November 14, 2021 – 25th Sunday after Pentecost
Scriptures: Mark 13:1-8; 1 Samuel 2:1-10
How many of you have been to the top of what will always be to me the Sears Tower in downtown Chicago (which is now named the Willis Tower)? At 110 stories, it was the tallest building in the world until 1998. Today, it’s the 12th tallest building in the world. The 103rd story is the Skydeck, from which you can see up to 50 miles in every direction. On a clear day, the view includes four states: Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Though the building itself has been surpassed in terms of height, its observation deck remains the highest in the United States. The tower weighs 222,500 tons. It contains 25,000 miles of electrical cable and 43,000 miles of telephone cable. It has 104 elevators Contained within itself is 4.56 million gross square feet, which equals the area of 101 football fields. One of the most impressive views of the building is looking straight up to the top from its base. From that vantage point you really do get a sense of its enormity. Needless to say, it’s a massive building.
We humans are fascinated with massive works of construction, aren’t we? And no matter what it is and how big it is, we’re always looking for a way to make it bigger. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the Titanic with a modern day cruise ship. It absolutely blows the mind how massive these ships have become over the years. For whatever reason, we’re fascinated with things that are really large.
In today’s Gospel reading, it was the Disciples who displayed this particular enchantment. Prior to where our reading picks up, they’d been with Jesus just inside the temple proper observing the various goings-on of the people. The temple itself was a enormous building for its day. It stood about ten stories high and was constructed with massive stones. As they’re leaving the temple, one of disciple’s comments on the size of the stones used to build its outer wall. I’ve read that some of the stones used to construct the outer wall of the temple weighed in excess of 100 tons. The largest stone—called the Western Stone, which is still in place today—is 44 feet long, 11 feet high, and is believed to be up to 16 feet wide. It weighs between 567-628 tons. Most of the stones, however, were lighter, weighing *only* 28 tons or so. One source I read says it took 46 years to build the temple.
Anyway, as they’re leaving the building, one of them makes a little bit of light conversation, saying, “Hey, guys, get a look at these gigantic stones they used to build this place. They’re absolutely huge! The whole place is huge! How cool is that!” He probably just meant it as a simple observation, something to be pointed out and admired by the rest of the group. But Jesus realizes he’s just been handed a wonderful gift in the form of a teachable moment. And so, rather than just going along with a general response, he uses this opportunity to teach them a truth about what they could expect in the years ahead. And just as importantly, about the kind of focus he wanted them to have in this life.
His response: Yep, I see it. Its size is very impressive, no doubt. But mark my words, as immovable as those stone may be, there’s going to come a day when every stone in this temple, every stone in the wall around the city, and the stones of all the other huge buildings like it, will come crashing down into a giant heap of rubble. And that’s it. No further explanation, at least none that Mark himself provides. This is why later on a few of them pull Jesus aside and ask if he’d be willing to expound on his earlier claim. They want to know specifics. When might they expect the temple walls to come crashing down? And would there be some kind of sign that it was about to happen, and if so, what would that sign be? It seemed to them that Jesus had some sort of insight into a very significant future event, so they went fishing for insider information.
In true form, Jesus responds to their request with an indirect answer. He’s not clueless; he knows exactly what they’re asking about. But instead, he addresses what for him is a much more pressing concern than the dates and times when certain buildings will topple. Now, it’s worthy noting that what Jesus said would happen did in fact happen. It’s an historical fact that the Jewish population rebelled against the Roman Empire in 66 A.D., and that four years later the emperor sent his army into Jerusalem to regain control. This resulted in the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. So, on one level, Jesus’ prophecy did come to pass while some of the disciples were probably still alive. However, based on his actual response to their private inquiry, it’s easy to see that he had something else in mind to warn them about—something he must have felt had more dire consequences if not heeded.
They ask, “When? and what will be the sign?”
He responds, “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many people will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ They will deceive many people. When you hear of wars and reports of wars, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen, but this isn’t the end yet. 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” (Mark 13:5-8).
