"My Psychologist says he's Post-Church" a sermon based on Mark 13:32-37 by Joe Ellis on Nov. 29
This sermon is going to be somewhat of a thought experiment. What I would like to do is ask what would happen if Jesus was addressing us with a similar Word of prophecy which He spoke to His disciples. Like the other passages that we’ve been hearing over the past several weeks, in this passage, Jesus is addressing His disciples with a very specific prophetic word. What would it be like if Jesus used the pandemic to address us with a very similar prophetic Word. So, what I’d like to do is first look at this word spoken in its original context, and then ask — “what if Jesus were speaking this Word to us today?”
I might get a bit of a groan in looking at the original context because it’s the same context that we’ve been talking about for the past several weeks. But that’s the nice thing about zoom, I can’t hear the groans. In the past several weeks we’ve been looking at Parables from Matthew 25, which seamlessly connects to the previous chapter where Jesus is warning His disciples of the impending destruction of the temple. He says that the destruction of the temple is a sign that He, the Son of Man, has been enthroned by God. Chapter 13 is Mark’s version of the same thing. Like Matthew 24, Mark 13 starts with the disciples standing outside the temple saying, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What a magnificent building!” Jesus then says, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” The disciples then ask, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign they are all about to be fulfilled?” Throughout the rest of the chapter, Jesus is explains what the signs will be of when the temple’s destruction is about to happen. Nations will war against one another. There will be earthquakes, famines, plagues. The disciples will be handed over to local councils and flogged in the synagogues. They’ll stand before governor and kings. The Gospel will expand to the farthest reaches of the known world. In doing so the disciples will be brought to trial. Families will betray one another. We hear about these sorts of things unfolding throughout the book of Acts, as well as in early church history. Yet those things are not the sign that the temple’s about to be destroyed. They are the prelude, the birthpangs, the events leading up to the temple’s destruction. Jesus warns his disciple that there will be a sign, which he calls it the “abomination that causes desolation” (Mark says, let the reader understand… wink, wink, nudge nudge — in other words Mark doesn’t feel safe to spell it all out, but lets the reader figure it out for themselves). Luke doesn’t think that his readers are as smart, so he spells it out. Luke says, “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near.” In other words, when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you know the day has come and Jerusalem is about to be pummelled and the temple destroyed. When you see that, Jesus says, “Run! Flee! Then you will know that the time has come — the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, the sign of God’s judgment on Israel and its leaders, is at hand. That’s why Jesus said, “keep watch,” and “stay awake”, you do not want to be caught off guard. This all happened in 70 AD.
Jesus then begins speaking of what’ll be happening in heaven at the moment of the temple’s destruction. On earth, the disciples would only be able to see death and destruction. If they were in heaven at that time, Jesus says this is what they’d see: “At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great glory.” Again, this is a throwback to Daniel 7. In Daniel 7, the ‘place' where the Son of Man is coming to is the Heavenly throne room. What Daniel describes takes place in heaven. Daniel 7 reads like this: “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, and all peoples, nations should serve him.” This scene takes place in heaven. Jesus is saying the destruction of the temple on earth will be the sign that in heaven He has been enthroned by God. Jesus says when this happens Son of Man will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. This points to the great missionary activity that will take place with Christ on His throne. Finally, in verse 30, Jesus makes abundantly clear that he’s talking about events are soon to take place for his disciples. Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Jesus did not get his timeline wrong.
Then Jesus goes on saying no one knows the day or the time when all this will happen… That’s the context of the passage we heard this morning. No one knows about that day or the hour… Jesus hasn’t changed topics — he’s still talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and it’s the temple. For that reason, Jesus warns his disciples to be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. Jesus says, “Keep watch! For you do not know when the owner of the houser will come. Jesus says, what I say to you I say to all, “keep awake!” Jesus had very good reason for telling the disciples to keep watch. The events which he foresaw would be some of the bloodiest in the nation’s history. “Keep watch,” Jesus said, “I do not want you to come to such an end.” Church tradition tells us that the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem did keep watch. They saw what Mark described as the abomination that causes desolation, they saw Jerusalem surrounded, and they fled to a place called Pella, where they avoided the grim and gruesome fate of those who stayed in Jerusalem.
A few observations. Jesus is calling his disciples to a different way of being than called for by the two dominant narratives at the time. Jesus does not call the disciples to be like the high priests or Sadducees who tried to make the best of Roman occupation and cozy up to the Romans. Nor does Jesus call the disciples to be like the Pharisees or the Zealots, the ones who were gnashing their teeth against Rome, the ones who longed to overthrow Rome and bring about the Kingdom of God through violence. In fact, it was those same zealots who incited the Roman army to surround the city and utterly destroy the temple. Jesus calls his disciples into a different way of being — Jesus calls them to be His disciples.
