November 18, 2018
Always at this, the end of the church year, right before Advent, we get texts that are about the end of the world and the destruction of the Temple – stuff that falls in the category of “apocalyptic literature,” about the end times. And every year I think, “Man, these horrifying texts could be describing what we experience today!” Well for Mark’s audience, they did exactly that. Here’s a little church history lesson for you: In Jesus’s time, the Jerusalem Temple was indeed a glorious accomplishment, huge and glimmering with gold. But this Temple, and Jerusalem with it, were destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 – which happens to be when Mark was writing about it. In other words, even as Mark is writing that Jesus foretold the destruction of the Temple, Mark’s audience was watching this happen right before their eyes. So while it seems to us like Mark could be describing our world, he was, literally, describing his first century world.
I find some comfort in this, knowing that people throughout time have been dealing with one crisis or trauma or another, and that through them all, God’s word has stood as a solid beacon of hope. So as you listen to this collection of apocalyptic texts today, know that we can seek solidarity with people of faith throughout time, who have always looked to God in times of trouble. Let’s listen.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In a world where the news is dominated by devastating fires, mass shootings, extreme poverty, and any number of things we need to fear, I have to say that today’s readings do not feel very welcome in my heart! Always these last Sundays before Advent begins, we get a lot of doom and destruction from the Bible’s apocalyptic literature. In fact, chapter 13 in Mark is known as Mark’s “little apocalypse,” describing a horrific scene that must be endured before the final and triumphant end of time.
That word, “apocalypse,” brings up all kinds of terrifying images for us, doesn’t it? Fire, brimstone, wars, famines – all the stuff described in Daniel and Mark. Yet that’s not actually what the word means, exactly. What apocalypse actually means, is an unveiling. It is pulling back the veil to reveal what has been hidden underneath – which often ends up being a lot of really terrifying stuff, stuff that we’d rather not have to deal with. We’d fooled ourselves into thinking things were better than they were, and when we see that dark underbelly, we are shocked and think, “What? I had no idea!”
I hear this sentiment a lot in our world today, especially in our country. After people of faith are shot in their place of worship, after yet another powerful man is brought down by sexual assault allegations, after literal Nazis march down the street chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” after another person of color is shot and killed for no reason at all… I hear this lament: “Is this who we are now?” And the answer is yes, but it’s also who we’ve always been. These sentiments, if not the acts themselves, have long been present in our society, it’s just that now, due to the 24-hour news cycle, or social media, or our leadership, or whatever, it is becoming apparent to us in a way that it hasn’t before. And we are shocked and appalled – by the acts themselves, as much as by the realization that we have been unaware of this reality all this time.
There’s a wonderful word for this: disillusionment. Preacher and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor describes it this way: “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion – about ourselves, about the world, about God – and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.” Boy, painful is the word for it. I have tried to do some self-reflection on this this week, in particular on the question, “What lies and illusions do I mistake for truth?” and I find myself resistant to even going there! Because if I spend some time doing that, I might discover that something I have held dear, that has kept me safe, that even has helped to define me, might in fact just be some illusion, some lie I have been telling myself. I’d rather just keep up the illusion, frankly, and hold onto those things that have brought me comfort and a sense of safety all these years, even if they are mere illusions, because if disillusionment is anything like what Jesus describes here, even if metaphorically, that sounds like a pain I’d rather avoid, if possible.
Of course it is not really possible to avoid, is it? We all have experiences, some small, some significant, in which we were disillusioned, where we suddenly realize something is not as we thought it was. For me, I think of an awesome internship I applied for, for which I thought I was a shoe-in, and then I was not even offered an interview, though several of my classmates were. I think of a relationship with a guy I thought for sure was The One, only to discover he had a whole other life I didn’t even know about, including other long-term relationships. I think of when I was an invincible 15-year-old one day, and the next, I was a cancer patient, and almost overnight I went from being healthy and untouchable, to sick and fighting for my life. Each of those disillusionments was painful. In each, I felt a sense of destruction – in my heart, and in the way I saw the world around me. Each felt like a little apocalypse in my life.
And really – each was a sort of apocalypse, an unveiling, because each one showed me something I thought was true was not, in fact true. Each one caused me to doubt what I thought I knew about myself, and try to find the real truth. And each set me upon a path I needed to be on. Instead of that internship, I ended up here, where I got to work with all of you, and where I met my husband and started a family. Because of my relationship with that two-faced guy, I learned all kinds of important relationship tools that equipped me to be in the healthy and honest relationship I’m in now, as well as offer more effective counsel to others as a part of my ministry. Having cancer taught me countless valuable lessons about life, and perhaps even more, showed me with such clarity the power of the Body of Christ, and of prayer, and in many ways it set me upon the path to become a pastor. Each apocalypse, though incredibly painful at the time, was an unveiling that led me back toward living the godly life God has in mind for me.
Did you know, we actually experience a little apocalypse every time we gather to worship. It happens right at the beginning… the confession. Here, built into our worship, we have the opportunity to come before God and say, “Hey God, I’ve been hiding my sins, from you and perhaps even from myself, and choosing to live under the illusion that I am without sin. But now, I’d like to unveil my sin, to you. Disillusion me, O God. Pull back the lies I have been telling myself and others, and then help me deal with what is left there, so that I would be set upon your path, heading toward your will, rather than the path my illusions would lead me down. Forgive me, renew me, and lead me, so that I may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Holy Name. Amen.”
And then the rest of our worship is about the fruit of that disillusionment: it’s about stepping into the new life that is possible because of the apocalypse we have experienced. It’s about hearing the Word, the promises of God in scripture. It’s about holding in prayer and in love all those around the world in need. It’s about seeking peace and reconciliation between one another – between nations and between individuals. It’s about sharing a meal together, in which we remember and celebrate the incredible, self-sacrificing love of our God, as we come forward with hands extended, asking for a taste of God’s immense grace for us. It’s about being sent out into the world to share what we know about this love, this grace, this peace… this God. And it’s about praising and thanking God all along the way.
In the middle of Jesus’ words in Mark’s “little apocalypse” are buried these words that end today’s reading: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” It may at first sound sort of ominous – just the beginning? How long must we endure this pain, O Lord? Having experienced the beginning of birth pangs a couple times now, I can resonate with that sentiment! There is physical pain, and there is fear and anxiety and uncertainty… but there is also excitement, and hope, and the palpable sense of possibility. The best thing someone told me about labor pains is that they are pain with a purpose. And so, as labor continues, there are inevitably moments when the one giving birth thinks, or even says or shouts, “I can’t do this!” Yeah, disillusionment, apocalypse, can be like that, too. But through it all there is a purpose. At the end of all that pain… life. Newness. Everything changed forever. A brand new path to walk, one that leads us toward God’s intention.
And most importantly, God is with us all along: in the initial awareness, in the unveiling, in the realization of a new normal, and all the life that comes from that. Disillusionment is no easy process. But as we approach the Advent season, when we celebrate a God who promises to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, we can trust that we will never be abandoned. As the Psalmist writes, “God will show us the path of life; in God’s presence there is fullness of joy, and in God’s right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Let us pray… God of grace, we would so like to feel safe, even if it means living under the veil of lies we tell ourselves. Disillusion us, O God. Help us pull back the veil so that through all the muck, we can see your purpose for us, and then lead us lovingly toward fulfilling that purpose. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.