Sermon: Sunday, November 15, 2009: 24th Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Daniel 12:1-3  •  Psalm 16  •  Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25  •  Mark 13:1-8


For the last few months I’ve been seeing previews for the movie 2012 that opened this weekend. It’s a movie along the lines of Airport (1970) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972, 2006), Titanic (1997) Armageddon (1998) and any other of a series of epic disaster movies that tap into our fears and fascination with larger-than-life traumas. I haven’t seen the movie yet, though I’m sure I will – the special effects look amazing – and it’s got a first-rate cast. My favorite trailer for the movie shows a Tibetan monk high up in the Himalayas racing to get to a temple where he rings an enormous bell, as if to sound an alarm, just as the ocean’s waters flood over the top of the world’s highest mountains. As the flood waters consume the earth the following question flashes on the screen: “How would the governments of our planet prepare six billion people for the end of the world?” And then the answer: “They wouldn’t.” The screen goes dark and viewers are told to “find out the truth” by going online to search on the keyword 2012.

So, I did. I went online and I searched on the word “2012” and discovered that it is a year which some scholars of Mayan civilization believe to be the year they predicted the world as we know it comes to an end. Which makes the date part of an apocalyptic prediction.

Apocalyptic literature, literature concerned with the end-times, is found across cultures in every part of the world. It seems to be buried deep in the human psyche, this fascination with how things will end. In our own Christian tradition we have more than one example of apocalyptic literature in our scriptures, the most famous being the book of Revelation, though this morning we hear predictions of the end times from the Old Testament book of Daniel and from the gospel of Mark as well on the lips of Jesus.

Our story in Mark picks up right where we left off last week when Pastor Jen was here and preached about the poor widow who gives her last two coins to the temple treasury. Jesus and his disciples are leaving the temple when one of them stops to admire the architecture. The temple in Jerusalem – it was more than just a house of worship, it was the physical sign of God’s presence with the people of Israel, it was God’s dwelling place. The temple in Jerusalem was the physical embodiment of all truth and power, qualities reflected in its magnificent architecture. But rather than affirming the belief that God’s power and wisdom were fixed for all time in the edifices of the past, Jesus responds to his follower with a world-shattering statement. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Like the image of the monk at the temple, ringing his bell as the world comes to an end, Jesus – in Jerusalem only days before his crucifixion – sounds the alarm that truth and power, as we have understood them, are not fixed but changing.

That was certainly the case for the early church during the time when the gospel of Mark was being composed. This gospel comes to us from around the year 70 CE, just at the height of the Jewish-Roman war. The Romans had laid siege to the city of Jerusalem, which had stretched on for years. Anyone caught trying to escape was crucified atop a high wall the Romans had built around the city as a sign to those inside. Hundreds were being crucified on a daily basis. When the Romans finally breached the walls in the summer of the year 70 they did destroy the temple, utterly and completely, and hundreds of thousands of Israelites died rather than be forced into exile.

Living in such a time, the early Christian church remembered Jesus as one who could see a future for them past the devastation of the world as they’d always known it.

“When you hear of wars and rumors 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 birth pangs.”

Two weeks from now, on the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of a new year in the life of the church, we’ll hear the continuation of this speech by Jesus but from the point of view of the gospel of Luke. There, again, Jesus responds to the anxiety of his followers with the reassurance that their “redemption is near” (Luke 21:28). The chaos of this world, which can feel like the end of all we know and cherish, is part of the process out of which all our new beginnings are born. In the words of Semisonic, “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

The truth is, the world as we know it is always coming to an end. Something new is always being born in its place. What you see really depends on where you’re looking. For many people living at or above the middle class in the United States, the recession of the last couple years has felt like the end of an era of cheap credit and assured upward mobility – but in other parts of the globe where people have been living with less for much longer, this looks like a long overdue correction in the market. For most of us the terrorist attacks that happened on September 11th almost ten years ago represented an unthinkable breach of our national boundaries and assault on our national security, but to people living in regions of the globe where superpowers have been battling for control of oil and other natural resources for centuries there was nothing unimaginable about the idea of being attacked on one’s own land at all. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” Jesus says, “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

We experience these cataclysms in our own lives as well. Our growing up is a series of worlds dying so that new ones can take their place. We are born utterly dependant on our parents or other adults to care and provide for us, but at some point we understand that they cannot be our world – that we hav
e to strike out on our own and find ways of living that will sustain us. We are raised to think the thoughts, feel the feelings, believe the beliefs and share the prejudices of our parents – then at some point we realize that our elders, while older and wiser, are also human and full of flaws. The towers of truth and power that have defined our lives as children tumble and fall, and we experience the end of our childhood as both the death of one way of being and the birth of something entirely new.

That is a part of what we are celebrating this morning as we confirm Lynda Deacon through an affirmation of her baptism. Confirmation, which is understood differently by different Christian denominations, is still everywhere understood as a rite of passage, a part of the transition from childhood to adulthood. In some congregations it is the point at which a young person is granted all the rights and responsibilities given to adult members of the church. For some of you it may have been a period of years filled with Christian education during junior high or high school that may or may not have included tests and retreats and community service. For Lynda it involved a year of study with me, reading through the gospel of John and the book of Acts, and writing weekly reflection papers on her emerging faith and spirituality. It was a time for asking questions about the nature of scripture, the meaning of Jesus, the mission of the church, and the challenges that come with claiming the Christian identity in every area of your life.

There were no tests though. We Lutherans understand confirmation to be an affirmation of the identity we were given in baptism, when God’s waters flooded over the boundary lines of nationality, gender and race given to us at birth to unite us to one another and to God. Then, and now, there was no test – only the faithfulness of our parents and sponsors that God claims each of us as members of God’s own family and the promise to share that faithfulness with their children.

When Lynda was baptized promises were made by members of her family, to bring her to church, to share the scriptures with her, to give her opportunities to share in the work that belongs to all of us as Christians of proclaiming God’s justice and mercy in works of charity and advocacy for the oppressed peoples of the world. Today, in her confirmation, she will use ancient language to affirm that she intends to continue on that path that began with her baptism and we will rise to renew our promises to support her as she assumes a new level of responsibility for her faith and her life.

We confirm Lynda Deacon by joining her in words and affirmation that tie us back to the earliest Christians, even as we struggle understand what those words mean for us today. The temple is always being destroyed, the solid stones of our previous understandings are always being upended, but in the middle of it all God is with us as something new is being born into the world.

Water is the middle term in all our transitions. Genesis tells us stories about the waters of creation and the waters of the flood. While our tiny little font may make it hard to remember the full symbolism of the sacrament, baptism is the rite of entry that the church calls, “dying to death to be reborn to new life.” We are understood to be drowning in that water, only to be reborn.

Even the movie 2012 seems to understand the ancient symbols here. Though it is, on its surface, a movie about the end of the world – the struggle the characters are facing together is how to survive the changes they are going through. I’ve even heard that they’re producing a television series based on the movie set a few years later as the survivors attempt to rebuild a life for themselves on the other side of the apocalypse. Stories about endings inevitably become stories about new beginnings.

So we join with Lynda and her family and friends in celebrating the new life that became hers on the day she was baptized by affirming that she, like all of us, is becoming someone new. We are all, always, experiencing the end of the worlds we have known and being born into God’s unfolding, unending creation. We share in that experience of dying and rising as people, as a church, as a nation, as a planet. We prepare ourselves and all the people of the world for this neverending ending by proclaiming our faith in a God who is faithful to us. That is truth that will not tumble.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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