This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, November 1, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of a chapter-by-chapter exploration of the Gospel of Mark, the goal of which is to get to know, love, and follow Jesus more fully in our daily lives.
However, because this is also All Saints Day, the sermon explores and celebrates Saints at least as much as it explores Mark.
It’s based on Mark 13:32-37.
Note: Today’s sermon references a poem/prayer by Kenneth G. Phifer, published in A Book of Uncommon Prayer, Upper Room Books, 1981, pp. 106-107, found here).
Our daughter Mara was three when my grandma died. At our bedtime prayers together, we’d ask who was especially on our hearts to pray for – who we wanted God to know we were caring for. Before she died, Grandma Alvina was regularly on our hearts. After she died, Mara’s regular contribution to our prayers was, “Pray for Grandma Alvina; she died.” And so, we’d pray and we’d talk.
Our conversations were much like how today’s meditation by Kenneth Phifer begins:
That one that I loved, O God, is now with you. / I can say that, not knowing “how” or “where,” / But say it because it makes not sense / That so rich and full a life would come to an abrupt end… / except for memories.Phifer.
When Mara prayed, “for Grandma Alvina; she died,” we’d talk about and affirm that Grandma Alvina was with God in a special way, because she believed in and followed Jesus. But as Phifer’s poem recognizes, saying, “Our loved ones are with God” is still such a heart wrenching mystery. We’re grateful for them. We miss them. We wish they were with us still. And this is the honest truth of All Saints Day: we’re grateful for the saints who’ve blessed us in our lives, and we’re also keenly aware of the grief left in their absence. And so, we reassure ourselves with the truth and hope of our faith: “They’re with God in a special way.” But we also need assurance of this other thing: “God, who was and is with them, is with us, too, today, in all the grief and uncertainty of life.”
As I was preparing for worship this week, Phifer’s poetic prayer caught me off guard, particularly because of its honesty. From a place of deeply felt grief, the poem displays that the platitudes of faith that we say to those in grief, while well-meaning, aren’t always helpful. Hear, again, how Phifer phrases them:
I listen to all the clichés of my friends, spoken to console me: / “She is better off.” / “She is past her pain and suffering.” / “She is in heaven,” whatever that means. / I listen and am not consoled.Phifer.
On All Saints Day, these lines remind of us of something important: there is mystery and uncertainty in life that is not easily covered with any amount of well-meaning words. Perhaps that’s why Jesus speaks as he does to his disciples on the Mount of Olives in Mark 13 today.
To hear our passage well today, we need to hear and remember what Jesus is talking about. As they’re leaving the Temple, Jesus’s disciples comment on how awesome the stones and buildings are. But Jesus responds that all of these enormous buildings will be demolished completely (Mk 13:1-2). The disciples carried this shocking news in their hearts until they reached the Mount of Olives, across the valley, but still in view of, the Temple. There, a few asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? What sign will show that all these things are about to come to an end?” (Mk 13:4). While biblical interpreters can disagree on Mark 13 and our passage today, this beginning shows that all of Mark 13 at least begins with the disciples’ concerns about the fall of the Temple and the Temple system.
We might think that the disciples were prepared, at least a little, for the fall of the Temple system. They’d seen Jesus cleanse the temple and prevent the buying and selling of goods there, recounted in Mark 11. They’d heard Jesus’s harsh vineyard parable about the religious leaders’ resistance to Jesus and how they’d be “thrown out of the vineyard” (Mk 12:1-11). But they were Jews, and they were in awe of the Temple – surely one of largest and most beautiful pieces of architecture in their known world. Consequently, Jesus’ prophetic words – that it was all crumbling around them – were a shock. They wanted certainty and clarity, about how to live and what to do, because, the end of the Temple meant the end of life as they knew it.
The end of life as we know it. That’s a phrase for All Saints Day, and perhaps for this season. Life without our loved ones who’ve died, this year, or any year, surely means an end to life as we know it – life with them. Beyond that grief, our past eight months surely have us wondering what life will be like on the other side of a pandemic. Life certainly is not the same as we knew it. We might say the same thing about life when our kids transition to a different grade or school, when they go off to college, when we’re empty nesters, or when we change jobs or move homes. We anticipate things will be different, perhaps in ways we cannot imagine. But this uncertainty can still make us fearful and anxious. In the face of such uncertainty, we, like our family with Mara’s prayer, need to know that God is not only with our loved ones, but with us too.
