Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 13:1-8

The Destruction of the Temple Foretold

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to [Jesus], “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 pangs.”

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

It was June of 2001. That is when I first saw them—the Twin Towers. Coming out of the Lincoln Tunnel and driving by them, it was impossible to get a full appreciation of their true height. But I knew I was driving next to a marvel of human architecture, the magnitude of which made me feel like an ant. On August 10, 2001 I was shopping in the mall underneath the World Trade Center getting last minute things for my family, and on August 11 I drove by them for what would be, unknown to me, the last time as I was driving home. It surely would never have occurred to me then that not a shard from these great marvels would be standing 1 month later.

I expect the disciples, who grew up along with Jesus in the small town of Galilee, were about as awestruck as me and the rest of the tourists standing under the Twin Towers all those years ago. And for good reason. The temple erected in Jerusalem under the direction of Herod the Great was an architectural marvel equal to the Mayan pyramids, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Roman Amphitheater . Like the Twin Towers, the Jerusalem temple was a hub of commercial activity and, in addition, a powerful symbol of Israel’s identity. Its destruction was probably as hard to imagine as the fall of the Twin Towers used to be for us. Yet both structures, Temple and Towers, are now only memories.

Jesus’ words serve as a powerful reminder that nothing is safe from the ruinous currents of history. The ground on which we stand is never as firm as we believe. Growing up as I did in the Cold War era, I could not imagine a world without the threat of Soviet nukes facing off with our own ending, best case scenario, in a perpetual stalemate. But Balkan states rejected Soviet rule, the Berlin wall fell as did the Soviet Union itself, all in fairly rapid succession giving birth to a new order with its own set of problems. 

I grew up believing that the rights and freedoms we Americans hold dear would always be protected by a system of constitutional checks and balances enshrined in the rule law. On January 6th of this year I watched in real time as that bedrock principle was violently attacked and, if not destroyed, mortally wounded. 

The words paint a picture of the disciples looking up at the Temple, inviting us to marvel with them at its beauty and then the shock of Jesus’ words that follow the words we heard: “You see these large buildings? Not one stone will be upon another that will not be cast down.”

Peter, James, and John asked Jesus privately about when to expect these things to happen and what to expect would happen. Their question reminds the us that they do not understand what Jesus means by this statement. Even the disciples do not have privileged information regarding these events. Rather than describing when, Jesus tells the disciples to look out for those claiming to come in his name, echoing Jesus’ caution earlier in the previous chapter. Jesus does not communicate the character of these requests, but their claim to the title “I am” suggests they have designs on power that belongs to God alone. The disciples do not seem to have a privileged position here; they, like the “many,” are at risk of being led astray. 

After Jesus cautions the disciples, he tells them of the things that are to come but does not provide a timeline. Instead, Jesus tells them these wars, earthquakes, famines, and struggles are not the culmination of the things to come. This line of thought continues until verse 37. The coming of the Son of Man is the culmination of this line of thought; in the midst of uncertainty, threat, and disaster, the messianic figure comes and gathers the elect. The telos, which could mean the end, goal, outcome, or culmination, is the Messiah.

A couple things I bring from the gospel text this week I feel are pretty unique:

Be present in every place you find yourself. The world around us is in crisis. Institutions we once trusted are crumbling. Shall we consider that the intimacy of community may be in right relationships rather than rituals of prosperity and security? The temple as an edifice that cannot be destroyed ignores that the God who desired to dwell with the people never asked for a building. At the beginning of Mark, Jesus called fishermen to fish. Jesus invited those—who up to that point had gone daily to where the catch could be found—to go everyday into their world.

But this was not the concern of the disciples. Then, as now, they were concerned with when. Missing the opportunities of the moment, they worried themselves with hints, predictions, and symbols. All while Jesus literally calmed the storms, fed the hungry, crossed social boundaries, and led many back to the liberating promises of Israel’s God. Maybe our concerns should be in the space we occupy on the journey rather than the destination at which we hope to arrive.

That means considering whether Christ the King Sunday (next week) may be in response to the metaphor of place and space this week … all which may shift how we consider Advent as a season of expectation of the return of Christ more than a reflection on the incarnation. But, I get ahead of myself in the story, we pick that up in a few weeks.

For this week, find refuge in God. Neither the promise of the stock markets, stability of governments, nor achievements of science offer signs of prosperity, security, and well-being. These are ways humanity report out what is occurring at the moment. And these moments are filled with spasms of distress. But we are a people who gather week after week to tell the story of the Lord who has been our refuge; the one in which we find all that is good; the promise-keeper whose counsel instructs us when to stand, where to rest, and shows us the path of life. 

None of this should be surprising. Jesus warns us that “wars and rumors of wars” will characterize life for the indefinite future. Empires will rise, shake the earth and fade away. New ideologies, religions and movements will take root and grow. 

Old ones will endure or lose credibility or die out altogether—and perhaps re-

emerge in some other form. Culture, morals and priorities will change from generation to generation. And a lot of us don’t like any of this. 

  • Witness the rage of angry white men who see their privilege melting away and scream about “taking the country back again.” 
  • Witness the anger of individuals and congregations that have departed their churches in response to the long overdue welcome extended to LGBTQA+ folk. 
  • Witness the craven, paranoid mindset that gives credence to ridiculous conspiracy theories. 

For many of us, change means loss. It means somebody is taking something away from us.

Jesus, however, doesn’t see it that way. While all the uncertainty and change might look like and might, in fact, be the death throws of the world as we know it, Jesus would have us know that they are the “birth pangs” of something new. And that something new is the just, peaceful and gentle reign of God. And whether that is good news or bad depends on where your loyalties lie. 

  • For those of us heavily invested in our existing privilege, for those of us who are comfortable with the status quo, for those of us who believe our best days are behind us and that our salvation lies in Making America Great Again, the church or (you fill in the blank) great again, change is bad news. What we are desperately trying to save, God is taking away from us. We are not going to win that tug-of-war. 
  • But for those formerly marginalized, excluded and vilified who now experience welcome and inclusion, the dissolution of the old is good news.

So, if like me, you are troubled by Sunday’s gospel, perhaps we need to re-examine our loyalties and priorities. Maybe we should question our assumption that God is on our side and ask ourselves whether we are on God’s side. Maybe we need to hear these troubling words of Jesus as bad news before we can hear them as good news. Perhaps we need to start letting go of everything we are afraid of losing so that our hands will be free to receive all that God is giving us.