesus said, “All people will hate you because of me.”

But how can we know that someone may hate us because of Jesus? What if we haven’t really been talking and living like Jesus all along?

Maybe we have just been our comfortable, and sinful, and shallow selves. Maybe we have been hated because we have been obnoxious, and callous, and selfish, and short-tempered, and unjust; and not like Jesus at all. Just because Jesus loves us and forgives us doesn’t mean other people are obliged to do the same.

Jesus talked about “the abomination that causes desolation standing where it does not belong.” It means the act of desecrating the Temple. It means something done to make a holy place to stop being the sign of the presence, mercy, and protection of God.

Even that has happened more than once. Daniel wrote about this desolation four centuries before Christ. He, himself, had seen it done in his time, when the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and taken him and his family and friends into exile. In the second century before Christ, a Greek king took Jerusalem and built an altar to Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, and sacrificed pigs on that altar.

Herod the Great, who rebuilt the Temple, in the way that the disciples had so much admired, had put a large golden statue of the Roman eagle over one of the gates in the Temple. This had caused riots and no one had forgotten it. It was if Herod were telling them that the kingdom of Rome was stronger than the kingdom of God.

Many of the people in the same generation that heard Jesus lived to see the Romans destroy Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. In the second century they rebuilt Jerusalem as a Roman city in which Jews were not allowed to live, and they built a temple to the god Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods, on the site of the Jewish temple. Later, the Muslims built a mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the site of the Temple.

The Temple was a physical sign of the presence, the protection, and the mercy of God. It is true that such signs can be destroyed. Americans have often thought that their liberties were a sign of the presence, the protection and the mercy of God. We have also thought that our freedom of religion was another such sign. It is true that these signs can be destroyed.

There are many signs of God that make us secure.. A community can be such a sign to us. A holy gathering, like a church, can be such a sign. A marriage and a family can be such a sign. All of these can be lost. It is true that such times of desolation can be dangerous and full of fear, and hardship, and grief. What does it mean, when these signs are at risk?

What does it mean? But that is like asking, “What will be the sign?” It is so typical of Jesus that he does not answer this question the way his disciples want.

The first answer of Jesus is to say, “Watch out!” There is a time when everything changes, and the world as we know it comes to an end: except that it doesn’t; not yet. When we think the end has come, Jesus says, “The end is still to come.” Life goes on, and here we are.

I think, toward the end, it will only seem as though the world as we have known it no longer exists, when it has not really changed at all. It has only shown its true colors.

The world will become more and more its true self; and we will be confused by this. We never saw the world for what it always was. Nations rise up against nations. Brothers betray brothers. It can happen.

Matthew adds some additional words of Jesus that say, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:12) When the world grows old love will grow cold. And yet this, too, is the way the world is. When this happens we only see what the world is really like when it is not the kingdom of God.

The ancient people believed that the creation aged. They believed that an old world would show the signs of aging. Earthquakes were the signs of a tired planet. Lovelessness was the sign of a tired human race that needed to be made new. But this aging happens because the kingdom of God, at some time in the past, went out of this world.

Some very wise people have advised me against getting old. “Don’t do it”, they say. And I hope I don’t get old. I don’t want to get old without the kingdom of God living in me.

I know a bit of what I am without God; without the life of Jesus and his kingdom in me. What I would be like without Jesus sometimes escapes and I see that identity clearly. It scares me and I it sends me running back to Jesus.

Without Jesus I would be bitter, and angry, and resentful. Without Jesus, I would be truly old. I would be a curmudgeon, which means that I would finally harden into what I really am without him.

The kingdom of God is forever young. It keeps us free from the curse of the curmudgeons.

What G.K. Chesterton said about happiness also holds true for what life is like when Jesus and his kingdom keep us young. This is what he said. “Happiness is a state of the soul; a state in which our natures are full of the wine of an ancient youth, in which banquets last for ever, and roads lead everywhere, where all things are under the exuberant leadership of faith, hope, and charity.” So I hope to become an ancient youth instead of a curmudgeon.

But this world will become a monumental, planetary curmudgeon. It will shake, and wheeze, and rant, and rave, and hit, and kick, and fall apart.

We will have to watch out. When the world as we know it changes, it will be hard to remember who God is in Jesus. It will be hard to know how to live. It will be hard to even know ourselves.

It will be like learning to walk in the dark. The times in which we are living seem to tell us to live without hope, or to live for ourselves. That is darkness.

I knew a girl in college who had some birth defects. She confided in me once that she was not supposed to be able to walk. When she was born the doctors told her parents this sad news. Only she didn’t know any better. She learned how to walk. She did it like any other baby. She got up, and watched out, and went forward, and she kept on doing that.

