Death is a reality of our communal life together, and for us to live fully as God intends we must live in hope with one another. We must live as a resurrected people.
Vicar Anna Helgen
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 33 B
texts: Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A few weeks ago I was looking through old photos at home because my uncle asked that I find pictures of my grandpa to share at his 90th birthday party. I started with a box from when I was a teenager that contained all the pictures I’d taken on my first trip to the Boundary Waters in 2002. As I went through the photos, I noticed something interesting. Nearly all them were of natural things: waterfalls, flowers, lakes, trees, rocks, and so on. There were very few pictures of people. As I looked at each photo, I could hear my 15-year-old-self experiencing this place for the first time and exclaiming things like, “What beautiful lakes! What an amazing red pine! What an interesting rock formation!”
We’ve all been there before and have taken a picture of something that demanded our attention. We’ve stood in awe before a beautiful building and wondered how something so magnificent was ever built. We’ve looked up in wonder at a redwood forest and imagined what it was like when these trees were small. We’re drawn to these structures and places because of their permanence. They are strong. Lasting. Beautiful. They evoke wonder and awe. We’re fascinated by them because they create some sense of stability in the midst of our chaotic lives.
For the disciples, the temple was the place that elicited the “ooohs” and “aaahs” and evoked a sense of wonder. It was an architectural marvel, standing on a rectangular platform and surrounded by a retaining wall that was almost one mile around. The Roman historian Tacitus described the temple as a mountain of white marble adorned with gold. It had courtyards, porches, balconies, covered walkways, and stairs. It was the center of religious life, the place where God dwelled, the most spectacular building in all of Jerusalem, and the disciples couldn’t help but comment on it. What large stones! What large buildings!
And then Jesus tells his disciples that the temple will be destroyed. All of its buildings. All of its stones. It will all be thrown down. I can’t imagine what it would be like to stand in the midst of such grandeur and majesty and be told by Jesus of all people that it will all come crumbling down. The disciples want answers. When will this be? What will be the sign? How will we know? But Jesus gives none. He only goes on, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.” The disciples are left wondering about an uncertain future.
It would be nice if we too could be prepared for these types of events, but unfortunately, they have become an everyday occurrence in our world today. All we need to do is pick up a newspaper and read the headlines: war, hunger, violence, terrorism… disease, racism, human trafficking, and climate change…these are the realities we face today–realities that bring death. They shatter communities. They destroy homes. They tear families apart. They bring fear, chaos, and isolation. They catch us off guard and surprise us. They break us down.
We experience these events on a regular basis. Death of a person or a place. The end of a career. A broken relationship. Illness. The loss of a home. And now, a brutal attack in Paris on the innocent. Death affects our loved ones, but it also affects those whom we don’t know. Those who live across the globe and speak other languages, even those who live right here in our neighborhood whom we don’t notice.
We’re never quite the same as who we were before our encounter with death: before the diagnosis, the fire, the refugee crisis. Death changes us and shapes us into who we are today. We carry it with us in our bodies and hearts, each scar and wound a mark of its constant presence in our lives. What remains are our broken bodies, grieving hearts, and wondering minds. Sometimes we wish we could go back to how things used to be, when life was more stable and less confusing, when there wasn’t so much to worry about. Hope can be hard to come by in this dark territory and it’s easy to feel helpless, alone, and even abandoned.
Like the disciples, we want answers. But instead of providing them, Jesus comforts: “Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come…This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” These words might sound a little empty to us, almost like someone saying after a heartbreak, “Oh don’t worry, honey. It’ll all work out in the end.” But this is Jesus speaking here! And sharing his message with the disciples just days before he will be put to death.
Instead of being overwhelmed by the future destruction of the temple, Jesus draws the disciples from despair and into hope. He reminds them that something new is coming and will be birthed from all this destruction. It won’t happen at the snap of a finger, but more slowly, like a baby growing inside its mother’s body, a glimmer of life taking shape with each passing day.
Death is a reality of our communal life together, and for us to live fully as God intends we must live in hope with one another. We must live as a resurrected people. Hebrews gives a lovely description of what this looks like and how it might come about:
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Living in a community of hope means we rely on one another when life gets hard or when these experiences of death creep up on us. Because it is hard to be alone. So, together as God’s people, we cling to the confession of our hope without wavering: that God is faithful. We build one another up by encouraging each other to love and acts of service. We don’t forget to show up. We send sympathy cards, make phone calls. We pray for those who witness brutal violence and tragedy, and we advocate for change and justice. We become bearers of hope for one another. Bringers of light to a broken world. We speak up for those with no voice and stand with those who are invisible. Because in moments of death, it is hard to cling to hope. We need each other.
But we also know that God promises to show up. The temple has been destroyed, and yet God is here among us. Jesus is put to death and thus enters our pain, despair, and suffering, and now there is no place of darkness where God’s light will not shine. Slowly, God will begin to heal our wounds and scars, opening a new way for all of us. It is not the end, but the beginning. It is not death, but life. “For he who has promised is faithful!”
So let us hold fast to this confession of hope without wavering:
That God is faithful and will not abandon us!
That God will not bring us down.
That God will stand forever.
That God dwells here with us.
That God brings resurrection!
Death is not the final word. God is among us…Turning endings to beginnings, and creating life from death. And this is worth proclaiming boldly! What an amazing God!