1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
3 When 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?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 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.
Let us pray. Beautiful Savior, when life is a peaceful sanctuary and when the load bearing walls of our lives feel like they are shaking, we come to you. We trust you. And Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.
I’ll never forget the 2011 Earthquake in Virginia. Hearing the glasses clink in cabinets. Planting myself in a doorway because I had heard that was the sturdiest place to be. Eventually bolting outside to ask if others had felt it, only to find two very rattled painters who had been touching up the second-floor exterior walls of my neighbor’s home, atop 30 ft ladders, during the quake.
Later that night came images of the National Cathedral. The pinnacles, parapets, finials, and the apse, the masonry of our sacred ideals, were twisted or cracked or lying on the sidewalk. And you know what, most people responded, “What in the world is a finial?”
“Teacher, what large stones! What a magnificent everlasting sanctuary!” the disciples remarked to Jesus. And he responded, “Not one stone will be left on another. This building is going down. There will be wars and rumors of more wars. Nations clashing. Famines. Also, you know what always arises with upheaval? All kinds of false saviors.” Then, he said these are “but the birth pangs.” Just the birth pangs. Isn’t that the mother of all understatements? “Oh, it’s just labor starting. It’s just the water breaking upon a new world order.”
This was Jesus’ longest sermon in the Gospel of Mark, and it huddled his disciples around a bracing truth. This Temple that you want so badly to be permanent and eternal is not. Gazing down from the Mount of Olives, the sun setting on the dazzling Temple, Jesus starts to talk about apocalyptic endings.
And now here we are, 2021 is nearly over. Perhaps you are in a November state of mind. It’s that feeling of fragility that sets in, as the leaves, once florescent, turn brown and scratch along the ground like animals finding a place to take cover. It’s that “I am only temporary” feeling that catches you when chimney smoke curls out a warning into the cold air.
Will Willimon, former Dean of the Duke Chapel, another grand building, said, “Contrary to what you have been led to believe, when Jesus goes apocalyptic, and talks of the end, he’s not predicting the future; he is speaking of the precariousness of the present. This temple, this world, is not as stable, eternal as it appears.”
Most mainline Christians prefer moral wisdom from Jesus to cataclysmic talk. More Sermon on the Mount than this apocalyptic sermon from the Mount of Olives. Model for us compassion for the poor. Give us a holy pep talk. We prefer our saviors to save us from falling apart and death, not offer redemption and eternity through it. More alpha, less omega, please.
But we are experiencing a season of great rumbling. I would wager a bet that historians will consider our time one of great tearing down, an era of deconstruction. Institutions are not as sturdy as we thought. In most towns, the greatest buildings used to be the Bank, the Post Office and the Catholic Church. And maybe Sears. And in the last decade, we’ve seen cracks in the walls of all of them.
There have been wars and rumors of wars. This Veterans Day was the first in 20 years where the US was not at war. Wars in Ethiopia and Yemen and Mexico brush by our news like rumors. Famines barely make the news maybe because we are living through a slow-rolling plague, which along with the climate crisis, means many of us are running on spiritual fumes. And of course Jesus was right. Like clockwork, false saviors arrive, promising health and wealth if you pray the correct prayer, or vote the right way, or eat the right proteins, or are lucky enough to land the second Amazon headquarters, HQ2, a shiny Helix building that will soon arise in Arlington.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, was once asked his opinion of Sears, that went bankrupt in 2018. Imagine the thud when he said, “Amazon is not too big to fail … In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years. If we start to focus on ourselves, instead of focusing on our customers, that will be the beginning of the end … We have to try and delay that day for as long as possible” (November 16th, 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/jeff-bezos-says-amazon-will-fail-one-day-2018-11).
This second Temple, T2, the one Jesus and the disciples were discussing, it was a marvel, 40 years in the making. 1st century Jewish historian Josephus described the Temple this way: “Now the outward face of the temple… was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow” (Flavius Josephus, The Jewish Wars, Book V, Chapter 5). Archeologists say that stones of the Temple weighed 50 – 300 tons, that its walls were anywhere from 8 to 17 stories high.
I don’t think Jesus was talking about cataclysmic endings simply because he was feeling wistful or deconstructive. I think he actually saw something that day that let him know the Temple, while beautiful, was off its center. It had lost its mission. He saw priests with long robes and longer prayers feeding their hunger for recognition. He saw a poor widow clink her last two copper coins into the treasury, noticed by no one. As the disciples gazed down on the shiny Temple, Jesus was saying that if you claim to magnify God and yet you ignore or even exploit the vulnerable, eventually you will be upended by the Kingdom of God. It will not last. It will fall. Injustice and ego and vainglory will give way as God births a new creation.
