St John’s, Centralia—Mark 13:24-37
When Brenda and I were first married, we lived in a small carriage house apartment in downtown Santa Barbara, California. In the house next door to us, at the beginning of our time there, was a couple whom we never got to know more than in passing. Yet, we actually knew them better than they wanted us to, perhaps, because they fought—they fought often and they fought loud. When they really got going, it was not uncommon to hear dishes being smashed. They eventually moved, presumably to separate locations. Maybe they just finally ran out of dishes!
I would hope that, for most of us, dish-smashing fights have not been a part of our domestic experience. Yet, virtually all of us have behaved in ways that could be fairly described as destructive. Through things we have said or done—or left unsaid or undone—we have destroyed parts of the hearts and souls of other people, usually the very people whom we love, and who love us, the most. And when we behave destructively, it’s almost always because we’re angry. So when we hear in the scriptures about God destroying something or threatening to destroy something, it’s not unreasonable for us to suppose that God is motivated by the same forces that move us to act in similar ways—namely, anger and vengeance.
Today’s selection from St Mark’s gospel is one such passage. We hear about the sun and the moon going dark, and stars falling from the sky. This explains why, when the Leonid meteor shower made its every thirty-three year appearance over this part of the country back in the 1830s, people thought it was Judgment Day, the end of the world! If God is going to do something as drastic as destroying the sun and the moon and the stars—which is, in effect, to destroy the earth—then he must be really upset about something!
This knowledge that God seems to be in a lousy mood leads different people to different responses. Some of us might instinctively scramble to find out just what it might take to appease God. What is it, we ask ourselves, that we might do or say that would buy him off, settle him down long enough to cut us some slack? We’re willing to do what it takes, mind you, but not any more than that. We’d prefer to lowball God, if possible, and not “spend” any more of ourselves on his behalf than we have to. After all, we’ve got real lives to live, and can’t afford to be perpetually distracted by trying to keep God happy. So we try coming to church more regularly, or being more generous with what we put in the offering plate. We resolve to say Grace before meals, or maybe even pray a little bit at bedtime. Maybe these measures will be just enough to deflect God’s destructive anger some place where it won’t do us any harm.
Others among us—those with a little more native courage, perhaps—others among us determine to confront God directly, to look him in the eye and shake our fist defiantly, and say, “This isn’t fair. I haven’t done anything to deserve being treated this way. So do what you will with me, but I’m not going to give you the time of day.” This may strike us as blasphemous, of course, but in a way, it’s more honest, and has a certain amount of integrity, in comparison with the “minimal appeasement” strategy.
Most people, perhaps, would prefer to simply not deal with God’s destructiveness, and whether or not it means that he’s angry, so they just ignore the question altogether. Table the motion. Take it up at the next meeting. In the meantime, there are things to do and places to go and people to see. The only problem is, for those of us who come to church, the season of Advent doesn’t let us get away with such an attitude. It smacks us across the head and says, “Wake up! Pay attention! God is about to do something important, something you won’t want to miss!”
The real issue, however, may be that we have invested too much energy in trying to make God over in our image. We assume that God is destructive because he’s angry, but is that necessarily true? Or could there be another explanation? Consider the observations of the seventh century English monk and historian, St Bede, as he comments on this passage from Mark: “The stars at the day of judgment will seem to be dark, not by any failure of their own luster, but in consequence of the true light throwing them into the shade.” You see, in Mark’s apocalyptic vision, the failure of the heavenly lights is accompanied by the appearance of our Lord Jesus in his second coming, on clouds, in power and great glory. The destruction does not exist for its own sake, but serves a greater end. A near contemporary of St Bede was St Methodius, a missionary to the Slavic peoples. He writes about the same passage from Mark’s gospel: “It is usual for the scriptures to call the change of the world from its present dire condition to a better and more glorious one by the idiom of ‘destruction.’ For its earlier form is thereby lost in the change of all things to a state of greater splendor.”
Herein lies the key to finding some reason other than God’s anger to account for God’s destructiveness. In the Book of Genesis, we learn that an essential element in God’s nature is his creativity. He made the world and called it “very good.” God is One-Who-Creates. He makes things. He builds things up. Destruction is not central to God’s character. From numerous other passages of scripture, we learn that it is also part of God’s essential nature to love. God is One-Who-Loves, one who delights in being in what the philosophers call an I-Thou relationship, a one-to-one personal relationship, with the beings he has created in his own likeness and image, human beings.
I love the way the old Prayer Book put it, in the absolution following the General Confession in Morning Prayer: “Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live…” This beautifully sums up the creative love of God, and leads us to the same conclusion that St Methodius comes to—that God destroys in order to make room for new construction.
Some of you have been to St Matthew’s up in Bloomington. We had our synod Eucharist there just a few weeks ago. If you’ve seen St Matthew’s, you know it’s neither a particularly old nor a particularly new building. It was constructed around 1958, in what has been called an “A-frame Gothic” style of architecture. Yet, St Matthew’s, as a parish, was already nearly a hundred years old in 1958. They had a beautiful old stone church in downtown Bloomington that they had worshiped in for decades. Generations of children had been baptized, grown up, gotten married, had their own children baptized, and buried their parents in that place. It was full of precious memories of weddings and funerals and Christmas Eve and Easter morning services, of beautiful music and God’s word compellingly melting the hearts of sinners toward his love. It was a holy place.
Yet, for a combination of good reasons, it was destroyed. It was subjected to the violent ravages of a wrecking ball. To some who witnessed that event, it must have felt in a small way like the sun and the moon and the stars were going dark. Yet, such profoundly disturbing destructive behavior was not engaged in at all in a spirit of anger. There was no vengeance or wrath or vindictiveness associated with it. Rather, that beautiful church building was destroyed in order to make possible new construction, for the holy space in which the Eucharistic Community of St Matthew’s worships this very morning, the holy space that has been now touching souls and moving hearts with an acknowledgement of the majestic beauty of God for nearly sixty years. And none of this would be possible, save for the violently destructive ministry of the wrecking ball on those few days in 1958.
And the experience of St Matthew’s Church in Bloomington is but a tiny microcosm of the vision of God’s violent destruction of reality as we know it at the end of time in order to make way for his construction of reality too wonderful for us to even imagine it, thousands of small ways that give shape and substance to our ordinary daily experience. The life of faith in and with our Lord Jesus Christ is a life of perpetually dying with him that we may live with him, a life of continually submitting ourselves to his loving ministry of destruction—
the destruction of sins and illusions and attachments that impede our relationship with him—all this in order that space may be created for him to be the entrepreneur and developer of our hearts, to creatively construct in us a temple to himself, to make us shine with his own glory such that the sun and moon and stars no longer matter because they have been downsized and outplaced by the One True Light. As we yield ourselves more and more to the wrecking ball of Christ, he frees us and enables us to focus our energy not on fear and anxiety over the loss of what is being destroyed, but in joyful anticipation of that which is being brought into being, that which is being made new.
My prayer for all of us this Advent season is that we will allow the Holy Spirit to clear the debris from our hearts and build in us a mansion prepared to welcome our Lord Jesus when he comes.
Come, Lord Jesus.