In April of this year, I looked at the lectionary and planned out which scriptures I would use for the rest of the year. When I did so, and planned for this day to read about Jesus’s “little apocalypse” in Mark, I could not fathom that merely two days before I would preach on it, a large-scale attack committed by radical extremists would occur. I could not dare to imagine that when I read this scripture to you this morning, I would have to do so in the light of over 120 people losing their lives and countless others being injured in Paris, France. That in Beirut, four days earlier, an attack would occur committed by suicide bombers killing 48 people, injuring 240 more. That earthquakes would rattle not only Japan but also Mexico, causing catastrophic damage.
I could not have imagined all of these events happening when I had planned to read this scripture, and yet, I cannot help but think that it is all the more appropriate to read this and reflect on it in the shadow of such atrocities. Atrocities like this are a horrible product of sin and brokenness in this world, designed to terrify, provoke, and enrage. The greater atrocity, however, is that these kinds of atrocities have happened for hundreds of years in hundreds of places
I take no joy in talking about these things to you today. I am weighed down by sorrow at the lives lost, and the suffering of humanity that cries out in anguish around the world.
Nor, do I suppose, did Jesus take joy in prophesying the fall of the temple, the foretelling of wars and disasters, and the revelation of atrocity to his disciples. When I read the gospels, I see Jesus not as one of those who gleefully preach the downfall of the world in order to scare the living daylights out of everyone, but rather someone who mourns at the sad state of humanity, a creation broken by its own doing. I imagine that it would be like a loving parent heartbroken that their children can’t get along and continue to hurt each other in escalating severity.
No, Jesus took no joy in foretelling the world’s doom. However, one must carefully read what he says and understand why he says it, because it is often easy to miss the forest for the trees when it comes to apocalyptic preaching.
All Will Be Demolished
It’s necessary, in my estimation, to remember that this passage takes place immediately after the passage where Jesus condemns the scribes and praises the widow’s offering, because it is in that context he makes his grim predictions.
His followers, as he is leaving the temple, exclaim as a tourist might, “Look at that building! It’s so beautiful! What an awesome sight to see!” I know this exclamation. I’ve made it often. Because I am a bit of a religious nerd, I love to visit cathedrals and holy places. One of the most important and biggest churches I’ve ever visited is Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. A beautiful gothic building with high walls, higher towers, resplendent stained glass and magnificent architecture, I could not refrain from saying my self: What a beautiful building! What stones! What art!
Perhaps you have done the same, if you’ve ever done any religious tourism. People travel the world on pilgrimages to Spain, or Italy, or Israel, just to get a sense of grandeur and be a witness to history. And such as it was with the disciples and Jesus at the temple.
Then, Jesus had become a total bummer. A real Debbie-Downer. Jesus said: “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” All these beautiful, amazing, awesome places will one day be dust. Nothing here will stand. In time, nothing will last, even these monuments.
Whoa. Way to get philosophical on us there, Jesus. We were just admiring some architecture, but there you go, going all Werner Herzog on everybody. However, like I said, Jesus isn’t doing this out of nowhere. This is a direct comment on the injustice and oppression being committed by those rich scribes from the previous passage, because the stones that built the temple were paid for by the sacrifices of the poor like that poor widow. And those grand monuments and temples designed as a testament to God’s power? They are nothing more than dust in the wind in the cosmic sense of things. Such oppression amounts to nothing, an suffering is going to happen, simply because that is the state that the world has gotten itself into by its own tragic, sinful condition.
The Little Apocalypse
Quickly after he made this grim prediction that all would be demolished, the disciples came up to him in private and asked, perhaps, if Jesus had some insider information that he wasn’t sharing. Like, if what he said about the temple falling down, would happen soon.
Now, I just explained that Jesus was talking in the cosmic sense, but it’s apparent that Jesus’s followers were, well, not following that logic. When Jesus said that “All will be demolished,” they were wondering if it was going to be demolished soon. Like in a month. Or a year. If they could have a date to go along with that prediction, that would be great.
Again, this is not at all an unreasonable kind of line of questioning, because quite frankly, we do the same today. There are an unbelievable amount of books parsing out the various prophetic texts in the bible, attempting to pinpoint exactly when the end of the world is going to happen, and there’s quite a bit of business to be done when it comes to this. I’ve read at least one or two of them myself. We’re fascinated by prophetic literature. We’re curious, and in many cases that curiosity can turn into zealotry.
The problem with that is that as much as we want prophetic literature to literally predict the future, that’s not what prophecy actually does in many cases. When we see Jesus or any of the other prophets speaking in the Bible, when they make prophetic claims, seldom are they actually doing any real predictions. What they are doing is making warnings against what they see occurring in the here and now. Jesus knew in the here and now that there was going to be wars, and so he said so. He knew there would be atrocities, and he said that too. He also knew that in the meantime, there would be a lot of false prophets trying to either pinpoint the date of the end of the world for selfish gain, or giving false prophecy for political or financial gains. And he said as much.
In his little apocalypse, as it is often referred to, Jesus says all of this, but he qualifies it all with this line that I think is the most important in all of this passage: When you hear of wars and reports of wars, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen, but this isn’t the end yet…These things are just the beginning of the sufferings associated with the end.
So Jesus is a bit of a downer in this passage, and who could blame him? He knows the capacity of human evil. But he also says to us this bit of consolation: Don’t Worry About It. Don’t be alarmed.
That’s a nice sentiment Jesus, but really? You tell us there will be wars and famines and disaster and atrocities and that they are going to the be the beginning of the end… but don’t worry about it? You can’t just say “Don’t Worry” and expect us to follow through with that! And yet he does, and so we in turn must, and for very good reason.
It is normal to worry, to be fearful, because we are limited and know that ultimately we are mortal. Mortality stares us in the face, especially in times of atrocities such as the ones the world has seen in the past week. And yet, Jesus said in the face of this we must not be alarmed, because…why? Because it’s the beginning of the end of suffering.
There is suffering in this world, that can’t be denied. I’m not happy about it. I constantly pray about it and question God about it, and when I see God I’m going to have to have a nice sit down and question him about all of this horrible hullaballoo down here in life, from terrorism to terminal illness in children, from racism to sexism, to hatred and genocide.
Until then, I get Jesus telling me to not be alarmed. Why? Because it will end, and that end is not something to fear. For you see, the end is just the beginning, the beginning of something much better, much grander, much holier, and much more beautiful. The evil, the sin, that plagues this world, it cannot last in the fullness of time. All of it will be abolished, and everything will be taken up in Christ, and heaven and earth will be as one.
This is not meant to scare us, but to comfort us. Until that time when disaster and war are no more, we are to therefore love one another. Support one another. Seek peace and reconciliation, not hatred, war, and retribution. To follow Christ is to follow the path of faith, peace, and justice, and that is not an easy path to follow. Though it is difficult, we walk it nonetheless, and we walk it together.
So pray, and do. Be an instrument of God’s peace in this world. Love and cherish one another. There is sin in this world, but there is also good. Keep the faith. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.