End Game

Mark 13:1-8

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “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.

Prayer – Gracious God, as we walk with you, we wonder about the future. Will our cancer heal? Will our families find a way to stay together, in spite of our past hurts? And what about our country? Will those in authority wisely lead us through present dangers? Will the world beset by so many tensions and difficulties come apart or implode under the weight of so many problems? Still-speaking God, we do not know what the future holds. Yet we do know who holds the future. Do not leave us to our own devices, Lord. Keep working with us; keep overcoming our evil with your good, keep loving us into your promised future. Amen.

As Jesus left the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, look! What awesome stones and buildings!”  Jesus responded, “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”  It must have come as a shock to the disciples for Jesus to be predicting that this grand temple, this source of national pride and prestige, the only thing that Israel had left amid the ruin of Roman occupation, would be destroyed, not a stone left upon stone in the end.

“Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other, and there will be earthquakes and famines in all sorts of places.  These things are just the beginning of the sufferings associated with the end.” Jesus is talking about the end game, the last things, that fancy theological word eschatology.  A chief source of the ‘sufferings associated with the end’ is the loss of this grand temple where, in the holy of holies, deep within the dark temple, god almighty is said to dwell.  “Done,” said Jesus, over and done with, shaken to its foundations by God. On top of that, nations will fight each other, earthquakes, famines, huge fires, all ‘sufferings associated with the end.’

Now I know you.  You are sophisticated, urbane, critical, and a thoroughly modern and progressive congregation.  Like much of mainline churches, you get squeamish when Jesus goes end times, when he talks about no stone left on stone, wars, sufferings, the end.  There’s not much of the Left Behind kind of talk in our sort of church.  But allow me to say a word of defense on behalf of Jesus the apocalyptic prophet of the end.  Contrary to what you have been led to believe, when Jesus goes apocalyptic and talks of the end, he’s not predicting the future, he is speaking of the precariousness of the present.  This temple, this world is not as stable, eternal as it appears. And that my friends is particularly true of our world today.

Mainline, educated, respectable, progressive Christianity gets nervous gets nervous when Jesus talks apocalyptic.  We prefer Jesus as a great moral teacher, an example of compassion for the poor, or someone who gives us a spiritual boost.  There’s none of that here in Jesus’ last will and testament. On the way to his end, he speaks of our end.

Jesus, before you leave, give us some final words of wisdom.  And Jesus speaks words of an end game that we would just as soon not hear.  All this, for any of its present glory, is ending, stone ripped from stone, your great monuments reduced to rubble.  Suddenly, I am feeling connected to Willy Loman who lamented, “I’m feeling kind of temporary.” Must you be post-fifty to know that feeling?

Oh, but we are modern, educated, sophisticated people who enjoy thinking that we are presently making progress, that our future is brighter than Jesus predicted.  Our research makes the world safer, stabilizes the future, vanquishes the grip of ignorance, and frees us to flourish – forever. But what if permanence is a delusion, illusion?  Why do we tend to build our churches to look older than they really are? Why do so many churches bolt the pews to the floor? Feeling kind of temporary, we come to church to remedy our precariousness.

I bet that those of you who are young suspect a kind of transitory precariousness, even though most of you expect that you are a long way from the finitude that faces those of us who are older.  You’ve learned that in education there is growth, something is gained. But something is always lost. To learn anything worth knowing requires relinquishment of what you once knew or believed.

I’ve shared with you many times of the ongoing deconstruction of my theology and the rebuilding of it.  There is no fresh arrival of God without some sort of departure, no grasping of faith without relinquishment.  In every move toward God, something is gained, and, something is lost, and the loss may be painful. Every step toward the truth tends to entail necessary loss, ‘suffering associated with the end,’ as Jesus puts it in today’s gospel lesson.  

Most of you went to the polls and voted for politicos who promised to get our country back.  Sorry, nothing about us is permanent, not even our beloved country, our cherished status quo.  If we have learned nothing else from recent years, it is that nothing is the way it once was, and is unlikely to be ever again.  Nothing about us is built to last. In the end, Jesus’ last will and testament tells the truth – precariousness, transitory, stone not left upon stone, now.

