13 As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
5 Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 6 Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
Three friends were sitting around talking about the end of the world, because, of course, it is 2012. So one friend asked the others what they would do if they knew that the world was going to come to an end in four weeks.
“I would go out and preach the Gospel to my friends, neighbors, and even to strangers,” said the first man. “I would want to make sure that they were right with God.”
“I would empty my savings account, 401k, and liquidate all of my assets and see the world,” said a second man.
The third friend said, “I would spend the four weeks at my mother-in-law’s house.”
Obviously, this caused some confusion among the friends. So they asked him, “Why would you spend your last four weeks on this earth at your mother-in-law’s?”
“Because,” he replied, “it would be the longest four weeks of my life.”
Today’s scripture reading is an often debated passage as it can best be described as very weird and unclear (those are technical terms). And if you read further, the rest of this chapter only gets weirder and more unclear. Stars falling from the sky, sun becoming dark and of course, the abomination that causes desolation. Oh it is clear to see why this passage is debated. It is debated because the meaning is by no means obvious. Today I want to present the less popular interpretation, and you are welcome to disagree with me.
Mark 13 is often referred to as the “Little Apocalypse” because Jesus is discussing things that are yet to come. And like other apocalyptic passages in the Bible, such as Daniel and Revelation, Mark 13 uses a particular genre of writing that we often refer to as apocalyptic literature (seems appropriate). Apocalyptic literature is marked by the use of symbolic language, numbers, images and signs. All of these things can be interpreted in different ways, though we can safely say that some interpretations are better than others.
Now before we get into this text, I want to make sure that we understand what the apocalypse is. If you watch Sci-Fi movies or follow Doom and Gloom preachers, you probably hear the word apocalypse used to refer to the end of the world. And it can mean that, but not necessarily. The word “apocalypse” is comes from the Greek word construct, ἀποκάλυψις which literally means to uncover. Another word that we translate apocalypse as in the English language is “revelation.” So to call something apocalyptic literature doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a reference to the end of the world. At its core, it is the revealing or uncovering of something. It is the making known of something that had been unknown.
Our text for this morning comes to us from Mark chapter 13. Last week we looked at Mark 12, the story of the widow’s mite and the events leading up to that event. We talked about how from the moment he entered into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, Jesus was correcting the injustices that he was seeing in the Temple. We find him chasing out the money changers and those selling animals, we hear him state that the leaders are turning his Father’s house into a den of robbers, and then there are a number of back-and-forth “discussions” between Jesus and the various leaders of the Temple.
So we pick back up following the story of the widow’s mite and the critique that the leaders of the church are devouring widows’ houses. And we find this in verse 1, “As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’”
The temple was indeed magnificent. King Herod had some self-confidence issues, so he was always trying to do things to make sure that he was remembered as a great king. He taxed the people heavily and built extravagant palaces and temples. I think that the renovation of the temple that was rebuilt following the Babylonian Exile took Herod something like 40 years. And my wife gets a little frustrated with my home improvement projects! The temple renovations were finally finished in the year 64 AD and by all means, it was impressive. This is what the disciple is noting as they are walking out of the temple. Look at those pillars! Check out the size of those foundation stones! This is something else!
Let’s look quickly at verse 2, “‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’”
Jesus, you just rained on my parade. We were just talking about how wonderful the temple is and you go and drop this apocalyptic bomb on us like that. But we know that he is correct; the temple was destroyed. In the year 70 AD, just 6 years after the renovations were complete, the Romans tore it down. There had been a Jewish revolt against the Romans and one way that the Romans would punish groups when they tried to rise up against the empire was to destroy their sacred landmarks and religious sites.
Often today when people read this passage or the parallels in Matthew and Luke, they assume that Jesus is talking about the end of the world. But the disciples and Jesus were talking about the temple and Jesus answered them plainly by saying that the temple would soon fall. The disciples respond as one might expect them to: they ask when this is going to happen. And Jesus goes through a lot of signs, weird stuff, and again, this is consistent with apocalyptic literature. But after sharing all of these signs Jesus says that even he doesn’t know when it is going to happen. Only the Father knows.
I can see why people interpret this as a prediction of end times, but it would seem to me that if Jesus was going to talk about the end of the world, it would have made sense for him to be a little more clear about what he was talking about. No, I think Jesus was talking about the end of the temple system, the same temple system that he had been critiquing since riding into town on the back of that donkey. It makes sense and keeps Jesus from sounding like he had ADD.
Now people will ask surely ask about the signs. Did they take place around 70 AD at the fall of the temple? In verse six Jesus warns that there will be others who will come claiming to be the messiah and they will lead the people astray. This happened. There were a number of people who claimed to be the messiah after Jesus made this prediction. One guy led 4,000 followers out into the desert where they eventually died. That sounds to me like they were led astray. It was another false messiah that got the people to revolt against the Romans, which led to the destruction of the temple and the slaughter of many Jews. Sounds again like they were led astray.
If we read on, Jesus predicts that there will be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines. Every time the earth shakes, there are people predicting that the world is coming to an end. Every war leads to someone predicting that Jesus will soon come back. These things have been happening since the beginning of time. There was even an earthquake the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. Has there been persecution? Absolutely. In 64 AD Nero outlawed Christianity and ordered all Christians be put to death.
