Need to know basis

Mark 13:1-8

How much knowledge exists in the world today? Have you ever wondered?

There is so much information in the world, and it’s constantly growing, perhaps

even faster in today’s world than in the past. A study published in Science

Express seven years ago attempted to calculate the world’s total technological

capacity, that is, the “information humankind is able to store, communicate and


The conclusion of this study — which is now outdated — was that

“humankind is able to store at least 295 exabytes of information. That’s a number

with 20 zeroes in it. A lot of data and useless knowledge. And probably some

useful knowledge as well. Put it another way, … that’s 315 times the number of

grains of sand in the world. But it’s still less than 1 percent of the information that

is stored in all the DNA molecules of a human being.”

That is a whole lot of information. And that was seven years ago! That

number is now higher, likely much higher. No single human being is capable of

knowing everything. We are fed inundated with too much information as it is,

from any number of different sources. We see too much, we hear too much and

we talk too much. Hence the movement towards ‘news fasts,’ where people make

conscience efforts to unplug from the daily tidal wave of bad news. Knowledge is

power, says the old cliche. But knowledge also brings awareness. Awareness

brings responsibility. That responsibility feels overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong.

It’s important to be informed. But sometimes, unfettered information can be

more than we can bear.

From whence came the phrase “need-to-know basis”? The expression

probably has origins in government and military. When certain information is

deemed extremely sensitive, the files are placed under severe restrictions. Access

to the information is limited only to a few people who absolutely “need to know”

in order to fulfill their duties. In these cases, the government does not want

someone who is unauthorized or lacking proper security clearances to be privy to

sensitive data.

But “need-to-know basis” exists in other contexts as well. For

example, when authorized engravers work on a new set of printing plates to

produce government currency, each engraver receives only a section of the

finished design. In this way, no single engraver ever sees the entire printing plate,

so he or she could not be coerced into reproducing it for counterfeiters. Or

parents — to cite another example — do not tell their children everything. They

don’t want their children to be burdened or to worry about things children should

not worry about.

God, likewise, does not tell us everything, perhaps for similar reasons. But

just as there’s both burden and necessity in learning important information in our

lives, so does that tension also exist in the Bible. Repeatedly in Mark’s Gospel do

we find Jesus sternly instructing his disciples not to tell anyone about what they

have seen. Also repeatedly do we find Jesus saying that his disciples and followers

currently fail to understand his teachings, but will do so after his death. It’s clear

that in Jesus’ ministry, there is information publicly shared and information that is

‘need to know.’

In today’s text, the disciples need to know. What do they need to know?

They had been in the temple together. Jesus had alluded to some major changes

– that the temple would be destroyed. This actually happened, in 70 AD, after a

Jewish rebellion. The Romans quelled the uprising and destroyed the temple,

which is why most biblical scholars date the Gospel of Mark as being written in

the mid-60’s AD.

After the strange exchange about the beautiful temple ceasing to exist, the

disciples and Jesus continued on their way. But when they reached the Mount of

Olives, four of the disciples — Peter, James, John and Andrew — took Jesus aside

and away from the others “and they asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this

be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’”

Surprisingly, Jesus agreed with them — to a point. At the end of this chapter,

Jesus reminded them that “about that day or hour [when the heavens and earth

will pass away] no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only

the Father” (v. 32).

So Jesus begins to share what he knows and what he feels these four

disciples are ready to hear. What does he say, and what does it mean? Our

reading is only a small part of what Jesus says to them. So what do the disciples

need to know? What do we need to know? He tells us to be aware of ‘false

shepherds.’ In this era of complaints about ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news,’ it is

perhaps not surprising that we might encounter false preaching or teachings. It is

amazing to me how foundational scriptures that are at the heart of the gospel

have been ignored or misinterpreted by preachers who are interested not in

sharing God’s love, but in expanding their power, personal wealth, and political

influence. The gospel confirms to fit the narrative of prosperity and a material

culture. These teachings run counter to what Jesus actually said and did.

