This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.
It’s almost always a dangerous thing to mention presidential politics from the pulpit. At no time in recent history has this been truer than it is right now, when sanity and civility are so conspicuously absent from all ends of the political spectrum in our country. I sometimes fear that our centuries-old commitment to a democratic government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is quickly degenerating into a spectator sport where each side cheers for their favorite team and boos at the other side whenever they score a goal. Accordingly, I will choose my words carefully. I begin with a disclaimer: this is not a sermon about presidential politics, nor is it a political speech that should be misconstrued as an endorsement or denouncement of any particular party or candidate. I’ll be using some of the buzzwords that factored highly in the last presidential election, but I do so in order to draw attention to the words themselves, not to the people with whom those words were associated.
Now, with that awkward business aside, the buzzwords to which I want to draw your attention are hope and change. We heard a lot about hope and change in 2008. Some people got really excited about those words. They liked the idea that things could somehow be different (i.e. better) than they already were in this country. In the years since then, some of the people who were initially excited have begun to feel frustrated because things still seem to be pretty much the same as they were before. We’re still living in the same country with the same old problems. This frustration has led other public figures to ask (cynically), “Hey America, how’s all that hopey-changey stuff working out for you?” The hard lesson that people are (re)learning is this: without real change there is no real hope. And the change necessary to inspire hope is beyond that which any political candidate, party, or ideology can offer.
In the absence of real hope, there are basically two responses that people can make. First, they can jump on board the bandwagon with whatever big idea comes along next with flashy presentation and inspirational rhetoric. Like bumblebees, they float from flower to flower, collecting whatever small grains of hope they can find to sustain their meager faith in the system. Second, people can give up hope entirely. They can sit back and cynically fold their arms saying, “Nothing ever changes. Just give me what is rightfully mine and then leave me alone.” I would argue that neither of these responses is wholly adequate to ease the pain we feel when our hopes are frustrated (in life as well as politics). There has to be another way to preserve hope, even when our favorite human institutions have failed us.
The earliest Christians, just as much as (if not more so than) us, lived in a time of extreme political tension and unfulfilled hopes. The land of Judea was occupied by the Roman Empire. The people longed for some sign of hope that things might someday be different, but they were divided amongst themselves over what that hope should look like. Some Jews, like the Zealots, picked up swords and sought to take back their homeland with divinely inspired military might. Other Jews, like the Sadducees, worked with the Roman government to maintain order and preserve whatever religious and cultural freedoms they could.
Eventually, these tensions came to a head in the year 66 when war broke out between the Jewish people and the Roman Empire. The government dedicated itself to crushing this rebellion and eventually did so with its might as a military superpower. The ultimate symbol of Jewish defeat came in the year 70 when the Roman forces invaded Jerusalem and their sacred temple, the ultimate symbol of their national and religious life, was burned to the ground.
It was around this same time that Mark’s gospel was first written. The Christian Church was just emerging as an independent movement within Judaism. Christians wondered among themselves, “What should we do? Should we fight the Romans or try to work with them? Should we put our hope in each new self-proclaimed revolutionary leader that comes along or throw our hands up and admit that nothing (not even God) can defeat military juggernaut of the Roman Empire?”
The author of Mark’s gospel saw both of these options as deficient. Neither the false hope of revolution nor the cynicism of collaboration embodied a faithful response to the very real hope that was made manifest by God in Christ. So the author of Mark’s gospel made sure to include in chapter 13 of this book a particular story about Jesus that might provide some helpful guidance for the Christian Church in that day.
It begins as Jesus and his disciples were walking out of the great Jewish temple one day. One of the disciples stopped to admire the architecture of the building. Jesus responded in words that would ring eerily true to the Christians in Mark’s day, who would see this very thing happen in their own lifetime: “Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus said, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
He was speaking of the temple of course, the cultural icon and center of religious devotion. Jesus’ own ancestors had fought and died to preserve everything for which it stood. How could he, a Jew, speak so glibly about its destruction? He didn’t stop there either. He went on to speak so insightfully about the coming crisis that some later regarded his words as a prophetic prediction. Instead of glorious victory and freedom, he spoke of war, earthquake, famine, and persecution. What’s even worse is that Jesus then told his followers to do the exact opposite thing that their brave and faithful ancestors had done when Israel was threatened. “[W]hen you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be,” he said, “then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.” In other words, Jesus ordered them to run and hide rather than stand and fight to protect that which their nation held most dear.
