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Grasping for Answers (11/21/21)

Rev. Jessica Palys


‘Floods, fires, and earthquakes, Oh My!’

It was a bit over a year ago now that I remember thinking, “if some biblical literalist was looking for evidence of the end times, they wouldn’t have to look far.” We were experiencing the devastating effects of climate change - wildfires in the west, hurricanes on the coasts and some major earthquakes had rocked the news. All of this in the midst of a global pandemic and rumors of Murder Hornets. That’s not to mention the concerning things happening in the human realm.

That was a year ago and our climate chaos continues. And then yesterday, Kansas City Public Radio aired a story about a surge of 503 scorpion bites in a town in Egypt, a result of uncommon rainfall forcing them out of their usual territory and into people’s homes. The Public Radio reporter even made a Moses joke, calling it a biblical plague worse than frogs.

This passage in Mark is sometimes called the ‘little apocalypse’. Apocalyptic literature has never been my favorite, and although I’m not a biblical literalist, this is all hitting a little too close to home.

Wars and rumors of wars - check. Nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom - check. Even family member against family member, as Jesus mentions 3 sentences later - check. The economy has had an earthquake and the pandemic has impacted the food supply and the supply chain. Like I said… a street corner preacher roaring that the end is near has a bit more credibility in my mind these days.

And yet, we can take comfort because Jesus says it is not the end.

At the time this Gospel was written, apocalyptic literature was common in ancient Judaism. Typical Jewish apocalyptic literature foretells the end of the world in some great coming crisis - but there is a common thread through all apocalyptic literature. These predictions always come in the midst of some actual, immediate, ongoing crisis.

In fact, all of the events Jesus describes are all things that occur in recent memory of when this gospel is written down. Mark was the earliest gospel, written down somewhere around the year 70 CE. In the year 50 there is a great famine in Palestine. In 61 and 62, there are Earthquakes and Volcanic Eruptions which destroyed Lodicia and Pompei. In 67, Rome’s armies were faltering and clashing with the Parthian Empire over minor squabbles. So, fear and anxiety are high in the community and society at large. What’s more, tensions were even higher in Jewish society regarding Roman rule. Decades of resentment against Roman interference in Jewish leadership, disrespect for Jewish religious practices in the temple, and punitive measures such as not being allowed to circumcise babies were pushing more and more Jews to join the cause of the Zealots - i.e. the rebels. These Zealots will eventually revolt against Rome in 66 CE and subsequently Rome will destroy the 2nd temple — a feat impossible to imagine for Jesus’ contemporaries.

The Second Temple was called second because the first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and had to be rebuilt after exile. It was originally planned to be a rather modest structure. However, during the reign of Herod the Great, the Second Temple was totally overhauled into a gigantic and magnificent structure 36 acres wide - that is, larger than 27 football fields - and 9 stories tall, with multiple levels and gates leading up and up to the smaller platform that held the Torah and holy flame at the top. It’s no wonder the disciples are amazed by the incredible structure before them. Despite the fact that Jesus had just finished a teaching on how the appearances are deceiving, how the honorable and prestigious scribes are hardly more holy than the widow who offers two coins, the disciples are still blinded by this spectacle of grandiosity. And it's no wonder that they have trouble understanding how something so grand could be thrown down. Not only was the temple the grandest structure they had ever seen, it was also where God resided. They could not envision how to worship God without the Temple. God lived in the temple. The destruction of the temple was culturally traumatizing; it brought on a religious crisis, a governmental crisis, a cultural crisis, an existential crisis in the extreme. It felt like an apocalypse.

And yet, we can take comfort because Jesus says it is not the end.

Apocalyptic literature occurs when people are grasping at straws. When things are out of control, it is the human tendency to reach for control somehow. We might put all our faith in a strongman leader to get us through a crisis - indeed, the rise of authoritarianism today and throughout history has occurred during periods of increasing social and economic stress and anxiety. Or, we may put all our energy into the passion of revolution, the temptation to tear it all down. We might try to ignore the tension, confining our thoughts and actions to the ever shrinking parameters of neutrality. Or, we might choose to rely on ourselves, lock down everything in our environment, obsessively quarantine ourselves from every germ, put down rules and regulations and litmus tests to control ourselves and those around us.

Crisis tempts some of us to pick up a gun and cross state lines with the intent to ‘keep the peace’ by threatening violence. Crisis makes some of us withdraw from the world, to block it out and focus on what we can control. Crisis makes some of us suspicious of others, on the lookout for who is an enemy. Crisis generally makes things difficult for all of us, and locks us in high conflict. And one of the things we like to do in crisis and upheaval - is to blame.

In ancient Jerusalem, amidst all the tension, people grasping at straws to explain the destruction of the temple. Some say it’s because of those who capitulated to Rome, who worked with our Oppressor, that we are now destroyed. No, others say, it’s because of these rabble rousers, these Zealots, that this situation has come to be. Just like in ancient Jerusalem, we have a lot of blame going around these days. Which side is right? Who is to blame for our misfortune?

And yet, we can take comfort because Jesus says it is not the end.

In this challenging passage, Jesus does not indicate apocalypse - he does not say, this is the end. Jesus says, this is just the beginning. These are the birth pangs of something new. Jesus is calling for a third way. He says, watch out! Don’t be misled, don’t be hoodwinked. Don’t play the blame game, don’t grasp for easy answers. Don’t join the violent rabble, and don’t pretend nothing is happening. Rather, you will follow a different way. You will be in this kingdom of God that is built on forgiveness, compassion and grace. Regardless of what occurs in the world, you know how to weather the storm. These things will happen, but it’s not the end of the story. It’s not the last word. And so we are called to be steadfast, as God is steadfast to us.

Imagine if someone said,

Look at this church - look at how old it is, look how grand it is, how beautiful it is!

and Jesus says; “Truly I tell you, the day will come when there will be no one in this building. For weeks upon weeks and months upon months.”

The disciples could not get past what they saw; they could not envision how to worship God without the Temple. God lived in the temple. And for some of us, we would believe that same way if we weren’t here in this beautiful building. Just two years ago, we might have found it incomprehensible. And yet; we just lived through a more than a year where everything we associated with going to church disintegrated. This building did indeed stay empty for weeks upon weeks and months upon months. And yet, God hasn’t died. Christianity hasn’t died. Religion hasn’t died. Our congregation hasn’t died.

There’s always crisis… and there’s always someone going through a personal apocalypse. We define ourselves by how we walk with others. Jesus is calling us to repent and be transformed - transformed into people who stay steadfast with each other through crisis. In the midst of all this blame, all this anxiety, all this tension, we’re going to continue to listen to each other, to care for one another, to be in solidarity with one another, and to offer grace to one another, just as Jesus was with us, despite what he knew was coming. This is exactly what God said was going to happen, and God is still present. Even though it’s all falling apart - we’re going to stay in love with one another, as God is in love with us.

That’s the revolutionary word of God. In the midst of all the anger and anxiety and violence all around us, it’s not for us to tear it all down. It’s up to us to create something else that is built on the model of Jesus’ servant love. We will create another way, one built on watching out for one another, caring for one another, forgiving one another, and offering grace to one another. Knowing the way Jesus offers grace to us, through his life and through his death, we can provoke one another to good deeds. Just as Jesus sacrificed for us, we can sacrifice for others. We can still be with one another and be for one another. God’s love for us is steadfast and helps us endure, we can be steadfast for each other.

Let us strive to make it so, day in and day out, despite what the future might bring. Amen.

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