Mark 13:1-8, 24-37
Boy, what a week for an apocalyptic text. Well, technically, we could call it a “pre-apocalyptic” text. If we had time (and let’s be honest, we’ve got the time) we would note that “apocalypse” is really just the Greek word for “THE BIG REVEAL!”, the moment when everything becomes clear and all makes sense! And this is really Jesus talking about living through those times before that happens. When things don’t make sense. When all is not yet clear. When life is all kinds of unsettled.
You know, times like right now. How shall we live right now? What do we do in this time?
The short story is: keep awake, for when you see these things taking place, you know that Jesus is near.
(And now we need to back up about 18 steps.)
Here’s the thing, apocalyptic literature has gotten a bad rap over the years. Mostly because it has been terribly misused by people with less than pure motives. It’s like the bible version of a car. Cars can be wonderful tools for so many good things! But put a drunk driver behind the wheel and they can become tools of death and destruction.
Apocalyptic texts are like that. They can be good and beautiful tools in faith. But with the wrong driver, they become texts of terror, judgment, and sometimes, even death. But look a little closer. Look at those “signs” that Jesus tells us to pay attention to. Wars? Rumors of wars? Famine? Falling stars? Earthquakes? Has there ever been a generation when those things weren’t happening?
In every generation, we live with the reminders that God is not done yet. In the Lutheran world, we call this the “already/not yet paradox”.
God has already won, but the work is not yet done. The promise has been fulfilled, but not yet realized. We all live with one foot in eternity, in God’s new creation, and one foot on earth, in God’s first creation. And sometimes, that’s easy to forget. It’s easy to say either, “God has forgotten about us. How else can we make sense of terrible things?” or to pretend that all these terrible things have nothing to do with us. That we’re God’s chosen and so we don’t have to care. And neither of those things is true.
What is true, and what the pre-apocalyptic texts are trying to tell us, is that birth hurts. That death always comes before resurrection. And that, no matter what, God has not left us.
When you see these things, when you see fear and violence and uncertainty and yes, even death, know that God is near. Even at the very gates. Stay awake. Open your eyes. You’ll see it.
You’ll see a bunch of Italians singing from balconies to share hope with one another. You’ll see frazzled, overwhelmed parents trying to homeschool a bunch of bored, underwhelmed kids in order to protect all our grandparents. You’ll see phone calls from old friends and messages passed through the windows of nursing homes. You’ll see grieving and funerals put on hold to protect one another from illness. You will see sacrifice for the sake of another. And this, too, is God at work.
Open your eyes. Stay awake. You will see.
In these times when little makes sense and far too much is uncertain, God is here, too. And honestly, I don’t know what happens next, what’s on the other side of all this. But whatever it will be, we know that God is already there, too.
Apocalyptic texts aren’t about telling the future. They’re about trusting that God is in the here and now and in the days to come. And while birth is terribly painful, the life on the other side is oh so beautiful.
So do not be led astray. Do not believe the voice of despair. Do not lose hope.
Open your eyes. Stay awake. See that God is always and ever beside you, and behind you, and before you. See that all your days, the good, the bad, and even the boring, are held in God’s loving and faithful arms, from the ends of the earth to the end of heaven. And no matter what these days hold, nothing will keep God from loving you.
Let’s be clear, right off the bat, this is not, I repeat not, a story about how little old ladies on fixed incomes should be giving more to the church. In fact, you could make the argument (and I’m going to in a minute) that this isn’t even a story about generosity, no matter how many times its been used that way. In fact, you could argue (and I’m going to in a minute) that this is a story about hypocrisy and injustice and the work of Jesus to tear it all down and start something new.
But to do that, we’ve got to back up a minute and look at the bigger picture. Far too often, this story of “the widow’s mite” get taken out, all by itself. And we just think, “Oh wow, look at that faithful old woman who just gave everything to the church.” Literally, the text reads her whole life! What a saint! But if you look close, you’ll notice that Jesus never says that’s a good thing. We infer that, because we assume Jesus would think that. But that’s not what the text says. So we’ve got to take this story and put it back into the bigger story to see what’s going on.
