November 14th, 2021 homily on Mark 13:1-8 by Pastor Galen
The Greatest Party that Never Happened
This past week I watched a documentary on Netflix about the Fyre Music Festival that was supposed to take place in May of 2017, called “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.” The documentary tells the story of a music festival, organized by Billy McFarland and Ja Rule, that was slated to take place on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma.
Months before the event, McFarland and Ja Rule filmed a promotional video for the concert that featured supermodels running on the sand and swimming in the crystal clear blue Caribbean Ocean waters. Ticket prices for the epic event ranged from hundreds to thousands of dollars, with VIP packages including airfare and luxury tent accommodation going for $12,000. Customers were promised accommodation in “modern, eco-friendly, geodesic domes” and meals cooked by celebrity chefs. Tickets sold out within days.
When festival attendees arrived on the island, however, they found that their accommodations were little more than scattered disaster relief tents with dirt floors, many with mattresses that were soaking wet as a result of the previous night’s rain. And, rather than gourmet meals cooked by celebrity chefs, they found that the food was nothing more than cheese sandwiches served in foam containers.
Since most of the bands had backed out at the last minute, the festival was effectively cancelled, leaving many of the concert-goers stranded on the island without accommodations for several days and nights until the next commercial flights were available.
McFarland and Ja Rule were sued for $100 million in a class action lawsuit on behalf of Fyre Festival attendees who felt that they had been led astray. The following month, McFarland was arrested and charged with wire fraud for his role in the organization of the festival. After pleading guilty to two counts of wire fraud in March 2018, he was sentenced to six years in federal prison.
Don’t Be Led Astray
Now it’s one thing to be duped into spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on a purported luxury music festival in the Bahamas. But it’s another thing to be led astray on a religious or spiritual level. Losing money is never fun, but for the concert goers it wasn’t the end of the world.
But In Mark 13, Jesus warns his disciples not to let anyone lead them astray by falsely claiming to come in Christ’s name. Jesus told his disciples, “Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray” (Mark 13:6).
In this passage Jesus provides no tips or guidance as to how Jesus’s followers would be able to discern truth from falsehood – he simply tells us to be aware. To be alert and mindful. Be watchful, stay on the lookout.
This warning comes in the context of Jesus and his disciples arriving in Jerusalem. Most likely this was the first time that Jesus’s disciples had ever been to the capitol city. Jesus’s disciples were all from the region of Galilee, many miles away from Jerusalem, a region separated by the enemy territory of Samaria, which Jewish people hardly ever ventured through. And so this could very well have been the first time that some of Jesus’s disciples had ever seen the temple in Jerusalem.
Jesus’s disciples seem particularly in awe of the structure of the temple, commenting to him about the large stones and the large buildings. Jesus was less than impressed, however, saying to them, “’Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down’” (Mark 13:2).
This was an odd thing for Jesus to say, and it prompted four of Jesus’s core disciples to pull him aside later on, and ask him privately, “‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’” (Mark 13:4). And it’s in this context, in responding to his disciples’ question about when the temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed, that Jesus tells his disciples to make sure that no one leads them astray.
The specific time period that Jesus seems to be addressing, then, was the time period after his crucifixion and resurrection and ascension into heaven. Over the next 40 years there would be many people vying for leadership, many people seeking to lead Christ’s followers astray. Many false messiahs and prophets, and he knew that many would produce various signs and omens (see Mark 13:22) or point to events happening in the world to instill fear in his followers and try to amass power for themselves.
And so Jesus tells them, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 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 birthpangs” (Mark 13:7-8).
The End of the World as They Knew It
Jesus’s use of the word “birthpangs” is interesting here because it suggests the start of someone new. While the emphasis in this verse is often placed on the pain of childbirth – as though Jesus himself is predicting doom and gloom – I wonder if Jesus is talking more about the ushering in of a new era – a new beginning for the world and for the church.
The siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (roughly 40 years after Jesus spoke these words) was indeed horrific for those who were alive at that time. But Jesus had in other places in the Gospels predicted a time when the worship of God would take place “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24) rather than in a specific location such as the temple in Jerusalem.
For the Jewish people living in Jesus’s day, the temple in Jerusalem might as well have been the center of the universe. It contained the Holy of Holies, where God was believed to dwell. The temple was seen as the place where Heaven and earth met. For many people, the temple was the “end all be all” of Jewish thought, life, and religion.