Do I speak too negatively of God’s end game?  In our passage this morning, Jesus concludes his apocalypse of cataclysmic destruction by saying, “These things are just the beginnings of the sufferings associated with the end,” – or more literally, “This is the beginning of the birth pangs.”  Can it be that what we call death is, at the hands of God, birth? That’s what a living God can do – make the end the beginning.

When I was in seminary I was part of an immersion trip to Central America.  I can remember one night as we talked with some folks in Nicaragua we were talking about our favorite verses from the Bible because we thought that was what seminary students ought to do, I guess.  Someone offered John 3:16. I shared Micah 6:8; another shared Psalm 23; and then a Nicaraguan said through the interpreter that her favorite passage was Mark 13 – not one stone left on stone, earthquakes, famine, fire.  She said, “That passage has always been such a comfort.” Comfort, I remember thinking, apocalyptic, comfort? The interpreter sitting next to me shared, “The woman sitting next to me, three of her five children have died from malnutrition.”

When Jesus says to me, to us, well housed, well futured, reasonably safe and secure, cared for by expensive health insurance folks – “God’s going to dismantle all of this. God didn’t create the present order. God has no stake in the preservation of our vaunted status quo,” perhaps we hear that as bad news.  But for a woman, for whom my comfortable status quo has been hell, hears Jesus’ talk of end and disruption as gospel hope. For many of us who are children of the South, the end of the ‘Southern way of life’ was viewed as a sad ending, but for the slaves, it was a new, fresh beginning.

I was talking with a pastor colleague not too long ago who works with the homeless about how she persevered in her shoestring ministry for over a decade.  She waved her hand over the desolation of downtown Greenville and explained, “I know a secret – all of this is transient.” With a living God, anything we build, including any evil we construct or allow to live, is all temporary, transient, dying in order to be reborn.  Thus, Jesus ends his wild, Cormac McCarthy apocalyptic, cataclysmic discourse by saying, “This end is the beginning, this death is birth.”

At the end, Jesus lets us in on a secret – the world may be torn apart, the veil in the temple may get ripped apart, all so that a new world might be made available.  The end of your marriage, your last day at work, a rejection letter from grad school, an empty nest, the death of your beloved, a pastor and friend moving to Texas – by God’s grace, these endings may be birth pangs, an offer of a new world.  It all depends on a God whose eternal love is our hope.

Amid the shifts of history, the ending of one age and the beginning of a new one, Christians always try to put ourselves in the position of faith – faithfully hoping that God is indeed busy behind the scenes, beneath the headlines, bringing some new, fresh gift into being.  Therein is our hope in life, in death, in life beyond death. God will not be stumped by our unjust institutions, our mistakes, our failures. God will write the last chapter.

I was recently talking with a 33 year old woman who was dying of pancreatic cancer.  The doctors had told her and her family, there is nothing more we can do for the cancer, no more treatments, no more chemo. She was at the end of the line.  “What’s going to happen to me?” she asked. I could see the heartache, no the terror as she realized that she wasn’t going to watch her three children grow up.  “What’s going to happen to me?” What’s to be said at the end? I held her hand and looked her in the eye as I said, “We are going to live to the end, you are going to love and be loved.  And then there will be a new beginning, for you and for your family.” Perhaps not a great answer to an unanswerable question. All I could offer her is that her end is not the end. She will live on in her family just as her family will live on.

So this Sunday, here towards the end of the church year, toward the end of Mark’s gospel, toward the end of my time here as your Stated Supply Pastor, Jesus goes apocalyptic.  He speaks of stone cast down from stone, the grand edifice of the temple in ruins, birth pangs of a whole new world. Jesus is reminding us that even as something ends, something new begins.  Maybe there is no such thing as an end game – maybe that is the good news of the gospel, for the status quo and for the destitute, there is no such thing as an end game – thanks be to God – amen.