He talks about how much they can expect to suffer within their lifetime for the sake of their faith: “Everyone will hate you because of my name. But whoever stands firm until the end will be saved” (v. 13).
He finally closes with this foreboding statement about the future: “In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Human One [‘Son of Man’ in other Bible translations] coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven” (vv. 24-27).
Then they will see the Human One—a reference to himself in his post-resurrection, post-ascension glorified form—coming in the clouds with great power and splendor, and the angels will gather the Lord’s chosen people from…earth [and] heaven.
He’s talking about a future event which the church calls his Second Coming, when Christ will return to earth as the risen and glorified Lord of lords and King of kings. When all humanity, long-since dead and still alive at the time, will face judgement for their life on earth. According to our Scriptures, at his return the cosmos will be transformed into something new, and all faithful Souls will be united with their resurrection bodies for all of eternity. In essence, in response to their question about the toppling of large stone buildings, he draws their attention to something far, far bigger: the “toppling” of human existence as we know it and the ultimate fulfillment of the promised gift of eternal life!
In the story, the disciples are wowed by the seeming permanence and strength of the temple building. That particular view of things seems to me to reflect our general perspective of the ways and things of this world. Without a doubt, the Bible is very clear on the matter that God cares very much about the here-and-now experience of people. He hates injustice and suffering and inequality. He abhors it when people get rich on the backs of the poor. Again and again, the Old Testament prophets rebuked such realities and called on God’s people to live differently. The New Testament writers had the same message. God’s people are called to actions of love and service for the well being of those who have limited resources in this world. So, yes, there’s a very clear call in Scripture to focus our work on making today a better experience for others—because God says it’s important to do so.
But at the same time, God’s Word also reminds us that what happens in this life, in this world, isn’t permanent. And it’ll never provide the ultimate solution to the things that plague us the most. But, oh, how we tend to think and act otherwise, that it’s the things of our world that really matter.
For example, when it comes to American politics, it’s my observation that for many people—including those in the church—it feels like the world’s coming to an end when the other party is in control. And this is true of those on both sides of the aisle. There’s a deep belief that the ultimate power is having political power. And from the beginning of human history until today, people will kill—literally—for political power. The fact is, we humans put a lot of stock in our political systems, from civil politics to church politics.
Isn’t the same true when it comes to military might? In 2020, our great nation spent $767 billion on national defense. In 2010, we spent $865 billion on our military. Now, it’s not my intent to opine one way or the other as to whether or not spending that amount of money on our military is justifiable. But the fact that we do allocate hundreds of billions of dollars to our military would clearly suggest that we as a nation-state put a huge amount of stake in our military prowess. That that’s what really matters.
On a lighter note, it can be the same way with our favorite sports teams. I know a guy whose was once such that if Michigan lost a football game, his entire week was in the toilet! I can recall a time in my own life when I put a lot more stock in Michigan winning. I’m not saying I’m indifferent to Michigan losing a game, but I’ve since come to the realization that their winning has no ultimate effect on the world. And so, while I love it when they win, I’m not devastated by a loss.
Well, the imagined permanence and strength of the temple building that the disciple gave it exemplifies how we tend to view the systems and citadels of our modern world. But Jesus is quick to tells us that they won’t last. In the grand scheme of life, they’re not permanent. Instead, we’re asked to look beyond the present moment toward a future realization of the kingdom that is coming. No, he isn’t asking us to ignore the moment, to be blind to the realities of the world as it is right now. But he is asking us to not put all our hope in what we see and to work for what is coming but is not yet here.
Maintaining this vantage point on life seems apropos to me given the fact that we’re only two weeks out from the season of Advent, in which we intentionally take the long view of life. Advent is when we remind ourselves of God’s promise to come into our world and deal with the problem of sin. But it’s also a season in which we look ahead to when God rights every wrong and returns creation to its original state of righteousness. During Advent, we prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ first coming, which is what Christmas is all about. And during that same time, we also recognize the importance of preparing ourselves for his second coming. So, today’s story from Mark kind of gets us ready for that focus.