But Jesus rightly predicted that the temple structure would not last forever. There would come a day when the temple in Jerusalem was no longer standing. And while this was not the end of the world as many assumed it would be – it was the end of their world as they knew it. Life continued on, but in a very different way. Jewish worship and religious practices continued, but in very different forms. Animal sacrifices, for example, were discontinued. The priesthood was done away with – today we hear of rabbis (or “teachers”) rather than priests in the Jewish religious tradition.
This is why Jesus could speak of the destruction of the temple in somewhat matter-of-fact terms – why the fact that not one stone would be left standing seemed like it was not a big deal to him. Because he knew that the building itself was not what mattered. Instead, what mattered was that his followers stayed faithful and true to him. Jesus was and is the place where heaven and earth meet. Jesus is the Holy of Holies, the place where God dwells.
And so Jesus wanted his disciples to keep alert, not to allow themselves to be led astray, but to continue to follow Jesus’s example and continue to be faithful to the ministry and mission to which we have been called until the day Christ returns.
Stay Alert and Faithful
At the end of Mark 13 we see a parable in which Jesus exhorts his followers to be faithful, to keep working until he comes. Jesus says, “‘But about that day or hour’” – referring here to the time when “heaven and earth shall pass away” (Mark 13:31) – “‘no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his [servants] in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’”
What we see here in this passage then, is that Jesus’s disciples were awed by the amazing architecture of the temple structure in Jerusalem. Jesus says, “You think the temple is so amazing? It’s all going to be destroyed! Be alert, because a lot of people are going to prey upon people’s fears and use doom and gloom scenarios to try to amass power for themselves and lead people astray. But even when all of this does happen, that’s just the beginning, the start of something new.” Jesus then goes on to instruct us to stay alert and watchful in the midst of whatever comes our way, and he ends with an encouragement for all of us to remain faithful until Christ returns.
The Start of Something New
What are we to take away from this passage? What hope might there be for those of us who live 2,000 years after these words were spoken, as people who are still waiting for Christ’s return, and the final fulfilment of all that Jesus foretold?
Well, today, as in the years following Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, there are many people who continue to stoke fears in order to amass power and wealth for themselves. Some claim to speak for God – others not. And yet it’s amazing how readily people go after those who speak assertively, who claim to have a handle on the truth. Like people spending thousands of dollars on a music festival that never happened, there are many who spend countless time and resources chasing religious leaders who claim to know when Christ will return, or who claim divine revelations from God that do not match up with Scripture. Today, as in the first century, many of those self-proclaimed religious and spiritual leaders point to signs and omens, to events going on in the world or in our society to instill fear and panic, putting themselves forward as the only people to be trusted.
While many flock to this type of bold and assertive leadership, as followers of Christ we must remember that our loyalty is first and foremost to Jesus, and we should remain wary of anyone who claims to have a unique handle on the truth – especially if and when it doesn’t line up with God’s Word.
Another application from this passage, though, is that we see a massive shift happening in our society around the nature of church – and again, many leaders play off of people’s fear in this regard. Fewer people are attending church these days, many people are skeptical of organized religion. Congregations are closing their doors, and many people are noticing and predicting a drastic decline in the institutional authority of the Church.
But I wonder if, like the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, we might be witnessing the birth of a new or different era – something unlike what we’ve seen before in recent history. Perhaps we might be witnessing not the decline in the Church, but rather different ways of imagining what it means to be the Church. Perhaps God is wanting to birth something new right here in our midst.
Many outside commentators, for example, have pointed to the possible split that is predicted to take place within our own United Methodist denomination. While no one would suggest that it will be nearly as cataclysmic as the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, there have been many doom and gloom scenarios suggested.
But in the midst of all of that, as I’ve talked with and heard from other pastors and denominational leaders, I am hearing of new initiatives taking place – of pastors meeting together for prayer and accountability, of small groups of parishioners meeting together for Bible study and encouragement, and of an increase in partnership and collaboration across congregations. And that’s true not just within our own denomination, but across many churches and denominations.
And so let us be alert, let us be mindful and watchful. Let us not be led astray by those who may try to stoke fear and uncertainty, but rather let us cling to promises of God – and let us celebrate the new things that God is doing in our midst. Let us be faithful servants of God who continue to pray, and work, even as we await Christ’s return. And let us cling to hope, asking God to help us sort through the noise and chaos so that we will not be led astray by those who predict doom and gloom. Let us continue to look to Christ, the hope of the world, and may we proclaim that hope through thought, word, and deed until the dayChrist returns.