Paying Attention: Seeing the Forest for the Trees – 11/27/11 – Advent I – Mark 13, Isaiah 64


Given at Columbus Mennonite Church through a pulpit exchange with Pastor Steve Goering.


A little over five years ago, fresh out of seminary, beginning work as a pastor, our conference ministers were looking to match me up with a mentoring pastor for those first two years of ministry leading up to ordination.  And they rounded up this guy by the name of Steve Goering, thought we might get along alright and have a few things in common.  So Steve and I began meeting and talking and getting to know one another, and what began as a mentoring relationship has grown into a wonderful friendship. And we have continued to meet semiregularly after those first two years, and, speaking for myself at least, it has been a rich relationship for which I am most grateful.  I’ve also enjoyed getting to know Susan in this time.  And I will miss them both dearly as they move on, and I know that you all will as well.

Over the course of conversations it’s become pretty clear that our two congregations, Columbus and Cincinnati Mennonite have a lot in common, both in some history and in general approach to the life of faith, so we thought it would be good and kind of fun if we could start to build this relationship and make some more intentional connections between our congregations.  I do bring you greetings from Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship and hopefully today can be a step in a deepening of our connections.  And, by way of shameless promotion, another way you might wish to further this relationship would be to come to our Mennonite Arts Weekend in Cincinnati the first weekend of February.  We have a wonderful line up of Mennonite artists of all kinds who will be showing their work and teaching us about what they do.  And we’d love to have a contingent from Columbus come down and spend the weekend with us enjoying good art.

The poet Mary Oliver writes:

“Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

Mark chapter 13 contains two different angles, two different viewpoints, for paying attention.  The chapter begins with Jesus and his disciples walking out of the massive temple complex in the heart of Jerusalem.  This temple was Herod the Great’s crowning achievement of his extensive public works projects that he had undertaken throughout Jerusalem and Palestine.  During his lifetime he had built a new palace on the western side of the city protected by three towers.  He had also built the Antonia fortress on the north side of the temple with its distinct towers.  He constructed an aqueduct system that increased the city’s water supply by bringing it from the Bethlehem region six to seven miles south, into the city.  The ancient historian Josephus records that Herod also built a theater, an arena for horse and chariot races, and a stadium.  The building program served something like a first century economic stimulus package, a jobs bill, so to speak.  It brought prosperity to certain parts of the population.  But the jobs created through the construction process were slave labor wages and the massive budget for the projects resulted in an increased tax burden on those who could least afford it, resulting in indebtedness, and losses of ancestral land to pay off debt.  On the surface these structures looked like great civic accomplishments, the Jerusalem temple being the greatest of all, but underneath there were political and economic tensions mounting, and growing resentment against the ruling class, the clients of Rome.  (This info taken from Holman Bible Atlas, 1998.)

Jesus had been teaching in the temple, and as he and his disciples are leaving, one of the disciples makes the comment, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  Down on street level, surrounded by the busyness of the city and the looming structures that make up the urban landscape, they can’t help but be in awe of what they see.  The disciples are having a similar experience that any of us have when we walk through the downtown of any major city.  Standing in Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati and being surrounded by shops and hotels and office buildings.  Or on the streets of downtown Columbus.  Walking along the Lakeshore Path in Chicago and looking over at the downtown loop where the modern skyscraper was born.  Or anywhere in Manhattan where it feels like you have to look straight up in order to see any piece of sky peeking through.  These buildings are huge, massive, beautiful for their sheer size and strength, astonishing, even overwhelming.    This is the first angle in Mark chapter 13.  On the ground, looking up.  The view from below.  In response to the disciple’s exclamation, “Look Teacher, what large buildings,” Jesus answers: “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The second perspective in this text comes immediately afterward.  V. 3-4: “When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’”  The temple sat on a high hill in Jerusalem.  But it wasn’t the highest point around.  The area east of the temple sloped down steeply to the Kidron Valley and then rose up again on a slope known as the Mount of Olives.  The ridge of the Mount of Olives was significantly higher than the temple mount, and from this perch one could see the whole city.  This view from the east is the one that we often see in photographs of modern Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque in the foreground on the old temple mount, and the sprawling city in the background.  So, rather than being down in the traffic of the sidewalks and streets, imagine yourself in the Rhodes Tower observation deck, overlooking your city and its neighborhoods.  Or picture yourself up in the Gateway Arch with the Mississippi River directly below you and the city of St. Louis at your feet.  I get occasional emails from the ONE campaign, most of them requesting joining a petition to address some aspect of global hunger.  I usually sign and then delete the email, but I received one a while back that I saved because of the unique perspective from which it spoke:  The email read, “My name is Lt. Colonel Shane Kimbrough and I am on the International Space Station orbiting 200 miles above the earth.  During the 90 minutes it takes us to circle the earth, we do not see borders or boundaries. From up here, the task of solving the world’s biggest problems seems less daunting. But when our shuttle lands…, we will return to a world where border disputes and financial crises lead the nightly news. Those challenges define our world and their solutions will define our future.”

This bird’s eye view, from above the city, overlooking the temple and the many structures around it, is the perspective from which Jesus speaks for the rest of this chapter in Mark’s gospel.  Up here things look a little different.    There’s a bigger landscape that’s visible, more than just what’s in front of your eye on the other side of the street.  One can get an idea of how one part relates to another, a big picture view of what lies beyond one’s immediate surroundings.  The structures are still magnificent, but less imposing, less absolute, perhaps even appearing somewhat fragile and vulnerable compared to the massive scale of the rest of creation that is in sight.

The season of Advent begins from this high perch overlooking our world.

Rather than getting too caught up in the things that are just in front of our face, we are invited to zoom out and take a fresh view.  Consider what there is to be seen when the powers that seem to dominate our lives are placed in their proper context.  Re-orient our sense of space to the broad scope of the heavens and the earth.  Re-orient our sense of time to the broad sweep of history, which includes God’s dreams for the future of the world.  And, maybe most importantly, re-orient our sense of what gives us awe, of what causes us to be astonished, of what draws us toward itself in a worshipful gaze, of what lays claim to the energy of our souls.

When Jesus speaks from this high up view, he uses a form of speech that had become common in his day.  Apocalyptic language.  The language of apocalypse was a way of talking about how the world as we now experience it would not be this way forever.  It resonated especially with those for whom the evils of the world seemed so overwhelming, so larger than life, that their defeat called for a divine intervention that would turn the order of the world upside down, shake the powerful down from their thrones, and restore order and justice for the faithful.  We begin to see signs of apocalyptic language in the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and parts of Isaiah, like that passage that Austin read, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence.”

Apocalyptic is the language of exiles, the language of dispossessed peasants, the language of African slaves in the Americas.  By Jesus’ time this was a full blown genre of literature.  Apocalyptic often used cosmic symbols to speak of earthly realities.  So Jesus is drawing from the language of the day when he says, “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”  The picture is one of a great unraveling of the known order, the order that felt so solid and unwavering, something that will shake the cosmos to its foundations.  This cry of Jesus would have been especially pertinent for the first readers of Mark as the gospel would have been written right around the time that the Jewish national loyalists were taking up arms against the Romans and the Romans were preparing to march on Jerusalem where they would soon destroy the temple and topple Jerusalem.  The world as they knew it was ending.  Not one stone left on another.

These last few years the language of apocalypse may hit a little closer to home with our national and international economy on the verge, it seems, of coming undone.  We’ve watched over the last three years as our system of finance and credit has wavered, and revealed itself as vulnerable to collapse.  What once felt unshakeable is all of a sudden fragile.  Whether or not any divine intervention is on the way, there’s plenty of room for debate about how much government intervention is necessary in these cases to create the conditions to avoid a collapse of apocalyptic proportions.