What else does Jesus tell the four disciples? He tells them they need to

know that faithfulness to God is not about buildings, regardless of their size. The

temple was beautiful. No doubt about it. But the temple of stone and marble was

destroyed. All that remains is a wall. Yet, the church of Jesus Christ is alive and

well. We may worship in buildings, but God does not live in buildings made by

human hands. God dwells in the human heart.

He also tells them that faith is, as writer of Hebrews notes, the substance of

things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ In other words, life doesn’t

keep going round and round in meaningless and repetitious rounds of suffering

and despair. God is a God of history. God is also a God of deep and abiding love,

who accompanies us in good times and in bad. This is our hope. Jesus told the

disciples that when the temple comes down, it is not the end, but the beginning

of the “birth pangs” … the end is still to come, and then a new beginning.

Finally, Jesus tells the disciples that they need to know that there is no

cause for alarm. Sometimes when everything is falling apart, coming down, things

are really, ironically, coming together. Father Michael K. Marsh writes, “I

remember the morning of my divorce. I remember the afternoon my younger son

called and said, ‘Dad, I just joined the Marines!’ I remember the night my older

son died. With each of those events one of the great buildings of my life was

thrown down. Stones that I had so carefully placed and upon which I had built my

life no longer stood one upon another. Temples of my world had fallen. My world

had changed and my life would be different.” Marsh goes on to write that we all

build temples, and many of them come crashing down. Jesus reminds us that in

the midst of the rubble, God is standing there and prepared to help us rebuild.

Perhaps equally important as what we need to know is this - What don’t

we need to know? Well, for example: The Russians celebrated so hard when

World War II ended that the entire city of Moscow ran out of vodka. Don’t need

to know that. Or this: Each of you once held a world record when you were born

for being the “youngest person on the planet.” That’s obvious. Don’t need to

know that either. Or perhaps this - More people die while taking “selfies” than

from shark attacks. Nice factoid. Little application. Don’t need to know that.

This one’s fun - The world’s tallest building — Burj Khalifa — is so tall that,

after seeing the sunset at ground level, you can grab a lift to the observation deck

at the top and watch the sunset again! Sounds interesting. But don’t need to

know that. On a more serious note, we don’t need to know every bit of outrage

that permeates from our political system. Too much outrage is toxic, and there’s

enough toxicity and vitriol in our lives that seeps into our conversations with

family and friends.

We also don’t need to have every part of our lives figured out. It may seem

to make us feel comfortable if we do or if we try to, especially when coping with

an out of the blue diagnosis or financial hardship. But that quest to control every

part of our being has consequences of stress, anxiety, and constant fear. We

control what we can, and trust God will be there when we can’t. We can let go of

the burden of knowing and controlling everything. We’re on a need-to-know


Next Sunday, we will celebrate the First Sunday of Advent. As we approach

a new year in the church liturgical calendar, and as we enter the Advent season

preparing for the celebration of the birth of the Christ child, we will focus on the

many changes that the birth of Jesus brought and represented. So, let’s await

Christ’s coming with eager hope. Let’s prepare our hearts for the day-to-day

demands of living. Let’s open ourselves to the awe and wonder of what God has

done and will do again. Amen.

Invitation to communion - Here in this place, we seek to help people receive

their daily bread, both in spirit and in sustenance. Communion is not a ‘need to

know’ or exclusive matter, nor is it a task we take lightly, but one that has been

entrusted to us as a matter of deep faith, following in the footsteps of Jesus.

Here at Beacon Heights, we practice open communion. All who consider

themselves on the journey of faith with God are welcome at the table for this

spiritual feast. Once the music begins, you are invited to come forward to the

pew racks or the worship center, and kneel on the pads or sit on the chairs for

communion. If you are unable to come forward, please alert an usher or me and

communion will be brought to you. The feast is before us. Let us enter this time

of enjoying God’s rich abundance of spirit and sustenance together.