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Sermon for Sunday 14 November 2021

First Reading: Daniel 12:1-3

1“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. 2And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

Psalm 16

1Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you; I have said to the Lord, “You are my Lord, my good above all other.” 2All my delight is upon the godly that are in the land, upon those who are noble among the people. 3But those who run after other gods shall have their troubles multiplied. 4Their libations of blood I will not offer, nor take the names of their gods upon my lips. 5O Lord, you are my portion and my cup; it is you who uphold my lot. 6My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; indeed, I have a goodly heritage. 7I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel; my heart teaches me, night after night. 8I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand I shall not fall. 9My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope. 10For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the Pit. 11You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:11-25

11Every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. 15And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, 16“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” 17then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” 18Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. 19Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Gospel: Mark 13:1-13

1As {Jesus} came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 3And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains. 9But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. 10And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. 13And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

Going into Labor

Completed in 1951, the Baldwin Hills dam was built on a steep hillside in Southern California overlooking a packed residential community.  Nestled away on a hillside, so as not interfere with development, it served as a storage facility for the waters that follow in from the mountains in the form of rain and snow melt.  It was considered an architectural wonder, at least by its designers.  The problem was it rested squarely on an earthquake fault.  The designers insisted that the fault line would not affect their structure.  However, on December 14, 1963, a crack was discovered.

The local TV station sent a helicopter to film the frantic repair efforts, notably the first time an impending disaster was broadcast live.  Three hours after the crack was discovered the dam failed and the waters of the reservoir rushed down the hillside.  In total, 277 homes were destroyed, all captured live on local television!  In the aftermath, as expected, there was plenty of accusations and finger pointing.  Who knew what and when?  The dam’s designer, for instance, who had also designed another dam that had failed, was adamant that his design was perfect, and that the fault lines meant nothing.  As you can imagine, his was a minority opinion.

Thankfully, although hundreds of homes were destroyed in the flood, only five lives were lost.  The reason so many lives were spared was because of an almost immediate effort to evacuate the homes as soon as the crack was discovery, and the people not only listened, they acted — they fled their homes.  Surprisingly, people listened.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus was trying to get the people to listen!  The temple in Jerusalem was, by all accounts, one of the great wonders of the ancient world.  One can’t blame the apostles for gazing in awe at the size of the megalithic stone blocks, some of which are estimated to weigh as much as 570 tons, and for the adornment of the temple.  This, of course, is what makes Jesus’ statement about its utter destruction so startling.  Listen! “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  It’s little wonder Peter, James, John, and Andrew wanted to know more.  Was anyone really listen then?  Do we listen now?

This Second Temple, as it’s often called, was built over the centuries to replace the one destroyed by the Babylonians.  When the exiles were freed from Syrian captivity and allowed to return to Jerusalem, it was anticipated that they would rebuild the temple quickly, but sixteen years went by before any real work got underway.  The temple, as Jesus and His apostles saw it, had been greatly expanded by Herod the Great.  Herod was widely admired among the elite of the Roman Empire because of his passion for construction.

One thing the people of ancient civilizations have in common with us is, many of us cannot imagine that one day our seemingly strong infrastructure will come to nothing.  But if history has taught us anything, it shows that all great empires fall.  Assyrian, Babylonian, Roman, British.  Remember not many decades ago, it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire.  Look at it today.

When Jesus told His followers that one day the mighty temple would be nothing but ruins, they understandably wanted to know what signs to expect so they would know when such a cataclysmic thing was about to happen!  Today’s passage is set in the fateful week between the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and His bitter crucifixion.  

Jesus, on the first day of the week, had received the praise and adoration of the crowds.  By week’s end, He would face their cries of scorn.  It was a week of despair, but also a week of wonder, because there is no denying that the temple of Jerusalem was a thing of wonder!  Yet Jesus told His disciples a time was coming when not one stone would stand upon another.  Consider if you will, that disastrous events don’t just happen to someone else.  Devastating events can happen to any of us, at any time.

This is why Jesus used the language of labor and childbirth to make it clear that suffering is part of what believers can expect in the face of the upheavals in life.  As He spoke, Jesus began to widen the scope of this prophecy from the destruction of the temple to the larger apocalypse that was to come.  The destruction of the temple, which became a reality within forty years, was to be seen as simply one in a series of events, and perhaps not even the most disastrous, that would happen before God brings down the curtain on history.