I see how people can interpret this as a prediction of the end of the world and I think that those who do so mean well. But I think that some people just get too worked up over these things. I believe that the world will one day come to an end and Jesus will come back to reign on high for ever and ever. But please don’t buy into the hype made popular by some authors and pastors or the Mayan calendar (watch out, just over a month left!). If Jesus doesn’t know when the world is going to end, I don’t think they do either.
While I don’t think that Jesus is talking about the end of the world, I do think that he is talking about the end of the world as the disciples knew it (feel free to sing any random REM songs that come to mind). I want to focus the rest of our time on the last part of verse 8, which says, “These are the beginning of birth pains.”
I’ve never given birth to a human baby, or any other kind of baby for that matter. I don’t know what it is like to feel something growing within me, developing, and then trying to get out. While I have never experienced this first hand, I have seen it live and in person. Birth pains. Babies are small, but it is still pretty impressive that those little 7 pound humans are able to get out in one piece.
My wife chose to have both of our children naturally, that is, without the use of pain reducing measures. No epidural, no narcotics. I’ve seen the pain that giving birth causes. But I also have seen the joy that immediately follows the birthing process. When that slimy little pink critter is placed on the mother’s chest, that pain seems to be worth it. If it wasn’t women probably wouldn’t have multiple children. Birth pains hurt, but something great is about to come out of it.
I think that the end that Jesus is predicting here is the end of the temple system of worship and the abuse of power in the temple system that he has been criticizing. This was indeed going to be painful for a devout Jew who saw the temple as the center of all religious activities. If you were a first century Jew, you would have dedicated your child at the temple. You would have made trips every year. You would have gone to the temple to pray, to make offerings, and to have your sins forgiven. And Jesus is saying that he is shutting it all down because there is now a better option. Rather than having this strict set of rules, regulations, and laws, now through Jesus, people were being called to a relationship with God.
Marcus Borg says it well: “According to temple theology, certain kinds of sins and impurities could be dealt with only through sacrifice in the temple. Temple theology thus claimed an institutional monopoly on the forgiveness of sins; and because the forgiveness of sins was a prerequisite for entry into the presence of God, temple theology also claimed an institutional monopoly on access to God.”
The temple was central to the worshipping life of a Jew. We need to keep in mind that the temple had multiple rooms and compartments as well as some outdoor courtyards. If you were a woman, you were only allowed to come so far into the temple. You had to stay kind of outside in the courtyard area. The same thing was true if you were a gentile, whether you had converted to Judaism or not. Women and Gentiles were not allowed all the way in. But then again, neither were most Jewish men.
Inside the temple there was a room called the “holy place.” Only the priest could go into the holy place. Within the holy place there was another little section we call the holy of holies or the most holy place, separated off from the rest of the holy place by a large, thick, heavy curtain. Only one person could enter the holy of holies. The high priest would enter the holy of holies once a year, on the Day of Atonement, and sacrifice a bull for his own sins, a goat for the sins of the people, and there would also be an incense offering.
Inside the holy of holies were some religious relics, like the Ark of the Covenant. But even more importantly, behind that curtain, God was believed to reside. So like Borg said, we see this limited access to God, based on your gender and your race, and your lineage. Only the high priest could actually get right in there, right up to God. And if anyone else tried to get that close to God, they would be struck dead.
Well on a Friday in the Spring of about the year 29 AD, the curtain separating the holy place from the holy of holies tore in two. Mark’s gospel tells us that when Jesus was crucified, the temple curtain split right down the middle.
I like the way that Peter Rollins talks about this curtain being torn in two by reminding us of a classic movie, The Wizard of Oz.
Poor Dorothy and her little dog get swept up in a tornado and taken to the Land of Oz where she meets some underprivileged individuals. There is a lion without courage, a scarecrow without a brain, and a tin man who does not have a heart. But there is hope for our weary travelers and their new friends: the Wizard can help them all! A brain, courage, a heart, and a trip back home to Kansas. So they set off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz.
After a difficult journey, Dorothy and her friends finally arrive at the wizard’s castle and they meet this great being. But something isn’t quite right. They find a curtain and pull it back, revealing that there is no wizard. There is only a man behind the curtain, pulling levers and making noises. The wizard, the one that they had been searching for, was not behind the curtain.
When Jesus died on the cross and the curtain was torn in two, exposing the things behind the curtain, God was not found there. Whether he had ever been there or not is hard to say. But on that day that we call Good Friday, God was not to be found behind the curtain. No, God was out in the world, among the people.
Now, through Jesus, those women and Gentiles who were only allowed in their respective courtyards had access to God. The lowly priests and the average Jewish man that were not allowed in the holy of holies could now go straight to Jesus. There was now a new way to come to God. One no longer needed to come to God through the priests and one no longer needed to ask for forgiveness through the yearly sacrifice of an animal performed by a holy man. Forgiveness was now offered through the one-time death of a man on the cross. The wizard is not behind the curtain, and neither is our God. Our God is now among us. Or as NT Wright has put it, “Jesus was inaugurating a way of life which had no further need for the temple.”
The old covenant was marked by rules. We often even translate Torah as “law,” though there are some problems with that interpretation. The God of the Old Testament is a god of rules. But the scandal of the incarnation is that God came to the earth in flesh and bone; God is known through Jesus Christ. Jesus can be touched; he can be seen. His words can be heard, his scars can be felt.
I don’t believe that Jesus was predicting the end of the world, just the end of the world as his disciples knew it. But like a mother giving birth, something great was about to come through that pain. And I, for one, am glad that it did.