To be seized by the living Lord is a fierce and a terrible and a beautiful thing. The sort of thing that one never really recovers from. Not really.
I mean, can you imagine it! Can you imagine the gloom of that first Easter morning. That long walk to the tomb, to offer the one, last, final gift that’s left to give. The least they can do is offer a proper burial, finish the process they didn’t have time for before Sabbath. He deserves at least that, right?
Imagine showing up, bracing yourself for such a tragic, final sign of love, barely holding in the waves of grief pounding at your chest, only to show up find that the door is wide open. And the place that’s supposed to have a body is taken up by a stranger, sitting patiently on the edge, almost as if he’s been waiting for you. And this stranger in white simply says, “Don’t freak out! You’re looking for Jesus, who was dead. But he’s alive now, and living people don’t belong in tombs. You better head on back home. He’s waiting for you!”
To be seized by the living Lord is a fierce and a terrible and a beautiful thing. And the reading says the women fled in silence. And can you blame them?! I mean, have you ever experienced something so extraordinary, so unexpected, that the only possible response was silence?
In my own life, I can tell you that I started to discern a call to ministry when I was 15, prompted by an experience I can only describe as a run-in with the Living God. And it was a profound experience. One that [clearly!] changed the course of my life. But I’m not exaggerating at all when I tell you that it took me nearly 2 years, 2 years!, to even be able to say the word “pastor” out loud.
And so when I hear about these women who fled, as the Greek reads, in “terror” and “ecstasy”, I don’t blame them! What’s remarkable is not that Mark’s gospel is the only one who records this “great silence”, but that the other gospels don’t!
To be seized by the living Lord is a fierce and a terrible and a beautiful thing. The sort of thing that one never really recovers from. Not really.
Forget your old way of life. It’s gone. God’s doing something new and you better believe it’s going to disturb you! And, as our gospel tells us this morning, Jesus isn’t waiting around for you to figure it all out, to get comfortable with what it all might mean.
Jesus has no intention of giving us time to sit around and ponder whether we believe in this sort of thing or not. He’s already on the move! It’s like a giant, holy game of “catch me if you can”! It’s why we call ourselves followers of Christ. We do not bring or create or form the Kingdom of God. We simply stumble into what God has already done and continues to do.
You know, it’s been said that the gospel of Mark is the most “Lutheran” gospel, simply because in the gospel of Mark, we hear loud and clear that, with or without us, God is on the move. God is at work transforming our hearts of stone into hearts of love. He is building the new creation, one life at a time, over and over again, until the fullness of time.
But make no mistake, the invitation and the call is clear. God may be on the move, but know, without a doubt, that God is doing this for you.
God has gone ahead for your sake. Out of such great love for you, God has gone ahead, has scouted out new territory, is building the new creation. And the call of Christ is to keep your eyes open. Because while the call of the Living God is impossible to ignore, it’s easy to miss. Because more often than not, the Kingdom of God hides in broad daylight, looking suspiciously like every day, ordinary things.
Bread. Wine. Water. Multiple people in the same room at the same time! Remember that?! But it’s more than that, too. The hiddenness of God is no less true outside the wall of the church. What the eyes of the old creation see as strangers walking down the street, or criminals locked behind bars, or families showing up at shelters or pantries, the eyes of faith see Christ himself.
The call of Christ is to keep your eyes open. Because while the call of the living God is impossible to ignore, it’s easy to miss. Because more often than not, the Kingdom of God hides in broad daylight, looking suspiciously like everyday, ordinary things.
But take heart. Wherever you find yourself going, go in faith knowing and trusting that God has gone before you. There is no corner of life or death that God has not preceded you, even into the tomb.
And God has gone ahead of you into new life itself, for you. God is building the new creation for you.
But consider yourselves warned. To really experience the depths of God’s love, to be seized by the living Lord, is a fierce and a terrible and a beautiful thing. The sort of thing that one never really recovers from. Not really. And thank God for that.
In some ways, Mark really is the least “theological” of the gospels. The other gospels, to varying degrees, do more to try and help “unpack” what Jesus is up to. They include more of Jesus’ teachings. They offer a little more explanation. They tweak things, just a bit, to not only tell us what Jesus did, but what it means.
Mark? Not so much. Mark seems content to just let the story stand on its own. As if, just by knowing the story, we will know what to do with it. And as a preacher, I find his restraint both inspiring and unsettling.
It’s hard as a preacher to know both what to say and when to stop. It’s hard to trust that the story on its own is enough. And I fully admit that says more about my own weak faith than it says anything about the story itself! But no where is Mark’s lack of commentary more obvious than in his telling of the crucifixion. (Well, ok, I take that back. Even worse than his crucifixion story is his resurrection story. Stay tuned for that!)
What does it mean that Jesus quotes Psalm 22? Is the centurion serious or sarcastic when he says, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”? What’s the deal with the temple curtain being torn in two? What does the crucifixion mean at all?
