November 15, 2015
You don’t have to get all the way to chapter 13 in the gospel of Mark before you learn that Jesus has mixed feelings bout the temple. On the one hand, he goes there as soon as he gets to Jerusalem, and he calls the temple his Father’s house. He also seems to praise a poor widow who puts all she has into the temple treasury.
But that is not the whole story. Jesus raises a ruckus in the very same temple. He throws out the sellers of animals and the money changers. To have temple worship, you had to have animals to sacrifice and coins for the offering that didn’t have the emperor’s image on them. What happens in the temple requires money changes and sellers of animals. For Jesus to drive them out is to call into question the whole system.
He calls the system into question again in today’s gospel reading. One of the disciples from the countryside of Galilee is wowed by the skyscraper that the temple is to him: “What large stones and what large buildings!” And Jesus replies, Yep, they are great buildings. And they are coming down. “Not one stone will be left here upon another!”
About 45 years after Jesus walked around in the temple, it was in fact destroyed. By 72 AD, the Romans had reduced it to rubble. There would be no more coins exchanged, no more animals sacrificed. It was over.
Before the war, the disciples would not have been able to imagine that such an impressive structure could be destroyed. So when Jesus talks about all the stones being thrown down, it must sound to them like he is talking about the end of the world.
Think about the end of the world for a minute. Maybe you think about the end in a grand way, like nuclear war, or the sun going nova. Or maybe you think about a littler end of the world, like your own death, or the death of your dearest loved one.
This week, before the events in Paris, I was more focused on small things, like my own end. A friend and I wandered into a conversation about the various deadly diseases and infirmities that await us. I have no memory of how we got there, and of course, we had no way of knowing the future, but that didn’t stop us from speculating. What will go first, mind or body? Which senses would we be the saddest to lose? What will life be for us when we cannot drive, or walk, or read? And what will be the signs of decline? Will we recognize them in ourselves, or will we be the last to know?
At the time the conversation was pretty grim. Then, after I heard about the terrorist attacks in Kenya this week, and Beirut, and Paris, our conversation seemed small and self-absorbed. “What will be the signs?” took on a different meaning. That question is precisely what the disciples want to know too. Whether it is a clear sign that we really shouldn’t be driving anymore, or a clear sign that the Romans will smash the temple to smithereens, or a clear sign that WW III has begun, we want to know: When? How long to do we have? How will we know?
Jesus is not a lot of help on the answer to this question. The signs that he gives to the disciples are general enough that every generation has been able to find their time reflected there. He offers a list: wars, rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, earthquakes, famines. These things are frightening whenever they happen. They are, of course, most frightening when they are happening in our lifetime, and in circumstances we can imagine ourselves being in, at a concert or sitting outside a café.
But then Jesus says, “Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.”
Not the End
The end is still to come. Usually, when we hear one of these gospel readings in which Jesus is saying “Wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines… and oh, by the way, this is just the beginning,” we think he means what we mean when we start listing everything that is going wrong, namely that, “Things are never so bad that they can’t get worse.”
But that is not what Jesus means. “The end is still to come,” he says. Hear these words another way. The end is not the supernova. The end is not the wars. The end is not the last breath escaping from your corpse.
It is not the end, Jesus says, but the birth pangs. Many of us know birth pangs from experiencing them, others from witnessing them or hearing testimony about them. Awful? Yes. An ordeal? Certainly. Scary? More than you can imagine. But the birth pangs are not the end. Likewise, the world will not end in violence, pain, blood, and death.
Finally, the world’s end and your own will be as different from violence and war as the ordeal of labor and delivery is different from holding a new baby in your arms. The world’s end—and your own—will be as different from violence as labor is different from taking that tiny hand in your own and marveling over its even tinier fingernails. “Look at this miracle,” you think. The end of the world, its goal, that toward which we are heading, is peace, not violence, and life, not death.
As the Episcopal priest, David Henson, has written, “[T]hat is the end of the world we look forward to. The end of this violent world, birthing a peaceful one. The end of an impoverished world, birthing a just one. The end of a hateful world, birthing a world pulsing with love.”
I know how impossible that sounds. It is like imagining resurrection. But this kind of imagining, this talent for believing that goodness is stronger than evil, and life is stronger than death: that’s what we mean by faith.
The preacher, Peter Gomes, wrote in the midst of the economic collapse of 2008, “God’s people in the midst of all this chaos should be remarkable for their ability to stand fast, and stand tall. People should look at us and say, ‘What are you on? What have you got? Or what do you know?’ Which,” he said, “gives us an opportunity to tell them, we have invested in something designed for hard times” (“Beyond Anxiety,” preached 10-19-08).
The world is, undeniably, a mess. As people of faith, we do not deny the strength of evil and our own warring madness, but neither do we take refuge in violence, fear, or despair. As people of faith, we lean into that really messed up world the way God leaned into it by becoming human and the way Jesus leaned into it by fraternizing with sick and hurting people and calling out corrupt and powerful people.
In the face of disaster, the temptation is to hide, or lash out, or even just settle for “taking care of our own.” Our faith calls us to the opposite, leaning in, living for others, and looking in steadfast hope for “an ending worthy to be called resurrection.”
So we pray, Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Holy Spirit. Come “in the midst of the world’s birth pangs and labored groans for renewal.” We know the end you mean for us. “Come, help us birth a new” and just and peaceful world [quote from David Henson’s blog post]. Amen.