And what’s going on is that Jesus is sitting across from the temple, teaching his disciples, in not too subtle terms, making fun of the temple scribes. He had just come into Jerusalem 2 days ago and the first thing he did when he got into town was march straight into the temple and trash the tables of the scribes and money changers.
See, the temple used its own kind of money. So people who came in from all over the area would bring whatever money they used at home and exchange it for temple money, so they could buy and offer the necessary sacrifices. But the people running the money exchange would sometimes keep a little off the top, you know, for their troubles. But Jesus wasn’t having it, literally flipping everything over.
And on top of that little scam, you also had the tradition of scribes serving as “widow trustees”. Because scribes were among the small class of people who could read and right, they were generally well-respected. And there were, of course, many good scribes among the group. But since, according to Jewish law, women were not allowed to own property, when a woman became a widow, she had to hand over her husband’s assets to some other man.
If she had no son or other male relative, it would often end up being a scribe. And theoretically, I would be the responsibility of these scribes to ensure those widows were cared for and provided for. But, you know, my robe is getting awfully shabby. How ‘bout we just call it “compensation for my time”? I mean, really, by supporting me, you’re supporting the temple. Which is basically giving to God, right?
All these little scams and exploitations, hiding under the guise of “faithful generosity”. All those scribes and religious leaders who use their power not to protect the vulnerable, but to exploit them. To puff themselves up at the expense of others. At the expense of people like this widow. All happening, supposedly, in the name of God. And here this widow is, giving everything she has (her whole life!) to a system that is crushing her.
That’s not commendable. That’s tragic. And a gross abomination to the Lord. And Jesus will have none of it.
And as he gets up to leave the temple (we’ll read next week), he says to his disciples, “Do you see all this? All these massive stones and grand buildings? All this grandeur built off the back of the poor? It’s all coming down. Oh yeah, it’s all coming down.” The name of God will not be used to justify your greed or your arrogance or your unholy appetite for more and more and more. The Kingdom of God will not be built off the backs of the poor and vulnerable.
It’s all coming down. And in its place, the broken and shattered body of Jesus is laid as the new cornerstone. The body of Jesus, who takes the place of the weak and exploited. Who takes the place of the widow. Who gives everything to a system that crushed him. That killed him. And then destroyed it from the inside when he refused to stay dead.
And this new creation isn’t found in the halls of power or glorious monument, but in meals shared. In justice for the oppressed. In healing for the broken. In welcome for the stranger and mercy for the screw-ups. This new creation comes alive in love! God’s Kingdom comes alive in love!
And it won’t make you rich or powerful or important. No one is going to save a special seat for you. You know what, the world may not ever notice you! Who on earth would notice a destitute widow, putting a penny in the offering place?
But Jesus saw her. Jesus saw the Kingdom of God, come alive in her life. In that moment, in that offering, in that love, the Kingdom of God burst open!
That! That right there is the Kingdom!
And the world walked right on by.
But Jesus saw her. Jesus sees you. He sees the pain. He sees the struggle. He sees our poverty. Maybe of money, maybe just of spirit. Maybe just of hope. In all of who you are, Jesus sees you. And even more, he walks with you. And has torn down and flipped over the powers of this world for you! To make a place for you in God’s new creation.
And it won’t be built by us or by our magnificent achievements, but by the love of God at work. Chipping away at the stones of greed and apathy and fear. Until it all falls down. And all that’s left is love.
As Martin Luther once said, “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”
This is the love of God at work. This is the Kingdom of Heaven come near.
I had this goal, a dream, you might say, when I was 14, 15 years old. See, my goal was to save up enough money to buy my own car when I turned 16 and then be financially independent by the time I was 18.
I had a dream. I had a job. I had a plan. I just had no idea what I was talking about! And if I’m going to be honest, I had no idea what I was talking about for at least another 10 years! But that never stopped me from charging forward anyway!
Sometimes, most times, it’s only from the other side that you can see everything you couldn’t see before.