Mark, in true Mark form, isn’t telling. Maybe Mark just thinks it’s obvious. Maybe we’re just supposed to know. Or maybe, just maybe, even Mark doesn’t really get it. Maybe Mark leaves out the commentary because he doesn’t dare risk getting it wrong. And so, in an act of deep faith and great restraint, he simply tells the story, trusting that the story is enough.
Because the thing about stories is the more you know them, the more they become not just a story, but your story. I have books that I’ve read and re-read because something about them resonates with my life. I hang on to stories about my grandparents and great-grandparents not because I was there or even knew them, but because something about their story tells me something about my story.
Stories, the good ones, the ones that have some truth to them, work on our lives much like education or exercise. At the beginning, we do the work to learn or move, but over time, the learning and the moving start to change us. Change how we act or how we see or how we make sense of the world around us.
We may learn the stories, but soon it is the stories that are teaching us. That are forming us. Perhaps this is how Mark wants us to hear this story of Jesus, and all Jesus didn’t do in the midst of all that was done to him.
We learn through this story that at the end, Jesus was left utterly alone. His disciples, despite their lofty promises and even loftier ambitions, had completely abandoned him. His own people rejected and ridiculed him. Religious leaders turned on him. The political powers washed their hands of all of it. Even the other criminals, just as crucified as Jesus, mocked him.
And Jesus took it all and never turned back. Never changed course. Never returned evil for evil. Never held their broken promises against them. Never said, “I told you so.” Never condemned the ones that condemned him. Can you imagine? Can you imagine a life with that much clarity? Can you imagine a life so completely rooted in knowing who you are and what matters and what your life is about that not even death will change you.
You know, if there’s anything this global pandemic is highlighting, it’s how fragile so many things really are. And how quickly the ground can shift from right underneath you. As soon as we think we’ve figured something out, something else changes. As soon as we learn one new thing, we realize there are ten new questions without an answer. And the reality is, while we’re most likely in the worst of it right now, things probably won’t return to “normal” for quite some time. And even “normal” might never look the same. It certainly didn’t for the disciples.
But in the middle of all of it is this story of Good Friday. Of Jesus who did not and never does waver in his devotion to us, even when the cost of that devotion was death. Whose clarity in that one thing cuts through all the confusion and chaos of everything else. Whatever else was true, what was most true on that Good Friday was the certainty of God’s love for you. The truth of how much God was willing to give up to hang on to you.
Can you imagine? Can you imagine a life so clear in purpose and love that not even death will stop it?
Perhaps the invitation in this extended season of Holy Week is to allow ourselves to enter into the story. To see ourselves at the crucifixion and to witness the steadfast love of God that has already chosen you, no matter what broken promises or failed ambitions you bring with you.
This much is true. This much is clear. The story of Good Friday is your story. And whether you stay and watch like Mary Magdalene or hide and lie like Peter, Jesus stays the same. God’s love never changes. Can you imagine? Can you imagine a love so whole that not even death will stop it?
At my last birthday, my dad asked me how it felt to be 38 (you know, a very “dad” question to ask) and I told him not much different. My brain feels just as young as it ever did, but I told him I have started to notice that my body doesn’t seem to bounce back like it used to. And my dad, who has just a few decades on me, said it’s the exact same for him. According to his brain, he’s just as young and spry as any 22 year old. But his body disagrees pretty strongly! And I think about that every time I remember this line from Jesus, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak!” And ain’t that the truth. Our bodies are our weakness. But the easy trap to fall into is to think that that means it’s a bad thing.
I think there’s a pretty strong temptation sometimes to want to “spiritualize” faith. To see faith as just a “head” thing and not a “body” thing. Because our bodies are weak! They fail us all the time! They hurt. They get sick. They aren’t as fast or as strong or as flexible as we want them to be. Or think they should be! And one day, our bodies will even kill us.
And it’s such a strong temptation to want to get rid of the thing that holds you back. To get rid of our weakness. To see it as a burden rather than a gift. But the way of Jesus compels us to look at life a little differently. The way of Jesus, if we’ve got the gumption to follow, flips everything upside down and inside out.
It’s been said that one of the most important works of Jesus was to destroy the Empire. Not, the Roman empire, but all the Empires of the world that rally around the strongest in the middle. All the Empires that all too easily sacrifice the weakest and those on the margins to support that strong middle. And Jesus, rather than going to the middle, went to the margins. He became the weakest and most despised and drew us all to him right there. Not in the middle, but at the margins. Not in strength, but in weakness.
The work of God is revealed most fully not when Jesus is curing and feeding and teaching, but when Jesus is dying. And I know that’s all very theological and heady (see how easy it is to slip into “spiritualized” faith?), but the truth of it comes alive in very real ways right before us.
I think, by now, we are all well aware of the difference between being together in person versus gathering over the internet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for what technology allows us to do! But there is no substitute for gathering together in person. Being together in the body matters. You can just feel it.
The flesh may be weak, but it’s our bodies that allow us to connect with others. Our bodies are the ones that see and smell and hear and taste and touch. And it’s because our bodies are weak that we learn the grace and strength of needing one another.
