This is the message I preached on Sunday, 11/18 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was Mark 13:1-8.
There is a genre of films and books that are called apocalyptic. Inevitably, there is a disaster, whether it’s a virus unleashed upon the world or an alien invasion or some other horrific thing that wipes out half the population. But in the middle of the horror, there are the good and strong people that work together until an answer is found. The war is won.
Today’s reading from Mark falls somewhat into the range of apocalyptic literature. The present time is one of suffering because the people are faithful in the midst of an evil world. In the future, there are rewards for the patient and faithful righteous and eventual suffering for the unrighteous. Its purpose is to encourage faithfulness and patience in the present time.
Jesus leaves the temple for the final time. When the disciples see the temple in Jerusalem, they see permanence. Roman historian Tacitus described the temple complex as a mountain of white marble adorned with gold, a “temple of immense wealth.” Amazed at the physical beauty, they are ignorant of the underlying corruption that Jesus has been exposing since arriving in Jerusalem. There was something they could touch, feel, see and know was solid. It wasn’t going anywhere…or so they thought.
When Jesus tells the disciples that “all will be thrown down,” he is not speaking of the Temple per se, since that was burned. Rather this is a full condemnation of the social-religious structure which exploits the poor for its own gain. After all, Herod’s Temple was built on the backs of the poor and the
Temple system perpetuated a stratified culture.
The next scene takes place on the Mount of Olives, “opposite” the Temple. They could have looked down upon the Temple from there. Was their location described in this way so as to alert the readers that what follows will be the end of the temple system and the vindication of Jesus’ life and work?
Now four of the twelve get the inside scoop and so they want to know when all these things would happen and what would be the sign that the end is near? Naturally, Jesus will usher in his glorious kingdom that of course, in their minds, meant that the temple would be restored to its former glory and all would be well with the world, with the Jewish people back in control of their homeland.
Now what we need to understand is that Jesus’ response isn’t as much a predictive message about the future, though there are elements of that, but it is a word addressing the issues that were pressing to the Markan community, to the church that would later be reading this gospel. These things were the stuff of those people’s everyday lives and it’s not so different today either.
The early readers of Mark, saw the violence of war, the destruction of the Temple and fall of Jerusalem. There was the perilous existence of the church under persecution as well as the enticing voices from within of false prophets and messiahs. These were urgent concerns for the Christian community in the first century.
How does Jesus answer the disciples’ questions? First of all, he does not answer the one about the timing of the end at all. That was something he didn’t know. It was the purview of the Father. What Jesus does answer continues beyond today’s reading, through the end of chapter 13.
Mark sounds three clear notes in this portion of today’s gospel. The first is that the community will be forced to develop a spirit of discernment. In the midst of opposition from the outside, there is a threat from within. There would be those who claimed to speak in Jesus’ name, but would seek to lead members of the church astray.
The second note is the call for patience. The church’s precarious situation at that time demanded incredible patience, rather than being frantically alarmist. When the end will come is in God’s hands. Neither omens not accomplishments guarantee ultimate fulfillment of God’s purposes.
The final note is that in spite of all that transpires, the church is called to be hopeful. Our woes may be different than those of Mark’s church, but the church that remains faithful will find itself beleaguered and vulnerable. Now isn’t that encouraging? It may not seem encouraging, but it is reality. Jesus and Mark do not whitewash the difficulties of life. And of course, all of this is but “the beginning of the birthpangs (v. 8).
This phrase is a reference to hope. Something is being brought to birth and it hurts. However, the plans God has laid for God’s people are for good, for new birth and not destruction. There are lots of adjustments to be made when something or someone new is born. Those of you who are parents remember how much a new baby turned your lives upside down.
Labor can be long and hard, but isn’t the end finally worth it? Those of you who are familiar with the British series, "Call the Midwife," which Ray and I love, know that there are at least 2-3 births per episode. There is the requisite breathing and screaming and then the complete joy when the mother sees her baby. The sufferings that the church inevitably faces do not lead to despair, but to hope, to the anticipated dawn of God’s new day. A new heaven and a new earth will be born.
When God births a new thing by the renewing of the Spirit, it’s in continuity with God and God’s plans, but it may not look like what he had hoped for. We may be disillusioned but with that disillusionment comes the undoing of our false images of God, of life, of what we’re owed and of who we are. We can come to a fresh perspective on who God is and what we are in relationship to God.
The larger issues Jesus addressed in today’s text have not changed over time. We still have wars, earthquakes, famine and forest fires. Was there ever a time in human history where some part of the world was not at war? Throughout time there have been devastating natural disasters. This can be discouraging and at times, absolutely frightening. Let us not follow those who try to tell us they have all the answers, that because this and this and that have lined up prophetically, Jesus HAS to come any minute. Jesus doesn’t have to do anything except that which his Father directs him to do.
What we see are those who claim to use the right formulas, but at heart, they worship at an altar other than that of the one true God. There are various versions of such faith. There is the cross-less religion, without tears, that tells says you can have everything your little heart desires right hear and right now.
We also have a patriotic religion that sees God and country fused into one. What seems good for the country must inevitably be God’s will. After all, we’re America, God’s new Jerusalem, a city on a hill. If you disagree with anything coming from our political leaders, then you are not following God. With sharp disagreements among Christians concerning politics in recent years, we’ve seen these accusations flying from left, right and center.
Finally, we have advocates of religion’s utilitarian functions. Prayer is an effective means of self-enhancement, for example. You can live a happier, better life if you go to church. In this version of Christianity, it is all about us, not God and not our neighbor.
How do we survive the devastation of an aggressive cancer diagnosis or other illness, the crashing down of a building, or the aftermath of a natural disaster? How do we survive the loss of innocence? How do we live in the midst of competing voices, all full of passionate intensity, claiming that these are signs of the end of the age? We must not focus on the signs themselves, but rather on the One who is to come—the One who enables us to look up after such devastation and claim the certainty of blessing. Things may seem to have fallen apart. It may appear that anarchy has been loosed on the world. Nevertheless, the center will hold and—much to our amazement—we will discover that we have much faithful work to do (Nishioka). Thanks be to God.
Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year B
Fred B. Craddock,, Preaching Through the Christian Year B
Robb McCoy and Eric Fistler, pulpitfiction.com
Rodger Y. Nishioka, Robert A. Bryant, Feasting On the Word: Year B, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost
Brad Roth, christiancentury.org
Marion Soards, Thomas Dozeman and Kendall McCabe, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary:
Year B, After Pentecost 2
Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com