Sermon for St Michael’s
15 November 2009
Psalm 16:5-11; Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-14,18; Mark 13:24-32
Matthew Bartlett...
quantities of fish. It’s a beautiful image of blessing, healing and
fruitfulness, and it would have to some extent informe...
the house was rebuilt and our life continued more or less as before. But
for Israel, the people of God, this is a much mor...
disciples. And as Jesus says in this very chapter of Mark, “you will be
hated by all on account of my name.” Both these sa...
catch a glimpse of who exactly we’re dealing with. Then perhaps we’ll
realise it’s not about us, it’s about God, and God’s...
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The Little Apocalypse

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A sermon from me about judgement and the 'Little Apocalypse' of Mark 13.

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The Little Apocalypse

  1. 1. Sermon for St Michael’s 15 November 2009 Psalm 16:5-11; Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-14,18; Mark 13:24-32 Matthew Bartlett Today I’m going to concentrate on the Gospel reading. It’s difficult material on more than one level. There is a lot of strange stuff about the sun and moon going dark, the stars falling out of the sky, and the Son of Man coming in the clouds – what, if anything, does this have to do with us, sophisticated city-dwellers [, university students and graduates] in the 21st century? Some see this cosmic language as pointing to the end of the space-time universe, the wrapping-up of the whole shebang at some future date. The text itself, however, in verse 30 appears to bracket the possible time application to the near future of Jesus’ listeners: “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”. The Gospel reading is somewhat oddly excerpted from a larger section of Jesus’ words. If we expand the area of Mark we’re considering, we’ll see that this chapter begins with an exclamation from the disciples that sheds some light on that matter: “Look how flash this temple is! What wonderful stones & buildings!” As we’ve heard before from this lectern, the Jewish temple in Jesus’ day was the focus of Israel’s national identity, continuing existence and its hope for future blessing. Perhaps you’ll remember that vision of the new temple that Ezekiel, the prophet in exile, records in great length and detail starting at chapter 40 in the book of Ezekiel. In his vision, God takes Ezekiel on a tour of the temple and shows him a stream of water that’s flowing out the front door. The stream gets wider and wider and deeper and deeper, and becomes a mighty river. Wherever the river flows, trees spring up, and there are loads of birds and animals, and when the river touches the sea, it turns the seawater fresh, and there are enormous 1 of 5
  2. 2. quantities of fish. It’s a beautiful image of blessing, healing and fruitfulness, and it would have to some extent informed Jews’ feelings about the temple in Jesus’ day. In many places in the Hebrew scriptures cosmic language involving the sun, moon & stars, and God coming on the clouds like this is used to talk about judgment – of Israel or of other nations. In our gospel reading Jesus is borrowing that language to predict the destruction of Jerusalem and of its temple, and to prepare his disciples for it. And of course, in early August of the year AD 70, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. This happened in the middle of the first Jewish-Roman War (66-73 AD). It was an utter disaster for the Jewish people, one from which you could say they didn’t recover till 1948. It is difficult for us to imagine what the effect of Jesus’ prediction would have had on the disciples. It certainly plays an important part in his state execution. In his trial, such as it was, the testimony against him (which Mark says is false) is that he said, “I will destroy this temple made with hands and in three days I will build another made without hands”. And again, when Jesus is dying on Golgotha, passersby yell at him, “You who were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In New Zealand, I can’t think of one similarly important great symbol or institution. I suppose we don’t have as cohesive a national consciousness as Israel did in Jesus’ day. If say the Beehive burned down, it would be a bit of shock, but few of us would feel that all our hopes and dreams for the future were shattered. Pondering this stuff, it did remind me of an event in my own family’s experience: When I was growing up, we lived in Masterton, and my father was a policeman. When I was about nine years old, our house was burnt to the ground by arsonists. Evidently they had a bit of a grudge against the police in Masterton, and took it out on us, and a number of other family’s houses. Now of course it was all very upsetting and traumatic at the time – more so for my parents than me – but eventually 2 of 5
