Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

(Genesis 3:8-21)+Psalm 96+Romans 8:31-39+Mark 13:14-22

Imagine for a moment that you are sitting under some olive trees with friends and followers of Jesus. Across the Kidron Valley, you can see the massive temple built by Herod the Great, a temple so huge it would not fit in Met Life Stadium over there in East Rutherford. The temple dominated Jerusalem and dominated Jewish life and practice.

So, there you are with a group of people on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city and from where, two days earlier, you had walked with a festive procession into Jerusalem through the Eastern Gate shouting “Hosanna” and waving palm branches. You watched as Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple courts, listened as he challenged the scribes and Pharisees, and heard the ominous warnings about the temple being destroyed.

And now Jesus is talking about what sounds like the end of the world.

We are three days from the crucifixion which none of them (except Jesus) likely saw coming. Jesus has grown more provocative. Many scholars agree that the cleansing of the Temple was really the last straw for the religious leaders.  At this point, Jesus doesn’t seem to have much time for the that leadership or for the complicity they have in the Roman occupation, doing their best not to rock the boat rather than standing up to the empire.

And here is where we have to take a step back and remember that Mark is writing at a time 40-or-so years later when all of this that Jesus talks about seems to be coming true. Rome invaded Jerusalem in the year 63CE. A few years later came the 1st Jewish Revolt which drove the Romans out, temporarily at least. But in the year 70, the Romans besieged Jerusalem, starving or massacring much of the population and destroying the temple. All that remains to this day is the Western Wall, sometimes called the Wailing Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism.

The desolating sacrilege to which Mark refers comes from the book of Daniel, when another invading ruler outlawed daily sacrifices made by the Jewish priests on the altar of the temple, replacing them with pagan sacrifices. We don’t actually know what it refers to in Jesus’s context. There are some historic references to the Emperor Caligula trying to set up a statue of himself in the temple in the 40s, and maybe something similar happened during the Jewish revolts, whether a statue or images or emblems placed in the Holy of Holies. So, when Jesus says to watch out when that happens, it means that the end is near – the temple will be destroyed and the people scattered. And it’s really hard to be a refugee when you are pregnant or too young or ill or old or disabled.

Just look at the images coming out of Ukraine.

This whole 13th chapter of Mark has Jesus preparing his followers for what is to come, and it really carries a dual meaning: Jesus is about to be handed over to torture and death and, for Mark, the whole system is about to collapse. The Jewish leadership will need to make sure that Jewish practice is maintained in the face of Rome, and those who are wavering – those followers of Jesus – simply cannot be allowed to corrupt the Jewish way of life. Returning to what I have said many times before, these were Jews in conflict with other Jews. Ultimately, we know that the Jews were scattered around the world following a series of revolts in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries. As for the Jesus followers, those called Christians, Paul and the other apostles went about the near east and beyond as missionaries, sharing the Good News and, as often as not, paying for it with their lives.

“False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect” (Mark 13:22). Even now, there are plenty of those around. People carrying the Christian flag in the halls of Congress during the January 6th insurrection. Images of Jesus carrying an AR47 – a manly Jesus. Folks focusing on the “I came not to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34) line while ignoring its context and everything else Jesus said. Condemning whole categories of humans through narrow definitions about who is loved and who is condemned.

Have they not read Paul? Have they not read the 8th chapter of Romans which gives an extraordinary accounting of what it means to be a person of faith?

“If God is for us, who is against us?” (8:31)

“God is the one who justifies. Who will condemn?” (8:33-34)

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” (8:35)

Paul leaves no doubt that it is God in Christ who saves us. Nothing else. No one else. We cannot do it on our own, and no matter how bad we mess things up or think we aren’t good enough or think some leader or ruler or government is going to save us, to all of that Paul says a resounding “no.”

No, in all these things we are completely victorious (more than conquerors is how it is usually translated) through the one who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor powers-that-be, nor things that are, nor things that will be, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Redeemer. (8:37-39)

As we make our way through this wilderness of Lent, through these uncertain times, wondering when the next variant will erupt here, watching as Putin threatens to use nuclear and biological weapons, witnessing our planet crying out for relief, and wondering who will save us, we know who will save us. Christ alone. Not that we are to sit idly and not use the good gifts we have been given to do good in this world but trusting that the power behind us is far greater than the forces arrayed against us.

I taught the children a song this morning – our first time singing together in a while – that is based on the words of the late Desmond Tutu who knew what it was to have seemingly insurmountable forces arrayed against him and those suffering under the apartheid regime. Tutu wrote

Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.
Light is stronger than darkness.
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours through Him who loved us.[1]

My friends, what might this world be like if we truly believed that the victory is already won?

[1] Words: An African Prayer Book © 1995 Desmond Tutu (Admin. Doubleday, a div. of Random House, Inc.). Music by John Bell, © 1996, Iona Community, GIA publications, Inc.

ASEPSermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas