St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost (November 15, 2015)

Liturgical Color: Green

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Fear and Trembling

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The liturgical year saves the best bits for last, doesn't it? I'm kidding, of course. As we move towards Advent and a new year, we close our year of Mark this week and next with foreboding talk of end times.

This passage from Mark is a fearsome thing.

"Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." "When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines."

Total destruction, wars, earthquakes, famines, and “the end”—this is stuff to put the fear of God in you.

Here we are approaching the Day of Thanksgiving, and we are forced to think again about signs of the end of time. There is almost always plenty of evidence of the kind that our Lord names. Unrest in the Middle East tears at the hearts of the people of the world's three major faiths. Wars around the world—some 30 armed conflicts at any given time—bear witness to the rising of nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom.

Earthquakes along all the various faults and fluctuations in the earth's crust seem to come all too frequently. Californians, who suffer repeated destruction and tremor, grow increasingly anxious about the "Big One"—the 8+ earthquake yet predicted to come. Fear and trembling is marked by a periodic rises in sales of earthquake insurance in Pacific Rim states, and even in Ohio and Tennessee.

Earthquakes are not mentioned very often in the gospels. Mark notes seismic disturbance only once—in verse 8 of today's text.

Matthew and Luke also recall Jesus' words about earthquakes in their versions of this story. In all these gospels, as Jesus looks to the future, he is instructing the disciples regarding events that will take place in the time following his resurrection and leading up to his second coming. It is exactly during this portent-filled time that the disciples will be engaged in the mission that is theirs following the resurrection—that of proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom throughout the whole shaking, trembling world.

In discharging this mission, Jesus warns them that they will encounter fierce obstacles, persecutions from without and dissension from within (13:9-13). Faithful discipleship during these days will not be easy. The tumultuous and frightening times will challenge their faithfulness.

There is another gospel story that demonstrates the difficulty of keeping faith while experiencing the fearful events of this world. Common to Matthew, Mark, and Luke is Jesus' calming of an apparently life-threatening storm at sea. But some translations cloud the drama of the event by calling it a "windstorm." A better translation might be "tempest" (Mark 4:37) or a "fierce gust of wind" (Luke 8:23). Matthew chooses the word "seismos." In Matthew, the disciples find themselves in the middle of nothing less than a seismic event, a sea-storm so full of violence and power that the gospel writer likens it to an earthquake. Only in this particular story and in his version of today's reading from Mark does Matthew employ this term "seismos."

So, how does this story of the seismic sea-storm connect with Jesus' later calls to remain faithful despite the fearful signs of the end? In both cases, the disciples think that they're separated from Jesus—either because he's asleep or because he's resurrected and risen. They panic in the face of all the upheaval. Fearing they'll be engulfed by the storm, just as they will later fear being engulfed by persecutions and dissension, the disciples suddenly abandon their mission.

Jesus refuses to put up with their faintheartedness, both on the boat at sea and as they face their mission to the world. After all, he didn't order the disciples into a boat so that they could drown at sea. And he didn't call the disciples to preach the gospel to the world so that their voices would be drowned out in the fearful chaos of a war-torn world. On the boat, Jesus scolds his followers: "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" In front of the temple mount, Jesus cautions his sign-seeking disciples: "Beware that no one leads you astray."

That the disciples sat before him on the temple mount listening to his words is evidence that he didn't let them drown at sea. Even though he's disappointed in their puny faith, Jesus rebukes the sea and the wind, and delivers them from danger.

That we all sit here today is evidence that Jesus didn't later abandon his fearful disciples to the events that shook the community after his crucifixion. Indeed, he sustained them; and he still sustains us with the grace and power of this presence. (adapted, Jack Kingsbury, "The Stilling of the Storm," Word and World, Luther- Northwestern Theological Seminary, 1992, 107108).

Jesus' warnings about the tremblings of the world remind us that we will always be vulnerable to the fears that come from a small faith. But Jesus also promises to be with us, even as our feet stumble and our tongues stammer, giving us the strength to perform the work entrusted to us.

The storms and the earthquakes will come. There is no doubt about it or avoiding it.

The theme of this story from Mark could be labeled "Everything will be all right." In many ways, that is what Jesus is saying. He wants a persecuted people to know that everything will be all right. God will prevail. The faithful will be redeemed.

How often do parents say it to their children, "Everything will be all right"? A child falls and leaves some skin behind. "Everything will be fine." "You'll be okay," we say to the sobbing youngster. We tell the grandparent in the hospital, "Everything will be all right," even when we know that it might not be.

Just because we proclaim that everything will be all right doesn't mean that there's nothing to be done. When children have fallen down and blood flows, parents don't just say, "Everything will be all right." There may also be a fast trip to the emergency room. There may be need of bandages and antibiotics. Parents do all that is in their power to make sure everything will be all right for their suffering children.

"Will there be life on this planet in another hundred or thousand years?"

"Everything will be all right," says the One who created the planet.

"How can I make ends meet, when more bills are coming in than income?"

"Everything will be fine," is God's promise.

"I'm having surgery tomorrow and I'm scared."

"Everything will be okay."

"The tests for cancer came back positive."

"Everything will be all right."

"My brother was just sent to Afghanistan."

"Everything will be fine."

"My mother just died."

"Everything will be all right."

I have no doubt that some of the people who heard Jesus say, "Endure to the end and you will be saved," (verse 13) were persecuted and put to death and still this promise endures. Perhaps you struggle with what to say to a patient in the hospital or to the family. When does "Everything will be fine" need to indicate a healing in this life? When does it need to suggest a better life ahead?

The Agnus Dei (John 1:29) that we repeat each week—what we know as the "Lamb of God" does not say "O Lamb of God, you take away the storms of the world" or "O Lamb of God, you take away the fears of the world" or "O Lamb of God, you take away the pains of the world" or "O Lamb of God, you take away the evils of the world." What we will sing during communion is much more profound and complex:

O Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.
O Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.
O Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace.

The storms, the fears, the tremblings, the disagreements will come.

But God brought us out, that God might bring us in.

"This is but the beginning of the birth pangs."

Jesus will see us through. Everything will be all right. And even though the gospels are often more about gathering clouds than blue skies or warm sunlight, there is a rainbow at the end. Terror beyond description is matched by hope beyond imagination.

Jesus will not leave us to fend for ourselves. Even amid the fear and trembling of this world, we can do the work we are given to do and be faithful disciples in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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