Here is some word trivia for you: Apocalypse actually means revealing. It means unveiling. An apocalypse reveals the world as it actually is. The veil is pulled back. We see life in all its fragility. And that means that injustice and cancer, wars and pandemics, global powers and even curated Instagram feeds and walls full of diplomas, none of it lasts. What does last is the love of God, who in this story is a laboring woman who has zero patience for a world that harms people.
Kate Bowler is a Duke Divinity School professor who was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer when she was 35. She spoke at Burke a few years ago, and wrote a magnificent book about about how sometimes Christians get it wrong. When we build these cathedrals of certainty, when we construct all these formulas to keep decay and suffering at a distance, when we blindly follow people who claim they know how to control the future, we are off base. It’s normal, natural, but delusional. She primarily argues with prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen who have somehow made the Christian faith into self-help, into health and wealth for adherents instead of love for others and courage in the face of hard things. She didn’t stop there. She noticed all the ways her own faith had become a way of dodging misfortune, a kind of holy health insurance, and how that is hard to square with the life of Jesus.
Bowler wrote, “If I were to invent a sin to describe what that was—for how I lived—I would not say it was simply that I didn’t stop to smell the roses. It was the sin of arrogance, of becoming impervious to life itself. I failed to love what was present and decided to love what was possible instead.”
During her treatments, she would grill her doctors for numbers… all the numbers and statistics and mathematics they might be able to stack up to give her assurances that her treatment would work and her young son would have a mother. And finally one of them said, look, “we are all terminal.” All the timelines and certainty that she thought would help her live her life were actually blocking her vision for the life she had, the one she was living, the two year old rolling about in front of her like a polar bear cub.
So, one day she stopped. Stopped writing bucket lists and building castles in the future and learned to live in ordinary time. “How to do that?” She wrote. “You come to the end of yourself. And then you take a deep breath. And say a prayer. And get back to work” (Bowler, Kate, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, Random House, New York: 2018, 159).
She wrote, “My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground. This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes, are leaving a trail for Zach and Toban, so whichever way the path turns, all they will find is love. It’s another beautiful morning, and it’s time to yell with the pitch of the coffee grinder and make him French toast. I will die, yes, but not today.”
That sounds remarkably like how Jesus lived. Have you noticed that Jesus preferred to work with fluid things like water? Which must have been odd for the son of a carpenter. He preferred baptisms and boats to buildings. He preferred wells to walls. Have you noticed that the only thing he wrote down was a word in the sand? No political party label or even family name seemed to stick to him. Paul described it as an eternal dwelling, one not built with hands. He made his home with God and made everyone feel at home, wherever he went.
I know many of you know what it is like to come to the end of yourselves. You’ve had load bearing walls in your life crash down. Maybe cancer landed you there. Or the divorce. Or infertility. Or the loss of your job. Or disappointment with fellow Americans. Or an empty nest. That probably felt apocalyptic to you. Revealing. Scary. But that is when you find the deeper joy, deeper joy that comes in serving someone else. The lasting joy of being a real friend. The nourishing joy of the CROP Walk that prevents the suffering of modern-day famines.
Churches are realizing that if they focus on themselves, on their survival and comfort, they actually speed their own decline. When churches come to the end of themselves and devote themselves to midwifing God’s love into being in their community, they are buoyant. They experience the joy of a trunk full of sweaters so that no one faces the cold of winter alone. They experience the joy of tutoring a child who then believes that this world is on their side and grows up to make it so. I love that we have a wall of water here. The load bearing walls in this place are the promises made at baptism, that you are loved and you belong and you are worthy of everything we can give and that is enough. According to today’s text, church should not be a building focused on its own beauty. It should be a maternity ward where God’s love is born.
I’ll end with what Martin Luther considered to be his greatest comfort. He knew rumblings in his institution. But he knew even more what God was birthing in the world. He believed it was unstoppable. And, he kept these words ever before him, carved into his desk so he could see them every day. “Remember your Baptism.” He wrote, “a truly Christian life is nothing more than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued.” It is a doorway place where we learn to see beyond ourselves.
Take a deep breath, even if it feels like Lamaze, say a prayer, and let’s get back to work.