What Matters the Most to Jesus?

The following sermon was delivered at the First Presbyterian Church in Murray, KY on November 14, 2021.
Title: What Matters to Jesus
Text: Mark 13:1-8

When I was growing up in Philadelphia in the 1980’s, the city used to have a rule of sorts that no one could construct a building taller than the hat on the head of William Penn’s statue at the top of city hall. That resulted in a relatively tame downtown skyline that made it really cool to visit New York City where the sky literally was the limit.

Out of all the buildings in New York City, I always wanted to see the Empire State building. It wasn’t just a giant rectangle of glass with a point on top. It had character and a sense of history that made it unique compared to so many other buildings.

To this day, I can’t imagine a trip to New York City without a moment to gaze at the Empire State Building. Central Park is nice enough, Time’s Square is an annoying mass of humanity with people shoving promotional flyers in your face, and Fifth Avenue is dull shopping. But the Empire State building gives you a sense of being somewhere unique and historic.

I imagine we each have a favorite building or location in a city. But there really is nothing in modern American cities today that can quite capture the impressive nature and significance of the City of Jerusalem and the temple mount complex for the Jewish people at the time of Jesus.

It’s hard for us to imagine how steep and imposing the valleys around the city used to be. We can hardly put ourselves in the sandals of peasant fishermen who had grown up in the forgotten backwater of Galilee.

The size and scale of the temple in Jerusalem and the surrounding buildings and walls were truly unique and impressive. And this was especially true for people who had only known small villages and cramped family homes. At that time adult children often built an addition to the existing structure when they were ready to start out “on their own.”

The stones used on the walls in Jerusalem and around the temple mount were enormous blocks that sometimes weighed as much as a 747. We can hardly imagine having to move those stones into place, much less stacking them up on top of each other with any kind of precision.

Today you can still see the lower portion of Jerusalem’s walls around the old city from the time of Jesus, and they remain quite impressive. I can only imagine how imposing these walls could have appeared at the time of Jesus when the valleys around them were deeper and people in that region would have had little experience seeing cities on that scale.

Now, the temple wasn’t just a fancy building in the big city. It was the center of worship and a symbol of God’s presence and their special status as God’s chosen people.

So when we read today about the disciples marveling about the massive stones and buildings, the truth is that we are still impressed today by the remnants of those stones. However, the tragic thing is that we can also be impressed by the massive indentations in the earth those stones made when the Romans hurled them to the ground in AD 70. The remnants of that destruction are also extremely impressive.

When we join Jesus and his disciples walking out of Jerusalem’s temple mount, we shouldn’t forget what Mark has already recorded.

In Mark 9:31, Jesus dropped some heavy news on his disciples: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

A short while after that, his disciples engaged in an argument behind his back about which of them was the greatest. It turned out that empathy for their master wasn’t at the front of their minds.

Mark chapter 12, which precedes today’s passage, showed Jesus in rather tense discussions and debates with the religious leaders of the temple establishment. They were trying to discredit if not incriminate Jesus.

Although Jesus had warned his disciples of his impending death and the discussions with religious leaders were extremely tense and combative, his disciples didn’t have a lot to say about it. In fact, while Jesus had the anticipation of his death and resurrection weighing on his mind, the disciples were acting like tourists sightseeing in the big city. “Hey, look at these stones! THEY’RE HUGE!”

In a sense, they acted a lot like fishermen from small town Galilee. Some commentators wonder if they were even anticipating Jesus’ coming conquest as king. Then Jesus, and by proxy them, would be in charge of the massive walls and impressive buildings.

Yet, Jesus directed the conversation in a rather jarring and painful direction. At the peak of their admiration for the beautiful buildings at the heart of their country and the temple at the center of their faith, Jesus snapped them out of it with a harsh dose of realism.

One day soon, their beloved temple would come crumbling down.

In a sense, everything around us is fragile and lacking permanence. Think of how many buildings have endured for 2,000 years. But the disciples immediately discerned that Jesus was talking about something far worse: Jerusalem will be destroyed by an invading army, which was exactly what happened about 40 years later.

We could spend the rest of our time talking about what else Jesus could have meant here. The rest of this chapter could also have something to say about the days in the future before Jesus returns. Then again, this chapter could very well refer to the events shortly after the ministry of Jesus and not much more than that.

