Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

This has been such a monumental week. Some might call it apocalyptic. So much so that I considered throwing my whole sermon aside to so we could consider and be in prayer for all those affected.

No – I’m not talking about the fact that Stanford beat the seemingly unbeatable Oregon Ducks.
No – I’m not talking about the exciting news that last night at midnight, Nintendo launched its much awaited Wii U gaming system.
And No – I’m not talking about how People Magazine passed over both Javier Bardem and Idris Elba for sexiest man of 2012.

The thing that tempted me to throw over the whole sermon is the tragic news of the death of the Twinkie.

The internet exploded with the news. It dominated both local and national broadcasts. And all manner of social media was a-Twitter with nostalgic remembrances. Nothing ratchets up communal grief like the death of a cultural icon like Hostess and the Ding-Dongs, Ho-Hos, Cupcakes, Snoballs, Fruit Pies and yes, Twinkies which for decades have been packed in lunches, snacked on after school and fried up and put on a stick at many a state fair.

Together with the “looming fiscal cliff”, the devastation in Israel/Palestine, the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Sandy, and the continued rhetoric around the reelection of President Obama, the way we talk about these seemingly massive cultural shifts is enough to make many wonder if maybe the Mayans got it right and 2012 is in fact the End of the World as we Know It.

It turns out that this feeling of apocalyptic doom is not new. And in spite of the many passages in our scriptures that tell us not to worry, not to fear, even Jesus’ disciples got caught up in the prevailing anxiety of their day and wanted him to tell them the meaning of what they were experiencing. They knew that monumental things were unfolding. They saw that Jesus’s return to Jerusalem wasn’t going they way they had hoped. And they were understandably worried about what they would do without his guiding presence in their midst. Let’s listen in to Mark’s telling of this moment.

Mark 13:1-8
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

The first time I preached on this text was the first Sunday of Advent in 1999 in Falling Waters, West Virginia – a bedroom community of Washington, D.C. It was two years before 9/11, long before the nearly 12 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, long before the devastating Tsunami in Asia and before hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike and Sandy. At that time something else was looming – the dreaded Y2K. Remember that? Were people here as nervous about that as they were in the DC Metro area?

With so many people employed by government agencies, many related to national defense, those folks were quite anxious. The question in everyone’s mind was: what will happen to all our computer-based lives when the calendar ticks over? Will it be – to quote REM – the end of the world as we know it?

We’ve seen this pattern throughout history. Prophets and televangelists, crusaders and priests, saints and sinners of every variety have pointed to major world events as signs of the end. False messiahs of our recent past include such luminaries as Kaiser Wilhelm, Adolf Hitler, Lenin, Emperoro Hirohito, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Sadam Hussien, Osama bin Laden, and most recently, those who predict that with the reelection of President Obama, God is going to judge our nation. Even now, many in this country are turning their attention to 12/21/12 – a date on the Mayan calendar – could this be the apocalyptic moment??

Those who are watching and waiting, even hoping for end of the world might not be totally off the mark (lunatic tyrannical world leaders notwithstanding). War, famine, child slavery, hurricanes, tsunami, economies crashing, more homeless, more depression, more incurable disease.

Yet even a cursory glance over the centuries, the millenia of written history reveals that these kinds of “warning signs” come in every generation. In Mark’s community, the list of signs Jesus speaks of can be connected directly to the horribly tyrannical rule of the Roman emperors – Nero was particularly terrible. Even so, Jesus is not speaking words that were unique to those times – he drew those signs right out of Daniel, Joel, Isaiah, Micah, Ezekiel, Amos and Zechariah – prophets who spoke to God’s people as much as 500 years before Jesus’ birth. A quick glance at the Mark’s context shows that nearly every sign that Jesus spoke about had been checked off. It’s hard to believe, but for almost 2000 years, everything has been in place for the end of the world and yet the cosmos has not collapsed, the sun and moon have not gone dark, the stars are not falling, and Jesus has not yet come again.

We’re still waiting and we’re still trying to figure out when God’s finally going to fix this mess of a world. And as frustrating as it sounds, it seems that the answer for now is NOT YET.

NOT YET!! The world is in agony. We are in agony. And God’s answer is: NOT YET. We’re tired, stressed out, sick, angry, grieving. Our moments of truly deep joy seem few and far between. And God’s answer is: NOT YET. We yearn for the peace, forgiveness, comfort, simplicity, healing, and unity. When is the master going to return? When is all this going to end so that we can get on with living as God intended us to live?

Perhaps we’re asking the wrong question? Maybe the question isn’t “when”, but “what would happen if today were the day?” What would happen if Jesus did come again and saw what we are doing with this world? What would happen if he returned and saw that some are starving while others throw food away? What would he think if he saw that some are without homes while others have rooms they never use? What would he think if he saw that some can’t walk to the corner store without fear of being mugged while others can drive around and over desperate neighborhoods on freeways, complaining about the traffic.

It is true that we are yearning to be freed from the pain that surrounds us, but while we yearn, we might want to ask ourselves if we are participating in the very things that cause pain. When we look for forgiveness from someone we love, we might want to check and see if we are withholding forgiveness from someone who has hurt us. If we yearn for comfort, we might want to tear down the barriers we’ve built against those who could offer us peace. We yearn for simplicity, yet we refuse to simplify. We yearn for unity, yet we struggle to embrace those who are different from us. Is this what we want our Lord to find if he were to return today?

In his last days, Jesus was striving to prepare his disciples for the time they would find themselves without his leadership. It’s pretty clear that he never intended them to sit around and wait for him to return with a magic wand to make all their problems go away. Jesus wasn’t calling them to wonder when he was coming back. He was pushing them toward a deeper commitment to the work he had been doing. He was moving them toward the reality that they would be the Body of Christ, the living, breathing hands and feet of Christ in a hurting world.

2000 years later, the world is still just as messy and pain-filled as it was when Jesus walked with his disciples. Bombs still fall. Teenagers are still murdered. Children still go hungry. Men, women and children are still sold to the highest bidder. Family members still don’t speak to one another. Neighbors still hold grudges. And all of us still get distracted by the little things we have made into idols. There are signs everywhere around us. And while it may be true that the signs of these times may ultimately be pointing to the end of all time, our yearning is real. Jesus needs to come.

And so he does. Every time we go to forgive someone who has hurt us, Christ walks with us. Every time we share ourselves with someone who is lonely, Christ is present. Every time we break down the walls we built to keep others out of sight and out of mind, it is Christ’s Spirit who strengthens us for the tough work of reconciliation. It’s pretty clear we’re not through with the work God has given us. So here we go – the body of Christ called First Presbyterian Church of Oakland. And as we go, we should probably get somebody to get us a whole lot of healthy, non-Twinkie snacks and remind us to take some breaks every now and then to page through a People magazine or to play Halo 4 so we can be sustained for what lies ahead.

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