Is It "The End?" ...let's hope so

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.

Jay Leno’s new show is getting some mixed reviews. Most say what’s there to like about his new show at 10pm? It’s not any different than the show he had at 11, it’s just on at 10. Exactly why I like it! Now I get to catch his monologues, which sadly also becomes my source for current events.

But anyway… on this past Tuesday night in Leno’s opening monologue he’s talking about how NASA announces that the movie 2012 (came out on Friday) is fiction. Does NASA really need to make such announcements?

Leno asks the same question. For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, it is all about how the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world is going to happen in 2012 when a mystery planet is going to come careening toward earth and destroy it. NASA wants us all to be confident that he Mayan calendar is wrong. Leno jokes that the only thing that is really going to destroy the planet by 2012 is Countrywide Mortgage, AIG and Wall Street.

While this may be true, Jesus doesn’t mention planets flung off their course or corrupt corporations being part of the end of the world equation.

He talks about the temple. The large stones and large building, while may not sound like much to our modern minds that have seen large stones sculpted into the faces of presidents and large building that reach unfathomable heights… When the temple was constructed by Herod to solidify Herodian rule of Judea it was something to be impressed by. Its construction was a great wonder of ancient architecture. The physical and symbolic presence of the formation was meant look huge, all encompassing, and rooted to both the earth and the people’s understanding of their relationship to God.

That’s not too farfetched thousands of years later. We have tendencies to root our faith and our understanding of our relationship to God in something.

It might be a building, like the temple. A beautifully constructed sanctuary, stained glass windows, and well oiled pews.

It might be a particular worship style. Traditional liturgy, hymns, and none of this waving our arms around in the air stuff some churches do.

It might be a denomination. It’s rich history, traditions and polity. A sense of identity that has long since passed.

We don’t have to think very long about why we have these tendencies. Life being what it is with so much instability and unpredictability it feels pretty good to turn to something that seems to stay the same. Offering us comfort in the midst of chaos.

So what does Jesus think he is doing pulling the rug out from under us? Didn’t he get the message from NASA that this isn’t happening?

We don’t like to hear Jesus words this morning that our churches will be destroyed.

Our comfortable worship styles overturned.

Denominations thrown down.

We don’t like to hear anything about that because it brings an end to the present order.

And we Presbyterians… we’ll you know the saying “We like things decent and in order.” Start shaking up the order and… well that is bad news.

Jesus says that is just the beginning. “The beginning of the birth pangs.”

The end is the beginning of something new.

What if the end of what we find comfortable, is the beginning of a new creation that God has in store?

That still doesn’t necessarily come across as the “good news” of the gospel, does it?

C.S. Lewis says that most Christians are “too easily pleased.” There is this human tendency to instill human institutions and practices with divine permanence, as if God created everything now that it is. That because we are comfortable with it and like how things are, God must too and so there isn’t any need to change it. We say a very polite “no thank you” to God, we don’t need anything new because we like the way it is.

Just because we are comfortable doesn’t mean that God always wants it to be that way.

Just because we are easily pleased, doesn’t mean that God stops working in the world.

Just because we see the end of things as bad news, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t see the end as a new beginning.

And we can choose to offer God our polite “no thank you” and wallow in our fear of the end or step out in faith that God knows what God is doing.

There is a Presbyterian Church on the south side of St. Louis saw itself coming to an end, and could’ve given God the polite “no thank you.”

They were down to about 17 in worship on a Sunday morning and described themselves as being on “life support.” When they stepped outside the doors of their church they no longer recognized their neighborhood. What had been traditionally blue color and white, there was now a large population of refugees.

The church didn’t see itself changing. They didn’t see any “new beginnings” on the horizon.

But God did.

In 2000 the church opened its doors to a Montessori school that needed new space. Of course the session and congregation hoped that the children and their parents would come to church. But they didn’t.

Then one Sunday morning in 2005 everything changed. A woman from Liberia came and worshipped with her two daughters. The children wanted to sing.

When the pastor visited their home near the church, she found them huddling under blankets in a very cold apartment. Because the mother did not have a job she could not turn on her heat. Susan Finley, the pastor at the church said “That was my introduction to life as a refugee in St. Louis.”

Word spread quickly in the Liberian community about the kindness and hospitality of this church. And by July, 15 Liberian families had joined the church. BY forming relationships with these new members of their church family, the congregation became more aware how difficult life was. So the session decided to dedicate $500 a month to a separate ministry fund to help Liberians with any material needs they might have.

$500 is a lot of money for a struggling church who had only 17 people in worship. But what they saw as an end of a church that served a primarily white, blue collar neighborhood was God’s new beginning for a church who partnered with God to grow in servanthood.

Not only with money, but with advocacy services as well for food, shelter, green cards, medicine. Members thought twice about donating an old set of dishes and extra coats to Goodwill or having a rummage sale. Now they went to the new immigrants coming in the church. This wasn’t just about what the church members did for the new members in their church family. As the church grew music became increasingly important and some of the Liberians suggested a keyboard and drums. The sounds of worship were transformed.

The congregation has 68 members now and usually 90 or so people in worship. They still faces an uncertain future as questions arise frequently about whether they will be able to afford full-time pastoral leadership as they meet the challenges of servanthood ministry.

What is perceived as an ending is met by God with a new beginning.

The pastor and congregation envision the possibility that she, and a Liberian man from the congregation who recently graduated from a theological training program for immigrants offered by the denomination, might serve the congregation together as tentmakers, where they each have jobs outside of the church and serve the congregation as well.

It’s such a great story (and you can read the story in its entirety in the October 2009 issue of Presbyterians Today Magazine). The congregation could have continued to root their faith
in their building,
in their history of what the neighborhood and church use to be,
in their traditional practices of worship
in what was comfortable
and completely ignore the new beginning God was offering them.

As individuals, a congregation, denomination and entire Christian faith we are challenged by stories like this. Stories that point to the ways that Jesus teaches us the end is still to come, despite what NASA or anyone else tells you.

As followers of Christ we believe that in the many endings we will face throughout our lives God is always at work. Working to make this world, our church, our lives what God intends them to be. And friends, this is good news indeed.


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