Hunting for the Kingdom…by keeping watch?

Mark 13:1-8; 24-37              Do you pay attention to your dreams?  Have you ever woken up in the morning and thought, I know I had a dream (or more than one), but I can’t remember what it was about?  A counselor once encouraged me to keep a notebook by my bed and jot down the basic thread of dreams when I had them, because so often I would forget them in the morning.  He told me that paying attention to my dreams can open a window to what is going on inside, what I am anxious about, what I am hoping for, how I see myself, etc.  Many years ago, I remember Dusty (who was well beyond the child bearing years)sharing that she had dreams that she was pregnant and ready to give birth.  When she had a dream like that, she knew that she was going to be part of something new that was happening in her life.  The dream of a birthing process, with its attendant anxiety, pain, and a certain level of fear, opened a window for her to understand that it was time for something new.  Perhaps it was time to say “yes” to an intimidating job offer or a daunting project assignment or the next step in a relationship.

We use the same birthing metaphor to describe the way we feel when we are attached to a project or a work of art or piece of music that has absorbed a lot of  our time and energy and effort:  we say  “that’s my baby”.  The metaphor works no matter the gender of the one “giving birth”.  Birthing something new never comes without a cost.

When the disciples want to know when the end of life as they knew it was going to happen, Jesus tells them it will be like birth pangs.  The old, tried and true symbols of their religious identity, the solid temple built with large stones that had been standing for centuries would be torn down.  The church in Mark’s day either lived just before or just after the massive temple stones had been thrown down by the Roman government in 70.  Either living in fear that the temple would be torn down or living with the sharp pain of losing their traditional symbol of their faith.  And as was common in that time, the stones would have been repurposed, recycled, if you will, for use in the construction of secular buildings in other places around the empire.  Even the stones of the temple foundation scattered.  This is painful, anxiety producing and very stressful for the faithful, as it is in any period in history.  When religious buildings are desecrated or destroyed in war or acts of hate, everyone takes a sharp breath and feels the painful pangs, even if it is not your symbol of faith.  Jesus teaches that the pain losing the physical building is just the beginning of the birth pangs, something that will be more than a little frightening, something that will bring its own challenges, yet something new that will bring life and energy and hope for the future.  That is what he is about, remember?  He has come to bring something new, a new way of relating to God, a new way of living on this earth, a new hope for life after death.  Birthing something new brings pain and discomfort, particularly when it means losing the old, traditional way of thinking about your faith.

We are in the midst of birth pangs here at Hunting Ridge as we seek to discern how we will teach the faith to the children in our midst as we move forward.  We are being forced to confront the fact that the old Sunday morning Sunday School hour that has been held sacred for decades just may not be the way to provide for the spiritual nurture of our children as we go forward.  I spoke this week with a pastor in our Presbytery who described the method of spiritual nurture they shifted to 12 years ago.  They went from having 1-4 children participate in Sunday School on Sunday mornings to 35-40 children on two Wednesday evenings per month, where the congregation provides a meal, Biblical teaching, music, fun and a short worship time at the end for parents and children.  It has also opened their church doors to non-church members who were never part of the Sunday morning attendees.  He did not mention it, but I am going to assume that there was some distress, discomfort, and maybe even pain, as their congregation went through the birthing process of something new, something life giving instead of life draining.  God often breaks into our tradition and calls us to look at our ministry with fresh eyes.

The disciples were wondering, “when”?  Others have asked the same question for years:  when will the end come?  There have been all kinds of theories, mathematical predictions, personal revelations from God, books and movies which heighten the anxiety of a human race afraid of what is to come.  There is the whole idea of a “rapture”, a fear inducing construct developed in the 1800’s,  not a teaching that has come down to us from the ancients, not a doctrine found in Scripture.  Maybe you have seen the bumper sticker:  “In the case of the rapture, this car will be unmanned.”  The driver is making a clear statement– I will be whisked away to heaven immediately when Jesus returns, leaving my car to run off the road. A clear, arrogant statement.

