Scripture Mark 13:1-8, 20-32
As 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.”
3 As 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?”
5 Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 6 Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
20 “If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.
24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. 28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
What event is Jesus discussing with his disciples?
How are Jesus’ words supposed to bring comfort?
What is our role with the information about the future?
When approaching passages like Mark 13 it is important to clarify what future events Jesus is discussing and what he is not discussing. He begins discussing the destruction of the Temple he and his disciples are visiting, if our interpretation of the passage is at all useful we must consider that context. Jesus is not here talking of the end of the world and yet so many want to discuss Mark 13 as if he is discussing the end of the world. We take the discussion of “wars and rumors of wars” and apply them to our own context as if they mean something to our living in the last days.* But Jesus is not talking of the last days, rather he is describing the destruction of the Temple (an event that occurred in 70ce). Without the Temple it would have felt to the Jews like God’s presence had been stripped from the earth and they were somehow left devoid of the Divine. Jesus knew this and was seemingly content with this prospect; he understood that the current model of discovering God’s presence needed to be undone. This is why he quotes Daniel 7, the passage about the exultation of the Messiah to the highest place of authority. In this passage, Jesus is telling the disciples that they will understand that he is the Messiah because when the Temple is destroyed there will be a conduit connecting them to God– himself. Jesus wants the disciples to know that God’s presence in the world will be transformed through him and they do not have to fear the Temple’s destruction because he will be exulted to his throne.
Of course with the hindsight of nearly 2,000 years it is easy for us to sit back and relax with the Temple’s destruction and the continued presence of Jesus in the world. We have no stress about the momentous change this would have produced in the lives of believers of the time. But we do look with apprehension to our own future and we do stress about our tomorrows. During Lent I am thinking about the sword that struck at Mary’s soul and this week I am thinking about how the sword that is God’s plan for the future must have struck at Jesus, must have struck at Mary, and strikes at us. I imagine the pained and confused looks on the disciples’ faces as they tried to wrap their heads around what Jesus was saying about the Temple. Some would have been happy to get rid of that Temple, tainted by pagans (and probably construct a new one). Some would have been disturbed by Jesus’ prediction and no doubt would have associated this prophecy with the end of the world. I can see Mary catching wind of Jesus’ words and being scared at what kind of terrorist her son was becoming. Each of these is impacted by the future somewhat differently and I doubt that it was easy in that moment to take a deep breath and think through exactly what Jesus was saying to them.
What Jesus was saying was stay faithful and do not fear that evil has one, rather God has accounted for this circumstance in me. Not that God wanted the Temple destroyed or that God was working through this evil to bring about good– though some will make such ridiculous claims. But that God was working through Jesus to account for humanity’s corruption. We are called to take part in God’s plan for the world and that means we will be caught up in the events of our time. We are called to care for what is happening and what can/will happen. And yet, in all of this we cannot let the pain of the future harm us. This week the sword that would have struck at Mary was that of uncertainty over the future and though most of the sword strikes have been ones to absorb this is one to avoid. Much of the pain that comes to us because of our love for Jesus must be accepted as part of the cost of discipleship, but this is pain that is possible and should be avoided. Jesus gave his disciples a warning that pain was in the future and that pain surrounded the Temple. He did this so his disciples would listen to him and keep their focus more completely on him and thus avoid some of the pain.
*Since this topic has come up repeatedly lately I will expand on this thought for a blog post next week.