This morning’s reading from Mark is located at an important turning point in this Gospel. Up to this point Mark has been mostly concerned with Jesus’ actions and interactions. Now Mark’s attention turns to what will happen next. Jesus is preparing his disciples to continue after his death. The Gospel of Mark ends, as you may recall, very abruptly. Jesus is killed and then there is only a very brief mention of resurrection. In a sense Mark is giving a Spoiler… Mark is telling us now, before the crucifixion, how life will continue after crucifixion.
We humans have an interesting ability to reorient messages to suit our desires. This 13th Chapter of Mark has hints of apocalypse, so we rush ahead to the Book of Revelation and the so called “end times.”
But remember – Mark doesn’t know about the Book of Revelation, nor would early readers of Mark’s Gospel. There is a hint of Apocalypse, but just a whiff. End times are not the lens for the Gospel according to Mark. So, if a taste of “end times” is flavoring this morning’s Gospel reading for you, stop it. It will not help you understand what Jesus is pointing us to. In fact, it will lead us down a rabbit hole.
Mark is an amazingly sparse narrator – it’s natural that we want to fill in extra details and to decorate this spartan frame – to guild Mark’s lily for him, as it were. But if we do that, we obscure the actual lily. Mark is early in the Christian Story – perhaps first to record a Gospel. Much of our Christian Tradition has yet to take shape. Doctrine is beginning to take shape. The Bible as we know it is beginning to take shape. The context for Mark is simple. He is not making subtle theological points. So, let’s spend some time with Mark.
Jesus comes out of the Temple with his disciples and this terribly important conversation takes place – in the space of just two sentences… In the first sentence, one of the disciples admires the grandeur of the Temple – how big its stones are and how big the entire edifice is. Though the disciple does not use the words, he is no doubt commenting on how rich, how powerful, and how permanent the temple structure is. This is, after all, part of the message that such structures are intended to convey. While God may be presumed to be the primary occupant of the Temple, it is the work of Herod. It’s stones and proportions are meant to tell us about Herod as much as about God.
Government buildings still to this day are often built to be massive and imposing. Giant columns and grand halls all serve the function of reminding us that the government is great and powerful, and we are small and meek. Government, or Church, or University, or Bank are permanent while we are temporary. This is Herrod’s message built into the Temple…
What large stones and what a large building… Herod must be great and powerful.
The second sentence… Jesus answers: Not one stone will be left standing on another. This great edifice that impresses you is going to be wiped away. The building may speak of power and permanence, but the building lies. And Herod, but extension, is not so great, not so powerful, and not so permanent.
You may also have lurking in the back of your mind a reference like “Destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.” But that is an echo from another Gospel… not part of this particular story. In Mark’s telling, Jesus isn’t being metaphorical. He’s being prophetic. This very temple will, in fact, soon be destroyed.
This is the first message we have to hear: Something very big and very permanent can be wiped away in the blink of an eye. At this point in human history, we know that all too well. It’s fascinating to travel around the UK and realize that about every twenty minutes you come upon another ruined monastery… And I can tell you as a monk that it feels too close for comfort. We worry about legacy… all those ruins tell us we’re worried for nothing.
Whatever our great monuments to permanence and power may be… Whatever structures tell us that our way of life is safe and secure… Jesus stands with us and tells us that these edifices are lying to us. They are not permanent. They are not powerful. They can, and they will be wiped away in less time than we can possibly comprehend.
The fact is that big, powerful, and permanent institutions, the ones with the imposing palaces and edifices, need US to defend THEM. These supposedly powerful structures and the powerful people who build them are not just week, they feed on us. They are parasites of a sort.
Alright, so we’ve gotten this far in just the first two sentences of the passage of Mark… Perhaps we should go one sentence further…
The disciples ask Jesus to clarify his prophecy. Tell us, they say, when the Temple stones will be thrown down. This is certainly an important question. When…
Jesus’ answer oddly lacks any details about an apocalyptic timeline. “Deceivers will come in my name… There will be wars and rumors of wars… Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom… There will be famines and earthquakes…” And, really, we all know that these are the harbingers of the “end times” … the end of the world.
Jesus is obviously building up to the big reveal… The tension is mounting… And then Jesus lets the air gently out of the balloon. “Do not be alarmed, the end is still to come…” In other words, relax, take a big breath, this isn’t IT.
Jesus is not talking about “end times.” He is talking about bad times. Jesus is preparing his followers for difficult days ahead. This is extremely important – because living in bad times is totally different than living in end times.
Living in end times might be terrifying, but it isn’t all that difficult because you are not in it, after all, for the long run. You’re in it for the ending – which is coming very soon. You don’t want to be the first one out…
Living in bad times requires endurance and persistence. Job, for example, lived, for much that particular book, in bad times, not in end times. And Job persisted. Living in end times is great for thrill seekers but living in bad times offers few thrills and much sorrow.
Jesus tells his disciples how to live in bad times. We stopped reading at the 8th verse, but if we kept reading for just a few more verses, we would hear that we will be dragged before governors and kings – as witnesses. The gospel, Jesus says, must be preached. That is to say it must be witnessed. It won’t be easy, it won’t be fun, and it won’t be exciting. But it is essential.
We have to endure in witnessing – in preaching the Gospel.
Jesus asks specific things over and over from his followers. Sometimes its phrased like “if you love me, feed my sheep.” Sometimes it is in the form of direction: “visit the prisoners, protect the widows and the orphans, feed the hungry.” And other times it is in the form of the ancient temple creed: “Love the Lord your God” – which includes the additional element to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Jesus calls us to ministry. And we need to remember that ministry sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from “majesty.”
To witness to the Gospel is to express God’s love in all that we do. The harder the times, I suspect, the harder the challenge, though good times surely pose their challenges as well. We don’t have to conquer, or triumph… we have to endure
The challenge of the Gospel is not that it is unclear or uncertain. The problem is that it is not easy, and it’s never finished.
Jesus warns us not to be led astray – there are deceivers who will come in Jesus’ name. There were false prophets in Jesus’ time. There have been false prophets in the intervening centuries. And today, thanks to the amplifying power of the internet, we have an apparently limitless supply of false prophets from which to choose.
False prophets will appeal to us by saying mostly what we want to hear – wrapped in stern and moral sounding word salad.
For example, there is that chorus of wannabe prophets who appear after every disaster to tell us that its God’s wrath for some wicked thing we are doing. There will be wars and rumors, there will be earthquakes and famines… but don’t be alarmed. No matter what the false prophets say, it’s not the end.
Jesus tells us the Gospel must be preached; we must bear witness. There is a famous quote, attributed to St Francis, but who knows… “Francis” says: “Preach the Gospel always. Use words only when necessary.” In the very actions of our lives, we are able to preach the Gospel. And if our lives, our actions, don’t preach the Gospel, our words are useless.
In good times and in bad times we must bear witness in word and in deed – for the Gospel must be preached. That is what Jesus is telling us in the passage from Mark.
God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God. In hard times and in good Jesus calls us to endure – to persist – to abide – to love.