When I was an associate pastor with primary responsibility for youth, I worked with, taught, planned excursions for jr. Highs, sr. Highs and college youth. I didn’t do that alone. I had help from our wonderful youth advisors. At a youth advisor meeting we were trying to come up with activities that would appeal to youth. One of our advisors—a young man in his 20’s, suggested to us, “I read that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are performing in our area. Wouldn’t it be fun to take some of our kids to their concert?” “Who ARE the Red Hot Chili Peppers?” I didn’t know, but the other youth advisors were game, our senior highs were ecstatic when we floated the idea with them. “Woho! This is going to be great!”
The concert was at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, if you are familiar with the DC area. It was outside. We had to sit on the grass—or as it turned out, stand on the grass—because for most of the concert, people stood. The church youth group kids held high their glow lights, sang along with the music, danced in place. I was underwhelmed. I couldn’t see a thing, short person that I am. I was cold— it was a chilly summer’s night, and, I was in no mood for dancing. The music was ear-drum breaking loud. Most disturbing for me were the lyrics. Couldn’t understand most of them. but those I could understand would not be appropriate in a worship setting. Why were we taking our church youth to THIS?! Note to self—next time, if there was to be a next time, make sure you do a proper vetting of the music group.
The trip home after was interminably long. It took over an hour just to get out of the parking lot. The youth didn’t mind, though. Their conversation was punctuated with Wows! Awesome! Did you see….Did you hear?” All to say, the youth had a glorious time, I had a miserable time, and yet we attended the same concert.
That’s what’s happening in the first few lines of today’s scripture reading from Mark. Jesus and his young disciples (and best guess is, the disciples were in their late teens or early twenties—so about the same age as the youth at that concert). Jesus and the disciples have just visited the temple. As they leave, it is clear—the disciples are awe-struck by the grandeur of the place. With youthful exuberance, they ask, “Jesus, did you see those enormous stones, the huge buildings? Huh, huh?” Just like the youth after that Red Hot Chili Peppers concert. And yet, Jesus is heart sick. Why?
The answer lies in part, in the texts that immediately precede this one. Jesus has witnessed the pomposity of the temple officials—strutting about in their long robes, offering up long, insincere prayers. We talked about that last week. But part of it has to do with temple traditions and practices run amok.
I hope I’m not going into the weeds here. Try to bear with me. In recent excavations in Jerusalem, Biblical archeologists have uncovered lots and lots of sacrificial animal bones. Those particular sacrificial animal bones date from the 30’s AD, when Jesus walked the earth, and beyond to the year 70. Seventy AD is when the Romans burned the Jews’ temple to the ground—so after 70 no more sacrificial animal bones for the simple reason, there were no more animal sacrifices.
For that forty-year time period, again, 30 AD to 70 AD, archeologists discovered way over the normal amount of sacrificial animal bones than the temple should have produced. All that sacrificial blood would have attracted flies. Yuk. The stench of death, the signs of death were probably everywhere. And no, these aren’t wild imaginings—these are the suppositions of Biblical historians.
Why would animal sacrifices be at an all time high? Well, the Jews were suffering mightily from the Roman occupation. They were having to pay exorbitant taxes to Rome, which went to support wealthy Romans and the very people who were occupying their land--the Roman army. The Jews felt demoralized, helpless. They turned to their religion for help, like you do when disaster strikes. Remember all the Americans who filled church sanctuaries after 9/11? My goodness, at the church I served, we held a service the night after—standing room only!
The Jewish temple in those years was experiencing a sacrifice-frenzy. And that’s what Jesus saw that day at the temple. He breathed in the smells of death, swatted away flies. He said to himself, “This is not right. In fact, something is disturbingly wrong.”
What was wrong was that the Jews, as a people, were addicted to their religious practices—So desperate were they to ease their suffering. For an alcoholic, it’s “One more drink” for the drug addicted it’s “Just one more pill—then I’ll feel better.” For the devout Jews, it was “Just one more sacrifice.” No matter the number of sacrifices the priests performed, though, nothing changed. What’s that line, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and each time hoping for a different result.” Or as someone has said, a little differently, If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.” It’s got a rhythm to it. Love it. If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.” Sadly, what they got was nothing.
