Do no go Astray – Lectionary 11/14/2021

Mark 13: 1-8

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors 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.

Sermon Text

             Have you ever noticed how fascinated people are with the concept of the “End Times?” Books, movies, thousands of bible studies, all capturing a shared interest we all have in what the world will be like at the close of human history and the beginning of God’s eternity. As someone who came of age in the midst of the supposed, “Mayan Apocalypse,” End Times speculation in the secular world and the Church are by no means foreign to me. Growing up I lived in the strange anticipation of some interplanetary event that would wipe the world clean and the expectation of Christ’s immediate return and whatever that might bring.

This phenomenon is not new. We are always interested in the End of everything. Since someone first put forward the idea that the world might not be eternal, people have wanted to know more or to speculate about what its ending might be like. For our faith in particular, this kind of thinking first appears in the book of Daniel and effuses all of the New Testament. While many of the prophets put forward an idea of the “Day of the Lord,” they only ever did so in terms of this side of eternity. Daniel alone in the Old Testament suggests a break between the world that is and the world that will be. It is in that tradition, that Apocalyptic mindset, that Christianity was born.

Between the time that the book of Daniel was finished being written and the time of Jesus, a great many books were written speculating what the end of history would look like. I have here, two large books, which contain the majority of these Apocalypses we know about. You will probably have never heard their names: The Apocalypse of Abraham, the Life of Adam and Eve, 1 Enoch, the Testament of Job, and many others. These were all examinations of history as it was at the time of the author’s writing, and history as they imagined it would eventually be concluded by God’s intervention in the world. The world of the New Testament was a world many felt was on the verge of collapsing into a new era under God’s rule.

Jesus was not the first Apocalyptic preacher to walk the Judean highways, but he was certainly the most impactful. His preaching, elaborating on the Apocalyptic teachings of John the Baptist before him, were clear in their message. The era of human evil was coming to an end. God was going to topple every king, every billionaire, every well-to-do statemen, and bring about a kingdom where slaves were kings, where the poor were richer than all other people, and where love rather than ambition and birth determined a person’s worth. Jesus’s vision of the world required an overthrow of what presently was, and it began with the death of its rightful ruler under the oppressive thumb of Rome. This death was not an end, but a beginning, and the subsequent resurrection of Jesus proved the message he preached.

To live a Christian life and not believe something about the End of History is largely impossible. We are, at our roots, and apocalyptic offshoot of Judaism. While we today are distinct from our Jewish roots, sometimes in natural ways and sometimes through our own malicious actions, to remove the apocalyptic heritage we have received would be to deny our core identity. We are people who are living for a purpose, and that purpose is not defined simply by the end of our life, but the end of the current world and its rebirth into something new, something eternal and good.

The problem emerged, relatively soon into Christianity’s history, that we were not very good at listening to Jesus. This manifested in our way of life, in our quick willingness to seize power when it was offered to us, our general abuse of other people, but also in the way we discussed the end of history. While the earliest writings of the Church see God as overthrowing the powers of this world and establishing a kingdom separate from all of them, we could not resist taking our political alignments and forcing our vision of the future upon them. When Rome transition from being the biggest enemy of the Church to its biggest source of influence and money, then we no longer saw the Kingdom of God as God replacing worldly power, but God supporting the powers we were aligned with.

This began in Rome, but it continued throughout all of history. Rome inevitably fell and splintered into the many kingdoms of Europe, most of whom swore fealty to the Holy Roman Emperor in what would eventually become Germany. Apocalyptic writers would appear in every generation to write about who was the most likely candidate as God’s true enemy. Early on it was found in the German tribes that destroyed Rome, then in the Muslim empires that grew around Byzantine Christians, then in Protestants and Catholics, then in those people, then in them over there! Every generation formed its opinions on who the anti-Christ was, what country they were the leader of, and why their own country was the good guy in the book of Revelation.

I said a moment ago that we were not good at listening to Jesus, and I believe that manifests in our insistence to constantly sit and speculate about the End of History. Jesus gives us very little to work off of when we are imagining what the beginning of God’s eternity will look like. We know it will be sudden, that the wicked will suffer and the righteous be lifted up, and we know that Christ will be at the forefront of whatever happens. More specific details developed in Paul’s writings, and Revelation, as confusing and often metaphorical as it is, gives us a bit more of an understanding of what God has revealed to us about this climax to the present age. Yet, we are also assured that no one, not even Christ, knows the day nor hour. Likewise, in today’s scripture we are assured that those who claim to know what is happening are usually not looking out for our best interests. When we hear of wars and rumors of wars, of famine, of disaster, we should not be deceived – none of these things are the end in itself.

