Today I delve into one of those texts of scripture that often cause stress and anguish not only for the reader, but also for the preacher who decides to wade in the apocalyptic waters of texts that deal with things yet to come. Chapter 13 in the Gospel of Mark has often been referred to as the “little apocalypse,” because of all the dire language. Oft-quoted texts like “wars and rumors of wars,” of earthquakes and famines, have been used by alarmists throughout the history of the church. Which is ironic, because in the midst of this bleak picture of wars and earthquakes, you will hear Jesus give words of comfort to not only his disciples, but also to us as we live in a world where nightly the news broadcasts bring the horrors of wars and natural disasters into our living rooms.
Even though I completely believe Jesus’ predictions in chapter 13 dealt with the destruction of the temple that happened in 70AD, any good prophecy speaks beyond the moment it was intended for and has a word for us today. Jesus consoles his disciples then and now with the words, “Do not be alarmed.” These texts aren’t meant to strike fear into our hearts, but to teach what is needed to sustain us as we life out our day-to-day discipleship in a world of transition and turmoil. Let us hear the words of our Lord from the opening verses of chapter 13 of the Gospel of Mark.
Many of you are well traveled and have seen some pretty spectacular structures during those times abroad. Which of all the buildings you saw was the most impressive or most beautiful? What was your initial reaction when you first saw it? How many pictures did you take? Now imagine as you are taking your last picture, the guy standing next to you says, “It won’t be long before all that will all be gone.”
The feeling you have only begins to scratch the surface of what must have gone through the disciples’ heads and hearts as Jesus told them that the temple would be destroyed. This was the temple, the very dwelling place of God. It was huge. The Roman historian Tacitus described the temple complex as a mountain of white marble adorned with gold. There were immense courtyards, grand porches and monumental stairs. Herod, the great builder of this temple, not only built it to impress his Roman allies, but to show off his power to the common Jewish people of Israel. And he succeeded.
For these Galilean fishermen, the daunting power of the temple and the Roman forces may have seemed irresistible and immovable. But Jesus lets them know that the powers of the present age are transient, they will not last. The world they are living in of imperial rule from both outside and inside the temple is not the way that God intends the world to be. They would have been in complete agreement that the sooner the Romans went the better. But the temple? It stood for so much. Sadly, the temple became a metaphor for how God would save the people of Israel from the world, but it had originally been built so the people of Israel would be a light unto the world, pointing the world back to loving presence of God.
In sharing this story of the foretelling of the destruction of the temple, Mark is not denying that crises exist or that there are times when present suffering calls for urgent action. But what it does is present the cataclysms Jesus describes as the “birth pangs” of God’s transformation of the world, where God’s new heaven and new earth intersect with the old. Because of this, whenever you hear people ascribe disaster experiences as part of God’s judgment, they are to be held at arms length. In almost a way that is un-apocalyptic, Jesus says that earthly disasters are not necessarily an indication that God’s judgment is near. They will happen, but don’t try and interpret them for what they may not be. God is at work in the world, but labeling God’s actions and motivations as judgment is not the job of his followers.
Jesus is aware of our human tendencies, to lock in on more powerful forces and to be overcome with fear due to threats, violence, war, the tenuous standing of the church, the finitude of our existence, or to be lured by all those enticing voices promising the false security of other idols, quick fixes and scapegoats.
In response to our inevitable reaction to such powerful forces, Jesus provides us with three important spiritual disciplines for navigating transitional times. Things were changing and about to change very fast for the disciples in the next several days and years, with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ and then the destruction of their beloved temple. How are we to respond in this world of constant change and flux?
First, believers must engage in discernment in the face of threats from both without and within to determine God’s goal for the life of the world. For the disciples between that time of the resurrection and destruction of the temple, history tells us that resistance fighters were going through the Palestinian countryside calling on all Jews to join the battle. Many in Mark’s community would have been tempted to join the cause and saying “no” would have marked them as traitors.
For us, the threats in this age are more subtle such as allowing the false security of a cultural, consumer driven theology to creep into our community. In today’s culture in the church, this often takes shape in the assumption that a church that is growing, vibrant, and happy is “filled with the Spirit,” as though these are visible indications of being spiritually dressed for success, or that a church in decline has necessarily lost the steadfast faithfulness of bygone years. God in Christ calls us to be faithful to him and not successful as defined by the world’s standards.
Second, believers must be patient. Birthing a new heaven and new earth takes time. There are many evils to eradicate and many more hopes to realize. These are the birth pangs of God’s new age. God’s transformation and the witness of believers must compete with many forces, biases, demons, and appetites. Working out God’s promises occurs during the life of the world as well as in and for the world. Being patient requires the recognition of the truth that, while the powers of the world are imposing and strong, they are not unmovable and invincible. The love of God that is transforming the world is the one thing we can rely on that won’t change.
Trusting that God is transforming the world and that believers are called to participate in God’s saving work is fundamental to Mark’s conception of the Christian life. In that task, believers are sustained by the third reminder: for the Christian, there is always hope. There will be times when we feel beleaguered, beaten up, bruised, and vulnerable. Growth, change, and the coming of new life are a painful process, but in this suffering there is always hope and the promise of a new day. Hope sustains us through the birth pangs of change and the necessary struggle that leads to growth. It is Mark’s prescription to the disciples as they move into a time of great change and transition, and it his prescription to us, Christ’s church, in a world of change and transition: Discernment, patience, and hope. They are given as a provisional sign to stand in the midst of tension in a passing world. Amen.