sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian
Proper 28B/ November 18, 2012
In high school and college, I was an aspiring poet. I used to carry around a brown leather folder with a blue steno pad in it, and every day I would write at least one poem. As mediocre as most of my poems were, they did serve as a sort of prayer journal. Occasionally when I was feeling especially mopey, I would add to a multi-part, rambling, stream-of-consciousness poem called “Uncertainty and I.” I spent a lot of my youth being uncertain. I think I expected that to change. I’m not sure why.
I really disliked uncertainty then, and I dislike it now. Don’t you? I prefer to know how things are going to go: what time I’ll be home tonight, what my schedule looks like for the next week, and what I’ll be doing five years from now. Well, come to think of it, that’s never possible. But wouldn’t it be nice?
Maybe you have a higher tolerance for uncertainty than I do. But I think we all get anxious about it. If you’ve ever been between jobs, you’ll know what I mean. Or if you’ve waited on college applications, or anticipated a bad breakup, or watched as your job dissipated, or been wheeled into an operating room. It’s tough not knowing. It’s tough living in suspense.
Funny thing about suspense, though: many of us love it in movies and books and plays, as long as it’s not about us. When we can sit in suspense about someone else’s life, especially a fictional character, we actually enjoy it. But when it concerns us: “Don’t keep me in suspense.” We want things resolved, and for the good.
Today’s readings drip with an uncertainty that is almost unbearable. As we approach the end of the church year—this is the second to last Sunday—we can feel the end of all things approaching. From the apocalyptic vision of Daniel, to the psalm begging for God’s protection, it’s as if we’re ramping up to a climax. In the reading we just heard from Mark’s gospel, Jesus has entered Jerusalem to preach and to witness, apparently very aware that the time of his suffering is imminent. Throughout Mark’s account, Jesus’ speeches have grown lengthier and bolder. To say in public, “The Temple will someday be torn down,” might be a little like saying, in public, on the National Mall, “The time is coming when the United States will be overthrown.” Blasphemy. Don’t you remember 9-11? Have you no scruples, no patriotic pride? (No idea how to behave in the presence of uniformed national security officials?) But Jesus is not afraid.
His disciples, however, are afraid, and they clam up. Only afterward, when the group of friends is sitting at a safe distance, half a mile to the east on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple, do they squeak out, “Uh, Jesus, what were you talking about back there? I mean, we believe you—you’re the Messiah—but can we have a little warning, please? Don’t keep us in suspense.”
And Jesus answers in a funny way. He doesn’t tell them what end-times signs to look for, but what signs not to look for. The things you imagine to be signs, says Jesus, will turn out not to be signs at all. Uprisings, wars and rumors of wars, even earthquakes and, we might add, hurricanes are not indications of the end of the world. But they’re not meaningless, either. They are, as Jesus says, “the beginning of the birthpangs.”
What an odd expression—let’s unpack that for a moment—“the beginning of the birthpangs.” Are birthpangs a sign of the end? Well, for a mother who’s really sick of being pregnant, I suppose they could be interpreted that way. Remembering my wife Christy’s situation seven summers ago, I have heard that it’s difficult to live in the uncertainty of pregnancy, the in-between time when your body is changing and stretching and making you ill one moment and thrilled the next. If it’s your first pregnancy, maybe you wonder how you’ll survive it—kind of like the teenage me, with my daily poems, wondering how I would survive adolescence. Jesus is telling us that all of creation is pregnant. And that means not the end, but the beginning of something new, a new creation of God. Whatever that new creation might be, it will not be born without deep pain and struggle, and a whole lot of uncertainty.
Jesus was very politically astute: he knew a time would come when the Temple would be destroyed. It took about forty years, but it did happen. There was an uprising of the Jews which the Romans put it down brutally, overrunning the city of Jerusalem and eventually burning the Temple to the ground. Of course, Jesus was doing more than just making a geopolitical prediction. He was trying to shift his disciples’ focus. Jesus loved the Temple, and he hated to see it put to exploitative use. It’s one thing for people in authority to perpetuate injustice; it’s another to do it in a place that is supposed to be holy. This is what frustrated him most about the Pharisees: their hypocrisy and apparent lack of concern for God’s priorities—as if the ancient written laws of the Torah were higher than God Himself.
There’s another layer here, that of the gospel writer. Whoever Mark was, most biblical scholars think he was writing this earliest gospel right around the time of that Jewish uprising, around the years 66 to 70. In the way he framed Jesus’ words, he may have been telling the first Christians, “Yes, I know things are falling apart around our ears. Jerusalem may well be doomed. But these wars and rumors of wars are just the way the world works. It’s not news. The real news is the good news of Jesus, the Christ—the news I’m putting down in this book.”
The author of the letter to the Hebrews shares the good news with us in a different way—something that feels less like impending doom and more like a slow denouement. Here, we learn about the single, sacrificial, once-for-all offering of Jesus’ life, a proclamation that the battle is over, the enemy is defeated, and all that’s left is to make sure everybody has heard the good news. That’s a good antidote for all this uncertainty.
In faithful prayer, we find God’s saving grace to be a certainty, a shelter in time of storm. In the good news of Jesus Christ we can find relief from our doubts and fears. And that can make the inevitable uncertainties of life a little easier to bear. We no longer need God to take all our uncertainties away. As a matter of fact, in becoming human and living one day at a time with us, God has sanctified uncertainty.
So when you hear of wars and rumors of wars—and we are hearing our fair share right now, aren’t we?—when great institutions in all their ancient honor and credibility crumble to dust, when jobs disintegrate and businesses drown, we can still act boldly in faith. We know the story isn’t over.
Just weeks before his assassination in 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador said, “I don’t believe in death without resurrection.” Jesus has told us not to let death trouble us, because through the fog of uncertainty, something blessed this way comes.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews put it best: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Amen.