Do Not Be Alarmed (Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

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Throughout his earthly ministry, it seems that Jesus often became famous as a teacher; as a healer; and even as a miracle worker.  But in spite of the fact that he was always on the road, he was never famous as a travel blogger!  And today’s Gospel reading makes it clear why!

Jesus and the disciples have arrived in Jerusalem and they go up onto the Temple Mount.  Just a couple of decades before, Herod the Great had vastly expanded the footprint of the Temple Mount by hauling in 40 ton cut stones to build massive retaining walls, which were backfilled to create an area larger than anyone had imagined possible before.  The Temple itself had been renovated and enlarged, and people from all over the Roman Empire came to see this impressive sight, even if they had no particular connection to Judaism.

While the disciples in Mark’s Gospel are portrayed as generally clueless and usually wrong about stuff, this time they’re right!  Those stones were large!  The buildings were impressive, even by Roman standards.  And although the Romans later completely destroyed the Temple, the retaining wall and Temple Mount are still there today.  And they’re still impressive…!

But in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus throws cold water on it all!  “Do you see these great buildings?” asks Jesus.  “All will be thrown down.”  And later in the evening, when the disciples ask him to explain this, things sound even worse!  Wars and rumors of wars are coming.  Beware that you’re not led astray.

Now in some ways, it’s not terribly prophetic to predict that eventually buildings will come down.  Almost all will given enough time.  And it’s not prescient to predict that wars and rumors of wars will come. That also happens with sad regularity.  And people have tried, and still try, to lead others astray in a variety of ways.  “Beware” isn’t a new warning.

But then, Jesus goes on to say something that seems to make no intuitive sense.  After telling his is disciples about all these terrible and scary things, he says, “Do not be alarmed.”

“Do not be alarmed.”  Really?!  How can we not be alarmed by all of these things?  We hear about stuff like this all the time.  And we’re always told that it should alarms us.

Indeed, it often feels like we live in a state of constant alarm.  We’re repeatedly told that we should be alarmed.  And often, there are reasons for that, both good and bad.

  • Politicians on both sides tell us we should be alarmed by the outrageous and crazy stuff that somebody on the other side said or did; but in a country where barely more than half of us vote, if “my side” can get alarmed enough, it might drive up the vote.  So we’re always told to be alarmed…
  • Our news feeds always lead with stories about all the things that should shock and alarm us – the latest outrage, tragedy or example of corruption.  It’s good that we know about these things of course, but we also know that they’re click bait.  They drive views and advertising revenue.  And so there’s always also a financial incentive to tell people what they should alarmed about…
  • Even charitable organizations often seem to depend upon people being alarmed by suffering and injustice.  For example, I really like the work that ELCA Disaster Relief does.  But they love to send out “Disaster-Grams” which tell me how terrible the latest disaster has been and how alarmed I should be at the enormity of the suffering.  It’s intended to raise money and help people, and it’s a good cause.  But still, from many charitable organizations I hear from, it seems that alarming people is also a good fund raising strategy.

And yet, the thing about living in a constant state of alarm is that it’s distracting from everything else that’s going on around you.  It’s exhausting, and saps the emotional energy you have to engage on any issue.  And it’s demoralizing, because many of these alarming messages portend that if you’re not constantly alarmed enough, the world as you know it will literally end.

And in the midst of all this, Jesus says, “Do not be alarmed.”  And when he says that, he DOESN’T say, “Don’t pay attention to problems in the world.”  He DOESN’T say, “Don’t care about the suffering of others.”  He DOESN’T even say, “Don’t take reasonable precautions to avoid danger to your own life”… (later in this passage, he talks about the need to flee when Jerusalem will be under siege …)

But in telling his first disciples, and us, not to be alarmed, Jesus is calling us to be people who:

  • Don’t get so distracted by the crisis du jour that we’re unable to see or focus on what God is calling us to do in this particular moment.  The disciples in today’s reading have followed Jesus into Jerusalem at the beginning of what we call Holy Week.  They’re about to be involved in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and being sent into the world with that good news.  But at this moment, they’re distracted by what’s going to happen with the Temple, and the signs that it’s about to happen!  Don’t be alarmed, means don’t miss out on what God is doing with you and in your life right now, and how God is calling you to make a difference in this moment.  It’s true for me, and maybe for you, too, that when I’m thinking too much about the big headlines of the day (which frankly I can’t do much about), that I lose focus on what God may be calling me to do or notice right here and right now…
  • Resist becoming exhausted by the constant drama and trauma that the world feeds us.  Jesus always called his disciples, and he calls us, to help those who are suffering in the world around us.  But there will always be more than we can do, and often our efforts will seem insignificant.  That’s why it’s good to remember that Jesus saves the world, not us!  And that can free us to use the energy and abilities God gives us to make a difference, instead of exhausting our energy in a constant state of alarm…
  • Remember that the alarming thing that’s going on around us – whether it’s social, political or my personal trauma – is not the end.  This – whatever “this” is – may be bad, and painful and even seem like the end.  But Jesus promises that the end of all things is finally in God’s hands.  The end is when God brings about the new world where there are no more alarming things.  And even the “end” for us is not death, but new life. Jesus told his first disciples that the Temple coming down, wars, rumors of war, and whatever else, would not be the end.  And it wasn’t.  God had more to come.  And God has more to come for us as well…  And when we know that this is not the end, we’re able to engage in whatever alarming thing happens to us or to our world without losing hope.

“Do not be alarmed”, says Jesus, because God really is doing something with you and around you that’s worth noticing.  “Do not be alarmed”, says Jesus, because if you are you’ll end up wasting your energy on the trauma and drama, instead of on the things that really make a difference.  And “do not be alarmed”, says Jesus, because as bad as things may seem, this is not the end.  And then end, when it comes, is in God’s hands.  And God’s end for you, and for the whole world, is the reality of resurrection and new life.