And that is the most charitable interpretation I can offer for James’ and John’s question to Jesus.
In their defense, they were with Jesus when he raised that little girl from the dead. And they were 2 of the 3 disciples that went with Jesus up the mountain at the Transfiguration. And they had seen Jesus heal people and walk on water and feed thousands with nothing but scraps. So given all that, they can sort of be forgiven for asking perhaps the worst timed question in the entire bible.
This is Jesus’ third, last, and most specific description of where this journey is going. It seems as if, by now, the disciples would be starting to get it. But…no. No, they’re not. All the evidence they want to look at points to a triumphant, glorious Jesus heading to Jerusalem to win! To smite their enemies and taking his place as king! The real king! The one they’ve been waiting for!
And Jesus does. It just doesn’t look like what they think it will. Because you can’t know what you can’t know. Their dreams of a triumphant, glorious Jesus are a lot like the dreams of a 14 year old, waiting for the glory of financial independence!
Turns out, it’s not exactly what I thought it was going to be like. And no matter how much my parents tried to clue me in, I just didn’t want to hear that. Because it didn’t line up with my vision of the way I thought things would be.
Jesus told them that greatness means service. That power is for giving away. That God’s glory is revealed in sacrifice and suffering. And the disciples want shiny badges and good feelings and the sweet taste of success. They want to ride to glory on the coattails of Jesus, one on his right, and one on his left. But as Jesus pointed out, they had no idea what they were asking for.
And you know, I wonder, when we say we want to grow, we want more members, we want to be bigger and better! Do we really have any idea what we’re asking for? Are our hopes rooted in some dream of the glorious Jesus who’s off to Jerusalem to win? Or the Jesus who goes to Jerusalem to die? Because even growth involves death. What will be is not what was. And until what was dies, what will be struggles to take root.
So are you sure you want to grow? How much are you ready to let die? Before you proclaim you want the church to be bigger, you better ask yourself how much pain you’re prepared for. Before you ask for a spot at God’s side, you better know where God is going. Because it’s not up.
The way of Jesus leads straight to the bottom. It is the way of weakness and vulnerability and service. It’s letting go of the delusion that we don’t need anyone or anything. The lie that the last one standing wins!
But there is no glory in standing alone. Ask any 97 year old who has outlived everyone they love. The last one standing is not so much glorious as it is lonely.
Before you ask for a spot at God’s side, you better know where God is going.
In the cross, Jesus stands with us, not at our best, but at our worst. He gives up power for the sake of love. Let’s go of control for the sake of relationship.
In the cross, Jesus joins himself to us, that we might know that we never stand alone, not even in death.
And this cross-shaped life is the same life that Jesus calls us to. And it’s not very glamorous. Not at all, actually. It’s messy and complicated and most days, it doesn’t look like much at all. It’s mostly, standing alongside people. Letting their joy be your joy. Sharing burdens to lighten everyone’s load. It’s looking at my neighbor and seeing my sister. My brother. My family. In all its dysfunctional and chaotic beauty.
But that’s the way of Jesus. Not what we want, but what we need. Not what we expected, but so much more.
The way of the cross is the way of life. Just not our life. This is God’s life.
If you were here on Ash Wednesday, then you heard the story, shortly before this one, of when Jesus was teaching his disciples what “greatness” truly is. And do to so, he pulls a young child into the middle of the crowd and says, “Whoever welcomes one such as this, welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” And today, we have the story of a rich man, approaching Jesus, asking what he ought to do. And when he can’t do what Jesus says, Jesus just lets him walk away!
And as I thought about these two stories back to back, I couldn’t help but think, “Well, obviously Jesus has never tried to grow a church!” Making way for kids and outsiders? Yes! Of course! But just letting the rich guy walk away?! I mean, come on! What are you thinking, Jesus? Sure, you talk about money and stuff. In vague generalities. The ‘power of money’ as a concept. ‘Wealth’ as a thing. But when it comes right down to it, when it actually comes to just letting the rich guy walk away? Well now. Let’s not do anything crazy. Surely we can figure something out, right?
