33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - 2021b

Old Testament - 1 Samuel 1:4-20

New Testament - Mark 13:1-8


Holy Troublemakers


INTRODUCTION: Around 100 BC a list started circulating around the Mediterranean region. It was a list of the seven wonders of the world. 


It seems that with much of the Mediterranean firmly under Greek rule, tourism in 100 BC was actually kind of a booming industry. And so as Greek people traveled around the Mediterranean (and even farther), there were certain locations and buildings that became must-sees.  


And seven such must-see places eventually ended up on that now famous list. The seven being: The Great Pyramid of Giza, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Temple of Artemis, the Statue of Zeus, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  


Today, all these years later, the Great Pyramid of Giza is the only structure out of the seven that remains and that can still be visited. And some argue the Hanging Gardens of Babylon probably never even really existed at all. 

Over the centuries, of course, the list has been updated and adapted. And even today there are assorted current lists of the seven wonders of the world that are now considered to be must-see places.           


But all such lists, in the end, can trace their origins back to that list of the original seven wonders of the world.   


ONE: Of course, it’s safe to assume, I think, that the Temple in Jesus’ day wasn’t far removed from being on that list itself. 


As you might recall, starting about 20 BC Herod the Great engaged in a massive renovation of the Temple. While the original complex was about 17 acres, by the time Herod the Great was done, the new complex had been expanded to 36 acres. 


Covering over half a square mile, and with marble walls standing 150 feet high, numerous marble columns in the outer court 40 feet high, and two gates standing forty-five feet high (one of which was covered in bronze), the Temple and its surrounding complex of buildings was an impressive sight.


And let’s not forget the big theological idea that also came with the Temple, which was the notion that within the inner sanctum, known as the Holy of Holies, God sat perched  on the Ark of Covenant shining in glory. So the Temple was more than just a place to hold worship services. It was also the very home of God.  


So as the disciples stand on the outskirts of the Temple with Jesus after leaving it, they are rightly awed. Gawking at one of largest complexes for hundreds of miles in any direction, they can’t help but be dazzled. “Look, Teacher,” they say to Jesus, “what large stones and what large structures.” The Temple, needless to say, was its own must-see wonder of the world.


TWO: But Jesus, always a bit persnickety, hardly seems to be very impressed.


In fact, even in the very face of the complex’s grandeur and size, Jesus is still able to take a long view of things. As the disciples marvel and gape at the massive complex, Jesus announces even the Temple someday is going to be a pile of rubble. “Sure, it is an impressive structure,” says Jesus, “but even it will one day come crashing to the ground.” 


Peter, James, John, and Andrew, for their part, want a timeline from Jesus. “Teacher,” they ask after returning to the Mount of Olives, “tell us when such a thing is going to happen?” 


To which Jesus famously responds, “Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will deceive many. When you hear 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.”


Well, for heaven's sake, that’s kind of harsh talk, right? No wonder Jesus’ remarks to the disciples are from a section in Mark’s Gospel often referred to as the Apocalyptic Discourse. For still later in chapter 13, Jesus talks about the sun and moon darkening, the stars falling out of the skies, the heavens shaking, and the Son of Man coming on a cloud in power and glory.       


Not very pastoral, soothing, or nurturing talk, is it? 


THREE: But here’s the funny thing about Jesus’ apparent harsh talk. We can’t forget such dire and bleak language from Jesus is actually meant, believe it or not, to be good news. 


Sure, TV preachers and others like them love to latch on to such language from Jesus with their own fiery words about God’s wrath. But such talk, as far as I am concerned, is a fundamental misreading of the New Testament, and even the Bible as a whole. For again and again, we are assured in the Bible that God is busy recreating the world for the good, rather than the bad. 


Oh...make no mistake. The world as we know it will one day no longer exist - that is for sure. But in its place, by the grace of God, will be a new world. A world in line, finally, with God’s wishes and long held intentions for us all.              


