Sermon for Trinity XXIII – Proper 28
St. John’s – Moultrie, GA
November 15, 2009
Several years ago a friend of mine gave me a copy of a teaching that The Rev. Dr. N. T. Wright gave at a church in Minneapolis, MN, after she discovered that I was a fan of Dr. Wright. As you might imagine if you’ve ever read any of Tom’s writings that the topic of his lecture was on the historical Jesus. He has been one of the most fervent supporters of the traditional teachings when addressing the question ‘Who was Jesus?’ or ‘Who is Jesus?’ as opposed to what I believe to be the heretical positions put forward by the Jesus Seminar and the likes of Marcus Borg and others. We’ll save a discussion of the Jesus Seminar for another day, but in the lecture that Dr. Wright presented, I came away with a description and interpretation of this morning’s Gospel that I think might help us all.
Passages like the one we just heard from St. Mark, sometimes called the little apocalypse, most likely gives us pause, and I’m sure we’ve been tempted to ask the question, “How do I understand what I’ve just read?” What is Jesus talking about when he speaks about a tribulation, and the sun being darkened, and the moon not giving off her light, and stars falling from heaven, and the powers of heaven being shaken, and the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory?
This is one of those passages of Scripture where we are actually required to use our brains, and think, and listen to the Spirit, and trust Him to discern what we are to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. This is one of those places where we really must understand the concept of multiple genres of biblical literature. As we know, the Bible is a collection of 66 books written as history, poetry, wisdom literature, parables, apocalyptic, visions, letters – I’m sure others could be mentioned as well. So in our passage from Mark 13, what are we working with? For some strains of Christianity, this passage is to be read as a literal sequence of events that either took place in the past, or will take place in the future. They see these events in an almost George Lucas or Steven Spielberg type fashion, and try to envision what that might look like.
Let me make a side note here. Please don’t hear me saying that I don’t believe that God isn’t fully capable of ordering all of these things to occur in the exact order that Jesus declares according to His Divine Providence. He absolutely can and could do so at any time that He desired. End of side note.
However, I find the explanation that N. T. Wright gives about this passage to be most helpful in gleaning what our Lord wishes us to hear.
“We need to learn how to read apocalyptic. One of my colleagues at Oxford used to put it this way in his lectures. If we read a Jewish text which says that the sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon will be turned into blood, and the stars will be falling from heaven, we know as a matter of genre that the next line will not read the rest of the country will have scattered showers and sunny intervals. This is not a cosmic weather forecast.”
Dr. Wright went on to tell the story about a cover picture on either a Time Magazine or The Economist that came out after the mid-term elections during the Clinton presidency, and the picture showed a piece of earth that had opened up with a great fissure with Bill Clinton stuck down in the chasm by his elbows and the title read, “Large earthquake in America, one president hurt.”
We use imagery like earthquakes, and we speak of earth shattering events to describe things of a cataclysmic nature – in an oxymoronic sense to prove our point. This cover uses imagery to refer to political events in order to explain their significance. If someone came across that magazine cover in 1,000 years, we would certainly hope that they didn’t really believe that there was a literal earthquake in Washington D.C. sometime toward the end of the 20th Century in which President Clinton was literally injured.
“In this passage that we heard this morning, our Lord is speaking about a time of great tribulation at the heart of which Jerusalem and the Temple will be destroyed and He as the prophet who has warned about these events will be vindicated. And the language of vindication is taken straight out of Daniel chapter 7 which is the Old Testament lesson that we will hear next Sunday.
When we look to the events of Good Friday through Easter, most of those very things which Jesus spoke of in our Gospel this morning did in fact come true.
All three Synoptic Gospels state that from the sixth hour until the ninth hour, while our Lord hung upon the cross, darkness covered the entire land. St. Luke goes so far as to say that the sun’s light failed. All three Synoptics record that the Veil of the Temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom. The word for torn there has a connotation of being forcefully rent in two. This veil was the large curtain which was the barrier in the temple into the Holy of Holies. The only person allowed into this region was the High Priest, and only once per year on the Day of Atonement when he would make the sacrifices for the nation. Think about the significance of this barrier being ripped open.
Matthew records that after Jesus’ death, “the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city appearing to many.”
Matthew and Mark both record that the centurion who stood beside the cross declared that Jesus was the Son of God after witnessing what took place on that Friday afternoon almost 2,000 years ago.
Look at the way that Jesus describes the earth shattering events, both figuratively and literally, which would in fact happen to him. No, Jesus does come floating down to earth on a fluffy white cloud, but he bursts open the gates of hell, conquers the powers of sin and Satan, and establishes a way for everyone to enter into the saving embrace of His Heavenly Father. He established a means for us continue to receive the grace He intends for us in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.
We heard in our Collect this morning that our Lord has caused ALL Holy
Scripture to be written for our learning. Our church has certainly gotten itself into all kinds of trouble by missing that one word ALL. All of Scripture is given to us for our instruction, teaching and learning. It is given for us to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest so that we might both embrace and hold fast that blessed hope of everlasting life. It is given to us so that we might have ears to hear and eyes to see all that God has in store for us both in this life, and in the life that is to come.