Sunday, November 18th

Pentecost 25

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

Prayer of the Day
Almighty and ever-living God, you anointed your beloved Son to be priest and sovereign forever. Grant that all the people of the earth, now divided by the power of sin, may be united by the glorious and gentle rule of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Greetings and welcome back to the Portico! I just got back from our congregational meeting held this morning (Sunday, November 11, 2012). We had a delightful exchange of ideas and concerns about our ongoing revitalization effort and I came away convinced that we have our priorities right. Our facilities, like our worship and programming, must be mission based and community oriented. There is a danger in becoming fixated on buildings-or anything else that draws us away from mission. In our gospel lesson, Jesus warns of destruction for a Temple that has become a center of profit for the clergy rather than a house of prayer for all nations. We need to keep in our hearts the words of the psalmist who calls us to put our trust not in the foundation of any human structure, but in the unshakable faithfulness of our God.

Daniel 12:1-3

There is no getting around it: the Book of Daniel is a strange piece of literature. It is usually classified “apocalyptic” as is the Book of Revelation. Both of these books employ lurid images of fabulous beasts and cosmic disasters to make sense out of the authors’ experiences of severe persecution and suffering. In the case of Daniel, the crisis is the oppression of the Jews under the Macedonian tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes whose short but brutal reign lasted from 167-164 B.C.E. Antiochus was determined to spread Greek culture to his conquered territories and to that end tried to stamp out all distinctive Jewish practices. He compelled his Jewish henchmen to eat pork-strictly forbidden under Mosaic law-and threatened with torture and death those who refused. Antiochus considered himself a god and was thought to be mad by many of his contemporaries. Antiochus’ most offensive act was his desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem with an altar to Zeus upon which he sacrificed pigs. Though many Jews resisted to the point of martyrdom efforts to turn them from their faith, others were more inclined to submit to or even collaborate with Antiochus.

The early chapters of the Book of Daniel tell the tale of its namesake, a young Jew by the name of Daniel taken captive and deported three hundred years earlier by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. This is Daniel of lions’ den fame. This and other stories about Daniel’s faithfulness in the face of persecution under King Nebuchadnezzar are retold in the new context to give comfort and encouragement to Jews struggling to remain faithful under the reign of Antiochus. It is as though the author were saying, “Look people, we have been through this before. We can get through it again.”

The latter chapters contain apocalyptic material that, like Revelation, has given rise to no end of speculation over what it might have to say about when the world will end. That concern, however, was far from the mind of the author of Daniel. His concern was with the present suffering of his people and sustaining them as they waited for a better day.

Our text for this Sunday comes at the conclusion of Daniel and constitutes about the only specific mention of the resurrection of the dead found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The author promises that “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever.” The “wise” are those who remain faithful to their God and refuse to submit to Antiochus’ demands to abandon their faith. They will shine eternally just as they shone in their faithful martyrdom. Some folks will awake from death to face everlasting shame. These are the ones who have given in to Antiochus and betrayed their faith. This punishment of everlasting shame for the unfaithful should not to be understood as hellfire or damnation. It is rather the shame of discovering that their lives have been lived on the wrong side of history. They cannot shine in the resurrection because they chose not to shine when they had the opportunity in life to bear witness to their God. Their punishment is having to live forever with the knowledge that in seeking to save their lives at the cost of their faith, they have wasted them. Perhaps that is even worse than hellfire.

The fiery ordeal faced by the authors of Daniel and of Revelation is hard for most of us to imagine. Yet in more subtle ways, I believe that disciples of Jesus are faced with decisions that require them to take a stand for or against Jesus. In a culture where outright lies are camouflaged as “negative campaigning,” “editorial opinion” and “advertizing puffery,” truthful speech is often unwelcome. It takes courage to be the only one to come to the defense of a person under group criticism. It requires uncommon (though not unheard of) valor for a high school student to take the risk of befriending the kid everyone else picks on. Even in a culture where being a disciple of Jesus is not against the law, following Jesus still means taking up the cross.