It is compelling, to me at least, that Jesus ended this entire discourse, which is addressed to his disciples in the second person, with the following statement in verse 30: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” In addition, there was a strong Jewish tradition of using dramatic language of heavenly turmoil, such as stars falling from the sky, in Apocalyptic literature at the time that Mark wrote this Gospel.

All of this is to say, it’s likely that this passage is primarily about Rome’s war against the Jewish people and the final Roman siege of Jerusalem, even if we can’t necessarily rule out references to future events.

Now, some have devoted their time to passages like this as if decoding future events was all that Jesus asks of us. As I read what Jesus had to say, I wonder if figuring out the end of time was much of a priority for Jesus. While he offers details about the immanent destruction of the temple and surrounding buildings, he isn’t just delivering insider information about the future. Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to be led astray or to retreat in fear so that they can endure in their faith with confidence and hope.

There’s a sense that the disciples were still not fully aware of what was going on with Jesus as he traveled to Jerusalem. Even after several tense encounters with the teachers at the temple and Jesus’ dire warnings about his coming death, it appears many of them couldn’t quite put it all together.

They weren’t preparing themselves for the tribulation that Jesus would soon face or supporting him in his hour of need.

In fact, while Jesus did offer them some clues about the coming destruction of the temple, he gave them many warnings about themselves. Much like Jesus comforting the women who wept for him, Jesus prepared his clueless disciples for the adversity that would soon come their way. While drawing so near to his own suffering, Jesus prepared his followers for a distressing and uncertain future where they would need to rely on the Holy Spirit in order to persevere.

In today’s passage Jesus warned them about being led astray by false teachers who would come in his name. But in the verses that follow, he gave the chilling prediction that his disciples would be slandered and attacked. There would be family divisions over faithfulness to Jesus, and he went as far as predicting that everyone would hate them!

Although the disciples were concerned about the fate of stones and buildings, Jesus was concerned about their safety and faithfulness. He predicted attacks and trials, but most importantly he promised that God would help them endure, saying:

“When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.”

These are high stakes situations where their world is going to be flipped upside down. Family members will be divided, the religious leaders they once admired will treat them like enemies, and their freedom and safety are far from guaranteed. Jesus isn’t as concerned about the buildings of Jerusalem enduring as he is concerned about his disciples enduring.

It’s easy to empathize with the disciples here. War in that era was terrifying and devastating, bringing famine, the destruction of communities, and the brutality of an occupying army. The Jewish people were already living under the oppressive rule of Rome, but Jesus predicted something far worse that would signal the loss of religious and national symbols.

In addition to the distressing wars, invasions, famines, and natural disasters, the disciples also had to prepare themselves for false prophets claiming to speak in the name of Jesus.

This level of disruption to their nation, their society, their religion, and their personal lives is quite staggering to consider. Although the disciples started this conversation merely worried about the future of the temple and the city of Jerusalem, they now had a whole pile of fresh worries to weigh on their minds.

It’s a little jarring to hear in this morning’s passage Jesus saying, “Do not be alarmed” about the coming wars and famines and disruptions. Alarm feels really natural, and every other coming crisis he mentions seems to warrant alarm as well.

Yet, there’s a comforting pragmatism in what Jesus said. These things must take place. They can’t stop them. However, they can trust themselves to God and rely on the Holy Spirit to guide their thoughts and words in the midst of this coming disruption.

This unusual and uncomfortable passage may prompt us to ask what we value right now. What are the things that impress us? What gives us a sense of security or belonging? What are we counting on?

Perhaps we can ask how we could depend on God if we were apart from our work, apart from our homes, apart from our cars, or apart from certain relationships? What can’t we imagine living without?

It’s possible that we may be focused on the wrong priority right now, and we need Jesus to redirect our attention to what matters the most. Perhaps we are so focused on outward religious practices that we fail to ask about the state of our souls or the resilience of our faith.

We may hear of rumors and predictions that alarm us and leave us frightened. There’s no guarantee that the institutions or organizations that we count on will always be there to support us when everything falls to pieces.

Jesus can remind us of the fragility and uncertainty of our world. Disruptions have happened in the past, and they will certainly happen again. Can we stand firm in our faith and hope in God’s presence and power to carry us through the moments that we simply can’t even imagine?

If Jesus could help a group of small town fishermen tourists to Jerusalem endure in their faith after years of missing the point, I believe that he is more than able to help us today. Amen.

