Psalm 39, Mark 13
What do we do when religion scares us?
There is no Old Testament reading assigned for this day. Please reread a favorite passage from the first three books of the Old Testament.
When I was growing up, I listened to a lot of rock ‘n’ rock music. I bought albums (my daughters think that I am a dinosaur when I talk about “albums”) by The Beatles, The Doors, The Beach Boys, Crosby Stills and Nash, Neil Young, Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds. I even heard two of the former Byrds, Roger McGuin and Chris Hillman, play in concert while I was in college. “To everything turn, turn, turn. There is a season, turn, turn, turn. A time to be born and a time to die…,” sang McGuin in his twangy voice while strumming and his famous 12-string guitar as The Byrds sang this classic song written in the 1950s by recently deceased folk legend Pete Seeger.
Today, more than thirty-five years after I first enjoyed listening to that song, a lot of people in my church request that we read from Ecclesiastes 3:1-5 at the funeral of a loved one. Even though it is not among the suggested readings from the Burial Office in The Book of Common Prayer, I offer as a possibility. It seems to be a more pastoral reading than many of the Prayer Book suggested readings. Somehow it speaks to people.
For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to week, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones,
and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. (Eccl. 3:1-5)
I think that a lot of people, especially those who rarely attend church or read the Bible, chose that text because they recall The Byrds singing it in the 1960s. The Book of Ecclesiastes, from which it comes, however, is a book written by a skeptic who finds life exasperating. All that we do ultimately comes to nothing, maintains the author. This sentiment is mirrored at times in today’s psalm, where we read,
Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a few handbreaths,
And my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.
Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
they heap up, and do not know who will gather. (Ps. 39:4-6)
The Psalmist vows to keep silent and to keep a muzzle on his mouth, yet his heart is burning within him. As we read these words, most of us can relate. We wonder at times to what will our life amount? At times, we find no answer. We realize that sometimes silence is the best solution in the midst of things that baffle or overwhelm us. We fear saying or doing something rash, yet fire burns within us. We cannot put it out.
Again and again, however, the psalmist turns to God in his prayer poems to provide what he cannot provide for himself or do on his own accord. He writes,
Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
do not hold your peace at my tears. (Ps. 39:12)
The psalms express emotions, fears, stress, a sense of being alone, ganged up on or overwhelmed. Most of us can often relate to experiencing. These ancient prayers put language to what we experience now. They also turn our eyes back towards God, when fear turns us inward. We think, “Woe is me!”
Most of all, they prepare us for the Good News of Jesus Christ, which cannot be found in Ecclesiastes or the Psalms to the same extent that we find words of hope, love and grace in the pages of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Like a field that is plowed, the psalms prepare our hearts, minds and soul so that the gospel seeds might be sown and yield an abundant harvest.
One of Peter Sellers finest movies is Being There. Sellers plays a simple gardener named Chance, who never left the wealthy estate until his owner dies. Chance’s simple statements informed by constant TV watching are then taken for words of great prophetic wisdom. The people around him project all sorts of things onto Chance and his words. Whatever they are seeking in life, whether it be a lover or an economic forecaster, they seem to find in this gardener with a low IQ. Chance is even introduced to the President of the United States and is invited to offer wisdom about the nation’s economy.
In a memorable scene, Chance tells the President, “In the fall, things die. In the winter, they are dormant. In the spring, there is new growth.” Chance, is speaking about plants, but the President thinks that he is forecasting an economic recovering for the nation and has heard just what he needs to confirm that the country’s economic turnaround is only months away from becoming a reality.
I think of those words as we hear Jesus say, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” Chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel is full of apocalyptic language. This language speaks to the end of time, and often uses fierce and fiery imagery, which has fueled scary works of art and speculative theological discourse. It has fueled fire and brimstone preachers from Savonarola in Florence, Italy to Jonathan Edwards in New England for centuries. Jesus says,
But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be, then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it might not be winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. (Mark 13:14-19)
What are readers today to make of this chapter? Is God trying to scare us to death? I think not. The author of Mark’s Gospel, however, is aware that following Jesus in a culture where Caesar was believed to be a living god was a very costly endeavor. Whether the persecution of Christians was already occurring or whether the author of Mark’s Gospel could simply intuit that grave persecutions would soon occur, Mark recalls Jesus warning those who follow him about the cost that they must pay.
Furthermore, Jesus predicts that many false prophets will arise in his name claiming to speak for God. “Beware that no one leads you astray,” warns Jesus. Every few years, someone arises that captures the national spotlight as he or she predicts the end of the world. It is amazing how gullible people can be – even bright Episcopalians! Our Lord encourages us not to listen to false prophets. Jesus then adds,
For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. (Mark 13:8)
This is scary religion. Fire and brimstone preaching does not have to rely solely upon Old Testament texts to paint a portrait of a judgmental God who plans to cleanse the world of human corruption. There are plenty of apocalyptic texts in the New Testament that fuel this kind of thinking.
What do we make of it? Perhaps the best wisdom is to heed what C.S. Lewis has to say about believing in devils. “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” Likewise, it is an error to disbelieve that God takes human sin seriously and punishes the wicked. It is also unhealthy to take an excessive and unhealthy interest in whether or not God will punish us.
Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. (Mark 13:35-37)
Has anyone ever used religion to scare you? Have you read or heard things about Christianity that have made you afraid? What is your concept of God and of Jesus? Is there something in your concept that leads you to be afraid? Are you able to hold on to a solid Christian faith while giving yourself permission to dismiss some of the texts of the Bible as not vital to your faith and your concept of God and Jesus?
All-Loving God, you have created us in the image of love so that we might be lovely and love one another. Allow your love to flow ceaselessly through us and be constantly renewed so that we might always share it with those around us. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania