Sunday, November 15, 2009

The In-Between Time

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 15, 2009

The 24th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B: Proper 28
1 Samuel 1:4-20
Psalm 16
(Hebrews 10:11-25)
Mark 13:1-8

The In-Between Time

Maybe you’ve noticed that we’re living in an in-between time. If you drive or walk around you can see that some people still have their Halloween decorations up while others have put out their cornucopias and cardboard turkeys in anticipation of Thanksgiving. And, many retailers are desperately trying to get us into the spirit to buy Christmas gifts by putting up their decorations and assembling piles in their stores.

We’re living in an in-between time – a time somewhere in the middle of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Autumn is an in-between time isn’t it? Just in the past week or so some days I’ve had to scrape frost off my car in the morning and other days – and sometimes the same day – I’ve been outside in short sleeves. Here in church there have been days when it’s not clear if we need the heat or the air conditioning on.

We’re living in an in-between time – we’re living in autumn – a time between summer and winter.

Our country is going through an in-between time, too. The economic slide seems to have slowed or even stopped, yet most of us aren’t taking sighs of relief just yet as unemployment continues to rise – officially above 10 percent and in reality much higher. We’re living in the in-between time. The seemingly never-ending debate about health care reform continues to drag on. We’re in the in-between time – is it going to pass and if it does will it make things better or worse? We don’t know yet. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind on. Iraq seems more stable but is so fragile anything can happen. Meanwhile Afghanistan is a mess and the president is pondering a troop surge.

We’re living in an in-between time – a time between recession and recovery, a time between war and peace.

The Church is in the midst of an in-between time, too. The long season after Pentecost – this is the 24th Sunday after Pentecost! – is drawing to a close. This will be the last Sunday for a while that Lauren and I will be in green. Next week is the Christ the King and we’ll be in white. And, unbelievably, the following Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent and so we’ll be in blue for those four Sundays of preparation before Christmas.

We’re living in an in-between time – a time between church seasons – not quite Advent, but almost – an in-between time.

And, sure enough, there is an “in-betweeness” to the lesson from First Samuel and the lesson from the Gospel of Mark.

The lesson from First Samuel tells the wonderful story of Hannah’s faithfulness which leads to the birth of her son, the Prophet Samuel. And Samuel will turn out to be very much an in-between figure. Before the time of Samuel, unlike everyone else at that time, Israel had no king. It was one of their defining characteristics. God was Israel’s king.

But, during Samuels’s life the Israelite monarchy will begin, first under Saul and then under David. This was not an easy transition. Samuel lived during a difficult in-between time.

The passage I just read from Mark comes from an in-between section of that gospel.

In fact, we heard two distinct scenes today – two scenes that form the bridge between two sections of Mark’s gospel.

In the first we find Jesus and his disciples coming out of the Temple in Jerusalem. Remember, for Jews, the Temple was the holiest place on earth – the place where in a sense God lived. The disciples, sounding very much like country bumpkins on their first trip to the big city, say to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”

And then Jesus makes his terrifying prediction of the Temple’s destruction, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Of course, the Romans did set fire to and destroy the Temple during their great siege of Jerusalem in the year 70, forty or so years after the earthly lifetime of Jesus. The prediction came true. Some people think that Mark wrote his gospel after the Temple’s destruction and so projected this fact back to make Jesus look more prescient than he probably was. On the other hand, lots of people in Jesus’ time were unhappy with the religious establishment and predicted the Temple’s demise.

Ultimately, the prediction is not so important. What matters is Mark placed this grim prediction at the end of the part of the gospel in which Jesus is very critical of the religious establishment and the religious establishment doesn’t like it one bit.

This section of the gospel begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and then Mark tells us on the next day Jesus dramatically drives out the moneychangers and the sellers from the Temple.

Jesus’ relationship with the religious establishment goes downhill from there. The scribes and the Pharisees repeatedly question Jesus and in return he challenges their authority and criticizes their hypocrisy. Finally, we end up with what we heard last week - Jesus watching the poor widow give all she has – her two small copper coins – to this corrupt and doomed religious establishment.

So, the first scene of this little in-between section of Mark’s gospel is Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction.

The second scene marks the beginning of the next section of Mark’s gospel – a section that is often called the “Little Apocalypse.” Apocalypse comes from the Greek word meaning revelation. Apocalyptic literature – which was pretty common in Judaism before and during Jesus’ earthly lifetime – offers mysterious revelations about the supernatural world and usually is focused on the end times.
So in this second scene, Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives – which, by the way, is the place where the Prophet Zechariah had predicted God would begin to redeem the dead at the end of time. Zechariah predicted that it would be here that the new age begins.

Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives with Peter, James, John and Andrew, gazing over Jerusalem with the Temple sitting proudly in the center and he makes disturbing predictions. The “Little Apocalypse” begins.

Jesus predicts there will be false teachers and even some who will claim to be Jesus himself. He predicts wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes.
Jesus warns the disciples that these events are not signs of the end, not signs of Jesus’ return.

Instead he tells them – and tells us – “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Jesus is telling his disciples, Jesus is telling the first readers of the gospel and Jesus is telling us that we are living during the in-between time – a new age is yet to be born – we’re not there yet - this is but the beginning of the birth pangs, he says. And Jesus is honest with them and us - the in-between time is not an easy time.

The first readers and hearers of Mark’s gospel knew all about the hardships of the in-between time. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the failure of Jesus to return were deeply disturbing to these early followers of Jesus. A few years before, across the Mediterranean, the followers of Jesus were brutally scapegoated for the great fire that burned much of Rome in the year 64.

Yes, those first readers and hearers of Mark’s gospel knew all about the hardships of the in-between time. But thanks to the gospel they also knew that the in-between time was not the only time. Things might look bleak, but in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the first readers and hearers of the gospel saw that a new age was being born.

And the same is true for us. We also live in the in-between time when often things can seem pretty bleak. But thanks to the gospel we also know that the in-between time is not the only time. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we know that a new age is being born.

And if we keep our eyes open, in this in-between time, we can catch glimpses of the birth of this new age.

This past week on November 11 here in the United States and around the world there were ceremonies honoring those who had fought and those who had sacrificed their lives in war.

We honor these brave men and women on November 11 because that was the date back in 1918 when Germany surrendered at the end of World War I.
Throughout that war the armies of France and Germany were locked in brutal and hellish trench warfare – spending years fighting over a few feet of land. I’m sure that most of those French and German soldiers must have believed that this is how it would always be, that France and Germany would be mortal enemies forever.

We know better, of course. The war and the war that followed it were not the end but part of the in-between time. Although, few could have imagined it, a new age was being born.

This year for the first time the president of France and the chancellor of Germany participated together in a ceremony marking the end of the war. The New York Times headline read, “France and Germany Use the Remembrance of a War to Promote Reconciliation.”

A new age is being born.

In his remarks, President Sarkozy said, “German orphans wept for their slain fathers in the same way as French orphans. German mothers felt the same pain as French mothers as they stood before the coffins of their fallen sons.”
In that powerful ceremony and in those beautiful words we glimpse the birth of a new age.

But, we’re not there yet. You and I are still in this in-between time. Jesus is honest with us – it’s not going to be an easy time. But like Hannah, you and I can place our trust in God who is right here with us in this in-between time. And, like the first disciples, we know that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus a new age is being born.