All Saints, Morton—Mark 13:1-8, Hebrews 10:11-25
Although the objective definition of a “Christian” is “one who has been baptized,” in practical terms, we presume that a Christian is, or at least wants to be and tries to be a disciple of Jesus, a follower of the “Christ.” Unfortunately, you and I carry around some cultural baggage that makes it difficult for us to wrap our minds around that concept. Quite apart from being a disciple of Jesus, being a disciple of anybody is, for us, a strange and foreign idea. It’s not something we can readily identify with. We are accustomed to programs and processes and procedures, but discipleship is about a person. It isn’t registering for a course and reading a certain list of books or watching a series of videos or passing tests or writing papers. Discipleship is a personal relationship, a relationship in which the disciple, more than anything else, spends time with a Master, listening and learning. Yes, there is eventually an attempt to emulate the Master to the point of achieving a certain level of proficiency. But this grows naturally and organically out of the personal relationship between Master and Disciple. For us, living as Christians is about following Jesus as much as it was for those who followed him bodily around Galilee and Judea. The life of the Church—yes, all the programs and processes and procedures—the life of the Church is meant to enable and facilitate the practice of faithful discipleship, and is really impoverished and ineffective if it fails in that mission.
The problem is, sometimes it’s difficult for disciples to discern the true voice of their Master. There are competing voices in our environments that claim to be the voice of Jesus. They don’t all say the same thing. In fact, very often they say contradictory things. “Listen to me,” they say. “I speak for Jesus,” or “My voice is the voice of Jesus.” What’s a faithful disciple to do? It’s easy to be deceived. How are we supposed to know what voices to listen to and which ones to ignore?
If you’ve paid a little bit of attention to the gospel readings on Sundays for the last several weeks, you’re aware that we’ve been on a journey, a road trip, with Jesus as he makes his way from his home area of Galilee—actually, from Caesarea Philippi, another 50 miles or so north of there—slowly south to Jerusalem, and we know what happens in Jerusalem. Two weeks ago, we met him in Jericho, just a stone’s throw from Jerusalem, with blind Bartimaeus. Last week, he was in the courts of the Temple, commenting on the offering made by the poor widow. We continue with the story today, presumably shortly after the incident with the widow. One of the disciples remarks to Jesus on the grandeur of the temple. Not quite three years ago, I was on that spot, and I saw the remaining foundation stones of the temple that make up the western wall. They are massive! In its day, it would have truly been an impressive sight. But instead of just politely agreeing, Jesus makes an astonishing response: “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” Gulp! Not only was it mind-blowing to think of the Temple being destroyed because it was so huge and complex, but, more than that, because it was the Temple—the very seat and symbol of Jewish national and religious identity. For Jews at that time, it carried all the symbolic weight of the White House, the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Pentagon all rolled into one. Do you remember how we felt as Americans when those structures were under attack eleven years ago? That’s some indication of how a faithful Jew would have responded to Jesus’ words.
So, after this little exchange in the shadow of the Temple, Jesus and his disciples exit the city through one of the gates on the east wall, cross a dry stream bed called the Kidron Valley, and climb up a hill covered with olive trees—the Mount of Olives. From the mountainside, they can turn and look back toward the west and see the entire Temple complex laid out right in front of them. With that panoramic view, Peter and James and John and Andrew and Jesus pick up their conversation where they’d left off earlier. The disciples are eager to know, “When’s all this going to go down? What clues should we be looking out for? Earthquakes and famines and rebellions and wars, maybe?” And Jesus says, “No, even if all that stuff happens, don’t be fooled. This won’t be the end; just the beginning of the beginning.” And then, the most chilling prediction of all: “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.”
Interestingly, even today some of the competing voices among which we must discern are still announcing “the end”! And it is indeed challenging for disciples to discern the true voice of the Master, the true voice of Jesus, in the midst of the cacophony. I don’t know about you, but for me, the most troubling part of this whole reading from Mark’s gospel is when Jesus talks about the high risk of being deceived, of being led dangerously astray. Many of us here are old enough to remember Jonestown, where a religious leader deceived a thousand people into committing mass suicide. This is, of course, an extreme example, but we can see the same thing happening in a smaller font size, as it were, all the time. Think of Harold Camping, and all those who were deceived by his prediction that the Second Coming of Christ would occur in May of 2011. We could be easily forgiven for being consumed with fear that we might someday choose wrongly. This is the kind of fear that builds on itself, and can be quite crippling. You’ve probably seen Christians who seem to forever flit from church to church, looking for the perfect one. It doesn’t exist, of course, so they keep on flitting. This is not to say that there are not sometimes good reasons for making a transition within the household of faith. I’ve done that myself, and I suspect many of you have as well. What I’m talking about is the person who is perpetually in a state of transition, lacking the faith to put down roots somewhere and flourish, all for fear of being deceived, fear of making the wrong choice.
The antidote, my friends, to fear of being deceived is quite counter-intuitive: The antidote to deception is to make a commitment, to persistently be a disciple—imitating Jesus, doing the things Jesus has taught us. Disciples know Jesus their true Master, discerning his voice amid the chorus of pretenders, precisely in the exercise of faithful discipleship. The more closely we follow Jesus, the more we act like disciples, the more adept we will become at recognizing his voice, and the more protected we will be against deception.
In particular, faithful discipleship often includes bearing witness to the gospel even in the face of persecution. Every day there is fresh news of Christian being persecuted, sometimes to death, in places like Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, and Nigeria. Christian martyrdom is not only the stuff of ancient history; it’s still going on.
You and I, of course, are not likely to face quite that challenge, but we do live in a culture that is becoming secularized—not just religiously neutral, but actively hostile toward Christianity—at an exponential rate. For us, “persecution” doesn’t mean looking down the barrel of a gun. It means staying awake and following the Master as a faithful disciple, and doing so not just routinely and casually, out of habit, but proactively and intentionally. We’ve all heard, I’m sure, that if you want to boil a frog, you don’t just throw it into a pot of water that’s already boiling, because it will just jump right out. You put it in cold water, the kind it’s used to. Then you keep turning up the heat very slowly. By the time the frog realizes he’s in danger, it’s too late; he’s already cooked. As contemporary disciples of Jesus in North American society, the greatest risk we run is becoming a community of boiled frogs. We are constantly tempted to “go along to get along” in the larger secular society, making a little compromise here and a little compromise there, listening to voices other than that of the Master, allowing ourselves to be slowly and subtly deceived until somebody says, “Here, have some Kool-Aid.”
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has these words for us this morning:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
This particular community gathered at this particular altar is where we receive the formation to be that kind of faithful witness, to be disciples who cannot be deceived.