Rather than make it clear what they should expect to see, Jesus, in strongly worded language, made it clear that the signs of the end could easily be mistaken for events that occur in every generation!  “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs (13:5-8).”  What an interesting analogy, just the beginning of the birth pangs.

Who wouldn’t want to know the timing of the end?  There’s a regular cottage industry of books and films, all with predictions of the end of time.  Oddly enough, no matter how incorrect their predictions are, people still buy these books despite the fact that every predicter thus far, has been 100% wrong.  Yet every one of those writers insists they’re the ones who got it 100% right!

What is the purpose of this literature?  Is it simply meant to frighten us?  Probably.  Is this then the reason Jesus told His disciples to remember that everything comes to an end?  Hardly.  The reason Jesus said these things is to comfort His believers.  This is why the word ‘endurance’ is used six times in Revelation.  Hold on!  Persecutions will come; however, they won’t last forever.  There’s a Costa Rican proverb: (No hay mal que dure cien años ni cuerpo que los resista o aguante,) which can be translated as “There isn’t any evil that lasts a century, nor will anybody have to endure anything that lasts that long either.”  In other words, this too shall pass.  Nothing, but God and His kingdom, is forever.

People who live under the weight of injustice hear Jesus’ the words differently than those who are complacent and comfortable.  Human nature simply wants to trade one comfortable situation for another without having to go through any trials or hard times.  But for the oppressed of the earth — including those living in our times as well as those who lived in Judea two thousand years ago — the institution of God’s justice and the tearing down of physical and political structures is a sign of hope.  One reason Jesus warns us against being too confident about knowing when the end is coming is, that the universe is full of surprises.  

Take the asteroid known as 2012 D4.  Everyone knew it was coming, and to keep an eye out for it.  Discovered on February 23, 2012, the piece of rock was only 45 feet across, less than half the length of a football field, but it became quickly apparent that its path regularly intersected the orbit of the earth.  There was only a miniscule chance it might actually hit our planet.  But if it did, it was large enough to do real damage.  Even when that tiny chance turned out to be zero, scientists wanted to keep an eye on it because in going by the earth, its orbit might be changed just a smidge, increasing the odds it would hit us on its next pass.

There was a lot of anticipation when it passed within 17,200 miles of the earth one year later (February 15, 2013).  But because astronomers were so focused on this one asteroid, astrologists weren’t looking when another asteroid actually struck the earth that day.  It was an unbelievable coincidence!  A smaller meteor plunged into the atmosphere and exploded over a small town in the Ural Mountains with a blast equivalent to twenty atomic bombs the size of the one that exploded over Hiroshima, injuring over fifteen hundred people and wreaking incredible amounts of damage to standing structures!  Interestingly, there were plenty of cameras pointing at the meteor’s explosion over the town, not because there were astronomers looking for it, but because fake accidents and insurance fraud are so prevalent in that area, most cars are equipped with recording equipment to prove falsified events never happened!

The obvious question is — how could scientists have discovered one meteor that would miss us, and miss the one that hit us?  One answer is that it’s a huge sky and there’s lots of stuff up there.  Another is, they got distracted by one thing and they simply failed to see the other signs.  In this passage, Jesus is telling us at least two things.  First is that we live in a fallen world.  Oftentimes the catastrophes that occur around us are caused by human sin.  Second, Jesus could be suggesting that there’s a lot of stuff going on all the time that could be mistaken for signs of the apocalypse, so we’re to keep our eyes open or we could miss out when the real thing happens!  Even in Jesus’ time there were those who were pointing to a coming disaster.

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, a writer who believed that God had ordained Rome to inherit the earth, and who wrote after the destruction of Jerusalem: “Four years before the war…one Jesus, son of Ananias…who, standing in the temple, suddenly began to cry out: “A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the Sanctuary, a voice against the bridegroom and the bride, a voice against all people….Woe to Jerusalem…Woe once more to the city and to the people and to the Sanctuary…and woe to me also.” (from The Jewish War, 6.5.4 section 301, 306,  309, with a reference to Jeremiah 7:34.)

