Sermons

Sun, Nov 18, 2018

Readings the signs

Series:Sermons

I don't know if you realise but... 

apparently... 

the world is supposed to end sometime before the end of this year--

according to the Christian numerologist and conspiracy theorist, David Meade.

An earlier prediction attributed to him--

that it was to end on the twenty-third of April--

was, he suggested, "fake news". 

Haven't we heard all of this before?

There were predictions that it would end in either September or October, two thousand and fifteen.

Before that, it was supposed to end on the twenty-third of August, two thousand and thirteen... 

according to the legendary Rasputin.

Many were convinced it was going to occur in December, two thousand and twelve...

according to the ancient Mayan calendar.

An American preacher, Harold Camping, had many convinced it was to be in October, two thousand and eleven...

so much so, that they quit their jobs and sold their homes in preparation.

Then there was tele-evangelist Pat Robertson's prediction for April, two thousand and seven;

the House of Yahweh cult predicted the end in September, two thousand and six;

and, of course, there were numerous predictions for the year two thousand.

And that's only the ones this century!

To date, there are also future predictions of the end of the world for two thousand and twenty...

two thousand and twenty-one...

two thousand and twenty-six...

and, strangely, by Sir Isaac Newton for two thousand and sixty.

Throughout history, there have been countless predictions of cataclysmic events--

or the end of the world as we know it.

And, at first glance, Jesus seems to do it too in this morning's reading from Mark's Gospel:

"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".

And, although Mark's Jesus studiously avoids naming a specific date...

there have been plenty down the ages who have seen this as a cataclysmic-end-of-the-world-prediction.

But that's not what is going on here.

Rather, this episode from Mark's Gospel comes at the end of Jesus' ministry...

after the ambiguous but provocative entry into Jerusalem...

followed by his direct attack on the whole Temple establishment-- 

with his act of clearing the Temple.

Those actions were part of an escalating series of clashes with the powers-that-be.

And Jesus knew that you can't keep criticising the powers-that-be with impunity.

You can't keep challenging deeply-held traditions without a backlash.

You can't keep stomping on religious beliefs and practices without consequences.

Jesus knew his fate...

he knew that he was going to be killed.

But, as he paused and reflected...

he could see the signs--

not just about what was going to happen to him personally;

but he could also see the signs of what was happening around him in his world:

the growing unrest and discontent...

following a series of droughts and famines... 

which had led to oppressive debt and dispossession...

because of the exploitative practices of the aristocracy-

an aristocracy that also controlled the Temple...

which was used to exploit ordinary people.

All of which meant that there were more and more displaced peasants--

hungry and desperate-- 

many of whom had turned to banditry.

And all of that fed on and fostered a growing hatred and resentment of the Roman occupiers...

which, in turn, exacerbated the discontent with their own leaders for collaborating with the Romans.

It was a time of growing anger and resentment.

And, at the time that the author wrote his Gospel...

all of that had come to a head.

Most scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was probably written just after the great Israelite revolt against Rome--

a revolt that lasted for some eight years...

before it ended with a massive and overwhelming defeat...

and something that they thought unthinkable:

the destruction of Jerusalem... 

including the destruction of that awe-inspiring symbol of their faith and hope as a nation...

the Temple itself.

As he paused and reflected, Jesus could see the signs.

He could see where his country and his people were heading.

The signs were unmistakably there.

And yet, most couldn't see them...

or they didn't want to see them.

As such, Jesus' words here are not some sort of prophetic prediction--

at least, not in the sense that we commonly use that expression...

and certainly not some sort of distant future prediction.

But they were truly prophetic;

that is, he was reading the signs of the times...

interpreting events...

and expounding the logical consequences.

He was warning his followers where things were heading...

but also trying to offer a word of hope and encouragement.

He was trying to urge them-- 

when their social and symbolic world fell apart...

when they experienced all sorts of things that seemed catastrophic--

not to lose heart;

but to stand firm and to continue to trust in God.

And, in shaping and crafting this speech as he did...

the author was trying to warn his own community to see the signs for themselves;

to see where the powers-that-be were taking them-- 

or where they had taken them.

He wanted them to understand that the events that were transpiring...

were a direct consequence of those socio-economic...

political...

and religious decisions.

But, at the same time, the author was also warning them not to get sucked in.

He was trying to encourage them not to believe that they had to maintain the status quo...

that they had to preserve their social and symbolic world--

as it had always been.

He was trying to help them to see...

that they could, in fact, live without the Temple;

that its loss was not the end of their world.

He was trying to encourage his readers to hold firm...

and to trust in God.

 

And, perhaps, it's that dual focus of warning and encouragement...

that we, too, need to hear in our day and age.

We need to heed the warnings...

we need to read the signs...

because we can't just go on with business as usual;

we can't keep doing things the way that we always have:

the ravages of climate change...

the enormous and ever-expanding gap between rich and poor...

the seeming explosion of terrorism and civil conflicts...

and the massive increase in the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers.

If we don't change our ways... 

and change them dramatically and soon...

then we--

or our descendants-- 

will be experiencing a cataclysmic event.

But that applies to the Christian Church as well.

We need to heed the warnings...

to read the signs...

because we can't go on with business as usual;

we can't keep doing things the way that we always have:

with declining numbers and ageing congregations...

that make it harder to maintain properties...

balance budgets...

and provide programs and services;

not to mention a lack of relevance for, or connection with, the average person.

If we don't change our ways... 

and change them dramatically and soon...

then there won't be a Church--

certainly not one that is able to proclaim, authentically, a message of good news...

of inclusion...

love...

tolerance...

and peace.

 

And yet, we also need to hear the word of encouragement and hope:

God is with us;

God can work through us;

and God is one who does bring new life--

even out of death and destruction.

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