What stands out to me about that list of signs that we will see before the end, is that they are not rare events. Wars happen constantly, earthquakes happen every day, even the more specific signs of red moons and solar eclipses mentioned elsewhere in scripture happen somewhat regularly. Jesus is clear that the signs of the end are not things that you can easily intuit, they are run of the mill in the course of human history. Even the destruction of the temple, something that happened two thousand years ago, is lifted up by Jesus as something that – while world shattering – should not be mistaken as the end of all things. Jesus teaches us here in Mark 13 that while there is an end to this present world, we are not to be sitting around worrying about it, nor should we be overly interested in those trying to sell us on it.

I have talked to some of you already about my love of conspiracy theories. I do not believe any of them, well except for maybe one or two of the more rational ones, but for the most part my interest is purely recreational. What strikes me about most of the conspiracy theories that find their home among Christians is that they play into our expectations about the End. We like stories where we are the brave underdogs and the evil forces of the world are starting to get an advantage over us, but we have some secret weapon. The Satanic Panic of the 1970s and 80s, the idea that UPC codes were the Mark of the Beast, the environment that birthed another run of Left Behind media and God’s Not Dead movies, stories of microchipped vaccines and Q-Anon visions of a still living JFK Jr, these all play into our hope to be on the right side of the Apocalypse.

Jesus goes out of his way, several times, to warn the Church against people deceiving them. He does it in a financial sense in Luke 16, in a more general moral sense numberless times across the Gospels, and in a very specifically apocalyptic sense whenever he discusses the Temple. Jesus knew that revealing the end of history to his followers put them at risk of being taken advantage of. When someone comes to us and tell us that the signs are all there, that cable news is not just telling us what happened today, but revealing how near Christ’s return is, then we hate to oppose them for fear of sounding like a nonbeliever. Tie this into books and monetized videos that prove it, or to radio shows that need your contributions to get this news out, or food buckets that you need to stock up on to survive, and the motive behind the preaching sometimes becomes a bit more clear.

So, am I your minister denouncing the apocalypse and telling you there isn’t going to be an end to the era? No. I said earlier that you cannot be a Christian and not grapple with Jesus’s apocalyptic teachings in some way. I do believe in an end to history, and while we might have different views if we sat down and talked it out long enough, I live my life like all of us do – in anticipation of Christ’s final victory in this world. I do, however, proudly denounce speculating and fixating on the end of history as if it excuses us from any of our present responsibility. Christ told us to be watchful, warned us that the end was near, but Christ was also clear that we could never plan out when it would come. Two thousand years later, if we believe the end was near in Jesus’s day and is still near to us today, we have to understand what “near,” means differently.

I have always been fond of understanding time as a knife’s edge. We stand here, not quite in the eternity God is bringing into being, but not quite in the present age of sin and death either. We are waiting for the flip from one era to another, but that flip is no closer today than it was two thousand years ago. We are always, inescapably, on that liminal edge of what is to come. We are no closer to the end of days than Paul was, not because it is impossibly far away but because it is always right next to us. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. That is the mystery of our faith proclaimed for two thousand years, and it is just as true now as it was then.

In two weeks, we begin our celebration of Advent, our time of preparation for Christ’s birth into the world at Christmas. It is also the anticipation of Christ’s return at the end of history, when we see the story God has been writing for billions of years completed in a grand stroke of terrible mercy and incredible judgment. It is a time for mounting anticipation, for the incredible celebration of God’s victory! Yet, it is also a time for reflection, to better ourselves in preparation of Christ so that we may be found working and worthy when Christ does return to us. This takes the form, not of buying up all the food we can or preparing a bug-out plan. It comes in attending more faithfully to scripture, in more earnest service toward one another, and in transforming our hearts to be better reflections of Christ who is coming to us.

I want to harp on that first one a little longer, that we should read scripture faithfully. There are few greater shields to the chicanery of people coming to sell us a Doomsday prophecy, or any false doctrine, than knowledge of scripture. Scripture is something that, if we let it speak for itself rather than trying to rush to our own reading of it, will lead us to more goodness than we might otherwise think possible. Study of scripture, of archaeology, of history, all can show us more about God’s work in the world – but the foundation must be in scripture. Let us then read more faithfully together. As iron sharpens iron, let us sharpen one another’s understanding of God’s word, that we might never be deceived.

The end is surely near, but it is no nearer today than it was yesteray, or in the days of Paul. Let us not sit locked in fear of what is to come, but faithfully serve our Lord who is coming soon. Love one another fully, serve one another well, and heed the lessons of God to us. – Amen.

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