How do we respond to false prophets who want us to look to the skies on a specific day and time so we see Jesus when He returns in glory — something that is promised in scripture without any indication about when it will happen?  The proper response is again two-fold.  First, according to the gospels, is we’re told we’re to be found working!  When Jesus ascended into heaven the disciples were scolded by two angels for looking into the sky instead of following their Lord’s instructions.  Also, in various parables, Jesus suggested that when a master went out on a trip, the slaves should be found at their posts, doing their work, so they’d be found doing what they were supposed to be doing when their master returned.

The ancient Greek poet Hesiod, once wrote, “It is not work that brings shame, but not working that is shameful!” (Works and Days, l.311, author’s translation.)  Being alert for the return of Jesus means going about our normal tasks, whether it’s farming in the fields, going to work, taking care of our homes, sharing the Good News in word and deed, as well as serving “the least of these.”  The great work of the master is that we should be feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and visiting those in prison – tending to these is the best way to stay alert.

Being ready does not imply a retreat from the world.  C.S. Lewis, in the title essay of the book The World’s Last Night, likened the appropriate attitude in waiting for the world’s end to the anonymous First Servant in Shakespeare’s play King Lear.  The unnamed servant walks on stage when an atrocity is about to be committed by his master.  Speaking barely eight lines, he tries to stop the blinding of an elderly man.  That servant is killed.  “That is his whole part: eight lines all told,” wrote Lewis.  “But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted.”  That’s because, as Lewis put it, when the inspector arrived, we were found at our post.  Second, we’re to respond to the false prophecies by attending to what Bishop Selbo called the five Cs.

The first C is to be Confident.  We can be assured that Jesus will return as promised.  No, we don’t know the day or time; Jesus told us plainly that the only the Father in heaven knows that information (Matthew 24:36).  Two, be Careful not to be led astray.  There are so many things in this world that can distract us or point us in the wrong direction.  Jesus was clear, we’re to watch and wait (Luke 12:35-40).  The third C is we’re to be Cautious about what’s going on in the world.  Jesus said a lot of things will happen that may seem like the end is near, wars, earthquakes, famine, and the like.  Jesus also said, the time is not yet; this was just the beginning.  Confident, Careful and Cautious, these are the first three Cs we’re to keep in mind as we continue to watch and wait.

The fourth C is to Construct your life on the things that last.  Jesus reminded us to store up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21) rather than working for this life alone.  Too often we’re so focused on the current, or on the near future, that we forget that our primary job is to be about the heavenly Father’s business.  Construct your life on things that last.  The fifth C is to Commit each day to following Jesus.  Jesus tells us to take up our cross daily and follow Him (Luke 9:23-24). 

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus was clear what our focus should be: Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and all His righteousness, then all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).  Our primary focus should always be on doing as we’ve been commanded and on the five Cs:  be Confident of Jesus’ return, be Careful not to be led astray, be Cautious about what is going on around us, to Construct our life on the things that last, and finally Commit each day to following Jesus.

So, take a deep breath.  The world is full of surprises so we shouldn’t be shocked when events catch us off guard.  For something as cosmic as Jesus’ return, we need to be alert — we need to keep in mind the biblical meaning of watchfulness, working for the kingdom.  So, our call is to remain faithful in our duties and to be watchful.  Besides, if we’re not looking, we might even miss something as obvious as Christmas.  What is our post?  What has God called us to do?

To what have we been assigned by the master?  Do we sometimes imagine that this life will be free from suffering?  Have you heard others complain when suffering follows obeying the commands of Jesus?  Jesus saw the ruins of Jerusalem when everyone else saw wonders.  Just as the disciples assumed that the temple of Jerusalem would always stand, so we might consider that we are no more exempt from the ravages of time than anyone or anything else.  

Someday our civilization may lie in ruins, all because we didn’t heed the words of Jesus.  And if that is so, how much more imperative is it that we be about the work of God’s kingdom?  The fact is, no one knows the end of time but God the Father alone.  Our job is to be faithful and alert.  We’re called to watch, to wait and to be busy in God’s kingdom.  Heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus said (Matthew 24:35), but God’s promise of eternal life with Him, will always stand. 


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