How could Jesus be so offensive toward his patriotic Jewish audience? The answer lies in verse 26 of the passage we read this morning. He makes reference to “’the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” This would have been a familiar image to his educated Jewish audience. This phrase is taken from the book of the prophet Daniel. In 7:13, Daniel describes “one like a human being (i.e. ‘son of man’) coming with the clouds of heaven.” According to the vision, God would one day take the corrupt and destructive empires of this world and place them under the authority of this human being (son of man). The powers that be would be divinely transformed and made to serve real human interests rather than their own animal-like greed. Real change was bound to happen in this world, not because of violent revolution or political cunning, but because God wills it. God will establish true “liberty and justice for all” regardless of what goes on in the halls of power. The temple could be destroyed and the battle lost and God would still see this vision through to its fulfillment. This is the source of Jesus’ hope. It is a prophetic vision embedded deep within his Jewish heritage. It transcends ideology, victory, even history itself. Prophets and visionaries in every age have held onto this inexorable and eternal vision. Many have laid down their very lives because of its promise. Dr. Martin Luther King reiterated its core principle when he said, “The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Archbishop Oscar Romero proclaimed, “If they kill me I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.” Jesus himself willing went to his cross while trusting in the final victory of God’s vision over the powers that be.
Change is coming, therefore there is hope. Real change, lasting change, God’s change. It won’t come through any particular candidate, party, or ideology. It won’t come through military might or violent revolution. It won’t come about through our diligent plans or valiant efforts. God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We pray for this and proclaim our faith in this vision every Sunday. Jesus had faith in this vision. He was willing to stake his life on it. That’s why the thought of Jewish defeat or the temple’s destruction didn’t bother him that much.
The author of Mark’s gospel was impressed with Jesus’ faith in God’s ultimate vision. The early Christians needed that faith as well. The Church needed an anchor that would hold them steady while the storms of war and persecution blew over the deck of their boat. If they cut the line, they would drift and drown with their neighbors. So it was that the early Christians took these words to heart and refused to fight in defense of Jerusalem or the temple. They ran for the hills when the invasion came. This was an unforgivable sin to their Jewish neighbors. Christians were branded as cowards and traitors within the Jewish community. Relations had been strained up to that point, but from then on, Christianity was cut off from the rest of Judaism.
As we meditate on these events this morning, we find ourselves at the first Sunday of Advent. Thanksgiving and Black Friday have passed and so we now begin our preparations for Christmas. For most people, this takes on a decidedly nostalgic tone as Bing Crosby dominates the radio waves. There is a lot of talk about “peace on earth”, “the light of the world”, and “hope”. But we start this season on an intentionally apocalyptic note. We know that hope cannot exist without change, yet we know that change is coming, therefore we have hope. None of the powers that be in Washington or on Wall Street can claim to be the fulfillment of God’s vision, yet neither can they stop God’s vision from being fulfilled.
In the absence of real hope, people tend to embrace false hopes or else bitter cynicism. I believe that Jesus offers us a third way. We can hold onto hope that transcends the fleeting promises of ideology and history. We can live as prophets of hope in a hopeless world. Like Jesus, we can look deep into the heritage of our faith and cling to God’s vision of a world that can be changed… that will be changed.
There is currently a beer commercial on TV that features “the most interesting man in the world”. At the end of the advert he looks into the camera and says, “Stay thirsty, my friends.” As he said to them, so I say to you: Stay thirsty, my friends. I can think of no better way to sum up the call to action that arises from Jesus’ vision of hope and change. While other people are dying of their thirst for hope and cursing the sky in cynicism, I say to you, “Stay thirsty, my friends.” While others around you are desperately trying to slake their thirst for hope with things that will only lead to more despair, I say to you, “Stay thirsty, my friends.” Stay thirsty for hope. Stay thirsty for change. It’s coming. God will not let us down. “Stay thirsty, my friends.”