Jesus isn’t as clear for his disciples, or for us, as we might like him to be. Throughout the chapter with his disciples, he quotes or references the biblical prophets Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Joel. In doing so, he reminds his disciples of every age that the certainty we long for is in God and God’s mission. He reminds us that God’s mission and purpose is, and has always been, to establish God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven, so that all people will, indeed, be with God in a special way.
But that’s where the certainty stops. Instead, Jesus says, perplexingly, “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows” (Mk 13:32). Whether we read Mark 13 as foremost about the Temple’s destruction, or the destruction of Israel, or God’s re-creation of the world, Jesus tells us here, “That is above our pay grade.” For those longing for certainty, Jesus reorients us on God, assuring us that God will surely accomplish God’s mission: God will lead us all into God’s presence in a special way. Jesus assures us that we do not need to worry about the uncertainties of life – about the future, the end of life as we know it, or the end of life – for God, the Living Word, Jesus, is with us, whose “words will certainly not pass away” (Mk 13:31).
Here, we can return to Phifer’s prayer as our own prayer for every season of uncertainty in our lives:
“Time heals all things,” they say. / I do not believe Time does anything. / You, O God, are Healer and Helper. / You can heal me in time, / help me through the lonely days and long nights. / You can give me renewed zest for going on / and entering into life once more.Phifer.
Jesus’s response to our uncertainty is hope enacted, just as we pray with Phifer. We live in the face of All Saints Day, and in the face of all uncertainty, with the hope that God is healer and helper, who heals and helps us through the time of our lives, so that we can live with zest and hope even in uncertain times.
Jesus calls us then, not to have answers, but to be present with each other and with our grief. Jesus calls us to “Stay awake, stay alert!” (Mk 13:36), because every day is a day in which God’s presence is breaking into our lives. After all, we’ve seen and know this to be true, because we’ve lived with saints, in whom we’ve known God’s presence. Therefore, we live like them, as those in whom God reveals Godself.
Jesus’s disciples, in Mark and today, approach Jesus with questions of how to live in the midst of uncertainty, and Jesus answers: regardless of what happens, know that God is with you, and that God will bring you into the fullness of God’s presence. When, is not for us to know. But the how is certain: through Jesus, in the Spirit, by the grace of God who was and is and is to come.
Jesus gives us hope, so that we can live in the midst of uncertainty and grief.
Jesus gives us hope, so that we can live in the alertness of active discipleship, as living saints for today.
Jesus gives us hope, so that we can proclaim, “Christ has come, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.”
- Considering All Saints Day, who is a “saint” of the church or your life that you’re missing today? What, specifically, do you thank God for about this person? What of him or her revealed God’s character and ways to you? What of him or her inspires you to be a better version of you?
- All Saints Day comes with many feelings. What are you feeling most? Grief? Longing? Confusion? Anxiety? Fear? Gratitude? Praise? Assurance? Part of the importance of this day is to be able to recognize the mix of feelings we experience and embrace them as part of us. Spend some time naming your current feelings before God.
- A preacher friend recently said that All Saints Day is about recognizing our own mortality (because we grieve those who’ve died), and turning with this recognition toward the meaning and purpose of our lives. In this, the challenge or calling of All Saints Day is to live this one, holy, precious life we have to the fullest and for God’s glory. If this resonates with you, how do you sense God calling you to more fully embrace life and God’s mission today?
- Concerning Mark 13, I left off a lot of excellent theological stuff that just wouldn’t fit with All Saints Day, or that I couldn’t make fit. What of Mark 13 is inspiring, challenging, or confusing to you? Feel free to reach out to me or a fellow disciple to work through this passage together.
- Biblical scholars disagree about how to read Mark 13. In today’s sermon, I mostly avoided these, siding with NT Wright’s interpretation that the whole chapter is foremost about the anxiety of the Temple’s destruction. But, the chapter can also be generally read to refer to other things in our lives that are crumbling, or about Jesus coming again in glory to make all things new and fully establish God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven for ever. Regardless of which interpretive choice we make here, Jesus’s message is still, largely, the same: Don’t worry about when this will be or what the signs will be. Just keep the faith. Stay awake. Live faithfully. And trust God. What about this is reassuring? What about this still leaves frustrating questions?
- The disciples are anxious about the crumbling institutions in their lives, even while Jesus has promised that he’s creating a new one of sorts – in the people, in them (see Mark 11’s sermon). What is crumbling in your life? Does Jesus’s assurance that he’s making a new thing reassure you and empower you?