Note something else that’s happening: Jesus is prophesying that the central symbol of the people and their religious life would be destroyed. Remember how Mark 13 begins, with the disciples commenting on the temple’s beauty and grandeur. They must’ve thought, “Certainly this will last forever. Certainly God would never allow anything to happen to our precious temple.” Yet Jesus prophecies its destruction would become a reality within a generation: “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” The heart of their identity will be destroyed. The most constant reminder of their special relationship to God shall be torn down as a sign of judgment.
Now, that’s the original context of this passage. Let’s just do a little thought experiment and ask “what if Jesus were speaking these words into our context.: I want to be clear — this is just an experiment. I am not prophetically saying that what is happening today with COVID is a judgment against the church… this is simply a “what if?”
Here we are, having a worship service through Zoom. We have about half the people who’d normally attend church present. Our provincial health officials have put out an order prohibiting us from meeting publicly. Temporarily closed doors are not quite the same as the smoking rubble of the temple after being flattened by Rome. But what if? What if they aren’t that far apart? Nearly every church across the province is empty today — what if God were sending a message like Jesus did when he said every stone would be torn down? The temple was no longer serving its God-given purpose and was flattened. What if God is giving us the same message? Are empty churches throughout the Province a sign of what’s to come? The church in Canada has not faired well over the past 80 years. In 1945, Sixty percent of our population was attending weekly worship services. By the early 2000s we’re down to twenty-five percent. A CBC article from 2019 said that in the next decade roughly 9,000 religious spaces are estimated to close. This is roughly a third of all faith owned spaces in Canada. Now, a forecast from the CBC is not the same as a prophecy from Jesus. Yet, we don’t need an article citing statistics telling us that people are leaving our churches. Many of us have those stories within our own families. If we imported Mark 13 into Advent 2020, would Jesus say the closed doors of our churches throughout the nation are symbolic of the thousands of churches that will close within a generation? Is being deemed a non-essential service by the province symbolic of the way thousands of people who’ve left the church have long ago deemed the church a non-essential service? Is COVID just accelerating the decline of an already declining institution?
Remember how in Jesus’ day the zealots and chief priests would and did have huge disagreements over how to respond to the threat of Rome. The zealots wanted to fight, the chief priests wanted to cooperate with Rome and make the best of it. Jesus did not embrace either option. What if the answers the church needs won’t come from the zealots or the chief priests — but rather from disciples of Jesus Christ. Far more than answering how we should respond to COVID, the church, our church needs to enter a time of deep and intentional searching for what it means to be a disciples of Jesus Christ in the 21st Century. Sometimes when we preach to those outside the church we can sound like a salesman trying to sell a solution to a problem people don’t think they have. So we go where we are wanted, and we preach to ourselves, we have Bible Studies for ourselves, we hang out with ourselves (that’s not all we do, but its a lot)— and sometimes, maybe often, people in the church don’t even find our solutions to be working. When that happens, they leave. Our most pressing question is not how to respond to COVID. Our most pressing question is to discern how to truly be the church! How to be hands and feet of Christ for a hurting, broken culture where the church’s old ways of being no longer convince. Our most pressing question is to discover how God intends to address and heal our own deep brokenness, and how God will use his people to address the brokenness in the lives of our friends and neighbours. This is not a kinda important need the church needs to address. Our empty churches this morning are symbolic of what will happen if we put off answering the question of how is God calling us to be disciples in the 21st Century — we must be different.
Yet the Kingdom of God is not in trouble. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem way back in 70AD was not a sign that the Kingdom of God was in trouble. It was its fulfillment. Christ is on His throne, his Kingdom will prevail.
Armed with that truth, we must ask hard questions. We must ask whether our current way of being church actually empowers us to carry out of the great commission, or if it gets in the way. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded.” Is the Holy Spirit working through our current way of being church to make and grow disciples? Is our way of doing church helping us to become more Christ-like? Are we Christ like enough to address our neighbour’s deepest worries, guilt, shame, fear, loneliness, addictions, and sin? Are we equipped to address those needs in ways that will actually be experienced as good news?
Perhaps through COVID restrictions, God is saying no. Our way of doing church is not leading to life. Perhaps he’s closed our doors temporarily as if to say, change your ways or wake up and smell the coffee. Jesus says: Wake up!
The Kingdom of God is not in trouble. Christ is on the throne. He will not let his Kingdom flounder. Yet His kingdom is not dependent on the state of our churches. He will receive honour and praise and glory from all nations. That much is indisputable. So we are free to dream, experiment, and discover new approaches to being the people of God. This is the time to wake up.