The Best Is Yet to Come
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 14, 2021
25th Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
Our reading from the Gospel of Mark is often referred to as the “little apocalypse,” a short version of warnings about the end of the world. Herein, Jesus foretells of dreadful times ahead—times that are just the beginning of the birthpangs to come. Let us begin our exploration by first defining the word “apocalypse.” Merriam-Webster defines it as one of the Jewish and Christian writings marked by symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom. It may also be defined more simply as a prophetic revelation.
Most of you know that I began attending church at the age of 12 with my uncle. The church was conservative and fundamentalist. So, it may not surprise you that I heard sermon after sermon on the end times, the mark of the beast, numerology, etc. While I would not say the preachers that filled the pulpit were obsessed with apocalyptic literature, I can say in all honesty that I heard way more sermons on eschatology (the study of end times) than on more important matters like God’s grace. As a result, when the lectionary delivers me a text like this one from Mark, I have a little post-traumatic flashback. I believe in God’s mercy, grace, and goodness, in Christ’s redemptive love, in the Spirit’s power to transform all of life. Furthermore, I believe that people who choose to follow Jesus out of fear are not really following Jesus. They are just trying to avoid calamity. Though I often miss the mark, I prefer to look at life with hope and optimism. If optimism is your cup of tea, you might agree that this is not the text for us. However, if we also believe that all Scripture is useful for teaching, surely there is something for us to learn from Jesus’ words.
I am reminded of the story of the pony in the pile. Have you heard it? Once upon a time there were five-year-old twin boys, one was a pessimist, a gloomy sort of “Eeyore” fellow. The other was an optimist, a bubbly, joyful sort. Wondering how two boys who seemed so alike on the outside could be so different on the inside, their parents took them to a child psychiatrist. The psychiatrist took the pessimist to a room piled high with new toys, expecting the boy to be thrilled, but instead he burst into tears. Puzzled, the psychiatrist asked, “Don’t you want to play with these toys?” “Yes,” the little boy bawled, “but if I did, I’d only break them.” Next the psychiatrist took the optimist to a room piled high with horse manure. The boy squealed with delight, climbed to the top of the pile, and joyfully dug out scoop after scoop, tossing the manure into the air with glee. “What on earth are you doing?” the psychiatrist asked. “Well,” said the boy, beaming, “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”[i] I invite you to join me on a search for “the pony.”
One of my fondest memories of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land is visiting the Wailing Wall. It is the only wall remaining from the temple and it is where faithful Jews (and visiting Christians, like our group) still come to pray. Many follow the custom of writing prayers on pieces of paper, praying them at the wall, and then tucking the paper into the crevices between the huge stones. Quite happy to follow the custom, for days I pondered what names and yearnings to write on my little sheet of paper. And I admit, it was a holy moment—leaving my prayers there in that sacred space from which millions of prayers have risen to Yahweh. So, if I was this impressed by the one surviving wall of the temple, no wonder the disciples were impressed.
Of course, the temple in question is the second temple. The first, built by Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians 500 years before Jesus’ time. The second temple was built after the return from exile, and then it was enhanced by King Herod in the decades just before Jesus’ ministry. By all accounts, it was magnificent. The Roman historian Tacitus described the temple complex as a mountain of white marble adorned with gold, a “temple of immense wealth.” Its enormous stones mystified many, and the surrounding complex included sprawling courtyards, colonnaded courts, grand porches and balconies, covered walkways, and monumental stairs. Herod the great builder built it to impress the wealthiest and most powerful rulers of the day, and he succeeded. [ii]
From the Lectionary, prior readings from Mark have been set in the temple, too. From inside, Jesus has criticized the way the scribes have exploited the poor and he has noticed the generosity of a widow who put all that she had into the treasury. Now Jesus walks outside with his disciples and one of them points out the architecture. “Look Teacher, what great stones!” They are certainly surprised by his response. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Later, sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew can’t help but ask Jesus, “When will this be, and what will be the signs?” Jesus tells them many will be led astray…there will be wars and rumors of wars…there will be earthquakes and famines. He warns, “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
At first glance, Jesus’ prophetic words, which continue through the end of the chapter, are filled with bad news: not one stone will be left, nation will rise against nation, brother will betray brother, there is danger of being led astray. Fortunately, though, in the pile of bad news there is comfort and good news: Do not be alarmed when you hear of wars, when nations rise against nations, when there are earthquakes and famine. Jesus offers hope amidst the pile of pains, pangs, and persecution. Jesus reminds the disciples that the Holy Spirit with be with them, and he promises salvation to those who endure. Jesus’ message is that his followers need to prepare to participate in his suffering and eventual victory by being witnesses to the truth. His words are meant to give them hope and to encourage them to be steadfast when challenges come.
Let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ words, “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” The process of birthing a child is not easy—thus the phrase—birth pangs. But somehow the painful details evaporate with one glance at the sweet, wrinkled, newborn. The pain of giving birth is a necessary step toward the greater good of bringing a child into the life of the family. In this world there are wars going on at any given time. Suffering and pain are woven into the fabric of life. As Christians, we know this full well. It is a cross, after all, that marks the center of our tradition. We might be tempted to lose hope if not for the rest of the story. Jesus leaves the realm of glory to enter the world as a helpless baby to be the Great Hope of our past, our present, and our future. In Christ, there is new life. Jesus comes to do what the temple has been unable to do—show us how to live and equip us to do so. Jesus comes to break God out of the box the Jewish people have placed God in.
In time, the church is born—a place where all people—Jews and Gentiles—can come to learn, to grow, to be equipped to share their faith, and to care for one another. In the beginning, the walls of the church are fluid—all are welcome—all find a place of love. The church has a united purpose to share the gospel with the world. Because of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God’s love, grace, mercy, and hope—they are ours. A new way of life is ours. In the centuries since the birth of Christ’s church, mistakes have been made, to be sure. Again and again, we have been guilty of trying to put God back into a box of our own making. But God will not be contained. Change continues to be a hallmark of our existence—for the world and the church—but that doesn’t make it easy. Sometimes, it may even feel a little like giving birth. But if we are open to the movement of the Spirit, God’s purpose may be fulfilled in us and through us.
In the trying times in which we live, it’s easy to focus on the negative, especially when news strikes of more death, destruction, and devastation. Presbyterian pastor and scholar, Rodger Nishioka offers a remedy. Instead of focusing on signs of the times, we can focus on:
…[T]he one who is to come—the one who enables us to look up after devastation and claim the certainty of blessing. Things may seem to have fallen apart. It may appear that anarchy has been loosed on the world. Nevertheless, the center will hold and—much to our amazement—we will discover that we have much faithful work to do.[iii]
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[ii] Robert A Bryant, Feasting on the Word.
[iii] Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word.
*Cover photo by Sarah Elizabeth Ray, used by permission