As You See the Day Approaching

As You See the Day Approaching

Sermon delivered by Douglas Olds, Senior (all rights reserved)

November 13, 2009

Montgomery Chapel, San Francisco Theological Seminary

Lectionary Texts: Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25; Mark 13: 1-8

Presbyterian Hymnal #210: Our God, Our Help in Ages Past

THEME: Both in material dissolution and in spiritual creation, God drives time toward its end by love.

PURPOSE: Whenever we see that day coming, let it remind us to serve charity and people rather than edifices.

Mark 13:1-8 (NRSV) 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.

Let us pray…//

Most of the country is now preparing for winter. After flaring out in reds, yellows, and oranges, the leaves fall brown, and crumble, the sap slows. We put on our heavy coats and pull our collars up as a sharp wind licks at our exposed skin. In our thoughts, we hearken to the enclosed hearth of warm fires to chase away the icy chill. Fire and ice: the ancients were convinced that the earth began with both and that one or the other would prevail at the end. Robert Frost wrote, "Some say the world will end in fire,/ some say in ice./ From what I've tasted of desire/ I hold with those who favor fire."

To the contrary is T.S. Eliot: "This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper." As you can see, I am preaching today on the end of the world.

As -you -see -that Day approaching. The “eschaton,” that embarrassing unfulfilled prophecy in Mark of no stone of Herod’s temple left on top of the other. Embarrassing, to some, for several stones of Herod’s temple are still left standing on top of each other, on the western wall in Jerusalem where pious Jews go to lament God’s forsaking of that wonder of the ancient world. And these were massive: 20-40 feet in length, 100 tons. Jesus passed by with his disciples and countered their amazement with the place--that no stone would be left one upon the other. Was he wrong? Is this only literary hyperbole? I’d say that Jesus was right, but interpreters have their timing wrong. Eventually, all things of the earth are doomed by the scouring elements of time to pass away--for in geologic time, all works of stone will topple. The sands of time devour all material works of humans, from the “thousand year Reich” that lasted a baker’s dozen to the sand-pocked pyramids that are going on for three millennia to Herod’s temple that lasted a few generations, and which was never finished. And indeed, which has not yet, stone upon stone, been destroyed.

Yet, time devours all, it waits for no one, and if we think a bit about time, we recognize that the future is God’s alone—it has neither independent nor dependent reality. Moreover, the past is lost to us, and the present ever slips from our grasp. There is something vaporous about time, and if it weren’t for our connection with something eternal, time’s present would seem even more melancholy and less capacious. It is with our connection with the eternal love of God that makes time bearable, even if we dread its passing and fear the day that is surely to come, as “time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its children away.” We’re all subject to the future, which we know includes a judgment. Even in our joy at our acquittal in Christ, we surely carry some anticipation of the future as a time of dissolution.

And so did the ancients. The ancient Israelites, according to Hans Walter Wolff,[1] looked forward in time by considering the past (which was miqqedem), while the future was behind, aharit. This is opposite our own perspective, which sees the future ahead and the past behind. I suppose that we think our perspective more brave, or at least more efficient, but Bruce Malina[2] notes that the Israelites shared the ancient Mediterranean context of group identity, where the group was idealized in the past, and so to succeed in and with a group was to orient one’s sense of time and place with the group’s origins. Hence the Greeks and Romans wrote of an idealized Golden Age.

Our context, however, is not so group oriented. We are individualists and we look to technology, our youth, the new to solve problems and bring progress. I have great respect for the can-do of liberalism, and yet when material times are good, optimism reigns and our hearts and our walls grow fat and our buildings sleek. We celebrate what “comes natural”—we make a virtue of appetite and desire. Psalm 49 notes the time of sustained prosperity and concludes:

Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;

they are like [the] animals that perish.