The famous scholar Marcus Borg liked to say that the Bible, despite its many different books, was finally held together by one simple plot line in three chapters. God has created the world, argues the first chapter. The world is lost, claims the second chapter. God is busy seeking to restore the world to the glory for which it was created, goes the final chapter. 


One commentator also likes to put it this way, “We tend to think of God working to create the world, to set things in motion, then God retires. But what if God keeps creating? What if God intends to get the world that God wanted in the first place?...What if church is not where we come to get everything tied down, eternal-looking and fixed, but where  we come to keep looking for God’s intended new heaven and new earth?” 


So while Jesus’ words might sound a bit strange to us, while his speech might seem harsh and strident, it is actually meant to be good news. For God, says Jesus again and again, is always busy recreating the world.


FOUR: But re-creation, new life, well, that doesn’t happen easily, does it?


Nope. The old rarely goes down without a fight, does it? And the old world, the lost world? Well, it is especially good at putting up a fight, right? No wonder Jesus can talk about famines and earthquakes and nations rising up against each other and even birth pangs. For sometimes things can’t be made new until the old is, well, finally vanquished.


In the ancient world, giving birth was a family event. Unlike today where people are often stuck in waiting rooms to nervously wait, the entire family in the ancient world was involved in the process in some way or another.

And so everyone also knew from personal experience that while bringing new life into the world was a joyous time, it was also hard, tense, painful, and yes, dangerous. Especially in the ancient world where giving birth could easily lead to death for both the mother and newborn child.


And so it was only natural for people to see the birth of God’s new world in the same way. While a joyous event, they also intuitively knew it was going to be a difficult, hard, and yes, again, dangerous process.          


And it’s not as if Jesus didn’t know that firsthand. After all, he ended up hanging from a cross because he spent his entire ministry preaching about God’s coming kingdom. “A new world is coming,” Jesus kept saying, only to have the old world say, “That’s what you think, Mr. Jesus. That’s what you think. Now hold still please while we drive these nails through your wrists.” 


No wonder one theologian could have these famous words to offer: “Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of [a] dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.”

FIVE: The Christian writer Philip Yancey once told the story of Ernest Gorden, a Scottish soldier who spent three years in a Japanese POW camp during World War II. 


Forced to lay a set of train tracks through some low-lying swampland, the conditions in the camp, as you might imagine, were brutal. And so most of the prisoners, understandably so, tended to live as if it was every man for himself.


But then something happened one day to change all that. After a shovel went missing one morning, a guard threatened to kill all of the prisoners. And just as the guard was taking aim at one of them, a second prisoner stepped forward to declare he was the culprit. Enraged, the guard brought the butt of his gun down on the man’s head several times, killing him. 


But later that night, when the shovels were counted again after still more digging, the missing tool was discovered. Someone had miscounted earlier in the day. 


In the aftermath of that day, though, a change began to come over the camp. The other prisoners, awed by what their fellow captor had done for them, began to treat each not as competitors in a game of survival, but rather as comrades and friends.  


Eventually, the change in the group was so great, that when the Allied forces eventually liberated the camp, the prisoners, rather than seek revenge on their guards, actually sought to be kind. Why, Ernest Gorden even went on to become a Presbyterian minister after the war and to write a book detailing his experiences in the camp called Miracle on the River Kwai.  


But I suppose that’s the way it goes whenever catching flashes of God’s kingdom cropping up in our world. They’re  easy to see as miracles.            


CONCLUSION: Well, people of faith can sometimes spend a lot of time trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing. 


But to me? Well, it seems pretty simple and clear. In a lost and worn out world, we are to be a living, tangible expression of God’s coming new world. That miraculous world of grace, and charity, and mercy, and self-giving love. 


So let us be holy troublemakers. Amidst the earthquakes, charlatan preachers, and famines, let us both share and be good news. For a new world is coming. A new world is coming. 


Now to the ruler of all worlds, undying, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.