My mom has had to do physical therapy a couple of times, now, when she has gotten sick. She has had to learn to walk again: well, sort of. She has known how to walk for a long time but, when the world as you know it changes, you have to learn to walk by watching out. Where are you putting your feet? How are you aligning your hips and your back? My mom hates learning how to walk. She hates that physical therapy. She threatens not to do it, but she has done it. And so she can walk.

We have to watch what we say and do. We have to watch the thought we put into this. And then Jesus tells us to not be afraid. We think we watch all the more when we are afraid, but fear makes us watch all the wrong things.

When I was eight years old, I went to YMCA summer camp, and my cabin went on a hike where we had to cross the Grand Canyon using a stick as a bridge. Well, it was a deep-set creek and we used a big fallen tree trunk.

I tried to cross by watching out, but I watched the creek far below my feet, instead of watching my feet, and the trunk, and the other bank, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get the nerve to do it. It was so embarrassing. We have to watch out the right way if we want to learn how to cross through the times when the world, as we know it, has changed. We need to learn to cross the time of our lives by not being afraid.

Jesus also says we cross such times by not being deceived. “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name saying, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many.” (Mark 13:5-6) He is telling the people who know him not to think that someone different can be him. This is odd.

Then, I think that Jesus gives us a clue about faith and how to not misplace our faith. The deceivers will go around saying “I am he.” Jesus very seldom says this about himself. In the gospels, Jesus even tells the people who received miracles from him not to tell others about it. He was amazingly quiet about himself. (Mark 1:43-44; 3:11-12; 7:36; 8:26; 8:30)

Watching, waiting, and listening to the Holy Spirit and letting him tell us what to say and do are quiet things. The deceivers will compete with our crisis by making a lot of noise about themselves and what they are doing. They may even try to entertain us.

There is a passage in Isaiah that seems to speak to this. It even tells us about the danger of trying to escape from our fears instead of watching our world without fear. “This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have one of it. You said, ‘No, we will flee on horses.’ Therefore you will flee! You said, ‘We will ride off on swift horses.’ Therefore your pursuers will be swift! (Isaiah 30:15-16)

We avoid deception by quietly remembering the Jesus who first came into our hearts. We avoid deception by quietly remembering Jesus as he comes to us in prayer and in his word, the Bible.

Jesus says that we cross the place where the world as we have known it has changed by means of faithfulness. We have assigned tasks in the household of God. The household of God is where we worship, but it is also wherever we live. It is our life with our families, and neighbors, and community. 

We have allotted tasks. We are servants who care for the children of the house; and we are all both servants and children. We feed each other and keep each other clean. We take care of each other.

We cannot all stay up twenty four hours a day and seven days a week, to keep watch, so we watch over each other. We keep each others’ watch for Jesus. This is a blessing to be called to do this; to even be allowed to do this.

Sometimes we have to keep watch out over our own faithfulness so that we don’t take anything for granted. Do we hear a noise within that we should not hear? Do we hear a silence in our heart that means trouble?

I was talking to someone about their prayer life and this person was very honest and said that they really did a lot of talking to themselves. So I asked if they talked to their better self or to their worse self. This is part of keeping watch over our calling to be faithful. This is how we keep on crossing to the kingdom of God when the world as we know it has changed.

Part of keeping watch and staying faithful comes from watching Jesus in a different way. Jesus quotes some words from the prophet Daniel in the seventh chapter of his book. The actual words in Daniel are these: “I looked and there before me was one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him.” (Daniel 7:13-14) This is Jesus and, in Daniel’s vision, he is coming on the clouds to his Father, because he has defeated the final monster that rules the world as we know it. It shows him coming into the presence of his Father, the Ancient of Days. This is what Jesus did after he died and rose from the dead. You can read about this at the end of the Gospel of Luke.

So the funny thing about this picture Jesus gives us of coming in the clouds will not be a really new thing, but something that will have already happened before. Jesus is telling us to watch for his coming by thinking about him as we already know him. We are looking forward to the Jesus who is familiar to us.

We know the real victory of Jesus. It is the cross where he died to take away the sin of the world, and our sin. And the victory is the resurrection of Jesus to defeat not only sin but even death itself; and our death and the death of those we know. Jesus has turned back the monsters that have overrun the world since the human race was driven from Eden and this world began to grow old.

The cross and the resurrection are Jesus’ faithful watchfulness over us, the way we know. Because of him we do not have to be afraid when we cross through a world of crisis. In Jesus, we carry the new world of the kingdom with us even now.

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