Provoking the Good
It has been an interesting week. We have moved from the serious responsibility of taking care of our military veterans to the silliness of debates over who is offended – or even defending against attacks from – red coffee cups to the severity of terrorism and absolute suffering. Much of this drama has played out though social media in ways that make it all seem both highly personal and totally virtual at the same time. Of course, violence is not some virtual reality. Oh that it were so, and we could spawn and re-spawn countless numbers of lives!
When we hear the terrible truth of lives lost to violence we cannot help but turn to God. We ask questions of purpose. We make declarations of judgement, and we make vows and speak prayers that expose our fear even as we are called to hope.
Some may even think that it is time to abandon hope in the present and place all of our trust in the future. When the world seems to be changing under our feet it seems hard to trust leaders with whom we disagree. It may even be hard to trust those who are not part of the circle of those we call friends.
The truth is that this has all happened before, and it will probably all happen again. Well, not exactly in the same way. Whether it is the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, or the Crusades, it seems that there have always been people who – for good reason – are expecting their world to come to an end.
In fact, that was part of the problem for the second generation of Christians living in Rome that were (most likely) the first recipients of the letter to the Hebrews. Scholars are not exactly sure who wrote “Hebrews”, or who first received it – even though it was written in the same tradition as the letters of Paul. From the content of the letter, it was certainly written to followers of Jesus who were at least familiar with the temple and its rituals.
The important thing is that this letter was addressing people whose hopes were growing thin. The generation that would have heard and seen Jesus was dying off, and they needed some assurance that their faith was not misplaced. Throughout the whole letter, its author is dealing with matters of eternity and moving the readers away from the need for a temple.
In today’s reading, there’s a fundamental shift from religious practices that seek God’s approval through an intermediary to the idea that – because of Jesus’ sacrifice – we no longer need to seek God’s approval. Instead we have this assurance, this hope, that God actually loves us because that’s what God does. This hope, this assurance, is not dependent on our faith.
It is the result of God’s faithfulness. And so we are told to hold fast to that faith. Hold fast to the idea that God is willing to let go of the memory of your sins, as long as you do it, too.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “If my sins are all forgiven and I don’t have to do anything about it, then why am I here?” If so, apparently you aren’t the first one to have that thought. Because the very next thing the letter says is that – because of the love of God – we must provoke one another to good deeds. But how?
Well, apparently the most important thing to do is to get together with other believers. “Do not neglect meeting, as some have done, but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The Day. This always reminds me of the bumper sticker that reads, “In Case of Rapture This Car Will Be Unmanned.” And of course the responding, “In Case of Rapture, Can I Have Your Car?”
Neither of those really matter to us because Presbyterians don’t really believe in the Rapture. Well, I should say that we don’t want to say what God will, won’t, can, or can’t do. It’s more that we place our trust in the idea that the Kingdom of God is revealed in our ability to provoke one another to love and good deeds here and now.
That word, “provoke”, is a pretty strong word. It typically means to do something so obnoxious that someone else feels like they have to respond in some way. In fact, the word in our Greek text can also be translated as irritate. I don’t think that means that we have to nag one another into doing the right thing. Taken with other scriptures that encourage us to study God’s word and pray and worship and serve those in need, it seems clear that the more we can be together, the more we can encourage one another; the more we can celebrate what God is doing through us; the more we can come to know that our hope is not only established in God’s present action of love toward us, but even more so in the hope of the life to come.
That’s about where our Gospel text comes in. This particular passage is part of Jesus’ farewell to the disciples. But it’s also one of the places we see Jesus as a prophet. I don’t mean that he’s a fortune teller. I mean that he is willing to speak the truth about the way things are headed. One of the reasons he said, “Many will come in my name and say, I am he!” Is because there were multiple revolts going on, with leaders claiming to be the Messiah.
Some have even said that the Gospel of Mark was written as a caution to those revolts – kind of like a way to get the word out that Jesus was not a militant. He was concerned with bigger issues than Roman authority. He was concerned with authority over sin, and the revealing of the Kingdom of God.
So Jesus condemns the Temple; then he goes to the Mount of Olives with his closest disciples to find sanctuary. Naturally they want to know what signs will be a part of this incoming storm. And he tells them there will be war and famine and any number of terrible things, but these are only the birth pangs of what is to come.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I wonder how long birth pangs can go on. But that is probably precisely why we have this story in our text today. Lamar Williamson Jr. says of this text in his commentary on Mark, "It both ennobles and relativizes the common round of daily life by making each moment subject to the invasion of the Son of man, who comes to judge and save.”
Thinking of it this way means that every moment and every chance interaction hold a revelation of the Kingdom of God. Jill Duffield, Editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, says it this way:
“This future promise shapes our current living because it imbues ‘each moment’ with the possibility of being the moment in which we see the glory of God, the very moment when judgment and salvation meet. What would our living be like if we viewed it through that kind of anticipatory lens? I suspect there would be a lot I would worry less about and some things I would take a whole lot more seriously.”
So it is with each of us, as we continue to seek ways to provoke one another to good in a world where some feel so squeezed by economic oppression and religious fanaticism that wearing a bomb or shooting innocent strangers seems like a good idea. Likewise, we live in a town that seems to have recovered from recent shooting deaths and injuries only to realize that just last year there were over 200 hand guns stolen (many out of unlocked cars) and used or sold by criminals in our Parish.
So, what do we do? Well, for starters, you are here worshiping God and expressing hope. You are here to learn and grow in the knowledge that Jesus has called you to follow and encourage others to follow him. You are here in hopes that you might even be provoked into loving others as you have been loved!
And let me tell you what else we are doing while we await God’s Kingdom. We’ve grown a gift basket ministry that is so big you can’t keep it. You’ve elected Officers to encourage us in the collective ministry of the church, and part of their job will be to be sure that we are using the newly opened space faithfully after the basket ministry moves on. You’ve also made commitments to support the church financially, and because of your commitments the Session just approved their “dream budget” that will provide increased support for local missions, increased support for Presbytery, Synod, and General Assembly mission work, funds to maintain our property, and even a little extra to develop youth ministry and congregational outreach in the community!
That’s pretty amazing. Yet, it is simply what we do when we recognize that God is not keeping score. Then every moment becomes a chance for the Kingdom to come and for judgement to take place that finally rids the world of all that is opposed to God. And the good news is that Jesus is both the Judge and Redeemer!
And that good news, in the face of violence and terror, leaves us with both hope and responsibility. The Talmud, which began as an oral Rabbinic tradition, states it this way, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Thanks be to God that the work of restoration and hope is not ours to do alone. It will be accomplished through the will of God, and we will have a part to play. Let’s just not forget to meet together and provoke the good in each person. For in this way we may experience more and more of God’s active presence – even here, even now. And to God be the glory. Now and always, Amen!