The good news here is that persecution, failure and even death do not constitute the end of the game. God promises to work redemption through what we perceive to be futile efforts to change a stubbornly wicked world. Lives spent struggling against starvation, poverty and injustice for Jesus sake will not have been wasted. Neither will be the dollars contributed to this good work. But what of the times we have buckled under social pressure? What of the many times we have denied Jesus? I am not sure Daniel can give us much help here, but Jesus surely can. We are spiritual descendents of the disciples who misunderstood Jesus, betrayed him, denied him and deserted him, leaving him to die alone. Yet when he returns from death and finds these cowardly disciples hiding behind locked doors, he says to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In other words, “get out there and shine!”  In Jesus we discover the God of the second chance-and the third and the fourth.

Psalm 16

Although perhaps edited and recomposed for use in worship at the second temple rebuilt by the exiles returning from Babylon, this psalm contains elements reflecting a very early stage in Israel’s history possibly dating back to the time of the Judges. As Israel began to settle into the land of Canaan, she struggled to remain faithful to her God even as she was surrounded by cults of Canaanite origin. The urgent dependence upon rain that goes with agriculture in semi-arid regions made the Canaanite fertility religions tempting alternatives to faith in the God of Israel whose actions seemed so far in the past. The prophets were constantly calling Israel away from the worship of these Canaanite deities and urging her to trust her own God to provide for her agricultural needs. The existence of “other gods” is not specifically denied in this psalm, but the psalmist makes clear that they have no power or inclination to act in the merciful and redemptive way that Israel’s God acts.

The psalmist opens his prayer with a plea for God to preserve him or her, but goes on to express unlimited confidence in God’s saving power and merciful intent. S/he has experienced the salvation and protection of God throughout life and is therefore confident that God’s comforting presence will not be lost even in death.

It is important to note that this psalm does not speculate about any “after life.” The notion of any sort of post death existence was not a part of Hebrew thought until much later in the development of Israel’s faith (See discussion of Daniel preceding this note). Yet one cannot help but sense a confidence on the part of the psalmist that not even death can finally overcome the saving power of God. It is therefore possible to say that the hope of the resurrection is present if only in embryonic form.

Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25

I have written at length in the last three posts about my take on Hebrews. I will not do so again here, but wish to call attention to what I believe is the practical takeaway: “24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:25 This is why we go to church. Being a disciple of Jesus is not a private matter. Compassion, generosity, hospitality and courageous witness do not come naturally. We need to be “provoked” to these acts. The preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ is just such a provocation. When we fully comprehend the generosity God has shown to us, we discover a newfound ability to be generous with one another. But generosity cannot be exercised in a vacuum. You need someone to be generous toward. You need people to forgive and people who can point out to you the sin you often fail to see in yourself-and forgive it. All this talk we have heard the last couple of weeks about Jesus being the final sacrifice for us; the only priest we will ever need and the temple wherein God’s saving presence can be experienced-it all boils down to this: go to church.

Now some might object to that as overly simplistic. Church after all is not a place we go, but a people we are called to be. True enough. Still, in order to be that people of Jesus, you need to meet together. You need to be in the presence of one another, serving one another, speaking the truth to one another in love and encouraging one another. You cannot be the church without going to church. If you continue in the book of Hebrews, you will note that chapter 11 constitutes a roll call of saints who have given their all for the Kingdom of God. The point? “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is before us…”  Hebrews vs. 12:1. This is all about encouragement. We all need that! We need to be reminded that we are not alone. We are walking a path well worn by the saints from Abraham and Sarah to the Apostle Paul. We are encouraged by their witness and supported by the prayers of a worshiping community that is there for us every week. Whether we are singing hymns, drinking coffee or standing side by side dishing up food for the homeless the Spirit is at work building the bonds that will hold us together on the day when all things are made new. So don’t neglect to meet together! Your presence with us on Sunday is more important than you know!

