To See or Not To See
Passage: 1 Samuel 1:9-18; Mark 13:1-8
Date: November 18, 2006
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
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There was a time when - if you had asked me if I liked happy endings I would probably have said - no. Happy endings are the stuff of bad Hollywood fiction - I would have said. They're unrealistic - I would have said... I would have been in high school or college at the time. I was reading things like "A Clockwork Orange". I liked Dante's description of hell in the "Inferno" far better - than his lame attempt at heaven in the "Paradiso". I liked gutsy "man done me wrong" blues - and the haunting sounds of "the Doors". Bob Dylan's wrenching album "Blood on the Tracks" was my absolute favorite. You get the picture. Well - that was then...
Lately - I find myself longing for happy endings. So they're unrealistic? Bring on the fantasy. Give me "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and let me ride an elevator into the sky with Gene Wilder. Lately, I long for those kind of happy endings.
And there is - I think - something in the Gospel reading that longs for them too.
In this morning's reading, we find Jesus talking about "the end". "When you hear wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed" Jesus says. "This MUST take place", he says, "BUT - the end is not yet". That's only the beginning. "Nation will rise against nation. And - there will be earthquakes - and famine". And - - that's only the beginning. Yikes.
Just before he said that stuff about endings, Jesus had been listening to his disciples. He and the disciples had just walked out of the temple - after stopping for a moment to observe a poor woman toss two coins into a big metal receptacle. If you were here last week you may remember that Jim preached a sermon on the text in Mark that just immediately precedes this one. In the midst of a crowd of people tossing large sums of money into the treasury - Jesus stopped to notice this nearly invisible woman. He actually sat down and watched her for a bit. As if there was something about her humble nature - that Jesus wanted us to see. Or anyway wanted his disciples to see.
So then, just after supposedly taking in and digesting that lesson of the humble woman, we find the disciples on the temple steps saying - "Hey look - cool big buildings!" Way to miss the point...And Jesus responded, "You see these buildings...?" "Gone!" "Forget about ‘em." "They'll all gonna be - thrown down."
And the disciples get curious. They want to know how THAT's going to happen. Big buildings just disappearing? How will Jesus do that trick? And - is that just the end? Or will they reappear?
There is a movie out now called, "The Prestige". It's about two competing magicians. It's about envy and the drive for success. And while watching this movie I learned a few things about magic tricks. For example, a magic trick has THREE parts. They are called, "the Pledge, the Turn, and finally the Prestige". In the Pledge, an object is presented. Some visible reality is established. Pledged to us. Then in the Turn, it is made to disappear. But the classic magic trick is never completed by simply making something disappear. It must reappear. And it's reappearance is called "the Prestige".
The buildings with their wonderful stones are presented in the Gospel reading. The disciples see them. And then Jesus says, they're going to disappear. And then Jesus sits down opposite the temple and just looks at it, maybe a bit like he looked at the woman with the two coins. And they disciples are left - feeling a bit - like they're just hanging there.
They want some resolution. Maybe THEY long for a happy ending - too. "What do you mean the big buildings are going to just disappear?" They long for - if not resolution - at least an explanation.
Now if another Gospel, the Gospel of JOHN is right about this - and Jesus BODY is the temple - then the prestige of this trick - is the resurrection. Jesus body is the temple, and then is destroyed or disappears, and then rises in three days. But that seems like a lot of mumbo jumbo in the midst of all this talk about wars, earthquake and famine.
Unless you really think about it.
What can all this talk about "the end" really be about? If Jesus life ends with the proclamation that he is King, then, where is his kingdom? Where can we look to SEE it?
According to a book by Brian McLaren, called "the Secret Message of Jesus", the proclamation of the coming Kingdom IS the secret message. So now that I have RUINED the book's ending for you, let me say, I recommend it to you nevertheless.
The Kingdom is what Jesus proclaims over and over.
And it is what this Gospel text is about, I believe, at least in part.
So with that said, listen to how McLaren describes the Kingdom near the end of the book:
[ read The Secret Message of Jesus; p. 201-204 ]
"There is a moment when I often feel the grandeur of the Kingdom of God. It comes not through my eyes but through my ears, in Handel's Messiah during the "Hallelujah Chorus". The moment is not for me when the voices sing out, fortissimo and glorious, "Hallelujah, Hallelujah! again and again, as wonderful as that is. Nor is it that beautiful section when the melody seems to ascend triumphantly over the words, "For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth", although that is splendid indeed. My moment comes just after this loud, powerful section. The tone shifts and these words are sung - softly and gently in a gradual swell, growing in intensity, culminating in a momentous finality: "The Kingdom of this world IS become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever".
