As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 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.
“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down. 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.” Whoa! That’s some text, isn’t it? I picture the disciples walking through Jerusalem as the city is hustling and bustling in preparation for Passover. I imagine it almost as if they’re on vacation, taking in the sights and atmosphere of the great city. Then they spy the Temple, and, even though they had just been in it, it still takes their breath away. The Temple was known as one of the most beautiful buildings in the Roman Empire and for good reason, too. It was constructed with walls of imposing masonry which enclosed a huge area. Topping these walls was an expansive platform, supported by massive piers, some as large as forty feet long, by twelve feet high, and eighteen feet wide.
The Royal Porch of the Temple had a row of Corinthian pillars each standing thirty-seven and a half feet high and made out of one solid block of marble a piece. From a distance, the Temple was said to look like snow since it was stark white in some places and gilt in glittering gold in others. It must have been a truly amazing sight to see.
So, with all this in mind, we hear of one of the disciples in naïve excitement pointing out this architectural wonder to Jesus, admiring the magnificent structure. However, Jesus’ response is not the one they were expecting. He’s not taken in by the imposing and impressive sight. Instead, Jesus tells them the great, towering Temple will be utterly destroyed. At this point, I can just see the disciples turning to stare at Jesus with mouths hanging wide open, complete shock enveloping their faces. How on earth could such a thing ever happen?
After the disciples have heard Jesus’ powerful words, they ask him to explain when all these things will happen and what the sign will be that all of this is taking place. Doesn’t that sound familiar? How often do we, like those first disciples, ask for signs or wish know that we’re making the right decision, or what will happen if we do certain things? I know this is especially true when I make major decisions in my life or when I’m standing at a crossroad and I imagine it’s the same for you as well. We want to know how things will turn out and what exactly is around the bend.
And what of the apocalyptic warnings in today’s reading? In the first centuries, early Christians believed that they were living in the last days. Examining the history, it’s not difficult to see why they believed this. The first few centuries of the Common Era were a period filled with strife, struggle and hardship. As Jesus had declared and Mark’s contemporaries experienced, there were wars between the Jews and Romans, and in 70 CE, the Romans burned the incredible Temple and then dismantled a great portion of it, stone by stone.
Playing off of peoples’ beliefs that Christ would be coming back very soon, there were many “pseudo-messiahs” and false teachers eager to step in to take Jesus’ place. In addition, the early church was plagued by internal conflicts over doctrine and right teaching, as well as by the external conflicts of persecution and even martyrdom. Life was not easy.
Things certainly looked bleak and that must have been exactly what the disciples were thinking, because Jesus tells them, “do not be alarmed.” Actually, this phrase in the original Greek can also mean “do not be frightened,” or “do not be troubled” or, even, “do not be disturbed.” In fact, the form of the verb used in the Greek implies “do not continue being frightened.” I hear in Jesus’ words incredible reassurance and hope. Moving from these words, however the next phrase is troubling again; Jesus says “but the end is still to come.” So, there is going to be an end, but the wars, false prophets, and the destruction of the Temple are not it. Jesus continues to explain that the earthquakes and famines aren’t the end either. No, Jesus states, all of these things – natural disasters, famines, wars, false teachers – are only the beginnings of the birth pangs.
I hear the last words in this passage and I recall The Wizard of Oz, my favorite movie as a child. The Scarecrow, while walking with his companions in the woods, utters one line that pops into my head when I hear Christ’s words to the disciples. The Scarecrow says, “of course, I don’t know, but I think it’ll get darker before it gets lighter.” In other words, things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better.
Just as birth pangs are a part of birth and necessary before a beautiful child enters the world, Jesus explains that trials and hardships will mark the disciples’ way before things become better. Patience, endurance, persistence and faith must mark their lives; they should not be troubled or distressed, or be thrown into panic when all the world seems a frightful mess.
So is this passage just about Jesus telling his disciples to hang in there when things are difficult in the beginning centuries of the church? I don’t think so. I think it is appropriate that we hear this text as the days grow shorter and colder, when the landscape is beginning to look bleak and barren. Simultaneously, however, this is also the time leading up to Advent when we will await the coming light of Christ shining in the darkness to illumine our way. Therefore, I hear Christ’s words as encouragement for our lives today. In the midst of a recession, dealing with high unemployment rates, with wars and violence around the world, and other struggles, Jesus’ words are incredibly timeless. Like the first disciples, we are to be persistent and full of faith, not fearing anything the world might throw at us, but trusting that God is in control, no matter how out of control the world seems to spin. God is far bigger than all that might threaten us. It is in these times of trial that our faith is tried and sometimes shaken, but it is also through these difficult times that we have some of the most amazing opportunities for spiritual growth.
In these times, when our faith is shaken and we can’t seem to see the next step, we stand at the foot of the cross and call on God. For me, some of the most difficult, frustrating and painful things I have encountered in my life have driven me to God’s arms and strengthened my faith in ways times of comfort could not have. In the most strenuous times, it’s as if all pretense is stripped away and I am able to be most honest with God, which draws me nearer to Him.
Although all the splendid things we have – cars, houses, money, electronics – will fade away or crumble like the Temple, in Christ, the living, indestructible temple, we have something solid to which to cling. In the crucified and resurrected Christ, we can look forward expectantly to the coming kingdom and reign of God, even in the midst of all our trials and pains.
This promise is made especially clear to us in baptism in which we die with and are raised again to new life in Jesus Christ. Through baptism, we who are fallen, sinful and broken, much like the Temple, have been redeemed and made whole. In baptism, we receive God’s amazing promise that the Holy Spirit will sustain us and we are marked with the cross of Christ, sealing us as God’s children forever. Through baptism into the body of Christ, we become the new Temple, the place in which God dwells. In this new baptismal identity, we are encouraged and strengthened to take up our cross and follow Christ.
It is with the promises of God made to us in baptism, recalled daily, and nourished through Holy Communion that we face the trials of this world. As we encounter these difficulties head on, we look forward with anticipation to the day when the kingdom of God will break onto the scene, ushering in a new age of mercy, peace and justice. Whereas today we may only catch fleeting glimpses of this kingdom in the kindness of friends and strangers, in joyful communion with those around us, or in incredible stories of generosity and love, the day is coming when these glimpses will be the norm.
So when we find ourselves in difficult situations or when we are faced with obstacles that seem insurmountable, we can recall the promises God has made to us in baptism and the comforting words of Jesus to the disciples: “do not be troubled.” Yes, there will be troubles, pain and suffering – there always have been. However, it is important to remember that before pain and death were, God was. One day, the kingdom of God will be realized, bringing with it magnificent joy and a splendor far greater than any man-made Temple could offer. Looking forward to that day, then, may we remember the word of life and the word of hope that God gives to us each and every day. Amen.
© 2009. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.
Hymn: “Lead On, O King Eternal”: