Why is Jesus being so provocative. Doesn’t he know that the last thing you should do is tell a church that the building isn’t all that important? Clearly, he never had to preach through a capital campaign.
The Temple complex in Jerusalem is the holiest ground for Jews, Christians, and Muslims today. The Western Wailing Wall and the Al Aksa Mosque sits on a leveled-out mountaintop Solomon built up with stone for the First Temple in 957 BCE. Babylonian destroyed Solomon’s Temple in 587 BC. Herod the Great rebuilt walls surrounding this area in Jesus’s day. The enclosed area is about 36 acres, the size of seven high school football complexes with quarter-mile tracks surrounding them (about 5 acres each), laid out side by side. The Wailing Wall, the remains of Herod’s wall, is about 187 feet high. That is about the height of Gillette Stadium in Foxboro or a 12 to 15 story building. So, this was a vast open-air complex that would have swallowed most football stadiums. For historical comparison, this is larger than the Coliseum in Rome, which ironically was built in 70 AD, when the Temple in Jerusalem was again destroyed.
The Temple was a wonder of the ancient world. The disciples were justifiably in awe walking into the outer courts. In the presence of such grandeur, why is Jesus so unimpressed? For clue number one, let’s start with who built it-Herod. Remember your Christmas stories? Jesus had reason to hold Herod in contempt. His family fled to Egypt to escape the slaughter of the innocents. Jesus may have leftover issues with any landmarks of Herod’s grandeur. Where others gaze in wonder, Jesus sees blood money and taxes stolen from people who can’t afford it, national wealth spent on Herod’s glory while people suffered in poverty.
This episode takes place about three days after the cleansing of the Temple when Jesus took a whip, drove out the moneychangers, and turned over their tables. Aren’t you surprised they let him back in? If you did that at a flea market or craft fair, you would probably be banned. But the Chief Priests feared the crowds enthralled with Jesus. Jesus is here at the Temple, warily eyed by moneychangers ready to defend their piles of shekels, probably a few bouncers at the ready. One of the disciples blurts out, “Teacher, look at these buildings and huge stones.” The wiser and more sophisticated of Jesus disciples might think, “You moron! Are you paying attention? Jesus does not like the Temple or the Priests because they want to kill him. They are the bad guys. Try to keep up, OK?” Jesus has had enough of the opulence of the Temple. He says, “The day will come when all of this will be thrown down, and not one stone will be left upon another.”
Now Jesus is getting everyone’s attention, again poking the hornet’s nest. “When will this come about? Look around Jesus. Those stones are humongous. This Temple will be here forever, like the Great Pyramids of Giza (which we had a hand in, by the way). What has God revealed to you about the future?” Jesus calms everyone down before one of the Chief Priests listening in has an aneurism on the spot. Jesus then delivers this warning:
“Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors 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 the birth pangs.
Here is my paraphrase of what Jesus would say today, “Get ahold of yourself. Learn to be resilient. Terrible things happen. We are in a climate emergency and a pandemic. It is a frightening and uncertain time but look for the opportunity to serve others. Everything feels like it is changing, but life is always changing. Don’t be led astray by leaders who offer easy and simplistic answers; or blame others for our problems. Pull together in the hard times. That is how you get through. I’ll be with you too, and I will show you the way.”
The first readers of Mark’s Gospel faced great tumult. They read this story in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of the Temple, just a generation after Jesus’s life. Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian, tells the story of the sack of Jerusalem. The Roman soldiers were so frustrated by the tenacious defenders of the Temple that when they finally gained the upper hand, the troops went wild and killed everyone, raping and pillaging, much to the embarrassment of Titus, the commanding general. Josephus said Titus tried to restrain the slaughter and burning of the Temple, but he was too late to stop the atrocity. The world was probably appalled, much like when we heard stories of Mai Lai coming out of the Vietnam War. When Titus was offered the traditional wreath of victory by the Roman Senate, he reportedly refused it. He said, “There is no glory in destroying a people whose God has forsaken them.”
I don’t think we can imagine an equivalent parallel. We know how shaken we were after 9/11 and how exhausted we are after four waves of COVID and over 700,000 deaths in the US alone. Some of you may remember Pearl Harbor. These are generation-shaping catastrophes.
Mark’s is writing right around this terrible atrocity in Jerusalem. Is it a coincidence that the first written account of the Gospel story appears in the aftermath? As the shock of civilization-altering violence reverberates, Mark dips a quill into ink and writes these opening words of his story, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.” Good news! That is what the word Gospel means. Here is some good news. It takes a lot of courage to write about good news amid deep trauma and grief. Mark could have written a different story. He could have written a deep lamentation to speak of the collective suffering. Christians in 70 CE are still a faction within Judaism. They may have been in tension with the Temple leaders, but many hoped for reform. Human nature prefers gradual change. There are no early Christian texts hoping for the destruction of the Temple. Mark expresses strong language condemning corruption by Temple leaders, but there is no gloating in his Gospel. He never says God brought this destruction because of injustice and unfaithfulness. Nobody deserved this.
Mark doesn’t try to explain the destruction of the Temple. He has a different story to tell. Destruction and chaos are not the work of God. Instead, God has been at work behind the scenes. The Spirit was working in Jesus of Nazareth, a generation before. His disciples have been forming communities to follow his teachings, and here is the good news. In verse 2 of Mark’s story, he quotes Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make the path straight.” It’s an old story grounded in Moses and the prophets, but here is the new chapter, even as their hearts are still breaking, and wounds have not yet healed.
Mark moves relentlessly forward for 13 chapters as Jesus heals, offers grace and forgiveness, challenges prejudice and hatred and arrogance, and invites people into the coming Kingdom of God, which I like to translate the Beloved Community. The rest of this chapter is a long speech by Jesus that sounds much like Mark trying to help his community process what has happened in Jerusalem. His message is still valid for us. Amid fear and uncertainty, pay attention to what God is doing. There is good news in the air. The facts on the ground are terrible, but hope is always about what we cannot see. Hope is not about data; it is about possibility. We are called to be stewards not just of what we see, but of a future we cannot yet perceive.
The last line of today’s text says, “These are the beginning of the birth pangs.” New life does not come easy. Babies don’t just hatch from an egg. The human race isn’t extended by planting seeds in the ground and watering them. The birthing process is a great wonder to me. Women, you understand the ways of life better. Babies aren’t simply born; you have to painfully push new human life out of your bodies and into the world. I can’t fathom it. I can only gaze in awe and wonder and try to say encouraging things. Breathe! Push! You can do it. Here it comes.
I don’t know if Mark or Jesus ever saw a birth. But they know a good analogy when they see it. History has birth pangs. We face significant challenges now as we go through the disruptions of the COVID pandemic, the climate emergency, and racism and political polarization all at the same time. Where is it all going? The world as we know is being shaken to its foundations.
There is no opting out of it. We have to go through the birth pangs. Breath! Push! We can do this! The temples that we cling to may be toppled someday, but the good news of the Gospel story continues. We hope for things beyond what we now see. We are stewards not just of what we have now, but of the future. Thanks be to God. Amen.