God's own labor

Eli was an old priest back in the days when there were no kings in Israel. Eli was old and very heavy, so he spent most days sitting on a chair beside the doorpost of the sanctuary at Shiloh. His sons performed most of the priestly duties, they were the new generation in charge. But they were scoundrels. Not only did they steal the offering from the altar, they also slept with the female staff. Everybody assumed that they represented the future of Israel’s leadership. People talked; they complained; they were worried about institutional decline. But as far as people could see, things didn’t change at the sanctuary in Shiloh.

Hardly anyone noticed that Hannah who had been childless for years, was pregnant. Every day there was more news about the appalling actions of the sons of Eli, but change was in the cradle. Hannah had given birth to a boy, and she called him Samuel. And while the sons of Eli were rushing down the road of corruption to their fall, the son of Hannah grew in faithfulness. Hannah was singing for joy about the Lord God who brings low and exalts, who breaks the bow of the mighty and raises up the poor from the dust – Hannah was singing, and the house of Eli was promised a future of weeping. Big change was gonna come, and in the drama of the great reversal, old man Eli embodied a dying past, and Hannah the birth of new possibility.

Hannah was not the paradigm of youthful,  generative potential. She was childless, had been childless for years, which in the biblical imagination points to the larger context of human creativity having reached a dead end. The new beginning that was needed for God’s people to thrive and life once again to flourish, the new beginning would be God’s doing, a gift of divine creativity and faithfulness. Big change was gonna come, and it began with Hannah and Samuel who were God’s willing collaborators.

Our gospel reading today also is about big change, and it begins with the big eyes of one of the disciples. “Look, teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” The temple Herod had built covered an area of over 900 by 1,500 feet, and the front of the temple itself stood 150 feet tall and 150 feet wide. It was made of white stone, much of it covered with silver and gold, glistening in the sun – it had to be by far the most impressive building any of them had seen.

Jesus was not impressed. “You’re talking about all this? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Huge blocks of rock, walls that appear immovable, magnificent buildings – all of it will be thrown down.

Later when they sat on the hill opposite the temple mount, some of the disciples had a follow up question.  They didn’t ask, “Why?” or “How?” as though they knew the answer to those questions already. They were only wondering, “When?”

The disciples weren’t strangers to apocalyptic thought and language. Talk about destruction on a massive scale was not surprising to Jesus’ audience or to Mark’s first readers. It was a style of thinking that had given up on the possibility of meaningful reforms in public life in all its political and religious aspects. It was a style of thinking that developed among people with little power who wanted to hold on to the promises of God during generations of life under foreign occupation and with disappointed hope. According to that perspective on life, history, and God, things weren’t going well because a cosmic crisis was underway, and this crisis was meant to build up in a series of catastrophic events culminating in the end of the present age and the beginning of God’s reign. In the apocalyptic imagination, the announcement that “not one stone will be left here upon another” was a given – the burning question was, when would the present age crumble under the weight of evil and the righteous anger of God to give way to the kingdom of heaven?

“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Jesus responded, but he didn’t give them a date, a timeline or a list of signs, but a warning: “Beware that no one leads you astray,” he said to them, knowing that many would come in his name and speak without knowledge. “Do not be alarmed,” he said to them, reciting the familiar list of wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines, nations rising and falling that many interpreted as signs of the impending end and continue to interpret that way to this day.

Hamas shooting rockets into Israel and Israel responding with airstrikes, while the fighting in Syria continues and political solutions appear to grow more difficult and less likely – you know that there are plenty of people now with their noses in the Good Book drawing lines from the evening news to verses in Revelation and Daniel, soon to announce what will happen next according to God’s master plan.

Lamar Williamson calls them “date fixers” who “besides pretending to know more than the Son does, (…) often have little sense of responsibility for the world, whose destruction they await with fascinated detachment. In contrast to these, (…) Jesus speaks of responsibilities imposed by the master who left us in charge here” (Williamson, Mark, p.241)

When the disciples ask, “When?” Jesus responds, “Beware” and “Do not be alarmed.” He tells them to be cautious and courageous. He tells them that about that day or hour no one knows, only God. He tells them and us to continue to follow him on the path of faithfulness to God.

Yes, we will hear of wars and rumors of wars – and we will learn to respond to them in the Spirit of Jesus with the message and work of reconciliation. We will hear of great suffering, and we will learn to respond in the Spirit of Jesus with acts of compassion and justice. We will hear of the crumbling of institutions and ideas whose splendor and grandeur we admired only yesterday, and by the grace of God we will learn to respond in the Spirit of Jesus.

God’s future is not tied to the success or failure of religious institutions. The One whose name is above every name, and whose absence we now experience in all the broken places, will make his presence known in those very places with great power and glory. “When?” is the wrong question because it distances us from the presence of God in the world. “When?” is the wrong question because it keeps us from asking, “What is God doing now?”

Jesus’ response to the disciples suggests that God is in labor. He speaks of birth pangs. He suggests that much of the pain we experience because we love this broken world and long to see it made whole, is labor. Birth pangs, he says.  The fullness of life is not a distant reality but very near and already here, so now the question is not, “When?” but “Where am I?” Am I present to what God is doing now? Am I worried sick about the sons of Eli going about their corrupt business at Shiloh or am I playing with young Samuel, Hannah’s son? Am I losing sleep over the crumbling of institutions and ideas whose splendor I have come to admire and love over the years, or am I looking for the new life that is emerging in all this pain?

It is much easier to build new temples after the old ones have fallen, than to trust the labor of God and to entrust ourselves to it. But Jesus calls us to leave the fallen walls behind and to be on the road with him. “Beware that no one leads you astray,” he says, and we keep following, one step at a time. We may feel homeless for a while because what we thought was the very dwelling place of God turned out to be a heap of stones and rubble. We may have a hard time remembering his words about the foxes having holes and the birds having nests but the Son of Man having nowhere to lay his head, but we will let them call us back. In his company we will discover that our pain is God’s own labor and that new life awaits us. In his company we worship the God who breaks the bow of the mighty and lifts up the lowly, who loves the world and raises the dead. In his company we find the courage to keep going, to keep hoping, pushing.

Having said all that, I’d like to close on a lighter note, a much lighter note as a matter of fact. You couldn’t fail to notice that people have been buying Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Ho Ho’s like it’s the end of the world.

Well, it’s not. Do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is still to come.