As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For 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 birthpangs. Mark 13:18
A young woman dressed in an unassuming hoodie, jeans and canvas shoes stands in front of the New York Stock Exchange and with fist raised in the air calls out “This great building and all of its markets and profit margins will be wiped away. Nothing will be left.”
An old wizened man, with a heavy grey beard stands on a homemade wooden box in front of the Parliament Building in Ottawa. He holds up a sign that reads: “The end is near. All of this will disappear.”
A priest nervously steps into the pulpit. She gulps hard in order to swallow down the rising anxiety of what she will preach. “All of this, all you see, all we do will not last forever. It is coming to an end. What will take its place?” The congregation shifts nervously in their pews.
These modern day examples give you a glimpse of what Jesus was saying in today’s gospel. Jesus has just exited the temple – the religious, cultural, and even political, centre of his own Hebrew people. It is a magnificent building, one that is symbolic of God’s presence among God’s people. In fact, it contains the Holy of Holies, the very residing place of God. It is the liturgical heart of Judaism, where sacrifices are offered up to God. One of the disciples marvels at the architectural grandeur of the temple: “What large stones! What an amazing building.” Jesus’ response is shocking. “Do you see this this building? It will all be cast down, reduced to rubble.” I don’t think Jesus means just the building. I think he means all of it – the institution, the structure, the sacrificial system, the priests, the scribes, the whole religio-economic system will fall.
What’s got Jesus in such a rotten mood? Chapter 12 ends with the story of the widow placing her last coins in the temple coffers. The irony of the scene is stark. The one for whom the temple, the whole religious system, is meant to care, instead props up the system. Jesus sees this and it doesn’t sit well with him. He is also in the final days of his earthly ministry. It seems as though he has something to prove. He repeatedly goes after the religious leaders and their hypocrisy. Chapter 14 marks the beginning of Mark’s passion narrative, the story of the cross, Jesus’ own ending.
Chapter 13 of Mark is what referred to as the little apocalypse. Just one chapter that seems to echo the larger apocalypse of the Book of Revelation. But remember, when Jesus gets apocalyptic he is not talking about the future end of all things, but about the present. He is talking about seeing the present in a different way. Former American Methodist Bishop Will Willimon says that when Jesus uses apocalyptic language he is talking about the “precariousness of the present”. Things are the way they are, but they won’t always be that way. Apocalyptic occupies the space between the fading away of the old and the emerging of the new. That is always a precarious, nerve-racking place to be.
We know this all too well in the church, especially in the Anglican Church and in this diocese. In fact, we just had a synod about it. Anglicans from across our diocese gathered to talk about the future of the church and the church of the future. Much was said about the need to change and adapt, to shift our focus away from buildings to mission, from maintenance to ministry. We know what we have always done is just not working anymore, but we are unable, or perhaps unwilling, to see a different way. We are caught in the precariousness of the present, a present we know cannot last. So Jesus’ words about it all falling down and disappearing are hardly comforting. Isn’t Jesus supposed to comfort us and make us feel better?
When the disciples ask Jesus “when this will happen?” he gives them a list of occurrences that are hardly extraordinary: false prophets, political strife, wars, natural disasters, famines. Life will unfold as always. Life in a world that is always uncertain, always changing, always in flux. But this, Jesus said, is only the beginning of the birth pangs. In this uncertainty, this precariousness, is the seed of the promise of something else. What they see as an ending is only the beginning of something new in the eyes of God. Actually God is pretty good at bringing beginnings out of endings. The central story of the Christian faith is new life from death, a beginning from an ending. Perhaps you could say that in order for God to do something new, something has to die. We all know this to be true in our own lives.
In a new world we need a new church. We have a new world. So what is it that needs to die in the church? What stones must crumble in order for something new to emerge? Can we truly envision a new way to be the church or is the thought of what needs to die just too painful? Can we trust God and the story of life from death, death and rebirth? If we are willing to reimagine a future church, if we truly have faith that there is another way, then there is much work to be done. We must roll up our sleeves and sort through the rubble for signs of new life. We must open our hearts and minds and, yes, our wallets to rebuild a more flesh and blood, less bricks and mortar kind of church. Because what we thought was an ending is really just another beginning.
Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s