Mark 13:1-8 (NIV)
1As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!"
2"Do you see all these great buildings?" replied Jesus. "Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."
3As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4"Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?"
5Jesus said to them: "Watch out that no one deceives you. 6Many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am he,' and will deceive many. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
Over summer we have had crisis after crises – storms, bushfires, floods, and now, Covid-19…
What’s happening to the world?
Is the end nigh?
The end of the world is an ongoing fascination; it’s a staple subject of movies, with hundreds having been made - On the Beach (1959), Dr Strangelove (1964), Armageddon (1998), Independence Day (1996), 28 Days Later (2002) just to name a few. In these movies, the destruction of recognisable landmarks is prominent - The destruction of the US Capitol Building in Independence Day, the ruins of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and of course, the Statue of Liberty on its side, half buried, in Planet of the Apes.
Particularly since 9/11, such imagery is believable, and powerful. We can be certain that the things we build, no matter how grand, can be destroyed.
And it’s interesting and perhaps a bit scary that we encounter such imagery in today’s gospel reading! Jesus talking to the disciples about the destruction of temple. It’s easy to think that the Temple in Jesus’ time was something like a modern day cathedral or mega-church. But the temple was much more than simply a place of worship – it was the centre of Israel, the economy of Jerusalem depended on the operation of the temple, it was the centre of Jewish power (shared at the time by the nobles, the priests and the Pharisees as the teachers of the law) and it was a place of regular pilgrimage for all the people.
And as well as all that, it was also an amazing building. The second temple had been rebuilt by Herod the Great (the same Herod who was king at the time of Jesus’ birth). It was, at the time, one of the wonders of the world. For most people who saw it, and certainly for Jesus’ disciples from Galilee, it would be the largest and most impressive building they would ever see.
The disciples have, at the beginning of this reading, been with Jesus in the temple for some time, and it’s been an interesting time: When they first arrived, Jesus drove the money changers out of the forecourt, then he cursed the fig tree, and then answered the challenging questions of the Pharisees and Sadducees - the questions about paying taxes to Caesar, marriage and resurrection, the greatest commandment and so on - it was a tumultuous time
And in Mark’s gospel, we read today “As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What large stones and what large buildings!” (Mk 13:1).
Jesus response, is “Do you see these great buildings?” … “Not one stone here will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (13:2)
Sure enough, the temple would be destroyed - but not until AD70, although it wasn’t literally as Jesus said – to this day, there are still a few stones of the Temple left on one another, but the destruction was complete: Jesus was also talking about the destruction of the temple as the centre of Jewish worship of God, and as the place from which it was generally thought by the Jews that the messiah would rule.
It’s easy to think that the next verses of Mark 13 follow on: that the disciple remarked on the temple, Jesus said it would be destroyed, and the disciples asked for clarification. But it didn’t quite happen like that – quite some time elapses between warning about the fate of the temple in verse 2, and the follow question up by some of the disciples in verse 3.
The Mount of Olives is a bit under two kilometres from the temple. A pleasant walk, and the mountain is about 80 metres higher than the temple, and so had a great view of the temple. Years later, when Jerusalem was under siege, the Roman commander Titus set up his command post there, so he could see what was going on inside the temple grounds.
My impression is the experience of the temple was something like the Opera House is to us today. We go there – at least when it’s not locked down due to coronavirus – and we look around, and look up at the sweeping sails and so on, and maybe go on a behind the scenes tour – and sure enough, it seems that 1st century visitors to the temple could go on tours of the Temple too. But that’s an aside: the point is that we can experience the Opera House up close, but you don’t get to see the full splendour until you leave the Opera House, and walk around Circular Quay to the Overseas Terminal and see the Opera House against the backdrop of the harbour, or better still, walk around Farm Cove to Mrs Macquaries Chair and see it against the backdrop of the Harbour Bridge.
It’s a pleasant walk, with a fantastic view at the end, which lets you properly appreciate a magnificent building.
And while the walk from the temple to the Mount of Olives would normally be a pleasant one, I think the walk that day for the disciples might have been a bit awkward – Jesus having announced the destruction of what was the spiritual, religious, political, economic and cultural centre of the Jewish world.
Finally, after the walk to the Mount of Olives Peter, Andrew, James and John – the inner circle of the disciples,– approached Jesus privately and asked him “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4)
Thinking about the fulfilment of prophecy, ‘things to come’, the end of the ages, or the ‘End of Days’ to use the Jewish expression, is an interesting thing for Christians. There are those who will embrace it, wholeheartedly, who will focus on end times things, perhaps to the point of obsession – looking for signs, counting down days and so on. And then there are those who skip over it.
There is a long and rich tradition of predicting the end of the world: Wikipedia has a handy list of over 200 predicted dates of the end times which have now all proved incorrect.
It’s easy make fun of such claimed prophecies. But I think the presence of those predictions reveals a human need, a human fear of the future. We long for certainty, and it is easy to be just like the disciples who came to Jesus and asked “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4)
Wouldn’t it be really good to know when?
