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Worship and Sermons
November 18, 2018

“Persistent Witness” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, November 18, 2018, Year B / 25th Sunday after Pentecost – Daniel 12:1-3  •  Psalm 16  •  Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25  •  Mark 13:1-13

THEME:  Create hope by loving your neighbor– especially! – in tumultuous times.

Thirty years ago, my first real job took me to Houston, Texas.  Although I quickly realized I was not cut out to live in such oppressive heat and humidity, I had a lot of fun exploring this free-wheeling, quirky and surprisingly diverse city. 

Along the way, I discovered Houston is known for a lot of significant things. The largest medical center in the nation.  The world’s largest rodeo.  And, of course, the Johnson Space Center.  

You’ll know that better as the home of NASA’s Mission Control Center.  That’s the room you’ve seen on TV filled with dozens of people working at computers and video displays.  Their job is to oversee the operation of NASA’s space flights and the International Space station. 

When astronauts are hovering 200 miles above the earth, it’s these folks in the Mission Control Center who monitor everything that’s happening.  And the one person who is in charge of all of them is the Flight Director. 

The job of a Flight Director is not an easy one.  They make the ultimate real-time decisions to keep the mission on track and the astronauts safe.

As you can imagine, they’re chosen with great care.  Since the beginning of the Space program in 1958, there have been less than 100 of them.

You may have seen the article earlier this year that NASA hired six women and men to be the latest class of Flight Directors.  After intensive training, they’ll take turns at the helm of the mission control center for each of the upcoming missions.

When I saw this article, I was curious to know how you become a Flight Director, what sorts of qualities they look for.  Lo and behold, I found a job listing for a Flight Director posted by NASA earlier this year.

I was surprised that the only academic requirement is a Bachelor’s degree in science or math.  Those are pretty common.

But you also need something far more rare.  As the job listing puts it, candidates must have “significant . . . time-critical decision-making experience in high-stress, high-risk environments.”

In other words, you need to be someone who can remain calm, think clearly, remember what’s most important and be positive and decisive in the midst of a crisis.

And Jesus is asking the same thing of his disciples in our gospel text.

They’re walking out of the Temple.  Jesus has just taught them to value the total devotion to God demonstrated by the widow’s offering. 

Now, his disciples point out to him the immense stones that have been laid to support the grand structure of the Temple walls.  But Jesus shocks them by predicting the total destruction of the Temple. 

Peter, Andrew, James and John take him aside and ask him when this will happen and what signs to look for.  Jesus warns them not to be fooled:   there will be false messiahs, natural disasters and wars. 

His followers will be persecuted and betrayed, even by family members and fellow Christians.  But those who endure in their Christian witness will survive.

Mark’s audience was familiar with all these things.  A generation after Jesus, they were part of a Christian congregation in Rome.  Some were Jews by birth; others were gentiles.

All of them lived through violent persecution under the Emperor Nero.  Nero blamed them for a fire which he himself almost certainly had set. After it burned ¾ of the city, he had Christians arrested.  He tortured them until they informed on other Christians.  Many were killed as mere sport.

The fear these Roman Christians were already feeling, was multiplied when they heard rumors of Rome’s Jewish War.   In bits and pieces, they got word that Roman forces had crushed a Jewish revolt in Jerusalem.  Rumors said the Roman legion had besieged and sacked the city, killing many of the Jewish leaders and capturing others. 

Most alarming of all, it was reported that the mighty Roman forces had looted, burned and destroyed the Temple.  When the vessels from the Temple were paraded through the city of Rome, along with those taken prisoner, their worst fears were confirmed. 

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the Temple to 1st Century Jews.  First and foremost, it was the center of religious life, the visible symbol of God’s presence among his people. Beyond that, it was the center of social, civic and economic life.  It was at the heart of their lives and their identity.

Like the disciples anxiously quizzing Jesus about the end times, these Jewish Christians in Rome felt like it was the end of the world as they knew it.  Surely, they thought, the apocalypse must be here!

Sometimes you and I are tempted to feel that way, too, aren’t we?  Like them, we live in an age of political chaos, false prophets, constant war, rampant religious violence and persecution, and natural disasters that become more devastating and more frequent with each passing season.

Not surprisingly, public interest in the apocalypse is at an all-time high.  The media are filled with dark tales of plagues, world destruction, vampires, demons and zombies. 

These are all popular because they address questions which are on many people’s minds.  When will the end come?  Is it imminent?  How will we know?  What sign should we look for?  

That’s exactly what Peter, Andrew, James and John want Jesus to tell them.  But he doesn’t.  Instead, he gives them a list of the signs the end is not here yet.  And that list looks a lot like what you and I see in the world around us today.  

His point is stop speculating and worrying about the end, because that’s in God’s hands.  There’s nothing anyone can do about it. 

Instead, they should focus on preparing for the end by doing what is in their control: witnessing to the good news - and the one who brought it.

Jesus’ message to them is his word to us.  Like NASA’s Flight Directors, our job is to stay calm, think clearly, remain positive and focus on what’s most important.  For our mission as Jesus’ disciples, that means witnessing to the gospel, even when we know the reception will be hostile.

The most important way you and I can do that is by sharing hope.  And the best way to share hope is by helping those in need.

No one in recent memory understood this better than Fred Rogers.  Most of us will remember him as the creator and host of the children’s TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  You may also remember he was a Presbyterian Minister.

With his ever-ready smile, calm kindness and hand-knit sweaters, he was a grandfather figure to generations of children.  It wasn’t an act – it’s who he was. 

He believed that those in TV bore the power and responsibility to work for the good of humanity.  He took that charge seriously and it gave him real credibility.

This was never more evident than in the wake of national tragedies like 9/11, and other shootings and bombings.  In frightening times like those, many found comfort in his words of reassurance, especially this piece of advice he received from his mother and repeated often.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world . . . If you look for the helpers, you’ll know there’s hope.”

Friends, that’s what Jesus wants for you and me.  You and I are the helpers.  In a world that looks pretty scary – even for adults – the way we stay calm and help one another witnesses to the gospel we believe in, and the one who taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

At some point in all of our lives, someone did that for us.  We’ve all experienced a crisis or two.  And we know, when we’re in the middle of one, it’s hard to think clearly.  It’s natural to want to panic.

That’s why we so appreciate someone who’s willing to walk through those troubled times with us.  Then, after the fact, we often look back in awe of how calm they were as they helped us through those dark times. 

Who was that for you?  Was it a sibling or parent?  A friend, colleague or a boss?  Maybe a doctor, a counselor or a pastor?

Whoever it was, let’s let their example inspire us to do the same for others.  Let’s be the Flight Director who keeps safe those who are lost in the deep space of dark despair and guides them safely home. 

That’s what it means to focus on what’s most important:  creating hope by loving our neighbor at least as well as we love ourselves.  

That’s how we become Christ’s persistent witnesses in turbulent times.  May it be so.

Last Published: November 19, 2018 9:56 AM
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