November 14, 2021, Hope in the Rubble, Mark 13:1-8 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
Jesus and his disciples were at the Temple in Jerusalem, which was one of the most magnificent buildings in the whole world. A historian of the time, named Josephus, wrote, “Now the outward face of the Temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise men’s minds or their eyes, for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendour, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays. But this Temple appeared to strangers, when they were at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow, for, as to those parts of it which were not gilt, they were exceeding white…of its stones, some of them were sixty-six feet in length, seven and a half in height, and nine feet wide.” Coming from Galilee to Jerusalem was like somebody from Norwood coming to the National Cathedral in Washington DC; you can imagine the awe of these men, mostly common laborers, as they looked upon the splendor of this Temple. Not only was it an amazing work of men’s hands, but it symbolized for them all the glory of their religious tradition and their national heritage combined. It was the embodiment of all that they had been taught to honor and worship since they were children.
And so, in a mixture of holy awe and national pride and simple astonishment, the apostles pointed out the greatness of this building to their teacher. “Look! what wonderful stones! What wonderful buildings!” But Jesus shocked them by saying, “Look around you at all this greatness: it’s not going to last. The time is coming when there won’t be one stone left upon another; it will be utterly destroyed.” The apostles weren’t the only ones who heard Jesus say this. It stuck in the minds of the people who heard it; it troubled them, a lot, and when Jesus was brought to trial before the high priest, people accused Jesus of plotting to destroy the Temple. But these men who knew Jesus took him at his word, and privately they asked him about it. “When is this going to happen?” It was a terrifying thought; it seemed like the end of the world as they knew it. I think they felt something like we would feel if someone we had reason to believe told us that the White House was going to be completely and utterly demolished. It was a terrifying prediction, and they asked him urgently, and fearfully, “When is this going to happen?”
Sometimes when we read this passage it sounds like Jesus is talking about what we call the “end times.” He talks about wars and rumors of wars, about earthquakes and famines, and it sounds like all the dark and scary images we have associated with the Book of Revelations, and those alarming books or movies about the Apocalypse. But in reality, Jesus wasn’t talking about anything far in the future at all. All those things were beginning to happen, and Jesus’s words would be fulfilled, in a very few years, when most of the disciples who walked with Jesus would still have been alive, In the year 70 Roman legions attacked the city of Jerusalem to squash a rebellion. Josephus, a historian of the time, says that over a million Jews were slaughtered, armed rebels as well as helpless citizens, many people were taken as slaves, and the glorious Temple of Herod was completely destroyed, literally not one stone left upon another, exactly as Jesus had predicted forty years earlier.
And knowing all that, even though it is a terrible thing to think of so many deaths and so much destruction, still, it might make us feel a little more comfortable to tuck it all away as a historic fact, something in the past, something we don’t need to worry about anymore. That would be a bit of a relief, right? There are certainly enough scary things in the world already; we shouldn’t have to get scared reading the Bible, which is supposed to be a safe and comforting book for us. But the Word of God is living and active, as the writer to the Hebrews wrote, and that means that every Word has something to say to us, something life-giving, something that we need to take to heart. For us, living in the United States in the 21st century, far away from the Temple of Jerusalem and fortunately far removed from the tyranny of the Roman empire, we still need to listen to Jesus’ warning, because we are still tempted in so many ways to give our awe and our admiration and our trust to the works of our own hands and minds.
As Christians, we talk about longing for the coming of Jesus and his kingdom, but I think it is very, very hard for us to have a real longing, a real passion, for anything beyond the beauty and the goodness of our familiar, man-made world: the good things of our lives, our relationships and our ideals, all the things we admire and depend on. This passage probably has many things to teach us, but one thing that we need to take away from it is this: that the very best and most beautiful and most firmly-established things of this world are shake-able, are temporary, are even now passing away, and that even the most spectacular things of this world are only shadows of the Real and the Unshakable and the truly Good and Beautiful that is coming.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul urged his readers to set their minds on whatever is honorable and just and pure and lovely and worthy of praise. We do that because these are the fingerprints of the Creator in this creation, the marks of God’s perfection even in the midst of the imperfections of this world. But we are always in danger of holding too tightly to the good we can hold onto, and of forgetting that the real Goodness is yet to come. We are always in danger of settling for less than God has planned for us, worshiping of the creature rather than the creator. And sometimes it takes the destruction of our Temples – those good things we have come to put our trust in – to turn our eyes back to the only One we can really put our trust in.
Think back over your own history, and how the road of your life is littered with the crumbled remains of so many Temples of your own creation. We have all faced the human failings of those people we put our trust in, who in their humanity couldn’t live up to all that we wanted of them, our parents, our friends, our teachers, our pastors, our husbands or wives. We have faced the failings of our government, its bad decisions, or its inability to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. We have been disappointed by the corruption and immorality of leaders we hoped would serve the people well. We have faced the failings of our church, made up after all of plain old human beings in all their pride and stubbornness and gracelessness and foolishness. And we have certainly all faced our own failings. We have disappointed ourselves over and over again by failing to achieve what we ought to have achieved, or by failing to live up to the standards we know we ought to have lived up to. So many of those plans and ideals and goals that we had such high hopes for, that shone so brightly in the morning sun like the glorious façade of Herod’s Temple, just crumbled like a house of cards in the end, not one stone left on another.
Every time we have to face the destruction of something in our world that just seemed so good and beautiful and hopeful, it is painful. And the way Jesus refers to these disappointments and disasters in our lives has a lot to teach us. Jesus said to his disciples, in verse 8, when they asked when these terrible things were going to happen, “These are but the beginning of the birth pains.” The shaking of our physical world, the violence of our political world, the weakness and corruption of our personal world, these things are the pains that we suffer as God brings forth the redemption of his creation. He transforms our failures and weaknesses and corruption and even death, using them for his own good and healing purposes. God takes our disasters and disappointments, and he brings something utterly new to birth, something absolutely good, and perfectly beautiful: something unshake-able. Jesus displayed that wonderful process on the cross. Jesus’ death and resurrection, that seemed the end of all hope, was in truth the ultimate work of redemption and new birth. And that same power, that same birthing process, is at work in your life every day.
When Jesus was arrested and brought to trial, there were witnesses who accused Jesus of equal parts sacrilege and stupidity. “This man said he would destroy the Temple and build it up again in three days!” they claimed. But Jesus wasn’t talking about the glorious Temple in Jerusalem. He was talking about the Temple of his own body, which was about to be destroyed on the cross. But on the third day after his death, he walked out the tomb, alive forever. That resurrected body of Jesus Christ, that was the new Temple. That was the promise, the evidence of unshake-able new life for everyone who would follow him, the first-fruits of kingdom life.
In the death of every human hope, God is bringing to birth the eternal hope of his kingdom. We don’t yet know how to hope for the kingdom of God very well, because the Temples of this world are all that we know so far, just like a pregnant woman doesn’t have any idea yet what her newborn child will look like. All she really knows are the changes and experiences of her own body. But her hope is for this new life she can feel inside her. She knows the birth is coming, even though she doesn’t know when it will come, even though she knows she will have to endure pain in the process. That’s the image Jesus gave to his disciples.
It’s a mystery, this waiting for the new life that God has promised us, and this passage we read today is God’s gracious reminder to us that everything that seems most strong, most beautiful, most good in the kingdom of this world – all those things are nothing compared to the kingdom that he is bringing to birth even now in his people. But the love and the grace and the beauty and the compassion that even now we can begin to know in our lives with Christ, that quickening movement of his Spirit that we can feel inside ourselves, that we can see in one another, these are the first unshake-able stones of his kingdom that will last for ever and ever.