Bearing the Apocalypse (The Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost)
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Upon reading this week’s Gospel from Mark, I lamented to Pastor Steve, “I just want something easy…”. I guess initially in my mind this would be a parable on grace, or an act of forgiveness, or the promise of tomorrow. However, as he rightly pointed out, “None of it is easy when you really get into it.”
True, right? Grace, forgiveness, and promise aren’t even ‘easy’ things to articulate, comprehend, or receive. However, in my mind, speaking on ‘end times,’ to ‘mayhem,’ and about ‘might and greatness’ is more confounding and perplexing. And mostly, the Good News of the text seems miniscule, which basically feels sacrilegious and not very Jesus-y to me.
So, with the hope of broadening our perspectives and uncovering hope and promise, I’d like to walk us through some of the undersides of today’s text, by examining some of the disciple’s expectations and some of their disappointments.
First, let’s lay the basic story out there:
Jesus and the disciples are standing in the temple courtyard, looking around at all that lies before them. The disciples are utterly dazzled by the majesty and grandeur and one of them, captivated by the beauty, awesomeness, and power says to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and large buildings.”
I basically envision this like walking through Times Square for the first time. The lights are twinkling, the people are rushing by with purpose, the buildings shoot up from the ground practically scraping the edges of heaven. It is impressive.
Except Jesus isn’t impressed. And not only is he not impressed, he responds curiously by asking the disciples, “Do you see these buildings?”
Um, yes, Jesus… we were just pointing them out to you. Did you miss that part of the conversation?
Jesus didn’t miss the conversation, he just doesn’t see the same things they see.
They see power and certainty; they believe they are standing on unshakeable grounds.
But, Jesus sees fragility and uncertainty; he knows they are standing on the precipice of an earthquake.
Talk about pulling the rug out from under them.
So, probing a little at what’s going on here initially for the disciples…
There are things in life that are sure, certain, expected, promised. Or, at least there should be. This is the framework by which humanity functions, either knowingly or unknowingly.
And Jesus has just told them this isn’t the case.
I mean, there’s very little Good News-y about being told what seems certain is not. It’s not the news we want.
From a comprehensive perspective the large stones represent ‘certainty.’ Yes, the stones can represent idolatrous institutions, political prowess, and dominate societal structures. However, I’d argue that we build these things up – lay these stones, if you will – because we want to ensure tomorrow. So, we set our sights on the horizon with steely determination, with the hopes that things won’t fall apart.
But sometimes life tumbles down.
Frankly, it can feel like a death.
In today’s story, Jesus abolishes our illusions of certainty, directing us to the inevitability of pain, desolation, and destruction. (I know, this is a super feel-good sermon, thus far… and, I’m sorry to say, it’s about to get even ‘better.’)
Jesus asks the disciples to look beyond what they see laid out before them, inviting them to wipe away the sheen of prosperity and look straight into the never-ending chasm of uncertainty, stripping disillusionment from their eyes.
And, in doing so, he strips away what they have placed their faith in, namely institutions of power and their ability to control tomorrow.
Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, and about God. Jesus forces the disciples (and us) into a place of disillusionment in order to uncover something else. And we should be asking ourselves two questions.
The first question is:
What is uncovered when our illusions are taken away? Or, more pointedly, WHY?
The quick, easy answer to this is, “The truth.”
The truth is what is revealed when Jesus forces us into a place of dis-illusionment. But, what is also true is ‘the truth’ is often a painful thing; it is often something we’d rather not see.
I read a statement this week that said, “There is a lament rising in Gilead and it will not quiet for some time.” There is lament rising and stones are being thrown down. Communally, wildfires, shootings, poverty, relentless war (to name a few) uncover ugliness and brokenness about our world that we would rather not see. And, personally things like infidelity, sickness, betrayal, and purposelessness can remain hidden for a while, however, eventually Jesus will unveil them. Not to cause harm, but to lead us into the truth.
Sometimes the truth shakes us to our core.
It’s hard to sit with the truth that things fall apart, that often I pin my hopes to things other than Jesus, that what I believe is true isn’t always the truth.
Jesus promises us though that things are not getting worse; they are getting uncovered. What he shows us has always been there, we just didn’t know it. However, there is nothing easy about apprehending a newly exposed reality.
The second question is:
What to do when the horizon moves? What to do after the unveiling? After the apocalypse?
It would be easy to despair, let exhaustion win, and allow fear to have the upper-hand…especially when all seems lost. That is what underlies the disciples’ question to Jesus, “When will all this be?”
Their certainty has been shaken and they aren’t quite sure how the will bear the apocalypse. For them the apocalypse is more imminent than they realize. This whole discussion takes place just before Jesus begins his journey to the cross – without a doubt, a cataclysmic earthquake for the disciples.
And yet, and this is the GOOD NEWS part; the hope part, so if you got lost in my theological musings, now is the time to pay attention again. In his journey to the cross Jesus shows them and us that through the grace and mercy of God it is possible to bear the apocalypse.
Jesus counters the powers of death, despair, and destruction with resilience, perseverance, and radical love. The powers which seek to destroy may seem as resolute as a fortress made of stone, but God continues to turn the world and us towards hope, and truth, and promise. Through his apocalyptic crucifixion Jesus proves that God is on the move and that God is on the side of life, especially when all hope seems lost.
Sometimes it’s hard to see under the weight of rubble and the cover of darkness. Sometimes we can’t see what hope there could possibly be. Hope, like truth, is not always comforting or comfortable. Asking us to open ourselves to what we do not know, to imagine what is beyond our imagining, to bear what seems unbearable. Hope and truth call us to keep breathing when we hardly have breath to breathe, to turn toward one another when we’d rather turn away.
But, the hope of Jesus is what works within us and for us during the apocalypse.
And so, encourage one another.
Be present with one another.
Allow space when someone needs to say that their world is falling apart and help them look for where the day is dawning.
Celebrate what God reveals.
That’s how God builds and rebuilds in this age.
Because at the close of the day, at the end of the times, the promise that new life is being born is trustworthy and true. Hold fast to one another when the veil is torn away and hold fast to the promise that Jesus sees more than we can see.
By the grace of God, Jesus sees more for us and for the world.