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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
November 19, 2018 at 10:45 AM
Central Passage
Mark 13:1-8
Pentecost 26B

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: November 18, 2018 – Pentecost 26B

Mark 13:1-8


After the Stones Crumble


              Once upon a time, the people of the nation of Ourlandia trusted the social institutions that guided their lives. Their civic leaders seemed to be good and wise servants of the public. Their churches – large buildings built in the wake of a large population increase – were packed every Sunday. Men were part of social clubs dedicated to the betterment of their communities, and anyone could get a decent-paying job out of high school, if he or she had a good work ethic. Sure, there were a few dissidents here and there, advocating for what they called “civil rights”, but many of the good people of Ourlandia dismissed them as either malcontents or active agents of the evil empire of Theirlandia.


              And then some bad things happened. Some of the civic leaders were murdered. The nation of Ourlandia was bogged down in a never-ending war in Overtheria, a little country far, far away, that seemed to have little interest in fighting for itself. The numbers of the so-called malcontents exploded. Calls for rapid social change echoed across Ourlandia. And then, there was a president named Richard.


              Richard did a bad thing. After the bad thing was exposed, the Ourlandian public, already disillusioned by the war in Overtheria, lost much of its faith in the government they thought they could trust. In the wake of this came loss of faith in other social institutions. The churches of Ourlandia began to bleed money and members. The social clubs likewise began to see a loss in active involvement. While there were valiant efforts by some people to recapture the spirit of the past decades, they couldn’t “put that genie back in the bottle”. Anxiety grew as the nation seemed to embark upon a steep decline – a decline that seemed to have no bottom.


              Of course, you’ve seen right through this little allegory. And of course, the allegory is too simple. There are many factors behind the decline of the formerly mainline Christian churches. But the fact remains – the institution of the church has been declining in numbers since about 1970. And despite all of the optimism from churchwide, the blatant denials of conflict or decline by church leaders (for example, on the eve of the adoption of our social statement “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust”, a well-respected theologian in the ELCA told me I was dead wrong about the divisiveness I observed within the church), or the many programs designed to increase our visibility in our communities, the ELCA will likely continue to decline for the foreseeable future. The public has lost faith in social institutions, including organized religion. In its place has come hope in secular messiahs – strongmen who can lead our nation and its institutions back to its former glory. (And I’m not just speaking of the current President – I saw the same kind of messianic dynamic when President Obama was elected ten years ago.)


              The problem, though, is not that we’re declining. Despite what happens to individual congregations or church bodies, Jesus promised that the church would stand forever, and that the gates of Death would not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). The communion of saints is forever. The problem is that we human beings so easily put our trust in the wrong thing or person. And when the idol topples or the stones crumble, we are left without trust or hope in anything.


              Jesus warns against this kind of misplaced trust in our Gospel reading today. The disciples have clearly never been to Jerusalem before. They’re like tourists in New York City, staring open-mouthed at the sky. “Teacher, look!” they gasp. “What awesome stones and buildings!”


              Too be fair, the Temple would have been an awesome sight. Some of the stones of its walls weighed upwards of 100 tons. You can see these stones today. (Some of them still stand as part of the Western Wall. Others remain where they fell 2000 years ago.) The area was surrounded by towers, porticos, and courts. And in the center was the Temple building itself, 180 feet high, 150 feet long, and 35 feet wide. That may not seem terribly impressive to us, but consider that the outside was adorned with thick golden plates that reflected the sun like fire. It would have been a dazzling sight. Remember too that the Jerusalem Temple was the center of the universe for pious Jews. It was the dwelling place of God, where earth and heaven met.


              You can imagine then how stunned the disciples are when Jesus tells them, “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” To their ears, it sounds like Jesus is talking about the end of the world. Not the end of a religious institution, or of a way of worshiping God, but the very end of the world. Little wonder four disciples ask him to elaborate further. “When is this going to happen?” they ask.


              Jesus doesn’t give a definitive timeframe. In fact, he doesn’t know the timeframe, according to 13:32. What he does emphasize is the need to keep calm and alert. “Many will come in my name,” Jesus says. We could expand on that. There aren’t many people out there who are claiming to be Christ, but there are many claiming an authority that isn’t theirs to claim. There are many people and institutions out there – powerful people and institutions – that want to claim messiah-hood. They want to claim to be able to save us from the ills of our society or faith. They want to claim that they are returning us to the golden age of “Ourlandia”. Jesus warns us to not be duped. To not seek false messiahs in the political, religious, or any other area of our lives. Instead, be calm. Trust in God. The crumbling of the Temple was not the end of the world. The crumbling of civic and religious institutions will not be the end for us, either. Sure, there are ends that we face throughout our lives. Sometimes, these ends are more severe and traumatic. But they are not our final end.


              Our final end rests in Jesus Christ, his Father who created the world and us, and the Holy Spirit which sustains our faith. Our destiny is in God. I think that this is part of the reason that Jesus emphasizes that these terrifying events are not the end yet. All this strife and pain is part of human history. It’s bound to happen. Jesus may have anticipated some sort of apocalyptic fervor among his followers that would distract them from the point of his life and ministry. The bottom line is that Jesus calls us to put our trust in God because our destiny rests in God. Not in any would be messiah – whether person or ideology.


              I’m not denying that it can be hard to trust God. It certainly is. In fact, without Jesus, trust of God is impossible. We would continue to fall for the latest ideology or strongman. But Jesus makes us into children of God; new people who can come to and trust God. Jesus broke open the barrier between us and God by his life, death, and resurrection. He showed us, once and for all, what God is really like. God is not a strongman. God is not a rigid ideology or theology. God is self-giving, sacrificial love – love that makes us truly human. God is a God who conceals himself under failure, suffering, and death – so that he can be truly revealed to us. So whatever comes, whatever happens in our world, let’s not be afraid. As Psalm 46 says, “God is our refuge and strength; a present help in time of trouble. Though the earth falls apart, though the mountains crumble into the sea, though the waters roar and rage – we will not fear.” Amen.


© 2018, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.