By James C. Sprouse, Senior Pastor
The General Conference voted Feb. 26 to leave the language in the Book of Discipline regarding LGBTQ persons unchanged for the next four years. Others desired what many consider offensive and hurtful language removed. This story isn’t finished. It’s part of our denominational struggle in our time and place. Let’s learn from a struggle taking place in Jesus’ day and time.
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 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.
Biblical scholars often note that the Gospel of Mark actually had two endings. One is found in Chapters 14-16 (the story of Jesus’ rejection, crucifixion, and resurrection). The other is Chapter 13, which talks about a period beyond Jesus’ resurrection— about the destruction of the Temple and the coming of the Son of Man.
It will be helpful for you and me to not read this scripture as a predictive message for the future, but as a word addressing the issues squeezing Mark’s community of faith at the time of the Gospel’s writing. The events in today’s lesson don’t come from some crystal ball of a divine soothsayer but are the fabric of the community’s everyday life. The violence of war, the Roman impending destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the perilous existence of the church under persecution, the enticing voices of false prophets and false messiahs were all urgent concerns for the Christian church about 30 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry.
The initial words of Jesus’ announcing the destruction of the Temple are prompted by a comment from one of his disciples about the beauty of the buildings. Jesus knows how Jerusalem will suffer in the near future, and also how much he will have to personally suffer to accomplish God’s purpose for all the world’s peoples and all of creation.
The modern church knows plenty about religious controversies and voices that talk a good game, use many of the right formulas, but at heart worship at a different altar. There are many churches who offer a crossless religion, a Christianity without tears; others wed faith to nation and cultural preferences and demand loyalty to some ideology; still others advocate the usefulness of religion arguing for the importance of prayer as an effective means of self-enhancement.
In spite of all that transpires within the world and the global church and the United Methodist Church, we are still invited to be hopeful. Wars, threats of wars, earthquakes, world-wide diseases and famines, denominational controversies, etc., all represent the worldly chaos in which Mark’s church and ours find ourselves. The woes may have changed a little or travel under different names, but any church that remains faithful to Christ will always find itself beleaguered and vulnerable.
And yet … all this chaos is understood to be the beginning of the birth pangs. The image is striking. It takes seriously the reality of human sin and the suffering it causes. There is no denial of life’s pain from Jesus. But in the economy of God all our sufferings serve a purpose. They signal the end of a long time of waiting and the coming birth of new life. Our sufferings need not lead to despair, but to hope, to the anticipated dawn of God’s new day—a new day of God that we anticipate during this season of Lent, and celebrate on another glorious Easter morning.