Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, Ontario, the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost and the observance of the feast of our parish namesake, St. Margaret of Scotland, 18 November, 2018
Texts for this Sunday: 1 Samuel 1:4-20; Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8
1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" 2 Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!' and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 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. (Mark 13:1-8)
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The disciples coming out of the temple with Jesus, gawping at all the big buildings, are hicks who’ve come to the big city. They’re simple people from rural Galilee, a backwater, and they’ve probably never seen anything like it. The massive buildings rising around them were designed to impress. The Temple in Jerusalem was meant to impress. It was intended to be a tribute to the God of Israel, a sign of his power and glory, but it was just as much a tribute to the power and glory of the priestly regime that built it and operated out of it. Jesus was not impressed. When Jesus said that “all will be thrown down”, he knew that the temple was about human power and glory, and Jesus knew that human power and glory have a short shelf life. Some forty years late, the temple would indeed be destroyed by the Roman army, and the people of Jerusalem would once again be scattered, gone into exile and slavery.
Sitting on the Mount of Oiives, with the magnificence and solidity of the temple spread out below them, I can imagine the anxiety of the disciples as they questioned Jesus. Teacher, what could possibly do this terrible thing that you are describing? How will we know when this will happen? How can we be ready for it? If this was a film, you could imagine them leaning towards Jesus, their faces alarmed, and the soundtrack music turning ominous.
I find Jesus’ answer really interesting, because he doesn’t seem to care about what will cause the destruction. Wars, earthquakes, famine, these things will happen, Jesus says, as he lists these things almost casually, as if they don’t really matter. It’s as if he is indifferent to this horrific near future. What matters most to Jesus is whether his disciples will remember him and his message when bad things happen: "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!' and they will lead many astray” (Mk 13:5-6). In other words, Jesus is saying: “Don’t worry about the disasters that might come, just remember who I am what I’ve told you, and you’ll be ok”.
All of this warning and foreshadowing builds up to the the final words of today’s gospel, "This is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (Mk 13:8). In this somewhat cryptic saying, Jesus seems to be saying that just as the brief pain of childbirth gives way to years of joy and new life, so the disasters to come, however ominous and terrifying they seem, will be replaced by some new and welcome age. The gospel reading thus makes a turn from fear and foreboding to hope and anticipation of something good to come.
We can relate to this contrast between fear and hope as we approach Advent and the Christmas season. The days get shorter, the darkness and cold crowd in, and yet in our hearts and minds we await the birth of Christ. Think of how the angels in Luke’s gospel come to everyone, starting with Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist (Luke 1:13), to the shepherds in their fields, and always with the same message, don’t be afraid, because God is going to do something good. We don’t know exactly what the birth pangs will lead to, but the Christian story, from creation to the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, teaches us that God wins, and that goodness, life and order trump over evil, death, and chaos. In the wonderful words at the start of John’s gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jn 1:5).
It takes faith and courage to put our trust in the promise of light, when the darkness can seem to be so overwhelming. If, like me, you’ve seen some of the hellish video and pictures coming out of the California fires last week, you have a sense of how fragile life and light can be. When the wildfires swept over the town of Paradise on November 8th, the smoke and ash were so thick that by noon it seemed like night. Residents had to drive in the dark along roads edged with flames, and sadly, some did not make it out alive. With many scientists saying that global warming and drought have made the fires in California even worse, the future can seem alarming.
"Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Jerusalem’s large stones and large buildings could not save it. As we look uneasily towards the future, we may have that uneasy sense that whether our cities burn or whether they are drowned under rising seas, their large stones and buildings will be just as gone. We humans got ourselves into this mess, and hopefully, if we heed warnings like last month’s UN climate report, we can stop things from getting worse. What will certainly help us is remembering that we are God’s people, and we are part of God’s story. God’s story, if we faithfully remember it, gives us resources of hope and truth that we need to remember in dark times. For example, remembering the part of the story where God creates the world and gives it to us as its stewards reminds us of our responsibility to the earth and helps us when we think about climate change.
Remembering our story is I think what Jesus meant when he said to the disciples, "Beware that no one leads you astray”. Being faithful to our story as God’s people keeps us from going astray. Remembering God’s story and knowing how Jesus wants us to live it our keeps us from going astray. Putting out trust in Jesus keeps us from going astray. Sometimes its easier to put our faith in large stones and large buildings than it is trust Jesus. In our own time, we have lots of false prophets. Nationalists and populists tell us that we have to look after our own people, our own kind, our own colour. We are told that we need to close our borders, we are told to build walls to keep out migrants and refugees, we are scared by the idea that if we share with others then there won’t be enough left for us.
Last Sunday we heard the gospel story of the poor widow in the temple, who "out of her poverty has put in everything she had” (Mk 12:44). Jesus said that had given more than all the pious rich folk who had made their offerings before her. This story reminds us why Jesus is not impressed by “large stones and large buildings”. The widow, like the migrant and refugee arriving at the border, has no status, no,wealth, no security. Even so, the Kingdom of God becomes real in her, in her love, in her self-sacrifice, and in her devotion. A church which is impressed by large stones and large buildings is a church which will lead God’s people astray because it misses the point, that Christ is fully seen and fully realized when the church serves the least among us.
For the last few weeks we have heard stories of migrants making their way to the US border, walking across the length of Mexico. Some have tried to make these so-called caravans into images of fear. What impressed me the most were reports of Mexican nuns walking alongside them and caring for the pregnant and the footsore, of Mexican priests and congregations opening their doors and feeding the hungry. At the same time, some in the richest and most powerful nation on earth want to build a wall to keep these people out when there are jobs going begging. One has to wonder whether this is a nation that has placed its faith in large stones and large buildings rather than in the God it claims to be one nation under. And lest we in Canada grow smug, we also have those who would want to close our borders, and we have the poor and the hungry out there on the cold winter streets of Barrie. Who will we serve?
Last week we heard the good news that St. Margarets has engaged an architect to start the second phase of our building. When its done, I am sure we will be tempted to stand outside and say, “What a great building! How big and wonderful our church is!” Well, that will be ok, if we allow ourselves a little victory lap and a little pat on the back. However, this Sunday, as we if our namesake, St. Margaret of Scotland, could stand with us, what would she tell us? What would she say about how she wanted her building to be used? I suspect she would say to us, “In my day I was a refugee. My family had to flee the Normans the Scots took us in. I taught my new husband how to be a Christian, I gave my jewels and clothes to the poor, and I bought God’s people out of slavery. What will you do with this new building that you’ve named for me?”
My hope and payer is that we could, and will, say to St. Margaret, “We put our faith in God, just as you did. We did not build this because we put our faith in large stones and large buildings, but because we wanted to serve Barrie in our time, in the same spirit of love and faith and service that you showed to the people of Scotland, because we, like you, follow Jesus, the light and hope of the world. Amen."