As [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “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.”
Jesus is standing in front of massive stones: the 2nd temple and surrounding buildings. The first temple was Solomon’s temple – and even some of those stones are still in place, remnants of the retaining walls. Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the Babylonians around 587 BCE, when the Israelites were exiled from their homeland. Coming back home 50 years later, they rebuilt the temple stone by stone, and by the time Jesus and his disciples are walking by, this second temple has been standing for well over 500 years. We like big, solid tangible things; it makes us feel secure. We build structures that we think will last forever, as though it gives us some sort of permanent claim on the land that God has created. And any suggestion that it might not be permanent can seem like a threat to our security and our way of life.
For Mark’s original readers though, Jesus’ words were a comfort. By the time Mark’s Gospel was written down and shared among Christian communities, the second temple in Jerusalem had already been destroyed by the Romans.
Up until the writing of Mark, it was good enough to just tell the stories about Jesus. But at some point there was a need for these stories to be written down. Something going on at that time created a need for a written account of the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” A generation after Jesus, the Jewish and Christian peoples were revolting against the Roman occupation and oppression and suffered for it and the temple was destroyed. When Jesus says “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs” Mark’s readers are experiencing suffering and persecution and apocalyptic violence like they had never known.
Being a preacher who has personally experienced the beginning, middle and end of the birth pangs gives me a particular vantage point on this text. When I was in labor with Vivian, the beginning of the birth pangs was manageable. I mean, it was bad, but I’m working through it and I can still breath. The middle of the birth pangs was ridiculous and confusing, trying to escape the pain and bargain my way out of this increasing violence happening to my body. The end of the birth pangs was coming and the midwife kept saying how good things were, and that i was alright and doing fine. From my perspective, I was sure I was likely dying or already dead. But the midwife knew what was happening. The midwife had seen the signs and knew that what felt like the end for me was really only the beginning of new life.
Mark is writing from the other end, looking back on the pain and suffering and frightening times the community has had and using Jesus words not to scare them but to comfort them. Mark has a midwife’s perspective. When I read Mark’s apocalyptic phrases, I hear Jesus telling them “Everything will be all right.” Maybe it doesn’t look alright, maybe things looks totally out of control, maybe it looks like we’re in for the worst, but the genre of writings like Jesus words here and books like Revelation continuously reassure with God’s promises in the midst of terrifying circumstances. The faithful will be redeemed. God is in control. God will make things right – all the wrong that this world experiences will be made right.
How often do parents say that to their children, “Everything will be all right”? A child falls and leaves some skin on the ground. “Everything will be all right,” we say to the sobbing child. Maybe not till that brush burn heals over – but I will take care of you and everything will be alright.
Just because we proclaim that everything will be all right, that doesn’t mean that we do nothing. There may be a fast trip to the emergency room. There may be bandages and antibiotics applied. Parents do all that’s in their power to make sure everything will be all right for their suffering children. We may say everything will be alright in the end, but that doesn’t excuse us from working for good in the here and now. In fact, we can work – we can affect change – because we have hope, because we know that the ways things are now, are not permanent. Saying everything will be alright, doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge that things are not alright right now in this temporary and unstable world, but acknowledges and holds to a God who has claimed us as children and ultimately will bring us home.
We have lived through an apocalypse. I feel that I can say that now. We as a nation, and as a Church, and as a congregation, have come through some things that felt-world ending, and that may still feel world-ending, but that’s not what apocalypse means. Apocalypse is not about the end of the world, but about a revealing, an unveiling, an uncovering.
Debie Thomas quotes activist Adrian Maree Brown when she preaches on this gospel“Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” And counsels us on what that looks like for us, “Make peace, choose hope, cultivate patience, and incarnate love as the world reels and changes. For me, this is the great challenge of the Gospel. Not simply to bear the apocalypse, but to bear it well. To bear it with the radical, self-sacrifical love Jesus models on the cross.”
To resist the urge to scrap it all and find some other source preaching security and safety. Resist the urge to turn on each other with blame and finger pointing for the situation we find ourselves in. Resist the impulse to give into fear and suspicion. We can both resist those urges and proclaim for all to hear that things are not alright. Not yet. There are wars and rumors of wars. There has been violence and conflict neighbor against neighbor and family member against family member. Institutions, including the church, have failed us and their systems created to keep us safe have broken down or were built unjustly from the start. We have placed our trust in things that were temporary and illusory. And we have experienced all this while a global pandemic ravaged our communities, people died, people lost jobs, people got sick and are still sick, and we lived a very different life cut off from our normal activities. We can say these things out loud, or at least we should.
In the 7 months I have been here, I have heard your anger and your pain, both shouted and whispered. I have seen the ways your community has been broken and wounded. There will be some who tell you that there’s no need to look back, what’s done is done, and we need to move forward. Certainly congregations should always keep an eye on where the Risen Christ goes ahead of them, but in the midst of an apocalypse we are called to see what Christ is unveiling and revealing here in the present.
I have an unfailing hope that God is at work here, revealing something to us, through our grief and pain. From my personal experience the beginning of labor and childbirth doesn’t really feel like you’re about to birth a baby – it feels more like your body is betraying you and being torn apart and changed and acting in ways you could have never imagined or expected. May we continue to proclaim Christ crucified and raised, even as Christ’s body here feels broken. May we stay alert and focused on the cross as more is unveiled, and hold each other tight.