We’re arguing about all these other things, while Jesus is literally saying that this road leads to his death. We’re all just following along with a “eh, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.” But now Jesus is saying that bridge is toast. It’ll be thrown down and we are woken from our slumber, shaking our heads in startle and confusion saying “where did this come from” and we can imagine Jesus turning to us and saying “haven’t you listened?”
Tragedy, confusion, and the mission of the church
Proper 28B | Mark 13:1-8
From the Temple
When we read this book we know as the Gospel according to Mark, we get into this great groove. It is a dense story, told quickly, getting us from the beginning to the end in 16 chapters. It begins small with this guy out there, like a voice crying out in the wilderness, and then it ramps up fast, driving us to Jesus, the disciples, the ministry, the exorcisms, the feeding, the prostitutes and traitors, and all of that walking and sailing and moving until they find themselves on the northern border.
Then Jesus turns around.
Now Jesus is taking them, us, to Jerusalem. He’s going to be killed and buried and on the third day raised. The disciples are confused and conflicted and standing in the way and Jesus is driving them behind him. And when they arrive at their destination, they come to Jerusalem and Jesus rides in on a donkey, not a warhorse; he drives the wicked and the hypocrites out of the temple; he teaches the populace from the porch and reveals who the authorities really are.
Jesus has a target on his back and he knows it. But the people are cheering and they don’t know what’s happening, but they think they’ve got a rockstar in their midst: bigger than Jonathan Edwards or Billy Graham, this dude is hot!
But the disciples aren’t so sure what to think.
As they leave, leaving behind the spectacle, the excitement, the adoration of the hangers-on and slipping out the back to return to Bethany, they take one last look at that Temple and they say “Wow! This is amazing.”
It reminds me of my gameday t-shirt for fall Saturdays: The University of Michigan’s stadium is called “The Big House” because it squeezes in more people than any other stadium in the country. And in a mildly sacrilegious statement the shirt reads along the bottom: This is sacred ground. This is for many the temple and they the pilgrims, to join 107,000 other fans to worship 22 young men break each others’ bodies for 60 minutes. The majesty of the event, the stadium itself does that. But the people, right? All those people breathe the life of anticipation and hope together.
Maybe that’s a little of what they’re thinking; the enormity, the majesty, the awe-inspiring power. And Jesus says to them that’s going to be dust. A pile of rubble.
When we read Mark, we get to this moment and it can feel really jarring. This chapter, 13, is known as “the Little Apocalypse” and is a foretelling of great destruction. It can feel really out-of-place, especially if we are lulled into our usual view of Holy Week, where Jesus shows up on Sunday and then we skip on forward to Thursday night dinner and a Friday crucifixion.
But I think we make the disciples’ consistent mistake of losing track of Jesus in the story, even when he is right in front of us. We’re arguing about all these other things, while Jesus is literally saying that this road leads to his death. We’re all just following along with a “eh, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.” But now Jesus is saying that bridge is toast. It’ll be thrown down and we are woken from our slumber, shaking our heads in startle and confusion saying “where did this come from” and we can imagine Jesus turning to us and saying “haven’t you listened?”
The road was full of this insight and this preparation. From the start of this journey to Jerusalem, he said they would need to take their cross and follow him. And then that they will drink the cup prepared for Jesus, but not yet; it will be their time later. How do we deal with this preparation? How do we prepare for our future: a future that involves mortality, struggle, confusion, and standing true to the conviction that GOD wants something more for this world than what we’re doing now?
Scholars generally date this text to 66-70 CE, which means that the evangelist we call Mark was probably writing three or four decades after Jesus. They date it there for two (among several) important reasons. First, the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. But more importantly, people were planning revolts in the years before, meaning that some devoted Jews were planning a revolution against Rome and were recruiting. This brings us to the second idea: that the evangelist didn’t want people to join in the effort.
Why is this important? Because the people were trying to figure out what Jesus wanted them to do. What’s the right thing? Should we try to overthrow Rome? Doesn’t Jesus say that Rome will be toppled? Yes. Doesn’t Jesus condemn the abuse of Rome and the Jewish leadership abusing their people? Yes. Jesus also came as the anti-king: not to rule, but to be ruled; not to overthrow, but to be killed. His example was not violence and war, but peace and true freedom.
