Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Matter of Endurance

Mark 13:1-13

Imagining the size of the Great Temple of Jerusalem, the size of the stones it took to build and then rebuild the Temple and the sheer number of men it took to put it all together would surely have made for an awesome sight. And given that the majesty of YHWH was likely manifest in this huge complex and the Temple itself, at least in the eyes of the observers, it is easy to imagine the disciples being awestruck and conceiving that such a structure would be virtually indestructible as the Lord Himself is indestructible. When the people of the day looked upon the Temple, they may well have imagined they were gazing upon YHWH Himself. And because the sanctuary of the Holy of Holies was deep within the walls and access strictly limited to only the high priest and only once a year during the Day of Atonement, it surely must have added a mysterious and even mystical flavor to the whole thing. What great stones! What great buildings! What a great God!

Yet it’ll never last. According to Jesus, the begotten Son of this very God, all these things will fall. Jesus seems to suggest in an almost cavalier fashion that these walls, these buildings, these very stones (each estimated to weigh tons!) will not only fall but will be “thrown” down … and much more easily than they were built up. What took years to build up was completely and utterly destroyed, maybe in a matter of hours but more likely over the course of days; but days down rather than decades up. So man has a lot invested in the Temple. Whether the destruction of the Temple and the city was the will of the Lord or the determination of man is a matter of perspective, I suppose, but I also think what Jesus is talking about goes far beyond “these buildings” they were looking at.

Chapter 13 of Mark has a very dark and apocalyptic tone because Jesus seems to be talking about The End; the end of the Temple, the end of the apostles and perhaps the apostolic age, the end of time as man can conceive of it. All that will take place leading up to The End will be ugly and likely more a test of faith and intestinal fortitude than anything the disciples could possibly imagine. “Wars and rumors of wars” is a favorite among contemporary doomsday prophets, as well as natural disasters, because we cannot pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV news without hearing about the current War on Terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, or threats of war from North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela.

Then there are tsunamis and earthquakes, cyclones, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Genocide is a weapon of choice in some countries in which innocent men, women and children are slaughtered because they are the wrong color, the wrong religion, or of the wrong tribe. How can one read an entire newspaper and not come away with the idea that it must all end soon? Indeed, how can we possibly, under the circumstances, endure one more day?

Well, here’s the thing. Man-made institutions and structures come and go just as surely as the tide and the seasons, and this is precisely what Jesus is talking about. While Jesus seems to make direct reference to the physical structure of the Temple itself, we would be cheating ourselves if we failed to listen a little more purposefully and consider more carefully all of Jesus’ words because it would then be impossible to come away believing Jesus is exclusively referring to The End of The World or merely the destruction of that great Temple.

In the midst of all this chaos, we also have to be mindful of this simple and yet profound statement Jesus makes in verse 8 (“the beginning of birth pangs”) as He moves more directly and deliberately into what will begin to take place and what will come as the result of this seeming madness. And lest we forget, we are 2000 years removed from this particular conversation, but since that time and up through today apparently no one took Jesus’ words very seriously. This seems to suggest that what Jesus is talking about is something not necessarily of the will of the Father but, in perpetuity, what we bring upon ourselves in what must surely be the results of the ongoing and constant struggle between good and evil which is inherent in a world in which both exist. And struggle we must, struggle we will – IF we belong to Him. And IF we take seriously the PROMISE that is manifest in the “birth pangs”.

The Methodist (& United Methodist) Church has been in a downward spiral since the 30’s – along with the American Church in general – and the reasons given for such decline are as varied as the people who offer their reasons and/or excuses. In the end, however, it must be acknowledged that there can only be ONE reason for decline just as surely as there can be only ONE Church and ONE Lord. The excuses for decline and the subsequent “trendy solutions” are man-made and destined to fail as they vainly try to outlast their given “seasons”. There is no endurance; these trends cannot last any longer than the human persons who conceive of them.

All these that amount to little more than “social experiments” will eventually and absolutely fail for one reason: there is no universal element. That is to say, a trendy solution that is geared toward and appeals exclusively to women or to men or to children or to youth or to divorced, gay, transgendered, bi, African-American, Native American, Italian American, Chinese American, the intellectual, the not-so-intellectual, the blue collar, the white collar … all these categories and their sub-categories lack a cohesive commonality; they are inherently at odds with one another because they all seek after their own “thing”. And we continually offer all these things to all these groups with a warm-and-fuzzy, feel-good notion of “progress” in attempting to reach out to the marginalized or the disenfranchised.

We would reasonably ask: How can it be that programs and efforts to reach the marginalized or the disenfranchised in the name of the Lord can be “bad” in any way? These are, after all, the ones we need to be reaching out to as well as those who do not know the Lord at all. But there is one major difference I see between “saving souls”, which was the thrust of the early Methodist movement as it was the early Church, and worrying about the “marginalized” or the “disenfranchised”. It is a matter of what is offered, what is expected, and whether what is offered comes from man or from the Lord. The very endurance of what is offered will be solely determined by its origin. Nothing more, nothing less.

The difference between the two can be more easily defined in terms of recognition. As earlier stated, there can be only ONE Lord – and He is who He is - even as there are numerous human personalities to deal with, everyone at their own particular places and stations in life – without apology - but some choosing to be where they are and others being where they are through no fault of their own. In other words, there are individuals who do not want to know the Lord. They want to live in their own pride, they want to live in their own pursuit of personal happiness, they want to live in their own prejudices, they want to live in their own hatefulness, they want to live in their own hellish misery they’ve created for themselves. They desire and choose to live in ignorance, darkness, and vindictiveness because they are unwilling to make any sort of personal sacrifice. They desire not the Lord; rather, they desire a “genie in a bottle” who serves them at their whims and on their terms.

The mistake the Church has made, in my humble opinion, over the years is in playing up to these "whims" and "terms", the subtlety of trying to “recreate” the Eternal Lord God of All Creation into an image more pleasing to these individualized sub-categories. The Church has vainly attempted to make it so that “personal sacrifice” is not necessary, that faith not be too “hard”. Karl Barth, the early 20th-century theologian, called it “cheap grace”. The more theological, “clinical” term is “antinomianism”. What each term boils down to is “salvation without sacrifice”. Oh, we’re fine with the notion that Jesus died on a Cross for our sins, but we’re a little timid when it comes to spiritual obedience. We love that we are “saved by grace”, but we often express in our “programs” as well as in our personal lives an utter disdain, if spiritual ignorance, of and for the Mosaic Law. Our “programs” seem to have a tendency to help people to make peace with where they are rather than to encourage them to see and to move into where they could be. It is appeasement and surrender at its very worst.

The Lord can only be Who and What He is and if He is eternal, He can never be “trendy” or “generational”. What He calls “good” is always good, whether we can see this or not. “I am the Lord; I do not change”, says the prophet (Malachi 3:6a), and man is in for a rude awakening. The “birth pangs” to which Jesus refers are those intensely painful things we must endure so that life can be renewed and become evident in the Church once again. We must be focused on “right things” and remain true to our calling as disciples. We must question, evaluate, and if necessary, resist the generational trends that challenge us and attempt to ensnare us into the so-called “rat race”, and we must remain faithful to the One who calls us to faithfulness … not to human ideals, institutions, and structures that are by their very nature temporary at best – but to Him who is, who was, and who is to come.

The Lord Himself will endure throughout the ages because of Who He is. The question from the time of Jesus and through the ages to come is who or what we will choose to follow, for “He who endures to the end shall be saved”.


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