This fall, on the final week of a three month Sabbatical, I encountered apocalyptic speech in an unexpected place – in the middle of a forest.  I had the privilege of taking a weeklong tree recognition and forest history class in south central Ohio through the Arc of Appalachia.  This class was led by Nancy Stranahan, who I suppose there’s an outside chance some of you might know.  I believe she lived in Victorian Village for a while and ran Benevolence Café, which I don’t think is open anymore.

Nancy knows more about trees than anyone I’ve ever met and led us amateurs in learning the native trees of the broadleaf forest which used to populate the entire eastern half of our country and which still flourish in the southern part of our state.  We spent much of the week out among the trees, walking on trails, looking up.

“Look teacher, what large trees.”

To my surprise, Nancy said, on multiple occasions, that this was all going to look different when the apocalypse comes.  I was intrigued and asked her specifically what she meant by “apocalypse.”  For her, and for our forests, the apocalypse is a combination of invasive species, global warming, and diseases and pests that threaten certain species.  Nancy told us that even if we didn’t consider ourselves tree huggers, we’d better hug an ash tree while we had the chance – to feel it, get to know it, learn to love it, because our children may never know an ash tree.  The emerald ash borer is slowly spreading through the country and wiping out the ash trees.  The ash borer originated, in all places, in Michigan.  They’re coming down on us!

These trees and our forests have been a part of God’s economic stimulus plan for the last several millions of years, each being fully employed in the glorious work of photosynthesizing water and carbon dioxide.  These trees are spectacular ancient and enduring factories that produce energy for themselves and oxygen for us animals to breath, and they run on the free and abundant power of the sun.

The love and passion with which Nancy approaches her relationship with the forest helps illuminate the kind of tone of voice we can imagine Jesus using in his apocalyptic statements.  It is not so much a voice of judgment as it is one of overflowing love and astonishment.  And sorrow for all that brings us to the brink of apocalypse.

But Jesus’ words are not only ones of destruction.

From his view on the Mount of Olives, in the middle of his apocalyptic discourse, Jesus steers a different course than the typical end of the world scenario.  He says that just as the cosmos are shaking and conditions have become inhuman, then the Child of Humanity will appear.  The Son of Man.  One who gathers together those who are lost and scattered over face of the earth.  It’s an image from the apocalyptic writing of the book of Daniel, where the Child of Humanity, the Son of Man, is a whole community that lives righteously.  This Human One is God’s answer to the inhuman powers.  After evoking the coming of the Child of Humanity, Jesus, interestingly enough, then points to the trees.  He tells his disciples to learn the lesson of the fig tree.  In watching the fig tree the disciples will notice that the winter doesn’t last forever — the tree surges back to life, and sends out leaves, and then you know that summer is near.  Something is flowering.  A new way is being born.  The new creation rises up out of the old one.  Be watchful.  Pay attention, Jesus says.  Don’t fall asleep.  Be attentive to where this flowering is happening in the world.  Anticipate its coming.  It could happen anytime, anywhere.  No one knows where and when these kinds of new creations shoot up.  Jesus says it could happen in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn.  It calls for around the clock alertness.

Whenever we get around to this time of year I’m always a little shocked that we begin the season of anticipating Jesus birth with a passage like this.  What do apocalypse and Jesus’ birth have in common?  It’s a reminder that the manger scene we know will come is more than just meek and mild.  There is something in that picture that will shake us and the world down to our foundations.  Something that calls for a complete overturning of our souls, a revolution of our consciousness.  In Christ’s coming, we believe that the old order has already whithered.  The powers have already been shaken and are stripped of their power over us.  A new order is beginning.  It comes to us in the form of a peasant child who will teach us how to be real human beings.  If we are able to step back far enough, zoom out from our short sighted perspective, and see a bigger picture, then we can re-enter the picture with a more clear focus of where to pay attention. Where to be watchful.  When to be alert.  This humble child draws our gaze away from our failing idols and draws us into a state of astonishment and wonder, and we are captured by a different power – the humility and vulnerability and love that overthrows the old order of the world and raises up a community, a child of humanity, who lives humanly.

“Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”