Sunday, November 14, 2021
My freshman year of high school, we heard about two high school students who shot and killed twelve students and one teacher before turning the gun on themselves in Columbine, Colorado. In addition to fire drills, we started practicing school lockdowns, and my high school got metal detectors and an on-duty police officer. My senior year of high school, I was in my World History class watching the news as a second plane flew into the second of the World Trade Center towers. Soon after, you could no longer go to the gate to greet your loved ones arriving into town, and you had to put small amounts of any liquids you wanted to travel with in Ziploc bags. These moments of national tragedy have shaped who I am today, and my entire generation of millennials. For Gen X-ers, it may have been the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Challenger explosion. For Baby Boomers, at least for my parents, it was the day JFK was assassinated. For my grandparents, World War II. We can’t help but be shaken and changed when things happen outside of our control.
When Jesus talks in the gospel this morning about buildings falling down, earthquakes, famines, wars, and rumors of wars, we might say, “What’s new?” Or we may wonder how the end times will be any different, or if we are in the end times right now. The original writers of Daniel, Hebrews, AND Mark certainly thought Jesus was coming again VERY SOON! With each new generation, we experience moments of national or global tragedy that shake and unsettle us, making us question at times why things are the way they are, and influencing how we think and behave moving forward. For most of us, hopefully, we are able to live mostly stable lives where the things we do each day are reliable and predictable: we go to work and school and our other daily activities without incident. For the most part, we expect that everything will be normal and without incident. But at least for my generation, I would say, we’ve experienced enough unsettling that in the back of your head there’s always anticipating the next piece of disturbing bad news. The younger the generation, the less trust of authority or institutions for this reason. There is very little, we’ve learned, that we can trust to be reliable today.
In today’s gospel passage from Mark, Jesus is talking about the end times. It’s a week before he goes to the cross to die and be raised, and he’s asking his disciples to prepare and expect to be shaken up by some things after his death. Looking at the temple, he points out that even the temple will be destroyed, which indeed it was in 70 AD. To his Jewish disciples, this is a disturbing prediction. God’s house, the temple, it was thought, would never be destroyed! The temple was not only the most sacred site for the Jews, it was a modern feat of human ingenuity and architecture. “What large stones and what large buildings!” the disciples marvel. But Jesus warns them that everything they believe to be stable and reliable will be shaken, including their very center of worship of God.
This does not mean, however, that Jesus is telling them or us not to trust anyone or anything. There is someone in whom we can put our trust, of course, and that’s Jesus. Jesus goes on not just to warn the disciples but also encourage and assure them. We are to beware of people who lead us astray from God. Instead, we can place our faith in the One who will not change, who will not be shaken. It’s important to hear what Jesus says: “Do not be alarmed.” “Do not be alarmed.” Birth pangs are painful, I have first-hand experience of that, but they are also signs of good to come, new life coming. For us as people of faith in Christ, we place our hope and confidence in his steadfast faithfulness, even as the world changes and quakes around us.
Our second reading from Hebrews can be a helpful support to Mark’s gospel today. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful,” Hebrews 10:23 says. What an important reminder for us today as we continue to face uncertain and unstable times. Buildings may fall, our world continues to experience unjust violence, division, and natural disasters, but God who has promised is faithful. Hebrews is a difficult book of the Bible to understand. In this chapter, the writer explains how previously priests would offer sacrifices to God day after day for the forgiveness of sins, only to have to go back the next day and do it again. Could they trust that God forgave them? Maybe they weren’t always sure. In Jewish practice, on the Day of Atonement, only the high priest could go behind the curtain to the Holy Place in the temple to offer a sacrifice and ask for God’s forgiveness on behalf of the people. But Jesus has opened the curtain for us on the cross, offering a single sacrifice for sins perfecting us for all time, Hebrews says. God will remember our sins and lawless deeds no more. In simpler terms, because of Jesus, God forgives us and makes that forgiveness not only possible but permanent. We might wake up each day uncertain about some things, but we don’t have to wonder if God loves me and forgives me today. Each and every day our faith assures us we are already forgiven, and all that needed to be done Jesus already did for us on the cross.
Regardless of which unsettling event it was that has affected us each the most, we know that each of us has gone through some difficult times, and we will face difficult times in the future. However, God’s core message to us today is the only earth-shaking cataclysmic event that truly matters for us eternally speaking is Jesus’ death and resurrection. Remember, Jesus tells the disciples about these things just a week before he dies on the cross. And at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, Mark tells us, the curtain of the temple is torn in two from top to bottom. At Jesus’ resurrection, there is a great earthquake! God wants us to pay attention to the earth shaking events of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection! Jesus has conquered death and opened access to God’s love and forgiveness for all people, not just for the high priest, the holiest but for sinners like us. Whatever happens to us in this life we know our life in Christ is secure.
I started out this morning saying we’d focus on thankfulness, and again this week, when we think about the end times and Christ’s final judgment “gratitude” is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Today, we can truly be grateful that this is what our faith in Christ is all about, that despite the alarming events happening around us we don’t need to be alarmed, because he who has promised is faithful! Focusing on being thankful this month with these scripture readings I hope challenges us to go beyond what we easily thank God for. Of course we right away thank God for the people who are easy to love: our friends and family, for our material blessings, the relative peace and freedom we enjoy in this country…the typical list. How can an attitude of gratitude push us to be grateful for people and things we don’t usually think of first?
As we look forward to Thanksgiving celebrations with family, we know even that sometimes time with family can be unsettling around the holidays. People we love dearly can have very different strong opinions about COVID, politics, health and even rules about what can eat or don’t eat, just to list a few things that can create family conflict. Families, just like the world around us, can be less stable than we’d like! This Thanksgiving, may our thankfulness for God’s complete and total forgiveness of us despite our flaws and weaknesses spill over into an attitude of forgiveness and understanding for others. It still might be just tolerating or getting through a day with someone you can’t be around for too long, but even in that, can we give thanks? Can we forgive? At the very least, when we’re not able to forgive, we can rely on God’s forgiveness, the one who remembers our sins no more. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering! Encourage one another! And give thanks. Amen.