I prepared this sermon in the aftermath of the November 13 attacks in Paris. The lectionary readings could hardly have been more fitting: 1 Samuel 1:4-18; Psalm 16; and Mark 13:1-8.
You’ve seen the news. On Friday, a series of concerted terrorist attacks in Paris has left at least 129 dead and almost 400 wounded. ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, has claimed responsibility. A very similar attack happened in Beirut, Lebanon on Thursday. ISIS murderers killed at least 43 and injured over 200. Bodies were riddled with bullets and torn apart by explosive blasts. Lives have been shattered and loved ones lost. And we already know what some of the responses will be. There will be calls to more violence. There will be calls to military action. They will sound reasonable but let’s not forget that military action helped create ISIS. Without the war in Iraq, they would not exist. Will more military action make things better or worse? We don’t know.
Worse than that, there will be calls to violence against Syrian refugees. There will be calls to attacking them. And there will be calls to indirect violence, to stop providing shelter for them. Never mind that the refugees flee from the very same murderers who carried out the attacks.
Maybe worst of all, there will be more voices clamoring, in stupidity and blind hatred, for a war against Islam, for a clash of civilizations. Never mind that most victims of Islamist terrorism are Muslims. Never mind that every time terror strikes, Muslims around the world scramble to condemn it. It is easy to overlook Beirut as we focus on Paris. It is easy to overlook Muslim despair as we focus on our own.
And it is easy, these days, to fall into despair. Sometimes, this despair comes out as a belief that these are end times. People feel that doomsday is looming, that things will fall apart. And sometimes, those beliefs are based on the Bible. Take today’s Gospel reading. Jesus’ predictions sound like a comment on our own day and age. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.” We’ve seen all of those in the past few years, and we will see more of it.
But there is more in what he says. It’s not just a list of calamities. “This must take place”, he says, “but the end is still to come. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” So, is he saying that rapture is coming? That this is all part of God’s plan?
I do not believe that. I do not believe that God plans the killing of innocent people 2,000 years in advance just to announce his arrival. That is not the God revealed in Christ. A God Who takes on the suffering of the world and heals it.
So how about we try a different reading. What if Jesus is simply offering us a sober view of reality? The Gospel of Mark was written in tumultuous times. The Romans were destroying Jerusalem and the temple. The Christian community lived in a hostile environment. We can imagine that they were much more afraid than we are. And we can imagine that there were end time prophets among them. Fearmongers who went around saying “repent, the end is near” and “Christ will return soon!”
Not so, says Jesus. Don’t listen to them. The end is not near, it is still to come. These are only birth pains that will bring forth a new world.
And with the hindsight of history, we can affirm that he was right. The destruction of Jerusalem helped spread Christianity. It became the religion of the Roman Empire—only to see the empire crumble. New empires emerged. Some of them reached beyond Europe to conquer new lands and wipe out their peoples. Fast forward to the twentieth century. Wealth and safety are available to more people than ever. At the same time, the most atrocious wars and genocides in human history happen. America rises to be a superpower, and after only a few decades sees her power decline. New powers are emerging. Terrorism spreads as old orders fall apart.
Jesus was absolutely right. There will always be turmoil. The end is still to come. The world is always being born. And all of it must happen, as he says. It is inevitable as long as the world is mired in sin, as long as people are motivated by selfishness, greed, and a will to power. It is inevitable as long as the Reign of God has not been established.
This is not inspirational, but it is realistic. And it opens our eyes to some positive changes. Thanks to our global connectedness, we are more aware than ever that those who suffer are not different from us. Their plight could be our own. In Christ, it is our own. Which makes atrocities like those in Beirut and Paris even harder to bear. We are connected to the pain but we have no way of addressing it.
Except one way. We have prayer.
It is amazing to see all the calls to prayer on my Facebook newsfeed these days. Even atheists are posting prayers. It seems that prayer is a universal need when we are faced with brutal realities. Like Hannah in the book of Samuel, we have a need to pour out our soul, to speak out of our great anxiety and vexation.
But what does prayer do? What good is it to lament to the Lord or tell Him our needs? Doesn’t He already know all of that? What’s the point?
The Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, had this to say on prayer. “Prayer doesn’t change God. It changes the person who prays.” That is the key. We don’t inform God of things God already knows. Prayer is for us. It heals and reconnects. It mends and restores. To pray is to take refuge in the Eternal Truth that all things are born from the Love of God, and all will return to God eventually. This truth opens a space in our hearts. In this space, God reveals His presence.
We are not alone. We are being seen in our pain and your anxiety. And in being seen, we are turned back to our goodly heritage, the gift of life. Life in Eternity. Life that always conquers death.
Prayer: Join me in a moment of silence. Let us hold in our hearts the pain of Beirut and Paris, and the truth that in Christ, life always has the final word.