March 29, 2020

“Think Like Jesus:  Do Not Be Alarmed, But Keep Watch”

Mark 13:1-8, 24-37

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

March 29, 2020 (Lent 5)


If there is one good thing that is happening as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it is causing us to think about what is most important in our lives.  And that is what Jesus is shaking out in our Scripture reading for today.


The Temple in Jerusalem was a sight to see.  Constructed of massive blocks of white marble decorated with gold, it was an architectural wonder.  It was what gave Jerusalem its splendor.  Such an edifice was a fitting place to worship a majestic God.  The trouble was that the Temple seems to have become more important than the God for whom it was built. 


One of Jesus’ disciples seems to have been caught up in the awe of the temple.  “Look, Teacher!  What massive stones!  What magnificent buildings!”  They had just come from spending time in the temple courts, where Jesus had been engaged in discussions with various religious authorities—chief priests, teachers of the law, and elders; as well as different groups—Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees.  He had argued that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and that the second greatest was closely intertwined, to love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus had been speaking about priorities and what matters most, and unfortunately, it may have been lost on the disciples.


Instead of sharing the disciple’s admiration of the temple, Jesus warned them that the it was not as indestructible as people thought.  “Do you see all these great buildings?  Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (v. 2).  And being the brilliant teacher that he was, Jesus took hold of this teachable moment and began his discourse which scholars have called the “little apocalypse.”


When we hear that word, “apocalypse” visions of the end times come to mind.  And these visions are often full of violence, turmoil among people, and natural disasters.  Things do not end well.  And Jesus does not disappoint.  He mentions false messiahs, wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes and famine.


But the word apocalypse comes from the Greek word that means “unveiling” or “revelation.”  In his little apocalypse Jesus pulls the curtain back and lets us see how the world really is, and he encourages us to respond in faith.  Our reading skipped over a significant part of Jesus’ apocalypse that describes how horrible things will be.  His followers will be arrested, brought to trial, tortured.  Families will turn against each other—brothers will betray brothers, children will rebel against their parents.  Jesus’ disciples will be rejected by their families and friends.  The temple will be desecrated, and false messiahs and false prophets will arise to lead people astray.


The world Jesus describes is horrible, but isn’t the same true of the state of our world, even today?  Hasn’t he described how it is now?  Since before Jesus’ time, there have been wars and rumors of wars.  Nations have been in conflict.  People have been in conflict. 


But if you look beyond the scary scenarios Jesus describes, he is actually encouraging his followers to remain faithful in times of disruption and persecution because they will be saved.  Jesus encourages his followers to open their eyes and see what is really happening.  The world that has turned against its creator is violent, full of conflict, and lost.  And it turns against those who understand this and are participating in God’s work to redeem this broken world.


But the good news is that at the end, when it does in fact come, the Son of Man will come with great power and glory.  And his people will be gathered up and saved.


The problem with apocalyptic writings is that they too can distract us from our focus, much like the temple had the tendency to distract people from the worship of God.  We get caught up in interpreting the signs and predicting the timing of the Second Coming, sidelining our love of God and neighbor.  Jesus finally got around to answering the disciples’ question about when the temple will be destroyed and when the end will come.  “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (v. 32).  Don’t worry about when all this will happen.  Even Jesus doesn’t know.


The thing we are called to do is to be on guard and see what is happening for what it really is.  We need to watch out for those who claim to be the Messiah and aren’t.  We need to be discerning about the people we listen to.  We should not become alarmed by the wars and rumors of wars because they happen and have been happening for a long time.


The hope we have is that such bad news and the seeming domination of sin are “the beginning of birth pains.”  Many of us who have first-hand knowledge of birth pains know that after the pain comes new life.  New life is coming.  Our part is to watch and faithfully wait for Jesus’ return.


The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our lives.  There is a lot of suffering, fear, panic.  And Jesus is telling us that this is what the world is, and has been since the fall, since humanity rebelled against God.  And Jesus acknowledges that we live with the difficult and painful consequences of humanity’s rebellion.  But that is not the end of the story.  As Christ followers, we know that Easter is coming.


Jesus came to redeem this world.  Jesus came to save us.  He reveals the hard truth that life is not what God created it to be.  We have sinned and life is messed up.  Nevertheless, God has us in God’s hands.  And because we know that God is with us, our response is not to panic, not to fear.  Not get caught up in speculating about whether it is the end time.  Not act out of fear.  Not hoard.  Our response as people of faith is to watch, wait and be ready.  And that means continuing to do our assignment of loving God and our neighbor.


I will readily confess to you that these past few weeks have been difficult.  I have had to change the way I live my daily life.  I can’t go to the office everyday and working from home is more difficult than I imagined.  I can’t go to yoga class.  I can’t find what I want in the stores.  I can’t eat whatever I want when I want it.  I can’t go out and have a nice meal with friends.  I now have to lead worship online, something seminary never prepared me to do.  I could go on and on describing the disruptions and inconvenience that the pandemic has brought to my life.  You could make a similar list.


But in today’s reading Jesus has invited us to refocus.  He has pulled back the curtain for us to see what is real, what is important. 


What is important is the health of the community—not just my or my family’s health.  What is important is that we realize how interconnected we are and that we do all we can to keep the virus from spreading.  And now that means not gathering together in person for worship—for the good of the wider community and world.


What is important are the relationships we have with God and with each other.  And even though we cannot hug each other there are ways we can embrace each other across our social distancing gaps, through our words and phone calls and texts and emails. 


What is important is that we see those who are suffering who usually remain invisible to us in our “normal” lives.  What is important is that we value those whose work is usually undervalued—janitors and gig workers and home healthcare workers.  So many do not have healthcare insurance or sick leave, potentially putting more people in danger of catching COVID-19.  Can we begin to help these folks to do their work with the same protections and safety nets most of us have?  Can we love these neighbors as ourselves?


Much is being revealed to those who have eyes to see.  Maybe these are birth pangs.  They may not be the birth pangs of the end of the world.  But it is entirely possible that God is birthing among us new ways for us to be God’s people, the church. It is possible that God is birthing in us new priorities as citizens of this nation and community.  Maybe we will come to value health and safety and education and child care and the care of our earth over making lots of money so we can live with much more than we need.


It is possible that God is birthing in us new ways to reach out in love to our community and world.  When we can’t be the church together in person, what does church look like?  We’re trying to live into some answers, and I hope you will share your thoughts and ideas.  I am hopeful that this experience will help us and the worldwide church learn that there are different ways to be church, and that we can let go of some of our old ways that no longer work.


While it is a scary, unpredictable time, our job is to watch and wait expectantly.  We watch by discerning what is true and important.  We wait by continuing to do God’s will and sharing God’s love with our neighbors.  And when we see something new being born, it is our job to give witness to God’s creative work, and share the good news.  


Jesus calls us to be not be alarmed, not be afraid, not panic, but to watch and wait for the new thing that God is birthing among us.  Thanks be to God.