  3. 3. the house was rebuilt and our life continued more or less as before. But for Israel, the people of God, this is a much more radical break. This world-shaking judgment was the end-point of Jesus’ transformation of what exactly it means to be ‘the people of God’. But it was also in a way the beginning of a new age. No longer would God’s people be tied to a particular nation, racial group, or particular spot of land. This is all anticipated in Jesus’ life and in his death. Throughout his career he himself did what the temple system was meant to do – he provided healing, forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. He was critical of particularly Israel’s leadership because they had misunderstood Israel’s calling. As David said last week, its vocation was “to manifest the life of God before the nations.” But instead, they hoped to gain pre-eminence over the other nations, either through military revolution (the Zealots) or by winning God’s favour through precise law-keeping and separation from unclean Gentiles (the Pharisees). He preached and practiced love for even Israel’s enemies, and his self-sacrificing death at the hands of his own enemies was surely the clearest possible manifestation of the life of God before the nations. Basically, all that’s left of Israel’s aspirations and expectations after the temple is destroyed is the resurrected Jesus himself. I’d like to spend a few minutes teasing out some of the implications of this for our life now. The first and most disturbing feature of this story I want to note is the reality of judgment that it assumes. I read through the Gospel of Mark in the last couple of days in preparation for this sermon. I definitely can’t pretend to understand all of it, but it’s hard not to notice that Jesus spends a lot of his time announcing this coming judgment and inviting people to join his movement, because their old ways of being God’s people had literally no future. Though the leadership become Jesus’ implacable foes, crowds of people did respond and follow Jesus around. It seems to be particularly the marginalised, the poor, diseased, and social outcasts who latched on to Jesus, while the people with a lot invested in the status quo couldn’t stomach him. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Jesus tells his 3 of 5
  4. 4. disciples. And as Jesus says in this very chapter of Mark, “you will be hated by all on account of my name.” Both these sayings point to the fact that there will often be tension between the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, and any particular society. Success in one realm may mean failure in the other. [Many of us here have some wealth, some power, some status in society. Of course it is not necessarily true that we are therefore being unfaithful to Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, but it should at least provoke us to some self-examination and reflection.] Another thing to note about today’s text is the danger associated with being ‘the people of God’. We perhaps too blithely take on God’s name, “we go in the name of Christ”, without always remembering that God takes an active interest in the people who’re named after him, and who are to a large extent responsible for his reputation in the world. By nature we’d prefer to deal with God on our terms, as a sort of involved hobby – someone who we can keep in our back pockets, who we can turn to for comfort from time to time, but who wouldn’t make concrete demands of us. I think this is how our culture wants us to treat God, and religion. A bit like a passion for stamp-collecting, or yoga: more or less worthwhile in their place, but if it starts interfering with work, or politics, or how we spend our money or make major life decisions, then things are getting out of hand. [Most of us crave the regard of our peers. If you’re young, you want to be cool, stylish and fit in. If you’re older, you want to be successful and respected. I’m almost 30, so I want to be both cool and successful. But as I suggested earlier, God’s upside-down kingdom will at times be at odds with coolness and success as our society defines it.] One other I noticed while reading the Gospel of Mark is the way the disciples only gradually realise who they’re dealing with. Though readers of the gospel are told in the very first verse “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, Jesus’ disciples only discover little by little that their rabbi is more than a doomsday prophet – somehow he’s the one on whom all of history will turn. I hope we too can occasionally 4 of 5
  5. 5. catch a glimpse of who exactly we’re dealing with. Then perhaps we’ll realise it’s not about us, it’s about God, and God’s plan for the whole world. Though I’ve argued that today’s gospel is primarily about the end of the temple system and the de-nationalising of the people of God, of course that’s not the end of the story. We’re still waiting for God to do for the cosmos what he did for Jesus in the resurrection, for the groaning of the creation Paul talks about in Romans 8 to be eased. That expectation informs our continuing task in the world: in addition to the responsibility of living out God’s life together, we also now proclaim Jesus’ resurrection as the hope of a beautiful future for the entire world. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen. 5 of 5

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