Why We Need to Stop Talking about Spiritual Growth

ruler-1479782-638x480

I’m a competitive person. I love tracking my results against other people or even against myself.

In college I used to drive the 11 hours from my home to my dorm with minimal stops to try to beat my time each trip.

When I run in the morning, I want to go just a little bit further with each run, even if it cuts into my writing time.

When I set a word count goal, I’ll leave a wreckage of butchered words as my fingers fly across the keyboard.

I want to grow and improve. Why wouldn’t I want to get better at things I care about?

Now, if there’s one thing I care about, it’s Christianity. Heck, I plunked down thousands of dollars and untold hundreds of hours into seminary for four years.

I wanted to get better at studying the Bible, praying, and doing Christian-ish things. I was always measuring my progress. I wanted to grow spiritually. I wanted to know I was doing better from one year to another.

And good heavens, I burned out. I burned out over a lot of things, but in retrospect, I can see how the concept of “spiritual growth” tapped into the worst parts of my competitive drive.

Am I sinning less this year compared to last year?

Am I praying “better” than last year? (You know you’ve thought something similar at least once.)

Do I know the Bible better than last year?

My constant need to measure fits in well with our Christian subculture that recognizes the blessings of God and the gifts of individuals based on the dollars they raise and the numbers they lead in salvation prayers or baptize. The larger your church, the more influence you’re afforded.

Measure, measure, measure. We measure everything, all of the time. It’s no wonder we fall into this trap when it comes to judging whether we are spiritually healthy or not.

As I’ve confronted my own measuring mania, I’ve tried to move away from the language of spiritual growth. I don’t want to know if I’m getting better or improving or providing some metric of my spiritual awesomeness.

The truth is that I could pray a lot or improve my Bible knowledge and still be a wandering, self-centered mess without direction.

Speaking of direction, spiritual direction is just the sort of thing we need to talk about instead of growth.

Let’s talk about where I am and where you are right now and which direction you’re moving in.

We could also speak in terms of temperature, being hot or cold.

Jesus spoke in terms of abiding on the vine. If we abide in him and he in us, the life of God will be evident. Our direction or proximity tap into this idea of abiding.

What if we ditched the language of spiritual growth in favor of spiritual proximity (close or far, hot or cold) or spiritual direction?

Are we living close to Jesus? Are moving in step with Jesus? Are you close enough to Jesus to know whether or not you’re moving in step with him?

These have been helpful concepts for a performer like myself who will endlessly beat myself up for failing to attain certain spiritual growth goals. I can lose my connection with God as I focus on my weaknesses and supposed distance from God.

The past two weeks have been really full with tired kids and lots of additional work. Sleep deprivation from kids is nothing new. I’ll also never complain about having a lot of work to do.

However, as I took stock of my direction and considered my spiritual “temperature,” I honestly had no idea where I was pointed. I felt like I was just running from one thing to another. As I considered my temperature, I felt the chill of being far from God’s presence.

I hadn’t cleared very much space for God over the past week, and I felt the lack in my soul. As I consider that we could “lose our souls” in the midst of busy schedules, I took more intentional steps to create space over the past few days for abiding, prayer, and meditating on scripture. I wasn’t measuring anything. I just tried to be present for God.

I skipped the part where I beat myself up for being a spiritual slacker. I didn’t lament that I’d lost ground in my race to grow spiritually.

I reoriented my life. I shifted my priorities. I changed how I spent my time.

As I stepped into greater awareness of the state of my soul and the presence of God, I felt the crazy of the past few weeks buzzing through my body. The residual anxiety that had followed me throughout each day finally emerged.

This morning I was driving my oldest son over to a friend’s house. He had asked me to play music because he loves anything with loud drums. We chatted about the way the music gets quiet and louder “on its own” during different parts of the songs. He noticed the “jingle bells” that the drummer played during the bridge and celebrated the booming bass drum by shouting, “BIG DRUM!”

As I turned off the highway, I realized that, for the first time in several weeks, I was completely at rest. I wasn’t buzzing with anxiety. I wasn’t worried about anything known or unknown. Mind you, I can flip that anxiety switch on in a second. It doesn’t take a lot.

However, it was a relief to know that a few days of attending to my soul and more actively creating space for prayer and devotion could actually result in God changing the direction of my soul.

Before I realized what I was doing, I naturally resolved to make myself feel even more relaxed and at peace with God tomorrow.

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer
and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $9.99 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

FBSP blog footer