So in this context, of confusion and hoping for a revolution and a radical transformation of the world as they knew it (as we know it?) the followers hear Jesus frighten them with rumors of wars and false prophets and all of this crazy, scary talk about a future none of them want to behold, the future they were probably convinced Jesus had come to spare them from. This doesn’t sound that comforting, does it?
GOD is here
This is a pretty harrowing tail Jesus tells. And it keeps going after this excerpt to share what those days will look like. Wars and rumors of wars. False prophets:
Many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.
Many have woken up in the last 36 hours hearing these calls to march across the ocean to make more war. Disturbing, frightening, confusing for sure.
But Jesus warning us of confusion and politics and tragedy: this shouldn’t surprise us. Not if we’ve been listening or paying attention. This is what Jesus has been saying the whole time about life and death…and new life. This is what we say when we speak of baptism: that we die to ourselves and are reborn. When we gather to remember, not a cross-dead Jew from 2,000 years ago, but a Christ of glory and an Incarnate GOD come to earth to live a life and be a human being.
This is what we face as we stare into our mirrors and observe the age in our faces and changing of our hair and sagging and the drying of the skin and we see our own mortality. Or what we see when we watch our parents and grandparents jump up a little slower or respond to our questions without the same excitement or wit. Or we see them in a hospital bed, the skin beginning to smooth.
And Jesus is telling these disciples, these closest followers, these people he has with him and loving them and sharing GOD’s love with them, and he tells them that even this Temple, this thing you think you’re supposed to love and give your last pennies to, this will go away. There’s no if, only a when. Every single thing is temporary. Every last thing. Every fancy window. Every silver chalice. Every pew. Every Prayer Book. It is temporary. Life is temporary.
GOD, however, is not. GOD, who was revealed in the burning bush, saying to Moses that he’s supposed to tell the people who GOD’s name is I AM Who I AM, is always present, always persisting, always to be there, which inspired Everett Fox to write that it isn’t I Am Who I Am, but more like I-Will-Be-There-Howsoever-I-Will-Be-There because what doesn’t change is GOD’s presence, but everything else, even the way that GOD shows up can. Does.
We so desire our lives to be full of constants, or we reason that our lives are so full of change, we can’t have the church change, but Jesus is telling us that of course the church will change! Everything changes!
But GOD is there in it! GOD is with us in our change and our confusion and our messy lives. GOD will be there tomorrow, when we’re trying to clean up the mess. GOD will be there in GOD’s way, not ours, in the Temple and at the table that GOD chooses, not necessarily the ones we build for GOD. GOD is with them in the streets today as GOD was with them in the streets Friday.
This church will not last forever. This building, this community, our identity as St. Stephen’s will not last forever. But death isn’t the end. GOD will continue to work here and we can continue to help GOD transform lives as long as we live.
As you discern what you are going to give of yourselves to St. Stephen’s this year, I encourage you to think about what St. Stephen’s is. And certainly what it was. And just as importantly, what it could be in the future. But I want us to see our church beyond the building, beyond the worship, beyond the relationships we have with one another and see who we are in relationship to that mission given to us by Jesus.
I hope you see that all of these things are essential to our mission as we know it. Of course our building and these people. But also our commitment to the homeless, the poor, and those seeking protection. Our support of our neighborhood, to our neighbor churches, the United Campus Ministries, and Indiana State University, and the wider community, including Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and Rose Hulman.
I hope you see the love we share with our seniors and our children. The formation we give to those seeking to know Christ and those seeking to know Christ better. And also the hope we give to those who know chaos and abuse, disillusioned by other communities and other churches. Or those who know only of church through the nasty things they see in the media.
Most of all, I hope you see that a church is nothing without its mission, is useless without Jesus at its front; that we cannot hope to live a life transformed if we aren’t seeking to transform how life is lived. And that we do this together, with our whole selves: our lives, our time, and our money. Not only to the various parts of the mission, but also to the whole mission, to all of the work we are doing together as St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. For we are St. Stephen’s and I’m betting on us, that we can continue to be with GOD howsoever GOD will be here.