Have you every noticed how hard it is to get to know someone who can never admit they are wrong? Who will never ask for help or say they don’t know? When all we show people is our strength, we shut ourselves off from real connection. The kinds of connection that make life better. That make life beautiful.
Weakness may be hard. And we may not like it. But that doesn’t make it bad. Because our bodies matter. They are more than just the thing that carries our brain around. They impact and affect every waking moment of our lives. And in this last earthly night of Jesus’ life, the gift he gave was not a new teaching or idea, but his body. His presence. The promise that, no matter what, Jesus would always be with us. And be with us in a way we could touch and taste and smell and see. Because it matters.
We come to know God not through lofty theological thinking, but through our life in our bodies. We learn love through the hands that have held us. We learn peace through the calm presence of others. We learn grace through the ones who show up when we need it. And we see God most fully in the broken body of Jesus, broken for each and every one of you.
The gift of Maundy Thursday is the gift of his body, received by this body, together. And I, for one, long for and pray for the day when we are together again to share that gift. And until then, may the presence of God sustain you in your faith, mind, body, and soul.
It was supposed to be an easy victory. I mean, all the signs were there. Everything was in place. What more did you need? Here was a guy who could defeat disease and demons. Who could feed thousands with next to nothing. Who could even bring people back from the dead! If he wasn’t the one who could drive the Romans out and restore the temple to glory, who could? Finally, the Messiah has arrived!
I mean, isn’t that what this is all about? Isn’t that what God is up to? What God has promised? So clear the path! Jesus is heading for the temple! Look out, kids! It’s about to get good!
Everything was in place. It all looked right. And then Jesus got there, looked around, and then went home. Because, you know, it was getting late…
How unbelievably anticlimactic! We threw a parade for that?!
You know, Mark, more than any other gospel I think, highlights just how misunderstood Jesus was. And not in that teen-age “no-one-understands-me” way, but in that “you-don’t-really-understand-God-at-all” sort of way.
And from this side of things, it’s easy to look back and wonder how they didn’t see it? I mean, let’s say Jesus did overthrow the Romans and liberate the temple. Then what? Another, bigger nation would eventually come in and fill the gap. Because power is like that. Power always seeks more power. It is an insatiable beast. Overthrowing the Romans might be the easy answer, but it’s not the answer that will actually save anyone. Not the answer that will actually last.
And from where we sit in history, it’s a lot easier to look back and ask, “Why couldn’t they see it?” But isn’t that human nature? Don’t we do the same thing? We look for the easy answer that doesn’t cost us anything. We hope, sometimes beyond reasonable hope, that that will be enough.
Three weeks ago, when faced with the beginning of a global health pandemic, I made the BOLD decision to change the way we do communion – from intinction to individual cups! And three weeks ago, I had hope that that was enough. That we could get away with the easy answer that didn’t really cost us anything.
I would imagine the disciples might look back on that Palm Sunday in the same way. With just a bit of bittersweet longing. “Do you remember when we thought Jesus was just going to ride into town and win? When we thought that would be enough? When we thought the answer would be easy and pain free?”
The people cried out, “Hosanna!” Save us. Wanting, maybe even expecting, to ride to glory on Jesus’ coattails. Save us, they cried.
And Jesus did. And Jesus does. But it cost him. It cost him everything. It turns out that salvation, the Kingdom of God come near, looks a lot less like victory laps around the temple and a lot more like a broken man, hanging from a cross.
We may long for those simpler days when we believed that easy answers that don’t cost us anything would be enough. But that’s not where we are right now.
You know, I’ve tried to maintain a fairly healthy sense of humor throughout all of this. And I’ll keep trying to laugh and find joy wherever I can. Because joy still matters. But we also need to name the truth of this time.
These are odd days. Unprecedented in our lifetime. And right now, and maybe for months or even years to come, we are being called to a different way of life. We are being called to lives of sacrifice. Not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors, too. We need each other in a way we have not for a very long time.
It’s hard to be alone. It’s scary to lose a job or close a shop. It’s exhausting to be stuck at home with kids, with no end in sight. But right now, that’s what love looks like. Sometimes love looks like sacrifice. Sometimes, love costs us.
And when the dust settles and we finally see the scope of the wreckage, not just in lives and health, but in livelihoods and hope, our call to service and sacrifice will only grow stronger. In this time our call is and will be to ask, “How can I carry this burden with you? What can I give?”
And the answer will cost us. It will cost us emotionally. Cost us physically. Most likely, even cost us financially. But the way of the cross is always a way with others. It is our life together.
On the cross, in his death, Jesus joined himself to us, to our death. And in our baptism, in that gift, we are joined to Jesus in his life. But in that “happy exchange” we are also joined to the whole body of Christ, to one another, to share this life together.
And to carry one another will cost us something. But it’s in the carrying, in the care, in the sacrifice that the Kingdom of God comes most fully alive.
Jesus’ parade to the temple didn’t end in a sweet victory lap, but in God’s most perfect sacrifice. In the cross, not in grand parades or military victories, that is where the love of God is revealed. And in our love, in our service, in our sacrifice for one another, that is where the love of God comes alive still today.
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.