The fact is, we are a people looking forward to a promise. And God’s people have always been that way. From the moment we were sent packing from the Garden of Eden, we’ve had to be a people of hope for the future. The world can be a tough place, and there’s no guarantee in this life that all will go well. In fact, we know from personal experience that all does not go well, which is why we have to “supplement” the joy we find in our world with God’s promise that he’s ultimately working everything out perfectly.
Earlier this morning Deb read aloud a brief passage from 1 Samuel. It was Hannah’s prayer. Hannah was married to Elkanah. Elkanah had another wife, Peninniah. Peninniah had many children, but Hannah had none. In their culture, that felt like a curse of sorts. For women, there was very little that was worse than being childless. But it did get worse for Hannah. Peninniah constantly teased and taunted her, almost always to the point of weeping and great distress. The only thing she could hold onto was the knowledge that God knew her grief. And so, she held her need before the Lord.
Well, in time God answered her prayer and gave her a child. That child was Samuel, the namesake of two books of the Bible, 1st and 2nd Samuel. And so, in response, Hannah offers up this prayer, parts of which are:
My heart rejoices in the LORD. My strength rises up to the LORD! There is no rock like our God! The bows of the mighty warriors are shattered, but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power! Those who were filled full now sell themselves for bread, but the ones who were starving are now fat from food! The woman who was barren has birthed seven children, but the mother with many sons has lost them all! The Lord! He raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the garbage pile. God guards the feet of his faithful ones (snippets of 1 Samuel 2:1-9).
Like Hannah, you and I live in a world that can be cruel. And while we walk this earth, we do two simultaneous things. We live faithfully in the here-and-now, regularly praying that “thy will be done on earth.” Today. And we keep an eye on the promised blessings of the future God has in store for us.
No doubt, we will continue to marvel at the amazing things we’re able to imagine up and create. Telescopes that see things light years away from earth. Skyscrapers that break through clouds. Vaccines that have the ability to put a stop to pandemics. Even political policies that significantly curb injustice and oppression. For this creative ability we give thanks to God. But let us never forget that nothing we create will stand the ultimate test of time. According to Paul, there are three things available to us today that will go on for eternity. Faith, hope, and love. In this life, and for the sake of our eternal future, may it be the likes of faith, hope, and love that we hang our hats on. Let’s pray.
Lord God, heavenly Father, we lift up our hearts to You in prayer, trusting in Your help: You’ve promised to be our keeper – to guard our going out and coming in from this time forth and forever more, and so we ask that You would be with and uphold those who are ill. Grant them healing according to Your will. As we look forward to the day of Christ’s return in glory, help us by Your Holy Spirit to remember Your holy law, statutes, and just decrees and walk in them according to Your will and in this way show reverence for Your holy name which You have bestowed upon us in Baptism. We ask Your blessing upon our national economy and upon our own jobs and financial well-being. Direct the unemployed to useful labor that will provide for their needs. Lead us to be generous to those who are suffering economic hardships. Sustain in us all a strong work ethic so that so that we might provide for our families, help those in need, and give generously for the work of the church. Help us to not grow weary in doing good. Give us an ongoing awareness that this world and the things of this world will not endure forever, but there will come a Last Day. In the midst of natural disasters and socio-economic distress and political uncertainty help us to see these events as signs of the end so that day would not catch us unaware but that instead we would recognize that our redemption is drawing near. Bless Your church on earth. Protect us from false teachers who would deceive by Your name and lead us astray. Help us to always hold fast to the firm foundation of Your Word. In the midst of uncertain times, grant us the mouth and the wisdom to bear witness to Your Son Jesus Christ and the redemption we have in Him. God, whatever else You see that we need—whatever is for the good of our neighbor and redounds to Your glory—we pray that You would grant to us, Your children. We ask it Jesus’ name who taught us to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.