A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Pentecost 22 ~ Mark 13:1-8
As they came out of the church, one of the members said, “Look at this beautiful church. I just love these majestic buildings. Church architecture is awesome.” Then Jesus responded, “So you love churches, do you? In time, every one of them will fall down.” The church members were very concerned and asked him, “What? Even ours? But I love my church! Tell us, when will this happen? How will we know it’s coming?”
Jesus replied, “Don’t let yourselves get distracted. And don’t get sucked in by the flavour of the month – or the latest, greatest, flashy thing that’s supposedly gonna save the church. And please, don’t get caught up in the Chicken Littles running around saying ‘the church is dying’. Of course it’s dying. And it’s being reborn. Old ways have to break down for new ways to emerge. Tightly held things have to be let go of in order to be open to God’s newness. That’s the way it works. It’s kinda like birthing – it’s gonna hurt – and then there’s a new thing. Remember what I’ve taught you. Relax.”
And then the line that gets mistranslated and screws us all up – “the end is still to come.”
Here’s Mark 13:7-8 – When you hear of wars and rumours 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 birthpangs.
Here’s a paraphrase – “Relax! Yes, things are very challenging now, and the unknown is kind of scary – but it’ll be ok. Fear not! Trust that God is in the new thing. Even so, there’s no getting around it – as we change it’s going to hurt. That’s what birthing something new is like.”
But for some reason, even though it defies all logic, we seem to think that birthing something new is going to be like it is on TV. You know, when a woman says, “Oh dear, I think my water just broke,” and she goes to the hospital, and squinches up her face, and pushes for about 15 seconds, and then whoosh, out comes the baby! Right? It’s just like that, right?
No, of course it isn’t. I’ve been there! Well, I was in the room! It’s agonizing. It’s super-hard. It takes a long, long time and it’s no walk in the park. It’s messy. It hurts. And it’s dangerous. Sure, it’s less dangerous now than ever before because hospitals are very advanced, but childbirth historically has been a very dangerous thing. Many mothers die in the birthing.
Now, on the other side of it, after that really hard ordeal, is a gift of new life that is overwhelmingly wonderful. But you can’t get there without journeying through the painful ordeal.
This is what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples in Mark 13. He used the image of birthpangs because he knew it would be so visceral that it would make his point. But there’s another layer to that too. Mark’s gospel was written in the 0070s, right at or just after the time that the Jewish Temple fell in Jerusalem. There was a war, an uprising, and as the Romans crushed the rebellion they also demolished the Temple.
If you were among the first audiences hearing Mark’s gospel being read to you that news would still be very fresh in your memory. And it was a very painful thing for the Jews. You see, if we arrived here next Sunday and discovered that this church building had been struck by lightning and burned down we would be devastated, because this place is very special to us. We’d be heartbroken.
And then we’d get the insurance money and either rebuild it or go and worship at another church building. There’s plenty around! But for the Jews it was fundamentally different. The Temple wasn’t just a special place for them; it was actually the very centre of their religious practice – God’s home on earth! There were small synagogues and meeting places in the towns and villages, but only at the Temple could you make the required animal or crop sacrifices, and only at the Temple could you properly and fully practice your religion.
So when their Temple crumbled it quite fundamentally destroyed their whole way of understanding their religion, and themselves. There was no insurance settlement. There was no other church to go to. That was it. And it was gone. Can you begin to imagine how devastating that was for them?
And Jesus points right at it and says, “Folks, as important and central as they are, it’s not about the buildings. It’s about the Way, the path, the journey. And we’re birthing something brand new here. And it’s gonna hurt! But then it will be beautiful.”
Most of you tuned in today were once part of another church – whether it was one of our three parent churches (St. Andrews, Courtice, and Harmony), or whether it was a church that you used to attend before becoming part of Faith United. This is a fantastic place. It’s a beautiful new thing that has been birthed. But you had to leave something behind to get here. You had to sell your beloved church, or leave a beloved community, and that would have been painful. Devastating, even. And the creating of this ministry, and the forging of this community of faith was (and is) hard, hard work. But now you’re here and the new thing is a blessing.
Mark 13 is written in a stylized kind of way, and I think we misread it because of that. We get caught up in the crumbling of the church, and the wars and rumours of wars. It sounds like an end of the world text – but it isn’t – except it is! (Don’t you love it when I do that?!) (Don’t blame me – blame Jesus!)
As usual, I think Jesus was actually trying to teach us something bigger and deeper than the surface of the text suggests. He used the destruction of the Temple as an object lesson for it. Instead of worrying about beautiful outside temples, focus on the temple that really matters. You. His followers are all concerned about the buildings and the structures, the bricks and mortar, and he replies with “Don’t let yourselves be led astray by all that ‘stuff’!” He’s talking about your faith. He’s talking about your inner journey. He’s saying, “Don’t worry about the end – worry about the end!” [grin]
While the outside world will swirl and convulse, and there will be wars and rumours of wars, and nations and kingdoms and people will be in conflict, you will be about birthing something new within you. The Kingdom of God. In you. And your old ‘you’ will fuss, and fight, and shake, and complain – and your old ways will vie for dominance – and your old path will try to lure you off course – and it will all hurt. Because birthpangs are real! They call it labour for a reason. And after the hard labour comes the gift, the new life, the celebration.
Let me circle back to something I said a few minutes ago. I said there’s a mistranslated word in here that screws us up in interpreting this passage. It’s in Mark 13:7 – it’s the “the end is still to come” part. Jesus doesn’t mean the end – he means the end! The Greek word is telos.
Telos means an ‘end’ as in the desired outcome – the full potential or inherent purpose or objective of a person or thing – the end goal – the raison d’etre – the highest, ultimate or final Good.
What do you think is the ultimate end in Jesus’ mind? The full potential, inherent purpose, our raison d’etre as people of faith? Is it to build pretty buildings? Surely not. We need them – we need some bricks and mortar to help us move toward ‘the end’, but churches are not our end (although some will be the end of us!).
Churches are a means! A means to an end. So what’s ‘the end’?
The Westminster Shorter Catechism was written in 1647. It’s typical of its time, in that it set things out very linearly and used a question and answer format to teach people about the journey of faith. I may quibble with parts of the catechism, but I love the way it begins – because it gets it exactly right. I’ve updated the gendered language, but here’s what I think Jesus’ ultimate, highest, purpose and goal for us is:
- What is the chief end of (humans)?
A. (Our) chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy (God) forever.
That’s basic faith and Kingdom of God stuff!
Hopefully that sounds really familiar. I say this to you all the time just in different language. What’s the most important thing we’re supposed to be about? Love God, love people, love one another. Love, love, love.
The Westminster Catechism says (Our) chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy (God) forever. Glorify God and enjoy God. Isn’t that exactly what “love God with all your heart, and mind, and soul, and strength” means? That’s the greatest commandment.
Now I’m going to twist your knickers a bit. The reason Jesus is using such colourful and frightening language in Mark 13 is because his followers – yes, even us – are prone to get distracted. A lot! We’re human. All too often we fall into the trap of worrying more about the means than the end! Jesus warns us not to get caught up in the means – the end is still in process – it’s being birthed – but birthing is painful, remember, and generally speaking we try to avoid pain.
Church is our means to Jesus’ end.
What’s the end again?
What is our telos?
To love God through our personal immersion in, and societal transformation into, the Kingdom of God!!!
Ah, but oh how we love to celebrate our means! Look at this fantastic church! We need this edifice/bricks and mortar to achieve our ends! True, and also not true. I mean, look at what Covid has shown us. While not our preference, over the last 18 months we have found ways to continue to be the embodied church even without the building. I think Jesus was challenging his followers to hold lightly the structures, to the means – and instead to focus on the end, the telos – immersion in the Kingdom of God – and the transformation of the world.
It’s not just physical churches that are our means. It’s also the way we do things – or more acutely, the way we’ve always done things. Jesus says pretty clearly in Mark 13 that the way to get to the telos is the crumbling of what was. Letting go of what was, and how we’ve always done it. And that may mean letting go of the ways you “believed” or understood scripture, or theology, or church – letting go of our privilege. Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down – crumbled and been reborn, via birthpangs…
Our beloved United Church of Canada will turn 100 years old in a couple of years. The original vision that launched this denomination was to put a church on every corner so that we’d be a presence in every neighbourhood. Of course, that was back in the 1920s when cars were still a fairly novel idea, and travelling distances was an ordeal. It was a great vision – in its day. The day has changed. We have to let go of the old way to allow a new vision to be born – one that reimagines what a church neighbourhood looks like. As you’re watching (or reading) this sermon our Faith United neighbourhood stretches across the country and internationally.
Will Faith United be here in 100 years?
Will this bricks and mortar endure? It depends.
If we can manage to avoid getting distracted by our means and keep a laser-like focus on our telos – on loving God – on immersing in the Kingdom of God and striving to transform the world – then yes, we’ll probably still be here. In some form.
We shouldn’t hold any of it too tightly.
And as we do that – as we let go of what needs letting go – we open our hands to God’s telos – and love.
And that, my friends, is the end.