But we can’t know when – Jesus says so later on, in verse 32 – “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (13:32)
So, rather than re-asking the disciples’ question “when will this be?” today, we need to focus on how Jesus’ answered them.
And his answer wasn’t to rebuke the disciples for asking; instead he begins with a warning: “Beware that no one leads you astray.” (13:5) This theme of warning persists through the whole chapter – the same Greek word which is given as ‘Beware’ here and in verse 9, ‘be alert’ in verse 23 and beware again in verse 33. Here, though the warning isn’t about being on guard for the end, it’s being beware of people who may deceive us.
Jesus said they will claim divine authority: “Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and they will lead many astray.” (13:6)
So how do we guard against being deceived?
Well, firstly, we need to test these things against what we read in the bible, and that’s not just to find a verse that supports what is being said, but we need to test what we’re told against the fullness of scripture.
And we can look to the traditions of the church, and by that I don’t mean the various rituals that we have, but rather, how wise and prayerful Christians who have gone before us have thought about these things.
As well as the scriptures and our traditions, there is logic: God has given us the ability to reason. You might remember back in 2012, there were predictions of the end of the world because the Mayan Calendar was running out. We know now that it was wrong, but we have to think, did it ever make sense that the Mayans had knowledge of the End of the World, and so set up their calendar accordingly?
Then, having warned the disciples to be on guard, Jesus goes on to talk about the things that will happen:
“When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, , but the end is still to come. 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 birth pangs.” (Mk 13:7-8)
People often take Jesus reference to wars and rumours of wars, earthquakes and famines as the signs that the disciples requested. People track such things, and claim them as signs of the end, but Jesus isn’t mentioning these things as signs of the end, he is mentioning them as things that will happen before the end. Things that we shouldn’t be deceived by and things that we shouldn’t be distracted by.
There is nothing new here: Wars and rumours of wars, nations rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes and famines, have happened throughout human history. They are not signs of the end of the age, but they are facts of the current age. Over the course of thousands and thousands of years, wars, famines and natural disasters have been with us.
And while they will always be with us, we as Christians are called to do what we can, to make peace, to feed the hungry, to cope with natural disasters. We must never ignore the things of this world, but as we attend to the things of this world, to making peace, to feeding the hungry and tending the sick, and washing our hands, and looking out for vulnerable, we need to remember that those things are not the end in themselves, but rather the way in which we follow the example of Jesus, and serve God.
Jesus said “These are the beginning of birth pangs.” They are the birth pangs of the age to come: something that the world – and that we - must go through. Something the world must continue to go through, until the day God’s plan for creation is made complete.
The common theme to most discussion of the end of the days is fear and doom. Struggle against overwhelming odds. Destruction. Hopelessness. Death. But those aren’t the things that the scriptures point us to – instead, the End of Days is the end of fear and doom, the end of destruction, the end of hopelessness and end of death.
We, as followers of Christ, do not need to be beware of the End of Days, rather we need to be beware of those that focus on that time with proclamations of doom and disaster. We need to remain assured that Jesus, in his death and resurrection, has done all that is needed to save us. We just need to keep our faith in him, and be confident in the face of those who would led us astray - whether they do so intentionally or not.
In the meantime there will be wars and rumours of wars, nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes; there will be famines. [and I think we could safely add that there will be storms, bushfires, droughts, floods and plagues] But these things are just birth pangs.
We must remember in the face of all this, that God has a plan for creation, a plan for us; there is an end in which God will bring about a new heaven and a new earth, one in which every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Philippians 2:10-11) We need to work diligently, as God’s people toward that end: to share the good news of Jesus and to be examples to the world of God’s love and God’s kingdom.
Even if it seems the end is nigh, we must not be distracted, and must not be led astray by the things of the world.
Remember that God has a plan for creation, a plan for all of us. We are living in troubled times, and our society and our lives are disrupted: but it’s not the end of the world, because the end – the fulfilment of God’s plan - is still to come.
I don’t know the origin of this prayer; it was shared on facebook by Rev Punam Bent, one of the Chaplains at PLC Pymble.
Prayer for a pandemic
May we who are merely inconvenienced,
Remember those whose lives are at stake.
May we who have no risk factors,
Remember those most vulnerable.
May we who have the luxury of working from home,
Remember those who must choose between preserving their health or making their rent.
May we who have the flexibility to care for our children when their schools close,
Remember those who have no options.
May we who have to cancel our trips,
Remember those that have no safe place to go.
May we who are losing our margin money in the tumult of the economic market,
Remember those who have no margin at all.
May we who settle in for a quarantine at home,
Remember those who have no home.
As fear grips our country, let us choose love.
During this time when we cannot physically wrap our arms around each other,
Let us yet find ways to be the loving embrace of God to our neighbours.
We live in troubling times, but always be confident in what God has done, and what God will do.
Trust in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Go in peace to serve the Lord, in the name of Christ, Amen.
Hymns for this week:
Looking out: Why are you still a Christian?
Next Sunday: 29 March, 2020
Theme: 'Breath of new life' Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Lectionary Readings for next week
Ezekiel 37: 1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11: 1-45