As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
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?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.
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. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs1966.” Mark 13:1-8
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, o Lord, our rock and our redeemer…
This week while I was thinking about the Gospel passage that I am speaking to you about this morning, I had the opportunity to lead a blanket exercise for a couple of churches in Windsor, as part of the Diocesan committee, Bridge Builders, that I belong to. And, at the time, I just thought that this was a break from thinking about my message this morning, but as I got back to writing, I realized that it was making me think about this Gospel passage.
Primarily because this is an apocalyptic text, and let’s be honest, apocalyptic passages like this are more than a little weird, a little off-putting, and unfailingly difficult to preach and interpret for those of us living in a context that isn’t fraught with upheaval and panic, terror and suffering.
We as relatively rich Westerners may have a hard time with such proclamations, and often it’s thought that we should perhaps stay silent in the face of such things. For what could we remotely understand about the trauma of living through exile and oppression, the destruction of Jerusalem or the horrors of a Herod? How can we interpret these teachings of Jesus when our worldview is one of freedom and choice, comfort and power, one of privilege? What became blatantly obvious to me at the blanket exercise this week is that I have to stand up here and preach from a place of understanding my own privilege.
We are not the oppressed. We are the empire, which these apocalyptic texts are opposing.
And the way that we deal with passages like this are often to be dismissive. And who wouldn’t, when they’re usually thrown at us from street corner preachers shouting about hellfire and the end times. When presented like this, is it no wonder we want to avoid them. And while we get distracted with small facts or ridiculous details about the signs, or coming up with concrete timelines for Jesus’ return, we are missing the bigger picture. That these challenges faced by Mark’s community can speak to something more than just a cosmic clash.
Now, Mark’s community they were facing the disappointment of Jesus’ delayed return, the immense social and religious upheaval caused by the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, persecution by both secular and religious forces, confusion among Jesus’ followers and conflict between rival leaders. In short, life was something of a mess. And the most interesting, and important part of this, is that Mark is not writing in the middle of all this. He is writing in the aftermath, and wondering what will happen to them, how they will survive.
Now, we are not the ancient Jews suffering persecution and exile, our story is different, our context is different, but we are experiencing our own birth pangs. Our place in society is gone, our churches are in decline, our buildings are in trouble. We are crumbling as an empire.
And if we are listening to the apocalyptic passage through a lens that cannot see anything beyond itself, we will be scared and frightened to lose control, to lose our power.
But that is only one half of this message from Christ. Because this message is not one of doom and gloom, it is one of resurrection. That is always the promise of Jesus, the promise of the Gospel.
When Jesus’ followers are admiring the temple buildings and the great stones that made them up, what He reminds them is that these things do not last. They fall, they crumble. They are not made to last, no matter how well built.
Empires always fall, because they are meant to. As Christ says, this must take place.
And we can mourn this fact, and hold onto the vestiges of what is left, hoping to maintain our personal power. We can stay stuck in the certainty of what we know, even though it is coming down around us. And trust me, I understand the phrase the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t intimately well. I understand the temptation to look back on what we once had and not want to move on.
This is perhaps the human condition, to worship the gifts of God rather than God the giver. I think that’s what this tricky little passage is about: that in times of confusion, challenge, and distress, we will not only be overly impressed with the symbols of power around us – like those big stones – but we will also seek to find our security through that power rather than the One who gives us the most counterintuitive answer.
Living with uncertainty and obstacles was hard for the first century followers of Jesus and it’s just as hard for us living today. But the promise hidden in this text is the promise that runs through the whole of God’s relationship with us. That working hard enough, praying enough, making ourselves acceptable enough, or powerful enough, is not going to stop the inevitable, and it’s not going to be enough to leave our uncertainties and insecurities behind.
Empires fall, they must. But we do not have to be an empire. We are not called to be an empire. We are here to gather as brothers and sisters, fallible and flawed, forgiven and freed, in the knowledge that it is not our great stone buildings or our money or anything else that protects us. It is our ability to care for each other, to hold onto community, to live with compassion and grace, to move forward even in times of trouble.
Our faith does not offer an end to uncertainty or insecurity at all. Instead, it promises that we can discover who we are in relation to whose we are, that we are beloved children of the God who created and sustains all things and loves us unconditionally.
Mark writes these apocalyptic texts to his community, and we can hear them here and now, not as portents of disaster, but as the strategy for survival. The antidote for uncertainty is not certainty, it is courage; and the best response to insecurity is confidence in the promise of love from God, and from all those who gather to live out that love in community. This is our strength, and it is the way we can survive and the only way we resurrect. Rooted in each other and Christ, we do not need to fear the falling of the great stones or the rumours of wars. These birth pangs hurt, they hurt appallingly so, but something is struggling to be born. We may be called to bear witness to the pain, but this will always end in joy. Thanks be to God.