Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Facing the Future

What is the most beautiful building you’ve ever seen? What is the most majestic construction project you’ve ever come across in your life? What is biggest skyscraper you’ve looked up at…or looked down from?
I am not one to be much about architecture—I notice big, I can see beautiful, but few things stick in my mind. One place I saw a few years ago has, however, stayed in my mind—the Hindu Temple in Atlanta, Georgia.

I’m sure it was a combination of the completely other-worldly look and its location in the suburbs of an all-American city. It is quite a spectacle.
Now, imagine I take a walk on the grounds of the temple. I see some Hindu pilgrims who have come to worship. We greet each other. They stop and ask me, “The Temple, it is amazing, yes?! You like it?” What would they think, say or do if I responded, “Hmmmm. In time, it’s going to fall down—in time, this will just be a pile of rubble…..”
We’ve had this tendency from the beginning to love what we create…just as God loves what He creates. But then we start trusting in and relying on what we create. We persist in hanging on to the physical rather than pursuing the spiritual, preferring the temporal over the eternal, trusting in the human over the Divine. Jesus reminds us that we have things upside-down and backwards…and calls on us to focus on faith over physical.

Mark 13  1As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
As the disciples see the Temple, they are rightly impressed. Historians tell us it was constructed of huge blocks of white stone…some weighing up to 100 tons! The historian Josephus tells us that, from a distance, these gleaming white stones made it look like there was snow-capped hill in Jerusalem. Some parts of the Temple were covered with gold panels…panels that blindingly reflected the sun if one stood in the right place. It was an impressive building, and the disciples were obviously taken with its beauty.
Jesus sees things differently—It’s gonna come down.
Now, how would the disciples hear that? How would any Jew hear that? The temple, after all, was that place where heaven and earth intersected. The Temple was that place where the Divine and the human touched. The Temple was THE symbol of “God in our midst” or “God with us.” Effectively, Jesus says, “God no longer with us!”
The fact is, everything we make falls apart. Everything. If humans build it, it crumbles—even holy places. Perhaps that’s why Jesus prepares his disciples and prepares us for that truth through what he shared with the Samaritan woman. Do you remember that encounter?
Jesus and the disciples are traveling through Samaria. The disciples go off to get food and provisions, and Jesus has a ‘chance’ encounter with a woman at a well. In that discussion, the question comes up about where to worship:
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
In the Kingdom, in God’s divine economy, things are ‘in the Spirit’.
Our religious faith, Jesus reminds us, is not about buildings, places and things.
Two thousand years after Jesus says the words we’ve just heard, people are still clamoring to “rebuild the Temple!” Jews, Muslims and Christians are fighting for control of the old “Temple Mount”…the Jews and well-intentioned Christians with a desire to rebuild a Temple that Jesus says is no longer needed.
We have a tendency to focus on buildings as well. How often do we talk about “the Church” yet we refer to the building? I remind you again that “The Church” is the people of God, the gathered People of God. Do you remember the song we sing from time to time? “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together….” For the first 350 years of the Church, there were NO church buildings. None—Christianity was illegal. Now, for the convenience of gathering, we build buildings. The Church gathers in the building. We eventually call the building the Church. The people all leave, the “church” sits on the hill-top.
Wrong. This building, all buildings…are just buildings. WE are the church.
In recent news stories, we’ve seen ignorant, violent, racist people burning the church buildings of Black congregations. Have those churches ceased to exist? Was the burning of the building the end of the congregation? NO. The same is true of other sister congregations that have been destroyed by storm, tornado or flood. They find somewhere else to meet, somewhere else to gather…and they continue being the people of God, the Church.
How often we wrap up our lives in things, homes, cars, buildings, possessions…all of which will be brought down, not one stone left on another.
For the disciples, thinking of the beloved, historical, beautiful Temple—where they had gathered, where they had ended pilgrimages, where they taken and fulfilled vows, where they had offered sacrifice—this was a hard thing to hear. How would we hear Jesus say to us today of our own gathering place—Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down?

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
Do you want to know the future?
How would you like to know what will happen tomorrow…next week…next year?!
We are fascinated with the future. What? Not you?
Do you watch the weather FORECAST each evening?
Do you look at economic predictions?
Do you follow the trends of interest rates…fashion?
Do you sit and daydream about next summer? Next planting season? Next party? Next meal?
Yeah, we’re all about knowing the future…and people always have been.
We humans are a curious sort. We want to know the answers to things. What? When? Where? Who? Why? How? These are some of our favorite words. We asked them all the time as children…and now we think them, even if we don’t ask them.
So, the disciples come with questions—When is this grand destruction going to happen to the Temple? How will we know that it’s going to happen? Give us a clue, give us something. Tell us the future!
I remember as a child begging God for a sign that He was real. Sitting in my room, I would pray, "God, if you are real, I don't need a major miracle—just make the book fall off my desk...just leave a mark on the piece of paper here...just, just, just....." No, the book never fell, no marks appeared. I had to move forward in faith rather than base my life on visible certainties.
So, it is no wonder these men want signs, signals. They want to be ready. Like the patriots in Boston, they wanted a "one if by land; two if by sea" sort of signal, so they could be ready.

Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
When I started working on my sermon on Tuesday, I could not know how unfortunately appropriate this Scripture would be today. With the world still reeling from the attacks in Paris, we hear these words today with even greater interest.
In our own life-time, works like The Late, Great Planet Earth, the Left Behind series and movie, and other movies and books aplenty have tried to illustrate, grasp and understand ‘last days’ issues. Entire denominations have grown up around ‘end times’ issues. We are enthralled at times with the notion of the end.
While Jesus parts the curtain a bit here in Mark 13 and shows us something of the apocalyptic, end-times world, we would do well to remember that only 2% of all Jesus’ teachings focus on end-times and last days. By far, the greater bulk of His teaching focuses on the here and now, how to live day to day.  Thinking about the future is interesting for some, and for others it’s also easier focusing on the future so they don’t have to think about today.
So we take a peek behind that curtain today, Jesus’ own focus here calls us to look…but then we’re going to move on. In fact, that, too, is part of the message of his teaching.
One of the most important things to remember in reading this is that Jesus only ever spoke like this to his disciples. That is, He never spoke of these things or of things like this to the masses. He never took aside a leper seeking healing and warned him of coming wars. He never added an aside in His discussions with the Pharisees that earthquakes were coming. He never whispered to the woman caught in adultery that
the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
In other words, Jesus never tried to scare people into the Kingdom. Since He only told His disciples about these things, then, makes us realize that none of this was shared with the purpose of scaring people! So why did He tell his disciples about these things?
As our son was preparing all last year to leave for college, we talked about college, college life, and our own experiences in college. We talked about the long study sessions in the library. We talked about all the different kinds of professors we had—the good, the bad, and the completely weird. We talked about cafeteria food…dorm life…and social life. We talked about lean financial times, and about those kids whose parents gave them everything, about the kids who had nothing. We talked about books, books, books…and exams and the importance of self-discipline. We talked about the peer pressure…and the crazy things college kids do.
Some of the things we talked about, no doubt, were kind of scary. But, was our purpose to scare Andrew? Was our intention to leave Andrew with lingering doubts and lasting fears and concern? NO! Our purpose was simply to prepare him, to give him a heads-up on what he was walking into. We wanted him to have a sense of what his future life would be like so he would not be blind-sided, so he wouldn’t be walking into the world with ‘rose-colored glasses.’
Jesus is doing the same thing for his disciples. “If you follow me, if you are a part of God’s Kingdom, tough times are coming. The Temple is coming down. Your way of seeing the world and your way of living the faith is going to change. Suffering is on the horizon…but, the suffering will be like birth pangs—something that you will endure in order to give birth to the Kingdom in your lives.” In this whole chapter, while he talks about wars and disasters and persecution, the real message is repeated over and over and over in the ‘commands’ we find scattered throughout :
Be careful
Do not be troubled
Take care of yourselves
Do not worry
Hang in there
Don’t believe just anything—even if it’s said in my name;
Watch, listen and learn
Watch and pray.

In short, TRUST...keep living the life of faith.
In spite of the uncertainty and upheaval, TRUST.
Even though the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, TRUST.
Wars? Droughts? Natural disasters? TRUST.
Betrayals? Broken promises? Beatings? TRUST.

So, what do we take away today?
Changes are coming our way.
Our families change as children grow, and move, and marry.
Our lives change as we move from school to work, from job to job, from work to retirement.
Our congregation is changing. More and more people are finding our congregation, and we are more and more welcoming of those who come to be a part of who we are. ‘New people’ means change.
We as individuals are growing in our lives of faith—we grow closer to God, we read the Bible more, we pray more, we fellowship more. All good, WONDERFUL steps…and they lead to change.
And, as the Scriptures indicate today, as we align ourselves with God’s plans and God’s will, we can expect push-back from the world and from those whose minds are set on things of this world…on the physical, the temporal, the human.
We cannot see the future. Even so, I am thoroughly convinced that we have an exciting future ahead us as Rio First. I am completely certain that God has good things for you and for me and for US. Yet, I cannot see the future. Going forward requires faith, trust.  Now…now is the time—with changes and a certain yet unknown future that God unfolds before us—now is the time to hold on to the promise we find in Scripture, in Proverbs 3: Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths. 
We can face the future with confidence—falling stones and all—if we but heed Jesus’ call to ‘hang in there,’ ‘watch’, ‘don’t worry,’ ‘pray’…if we embrace Jesus’ call to trust.

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