Word of the Week

The Danger of Certainty

Excerpt from sermon preached at Oaklands Presbyterian Church, Laurel, MD on Mark 13:1-8

Mark 13 is an interesting text. It begins this way:

One disciple says to Jesus on the way, “Look, Teacher, what massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” It’s a keen observation of opulence. The glory of the temple was Herod’s doing. He’d created this glorious worship space with an overflowing courtyard by detailed masonry and hand-crafted attention to every spec.

Though Jesus’ teaching in prior days was full of warnings about not being taken by the display of wealth, here the disciples hadn’t gotten the memo.

And so Jesus wouldn’t just let their comment go unnoticed.

He fires back right away, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown out.”

Or, in other words, “Guys, why are you so focused on what is now? Haven’t you heard anything I’ve been saying these months about the kingdom of God?

And so begins a chapter of Jesus’ teaching that could be filed into the apocalyptic category, a category in which symbolic visions are interpreted as a heavenly revealer of something. Or in simpler terms—if you see ______ happening on earth, then it means ____ is happening in heaven.

I have to stop here and say, that apocalyptic passages like this or whole books on this topic like Daniel or Revelation are not my favorite parts of scripture. Though while I don’t mind the definition I just gave of apocalypse (images that help us see beyond the now to the eternal), I don’t find much use for this topic in my daily life, much less preaching on it!

But because this passage came up in the lectionary and I felt drawn to explore it (Oh, Jesus help me)—here we go!

And maybe you’re in the boat with me . . .

You can hang with Jesus through so much but when he starts talking about the signs of times to come, you feel like you’ve read or seen one to many Left Behind books or movies that you’d really rather just skip over sections like Mark 13 and get on to the more normal stuff like the miracles and Jesus loving on the children.

But what might Jesus’ words on the topic of times to come have to offer us this morning?

How-to-lead-in-uncertain-timesMost of the interpretations I’ve heard on this text go like this:

This world is passing away. One day Christ will return.  All will be destroyed on earth. Christ followers: watch for the signs. The signs will point us to the knowing of when that one event is about to occur.

In fact, Jesus is giving us signs as he says in verse 7 and 8:

“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.”

And teaching sessions like this would conclude with references to world events that would speak of wars, disputes among tribes, international fighting and earthquakes and famines.

The world is ending sooner than you and I think!

And while teaching like this wants to convict us . . .

Have you ever noticed that it can be simultaneously comforting?

If we are good readers of text, some preachers say, we can see the signs. The end is coming. We can know. We can be certain! We won't be left behind if we live right!

But is being certain about heaven what the Christian life is all about?

The faith tradition I grew up was filled with certainty. There was an answer for everything!

My faith traditions said questions were bad. They were bad because it led to doubt. And good Christians didn’t doubt. Good Christians read their Bible every day and take texts at face value. And good Christians confidently sing hymns like “I Know Whom I Have Believed” and “When We All Get to Heaven.”

For in my world view at the time, I never voiced even a shadow of doubt. For I KNEW where I would go when we died one day. Really, what else mattered?

God as a mystery was out of the question, of course.

I regularly apologize to the friends who still speak to me from that part of my life.

So I ask again, is certainty what Jesus was trying to give his disciples in Mark 13? I don’t believe so.

In fact, I believe that Jesus was trying to warn them against the danger of certainty. And all the leaders who think they have it. 

Remember with me how this conversation began. The disciples are pointing out something man-made and beautiful. Not that there is anything wrong with admiring the good and the lovely constructed things on earth, but Jesus is doing a total 180 re-direct saying:

Why are you so focused on this over here?

Why not focus on the bigger picture?

This world, my disciples is broken. And because it is broken it will fail you. Unfair things will occur. Really unfair things. Family will rise against family. The lifespan of beloved ones will end short in tragedy. Discomfort will be a part of your earthly experience.

But I have good news for you. (Jesus says) Do not be afraid. Do not be alarmed. Trust me. Exchange trust in me for your certainty.

On Friday, one of the worst tragedies to hit Europe since World War II occurred. A calculated attack, by known terrorists of
open gunfire destroyed and wounded the lives of hundreds out for a weekend night in Paris. No one saw it coming. Places that aren’t normal targets became massacre zones—restaurants, shopping areas, concert halls.

And to say that a wave of shock and deep, deep fear has blanketed the western world these past several hours is an understatement.

For it was Paris—a place rich in beloved tradition, culture and freedom. And it was the place of all places attacked.

I heard one such bystander say to a reporter yesterday, “If Paris isn’t safe anymore, then I don’t know where is.”

And to hear the French President and even the Pope chime in and say, “This is the beginning of the a third World War. . . . France will never be the same.”

It’s scary stuff. To all our ears. Really scary.

It feels congruent with Jesus’ words “when you hear of wars and rumors of wars.”

Or, like I read in one online clergy chat room yesterday, “Are we living in the pages of Mark 13? I think so!”

Maybe we are. Maybe we aren’t.

And today this is what I most want to tell you: our certainty is dangerous because it’s all about us.

Certainty puts the focus of our lives on what we know, which of course is always limited and never the full story. And if gone unchecked for a while, certainty makes us arrogant in ways that keep us from loving God and our neighbor with our whole heart.

I heard the mayor of New York City in one such interview talking about all the additional security measures in place in his town— more road blocks, more police, more checkpoints, all designed to make people feel safe.

I knew why he said what he did. Words like this are a normal part of the reaction to devastating tragedies. It’s what we crave to hear!

We want human saviors who build more walls, collect more guns and will do whatever it takes to protect us and those we love.

We want reassurance that our world is safer than we think, that our borders are able to keep terror at bay, and that our children and our children’s children will grow up surrounded by greater world peace than we’ve known in our lifetime.

But, is that possible?

If the answer is truthfully no, then how then do we live?

Hear the good news again: we live by letting go our need for certainty.

Several weeks ago, my colleague and friend, Rev. Allyson Robinson penned an article about a moment of deep life revelation. It boiled down to this for her, her faith was built on certainty.

Rev. Allyson wrote: “Certainty, I soon discovered is like a drug. It can comfort us, buoying our spirits as it blocks out the questions, but only for a time. When the mellow high of certainty wears off and the questions reassert themselves, as they always do, we’re sent running in search of a new fix. Certainty is addictive.”

But she realized like any addiction, she needed to let it go. She could not be the human being God had made her to be and be certain at the same time.

Allyson talks about her recovery like this: “I had to get used to carrying the weight of the questions, and I had to learn to accept my own limitations, not fear them. I had to learn to trust God to love me even when I’m not sure, and even when I am wrong.”

My friends, I believe, you and I have before us the same process too if we want to live into the good news this week:

Carrying the weight of our questions.

Accepting our own limitations, not fearing them.

Trusting that God can love us even when we aren’t sure.

And most of all believing that sometimes what we most know can be wrong.

For I believe the world doesn’t need more walls, taller barbed wire and more powerful police routes. The world doesn't need more of us being so sure.

The world needs us to band together reminding each other: “Do not be afraid.”

For this world is ultimately not our home, in all it’s jewels and splendor.

Whatever will be will be.This is for sure!

The cost of discipleship is great. Just look at Jesus.

Yet no matter what, the Holy Spirit will never leave us.

So let us love God, love one another and be brave when times get tough.

The Great Mystery will lead us all home, even if we can't see one foot in front of us. All will be well.

Thanks be to God for this gift in uncertain times. AMEN