For Jesus, “when?”  is the wrong question.  There is no timetable, there is no set day or hour.  For Jesus, the question is:  “how?  how will I wait?”  This chapter of the gospel of Mark is often referred to as the “little apocalypse”, because it is a small version of a vision of the future such as you find in the writings of the book of Daniel or the book of Revelation.  Apocalypsis is the Greek word for Revelation.  It is used to describe a genre of prophetic writing focused specifically on what to expect at the end of time.  Think about it– where is a human writer going to get these end of the world descriptions if not from divine revelation or an overactive imagination?  So there is always a fundamental question in the back of a reader’s mind…did the writer understand God’s revelation correctly?  did the writer create images on his own?  how do I really know what to expect?

Jesus describes a terrible time of distress– darkness when it shouldn’t be dark, earthquakes, famines, wars, suffering.  The birthing process brings pain, discomfort and anxiety.  There were no caesarean sections with epidurals and nerve blocks in Jesus’ day.  Birth pangs were unavoidable, a part of life, a precursor to the coming joy.   Suffering is a shared human experience.  Times of distress are experienced by individuals, entire families, or communities or nations.  Of course we all want it to end. ” When, Lord?”, we ask.  But Jesus says that is not the question.  Instead we should be asking– “How, Lord?  How do I wait?  I trust it will end, for I am in your hands, my church is in your hands, this world is in your hands.  So how do I wait?”

Jesus tells a simple story to make his point.  I am going to give you my version this morning.  One summer our family went on a long trip.  We generally do not have the extra funds to put our dog in a kennel while we are away, so we invite a friend to stay in our home.  We leave Ana with instructions about how to care for the dog, how often to walk her (we did not have a fenced in yard at the time), when to feed her, what not to let her do– like climb on the couch or the bed, etc.  Of course Ana will use the house like we would use it, keeping it from sitting empty as a target for thieves.  She will use the kitchen and clean up after herself, wash the sheets, vacuum the rug, and lock the door when she leaves for work.  She has assignments that we expect her to keep working on until we come back.  We expect her to keep the house and the dog cared for, no matter what day or time we return.  When we get back, she should be found doing her agreed upon assignments.  She did not wait for us by zoning out in front of the tv, letting the dog pee on the floor or the dishes pile up in the sink.

Jesus answers like this:  You wait for the return of the Son of Man by doing your agreed upon assignments. You don’t fall asleep on the job.  You keep awake and active. Thorughout his ministry he has taught and demonstrated the assignments for his disciples… working, praying, serving, listening, caring, loving, teaching.  You don’t get your basement pantry full and lock yourself and your family inside to wait.  You don’t put an arrogant bumper sticker on your car.  At the other extreme, you don’t assume that the Son of Man will never return and ignore your assignments.

There is an old story about the reaction of a legislature in colonial New England to the darkening sky of a daytime eclipse.  Apparently members of the  legislature panicked, and several moved to adjourn, fearing that  this was one of the signs of the end of the world Jesus had been referring to.  One courageous, level headed legislator is reported to have said: “If it is not the end of the world, and we run home, we will look foolish.  If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty.  I move that candles be brought.”  Candles so that they could continue to work in the darkness.  That is the kind of attitude needed for the waiting.  That is the kind of attitude needed for the living of our days here and now.  This gospel calls us to pay attention, to watch, to be alert, to remain active.  It reminds us that God’s descending upon us is not tied to a building or a Sunday School program or a ministry team system.  It calls us to be unafraid instead of cowering in fear of what comes next, and it calls us to be invested in ministry instead of being apathetic about what might lie ahead.

In this “little apocalypse”, you might have noticed that there is no mention of the kingdom of God.  You see, God’s kingdom is not equated with religious institutions or programs which come and go.  God’s kingdom is not tied to their success or failure at any time in history.  The traditions, or rocks, we trust in can always be repurposed. The future lies in the hands of the Son of Man, the One who is turning tradition on its head, crashing through the old forms of temple worship, and birthing a new work of God.  Let us keep awake as we wait for God’s return, for we do not know when it will be.  Keep awake!

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