Jesus passed by with his disciples as an outsider to the temple and noted that his little flock were to be tested in the fires and ice of history and warned them not to be seduced by throwing their lot with the temple and its sleek buildings and fat walls. "Jesus reports no vision,

he channels no angel,

he reveals no astronomical secrets,

there are no monstrosities or cannibalisms or pestilences,

no exaggerated figures,

no bestial terrors,

no demonic onslaughts,

no cries for vengeance against persecutors,

no last great battle,

no restoration of the temple,

no resurrection of martyrs,

no last judgment,

no blissful reward for the righteous,

no final punishment of the wicked."[3]

Instead, Jesus’ outlandish expectation is that a theocracy was coming to Israel—a reign of God over the Israel of his disciples—and that theocracy was something that required not an evolution of religion but a revolution of repentance to a radical faith that exceeded that of Moses and David. ///

What of the proud edifices of power in our day? The opportunity for optimism for a whole generation of youth is fading as the employment outlook appears bleak for years to come. Those disaffected by unemployment, partial employment, reduced economic opportunities, will pose a pastoral challenge to our Presbyterian churches, themselves the products of 20th Century ideas of progress and betterment that have been shrinking along with the economic realities of the last 40 years. The mainline church is middle class in a country that is seeing the waning of the middle class—and of, dare we say it, individualistic liberalism. I suspect that a lost generation of the economically disaffected will be drawn less to liberal views of progressive betterment of society and more to the prosperity gospel of conservative groups that look backward rather than forward--that are less open to embracing vulnerability and doubts. This is what I see. It’s a challenging picture of the liberal church’s future. I believe that the liberal church, though, might remain faithful to its pastoral calling in this environment with some suggestions:

First, we Presbyterians and mainliners should constantly fight against the temptation to Unitarianism. A strongly Trinitarian approach to doctrine keeps the focus on the great Gospel promise and hope. Let us continue to seek out and articulate how the Holy Spirit is present among us, as for example, at this table that we share. Let us not shrink from the belief that Jesus is more than a guru: but actually is the incarnation of the Word of God in human flesh.

Second, we continue to be welcoming of all who walk in the doors of our churches. Each new face is potential new life, and God is God of new life, not a god of walls. Let us welcome then the outcast, the depressed, the unemployed, the lost.

Third, let us live in love and not extemporize about political realities. War is an abomination. The gospel is the only alternative for a just peace that the world will ever have. If we treat the Gospel of peace as pie in the sky, and instead follow the aims of imperialism and financiers, we give up our claim to offer an alternative to the dread that greed, lust, and envy spark upon.

I began with fire and ice: the approach of winter and what we sense about the devouring agency of time. According to the quantum astrophysicists, the world—indeed the universe-- will end in a strange cold, as all the energy of the big bang dissipates into black holes that dissolve into spent ashes of chaos after trillions of trillions of years. There is no material project, in this view, that can connect us to what lasts. What is eternal. See that Washington Monument: no stone will be left on another. The mighty capitol: no stone left upon another. This chapel?...In such a case, neither an idealistic optimism nor a dour pessimism is called for, it seems to me.

We can choose to build walls and define ourselves by them, or, instead we have the great possibility of acting for eternity in the spirit, for love lasts. Love is what God selects for in the judgment, and our acts of loving charity in Christ are what bring in the future with richness, wonder, and power. Our joy will be complete when we can see, feel, and hear those acts of ours which have an enduring effect in the age to come. As you see the day approaching, in the dissolution of our bodies and our projects, in the joys of new life and new possibilities that bring tears to our eyes—as you see the day approaching, let pessimism and optimism be turned to charity. Let idealism and realism be turned to peace and justice. Let birth and death be turned to loving encouragement. In these, we live out our calling for repentance and for the great privilege of hope that the gospel brings in the resurrection of old life and the creation of new.

Thanks be to God.

All blessings be on God.

[1] Anthropology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 83-8.

[2] “Exegetical eschatology, the peasant present and the final discourse genre: the case of Mark 13” in Biblical Theology Bulletin, Summer, 2002 accessed on 10/22/09 at

[3] This negative list of the Olivet discourse’s apocalypticism is from R.H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993), 751-2.