But Jesus said, “Sell you stuff, give the money to the poor. The come, follow me.” And he couldn’t. So Jesus just let him, and all his money, just walk away. Didn’t even try to work with him. No meeting half-way. No compromising or looking the other way. Nothing.
Mark Twain supposedly once said, “Some people are troubled by the things in the bible they can’t understand. The things that trouble me are the things I can understand.” And this story today is one of those we can understand. It’s not a confusing parable or prophetic quote. It’s not vague or “multi-faceted”. It’s a guy with a lot of stuff, who is told to sell his stuff, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. And he can’t. So he leaves. He’s sad about that. But he’d rather be sad than poor.
And yeah, what Jesus tells him to do is hard and scary. But it’s not impossible. Some of the commands of Jesus, like “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul. And love your neighbor as yourself,” I just can’t. This side of heaven, my heart is to divided and fractured to do as Jesus says. Until the fulfillment of all things, it is impossible for me, for you, for anyone, to fulfill this command.
But some of what Jesus says is very possible, like sell your stuff and give the money away. People have done this. The disciples. Saints. Mother Theresa. So we know, we have very real (and pretty recent) evidence that it’s not impossible to do what Jesus says here.
We just don’t do it. Because we have done the cost/benefit analysis and would rather throw ourselves at the mercy of a forgiving God than risk losing what little stability it feels like we have.
I mean, really, isn’t that the truth? We can try to weasel and squirm and cajole and explain all we want. But Jesus said, “Sell your stuff, give the money to the poor, and follow me.” And here we sit with all our stuff. I’ve got a house full of it! We’ve got a church full of it! And I will tell you, I want to make it easier for you. Because that would make it easier for me. But I can’t. Jesus’ words are right there. And all I have to do is take a quick look around and know that we are convicted.
The good news, of course, is that God’s grace is real. And yes, God does forgive our failure. Salvation does not and never will hinge on our ability to get it right. Jesus never stopped loving the rich man, after all. Even when he walked away. But the danger of going to quickly to forgiveness is that we’ll miss the heart of what’s going on. Because when we just write this off as a test we inevitably fail, we miss the invitation.
Consider this – Jesus is met by a man seeking something more than he currently has. Looking for a type of life that is stronger even than death. Jesus invites him into exactly this kind of life, the kind of life he’s not going to find anywhere else, and he just…walks away.
So you tell me, who loses in this situation?
I do not believe that Jesus’ invitation to sell his stuff was a test. That Jesus was trying to trap him into feeling bad or guilty, or condemn the man simply for being rich. What if we consider that Jesus is actually sincere here? That perhaps he knows that we have an unhealthy and life-crushing relationship with our stuff?
I mean, consider how much time and energy and money goes in to taking care of our stuff. How much of our own identity is tied to our stuff. How much we define ourselves by what we own. Just imagine for a second that we did free ourselves from our stuff. How would that feel for you? Once you got past the shock, what would happen? I mean, can you imagine if we realized, as a congregation, that all we need to be the church is people, bread, wine, water, and a place to meet? Everything else is just stuff.
We are not defined by our building. Or by our stained glass. Or by our pipe organ. Just at you are not defined by your car or by your clothes or by where you live. Those are not the things that tell us who we are. The only thing that defines us is the promise we live under. The only thing that has the power to tell you who you are is the voice of God. That voice that speaks at your baptism and claims you as son, as daughter, as beloved child.
And over time, that voice can get drowned out by all the other stuff that fills our life. So Jesus invites us to get rid of it. Get rid of anything and everything that holds us captive. That lies to us about who we are and what we’re worth, and find real freedom in life with God.
And the truth is, most of the time, we will just walk away. Because it is hard. And it is scary. But it’s not a test. It’s an invitation. Because faith will not be forced. Love cannot be mandatory, or it’s no longer love.
So Jesus just keeps inviting. Keeps the door open. Keeps calling us into life with God. And when we walk away, God just keeps walking with us. All the way to the end, when all that’s left is all that we need. And we hear again our name, and the word of God speaks, “Welcome home…finally.”