The Jews were just going through the motions, and their sense of helplessness was on a downward slide into hopelessness.
Which leads us to the next part of today’s scripture reading. This is often referred to as a mini-apocalypse—It’s not as long as Revelations—the apocalyptic last book of our Bibles. Here in Mark, it is just a short, succinct-prediction of the end times.
We have to be careful when we read about apocalypses in scripture—and I have used the word with misgiving. So often people read into Biblical apocalyptic passages. They want to find in those a prediction of what is to come to us in our present day and time. As if our Bibles are crystal balls or tea leaves.
That’s a misuse of our Bibles. Our Bibles are a lot of things—a guide for living, a history book, A poetry book, a book upon which our faith is based. However, the Bible is not a crystal ball. Those writers, those prophets, lived in a particular time and place and what they write reflects those specific times and places.
What we CAN read in our Bibles, though, and what we can take from apocalyptic passages, is truth about the human condition. And, when we read our Bibles through a faith lens we gain insight into how God acts in the world. We apply that to our own times, since of course, God was then as God is now—that is, always with us, eternal—so let’s do that now.
Jesus predicts that the Jews are about to experience a great upheaval in their long-held faith traditions. The temple walls will be torn down., Yes, the entire temple system will be no more. In the religious vacuum that follows, religious charlatans selling their own brand of faith, will try to take advantage of the Jews. In other words, the Center will not, cannot hold.
Jesus is right, of course. That’s exactly what happened.
And now let us leave off those times and turn to our own. You know as I know. we, too, ARE living in apocalyptic times. Global warming, the growing divide between rich and poor, continued racism, the growing opioid epidemic, immigration.
And likewise, just as in Jesus day, religious people turn to their religious institutions. And guess what? Again, as in Jesus’ day, some religious institutions aren’t providing any relief. Some Christian churches are inward focused. They are trying to hold on to the past—they are dealing with sexual abuse, and cover ups by higher ups. They are fighting trying to prevent women from serving in leadership positions, they hold on to the notion that gays and lesbians are somehow less than beloved children of God. They are stuck in the past, and ignoring our current social problems. If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten—in their case, irrelevancy. These systems are ripe for an apocalypse.
It has to happen. It’s all part of God’s plan. Jesus refers to that time so long ago, as “birth pangs.” That was then, and that is also now. You suffer birth pangs. Then comes new life.
So in these difficult times—we read in our Bibles: We learn that it’s happened before, and we are reassured. A new world WILL come.
And now, since I have the manuscript space, I thought I would end this sermon by telling you about a neighbor I met a couple of weeks ago. He himself has undergone several personal apocalypses, because apocalypses can happen to individuals, too. I hope this story sticks with you and that you can return to it this Thanksgiving. It has everything to do with the season.
My neighbor’s name is Davor. He is originally from Bosnia where he worked as an electrical engineer. Then in 1992, Bosnia was at war—the country experienced massive genocide. That’s Davor’s first apocalypse. Davor, his wife and little boy escape. They live for a time in a refugee camp in Germany. Hellish. That is his second apocalypse. He starts working, at odd jobs, learns the language, eventually he and his family move out of the camp for good. But life outside the camp is bleak, too. Third apocalypse. He contacts some relations living in the US. He and his family eventually move here with help from the International Rescue Committee and the church. They settle in Charlottesville. Even before he has mastered English, a compassionate businessman recognizes his smarts, his skills. He is hired. And now he HAS mastered yet another language—English. He proudly hands me his business card. “I have my own business now--Universal Handyman.” He told me, “I am living my fourth life—this time as an American Citizen.” He and his family will be celebrating a heartfelt Thanksgiving, I am sure. Giving thanks to God, Jesus and the promise of new life—as should we all. Amen