"These words from Revelation 11:15 evoke an understanding of the kingdom of God very different from the one many people seem to have. For them the words should actually go, "The kingdom of this world is destroyed, and in its place the kingdom of God goes on in heaven." In contrast, the glimpse we're given in this moment, is not of the end of space time and the universe, but of its transformation, not its destruction, but its salvation."
"Like a mother dreaming of a good future for the baby at her breast, like the father standing at the crib watching his newborn sleep peacefully, God will see God's own primal dream for creation finally coming true. Perhaps all along, my deepest joy has never been to have all my dreams come true, but rather to have God's one dream come true: that this world will become a place God is at home in, a place where God's dreams come true."
"But no, that's not exactly what the text says. It puts it not in the future tense but in the present prefect: ‘the kingdom of this world IS become'. So often we do not see it. But then suddenly we do. We look with our hearts not just our eyes, and there it is as if it had been there all along. The kingdom of this world. The world has not yet become the kingdom, and yet it has. It is in that tension, that the secret message of Jesus dances, glimmers, and calls us to live."
A few weeks ago, while I was preparing to lead devotions in staff meeting, I read that section of McLaren's book. And then out of curiosity, I looked to the daily lectionary to see what text was assigned for that day, which was Halloween. October 31. I thought maybe there would be some connection to what I had just read and I could present both as my devotion. I found that the text for that day was from the book of Revelation. And I opened my Bible to read:[ Rev. 11:14-17 ]
"Then the 7th angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying, "The kingdom of this world is become..."
I nearly dropped my Bible, and I got that tingly feeling on the back of my neck.
Maybe there really is something to all this.
And if so, is it there in the Old Testament too?
All through the Old Testament - through the books of Joshua and Judges, and through the books of Samuel - the ending for which the people of Israel LONG - is a king. To have a king - they believed - would put an end to their suffering at the hands of stronger foreign nations. To have a king would put an end to their own internal squabbles, infighting, chaos, moral depravity, and civil war. To have a king would put an end to their long wait for a leader. Israel longed for this kind of a happy ending.
This morning's Old Testament reading picks up their story right at the beginning of the book of 1 Samuel. The events that precede it are found in the book of Judges. They are horrible, violent, sordid events. Desolation and corruption have taken over in the relations between the tribes. There is a civil war against the tribe of Benjamin. It is a story that includes rape, and guilt. And the story also includes lots and lots of waiting. And longing for something better. The last line of the book of Judges is: "In those days there was NO king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes".
This is NOT a happy ending to the book.
And so emerges Hannah, in the next book, just after the interlude of Ruth. Hannah is, the mother of Samuel, who will one day proclaim David King. Hannah who is barren and who has done her own waiting, emerges. Hannah's waiting for a child becomes a symbol for the waiting of Israel for a king. Hannah's suffering at the hands of Peninnah becomes a symbol for Israel's suffering at the hands of stronger nations. Hannah embodies Israel.
And after much suffering and waiting come these amazing two words.
Hannah suffered, and waited, and had been ridiculed. She was so provoked that she wept and would not eat. And then something happened inside her. That's my best guess. There's no explanation given in the text. There is just this sudden change. And those two words.
After weeping and refusing to eat, the very next line, verse 9 of chapter 1 says, "After they had eaten and drunk... Hannah rose." Something changed in her. And she decided to sit at table and receive it's blessings. And then...(the two words)...."Hannah rose". And as she rose, she embodied the rising of the whole nation of Israel. As she rose, so began the story of King David's coming. As she rose, so began the pinnacle story - of the entire Old Testament history. But at that moment, neither her husband, nor Eli the priest had eyes to see it.
The struggle - in our longing for happy endings - is NOT to create some false pie-in-the-sky substitute for reality. Instead the struggle, is to rise NOW, like Hannah. The struggle, is to have eyes to see, our part, NOW, in the grand drama of God's grace.
Think of the events of your life. Consider the things you have witnessed in and among members of this congregation. The word of a child. Some healing. Some struggle. Some courageous way in which someone has embodied Hannah's action at table, or her act of rising. Remember: Hannah rose. Christ was raised. So might we.
The struggle is - to see the events of our lives, in the context of that grand drama of God's grace. It's not always easy to do. There is a jarring image that does just that for me. It is found, in a novel by Joyce Cary.
In the novel a man is described. A half mad artist swinging from a scaffolding - trying to paint a mural on the wall of a condemned building. A mural of the New Jerusalem. A big picture of the New Jerusalem - that image from the book of Revelation. An image of hope for the future. Painted - on the wall of a condemned building. / /
What beautiful stones, they said.
That's only the beginning, Jesus said.