|Sermon by: The Rev. Rebecca Tankersley
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
November 18, 2018
Twenty Sixth Sunday After Pentecost: Proper 28
The Kingdom of God
“Not one stone will be left here upon another.”
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The lectionary this week begins beautifully with one of my favorite collects. In fact, if you’ve ever attended one of Roy Heller’s classes, you’ve heard him pray regularly. “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.” These words enkindle anew my desire to immerse myself in God’s word. On Monday, having prayed this collect, I grabbed my pen and prepared to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest these readings.
Daniel: “There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred” from which “everyone who is found written in the book” will be delivered. Gut clenched, I wondered, “Am I written in the book?” Because some will wake to everlasting life while others – presumably those who aren’t written in the book – to shame and everlasting contempt.
“Maybe I could read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest something else” like the gospel – the good news.
The Gospel: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” False prophets, “wars and rumors of wars,” earthquakes, famines.
What if I just “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the collect? I prayed it again. “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning…” And there I was, back at the troublesome readings. The problem is one of genre: they are prophetic and apocalyptic.
“Not one stone will be left here upon another.” This is prophecy, but not the sort that happens in Professor Trelawney’s Divination class at Hogwarts. Jesus isn’t looking into a cup of tea, seeing the Grim, and predicting that the fall of the temple in 70 AD to Rome or the destruction of his body (the temple) on a cross. Sure, he may have been signally these events would come. But if that’s all he’s up to here, then after he’s been crucified and the temple destroyed, we need not concern ourselves with this troublesome text. To understand prophecy, we need to remember three things:
- Prophecy isn’t just about them; it’s about us.
- Prophecy isn’t just about back then; it’s about now.
- Prophecy isn’t just about their future; it’s about our present.
So Jesus must be saying something here about us, now, and how we are to live in the present.
As my friend Roy Heller says: “So far so good?”
Apocalypse is a subset of prophecy in which God unveils God’s telos – God’s plan of salvation. Apocalyptic texts aren’t written to allow us to locate ourselves on a timeline relative to the end of the world. Rather, they show us how to live now in light of God’s plan of salvation by changing the way we see the world. These texts weren’t written to provide a schedule of future events, but to guide us to find our center in the relationship between God and the world.
There’s a tone of apocalypse throughout Mark’s Gospel. The first words Jesus utters (in 1:15) are: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” We’re meant to understand that history has been unfolding in a meaningful way toward the goal – the reign of the kingdom of God. Jesus ushers in the beginning of this reign: “the time is fulfilled.” Mark’s Gospel reveals the truth of Jesus’ statement. Because the kingdom of God is near, people are healed, demons are cast out, and God’s power is at work in the world. This calls forth from us action: repentance and belief.
Here’s the rub. If the kingdom of God has come near, then the kingdom of humankind is necessarily passing away. We see this rub in today’s reading from Mark.
Look back at the opening: “As Jesus came out of the temple.” Last week, Jesus taught inside the temple: “Beware the scribes, who … devour widows’ houses … for the sake of appearances.” The splendor inside the temple was acquired at the expense of poor widows. Having walked outside, a disciple now marvels at appearances. “What large stones … what large buildings!”
This temple is the second in Jerusalem. The first, opulent and splendorous, was built through forced servitude of God’s people by King Solomon. It was destroyed by Babylon at the time of the exile. Thereafter, returning Jews built a modest version of the former temple. By Jesus’ day, Herod the Great, wanting to perpetuate his name through spectacular buildings, had overhauled the temple. He paid for the work, his crowning masterpiece, by levying heavy taxes on his subjects. Thus, the temple in Jesus day was, inside and out, a monument to the kingdom of humankind. The large stones at which the unnamed disciple marvels represent “power, wealth, achievement, ease of life, and accomplishment” which come at a cost disproportionately levied on the poorest of poor in Jewish society.
Jesus doesn’t share the disciples’ fascination with the trappings of the kingdom of humankind. “All will be thrown down.” Why? Because “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” The kingdom of humankind – that’s passing away.
Peter, James, John, and Andrew don’t understand. “When? What signs should we look for?” Their questions reveal their attachment to the kingdom of humankind, wherein we control the timing and know the signs. “The kingdom of God doesn’t work that way”, Jesus replies. Look at the signs he gives them: false prophets will lead people astray, there will be “wars and rumors of wars”, earthquakes, and famines. Talking through the passage this week, Scott observed: “When in the history of the world have there not been false prophets, wars, earthquakes, and famines?”
As I first read this passage of Mark, I heard Jesus warn of coming doom. Paired with the passage from Daniel, I lapsed into a common reading of apocalyptic texts: Jesus is coming, get to work so your name will be written in the book.
Thank God for the reminder this week to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Far from predicting doom, Jesus is proclaiming the coming of the long awaited kingdom of God – the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation.
Remember the hallmarks of apocalypse: it shows us how to live now in light of God’s plan of salvation and enables us to find our center in the God’s relationship with us. It strikes me that the reading from Hebrews this week reminds us of these hallmarks. First, the author answers my fearful question, “Am I written in the book?” with a resounding yes. “We have confidence to enter the sanctuary [the kingdom of God] by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us.” Then, the writer of Hebrews offers two guiding principles for living in light of God’s unfolding plan of salvation.
- Turn toward the coming kingdom of God in full assurance of Jesus’ promised. Sounds a lot like a call to repent.
- Provoke one another to love and good deeds – take your place in the Body of Christ and hold one another accountable to living as disciples. Don’t neglect to meet together – come to church. Encourage one another – bring people with you, encouraging them to join us in our journey toward the kingdom of God. Sounds like a call to believe in the good news!
It’s as though the writer of Hebrews wants to echo Jesus first words in Mark’s Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Our collect today opens asking God to grant us to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest holy Scripture. Look back at how it concludes: “that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”
Let us embrace and hold fast this blessed hope. Let us repent – turn toward the kingdom of God – and let us believe the good news. And all God’s people said, Amen.
 Flavius Josephus, Jewish Wars.
 Karoline Lewis, “What Large Stones!”, published online and accessed November 16, 2018 at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5249. I have modified her original text slightly.