Mark 13:1-8

If you read last week’s post, you already know my take on this passage and that it relates back to the story of the widow’s offering in the treasury. Jesus speaks an uncompromising word of judgment upon the temple and its corrupt and corrupting practices. It is tempting to identify overly much with Jesus, as though, of course, had we been there we would have all been nodding in agreement. But for all pious Jews-which Jesus and his disciples all were-the temple was a precious gift of God. According to the scriptures, God “caused his name to dwell” upon the temple in Jerusalem. It was the symbol of God’s gracious presence for the people Israel. Upon dedicating the first temple, King Solomon prayed: “I have built thee an exalted house, a place for thee to dwell forever.” I Kings 8:12. Understandably, then, Israel treated the temple with great awe and reverence. The prophet Jeremiah was put into the stocks over night and beaten for suggesting that God might allow the temple to be destroyed. One of the charges against Jesus at his trial was a claim that he had threatened the temple with destruction. An attack on the temple was viewed as an attack on Israel’s God.

Yet Solomon also uttered these cautionary words: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!” I Kings 8:27. God in God’s love for Israel chooses to dwell in the temple she has made. But God will not be confined there. Neither the temple nor its elaborate worship can be used to manipulate God. Nor are maintenance of a building and adherence to ritual substitutes for faithfulness to the commandment of love for God above all else and for one’s neighbor as one’s self. The temple is God’s gift to Israel, not Israel’s handle on God. What God gives, God can and will take away when it becomes a substitute for faithfulness and obedience.

As I have said many times before, it seems to me that we are facing a time of transition for the church. The demographics indicate that we protestants on the East Coast will soon be a much smaller, much poorer church in terms of numbers and dollars. For many of us who have become accustomed to doing church in a particular way, that is about as threatening as the destruction of the temple for Jesus’ contemporaries. I think that for many folks, a church without real estate holdings and sanctuaries, a church without a national office and a host of agencies, service organizations and professional leaders, a church without a nationwide network of bishops, seminaries and professional clergy is simply not church. We think we need all of this to be church, but that surely is not what God needs and may not even be what God desires. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that the edifice we call the ELCA will be reduced to rubble so that not one stone of it will be left upon another.

OK. Before you jump all over me, let me confess that I do not know this to be the case. Perhaps God plans to renew protestant churches in the United States. Perhaps we will see people flowing back through our doors and the ELCA as we know it will experience a robust institutional future. God does not consult with me on these matters. Consequently, I did not preface any of this with “Thus saith the Lord.” But here is what I do know: It takes only a couple people, the Bible, some water and a little bread with wine to make a church. That is all.  Of course, it is preferable to have a roof over your head when you meet. Seminaries producing learned preachers and teachers are great to have. Leadership and accountability for congregations is important, too. Large scale ministries addressing hunger, injustice and environmental concerns are swell, if you can support them. I do not suggest for one moment that churches should impoverish themselves. All the extras I have mentioned are gifts to be received with thanksgiving. But for all the wonderful things they accomplish, they are extras. We can lose them all and still be the church. The greatest danger for us lies in our believing that the extras are essential. When that happens, we cease to be the church and become simply a social service agency. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a social service agency. But that is far, far less than the embodiment of God’s reign to which Jesus calls us.

The destruction of the temple turned out to be good news. The church was forced to rethink its mission and articulate in new ways its faith in Jesus’ coming in glory. A new and vibrant Judaism rooted in synagogue worship and the internalization of Torah emerged following Rome’s invasion of Jerusalem. What seemed then to be the death throes of an ancient hope for salvation turned out to be the birth pangs of a new age. So I believe this passage from the Gospel of Mark is a message of hope for believers in every age. In the midst of “wars and rumors of wars,” earthquakes, famines and hurricanes, and the end of a lot of what we know and love, God is doing a new thing.

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