Rev. Michelle L. Wahila
Please read: Mark 13:1-8
As he 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 birthpangs.”
Chapter thirteen begins the longest block of teaching in the Gospel of Mark. Some have called this part of the Gospel: Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” a name that points toward the imagery of destruction and persecution prevalent throughout the chapter. Today’s pericope is a part of Jesus’ final discourse to his followers, edited into the form of a collection of sayings, which appear in parallel in various places in other Gospel accounts.
In order to properly understand this passage, we need to examine a bit of the narrative context. The text is introduced with the movement of Jesus leaving the temple and going to the Mount of Olives, where, sitting opposite the temple, Jesus pronounces its destruction. Mark, therefore, positions Jesus’ final discourse squarely within the context of the destruction of the temple.
It’s difficult for modern day readers or hearers to fully understand the significance of the temple. In Jesus’ time the temple was incomplete but had been under construction for fifty years. The grandeur of the temple was a nod to Herod the Great’s obsession with permanence and opulence. The enclosure of the temple would have been large enough to house two football fields. The stones used in the temple’s retaining wall were equally enormous. Stones measuring almost 13 meters long (42 feet), 4 (14 feet) meters high, 4 (14) meters deep, and weighing over 453,000 kilos (1,ooo,000 pounds) have been unearthed. There was no other ancient temple that could have compared in size to the magnitude of the temple. It is no wonder that the disciples were overwhelmed by the immense and stunning compound.
The very first phrase of today’s passage, “As he came out of the temple,” is much more than a physical description of Jesus’ location in respect to the temple. It is here, that Jesus leaves the temple for the last time, symbolizing Jesus’ final and definitive break from the temple. Before his exit, Jesus has three times predicted his death at the hands of Jewish and Gentile leaders; he has challenged the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the scribes; and he has judged and condemned the temple as a “den of robbers.” Jesus’ footsteps follow in his will: Jesus leaves the condemned temple never to return.
Just as astounding as the proportions and magnitude of the temple is Jesus’ attitude toward it: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Earlier in Mark’s Gospel Jesus spoke of the temple in symbols – touching a fig tree that withered at it’s roots signifying the ruin and the temple’s end. But now, the symbolism is dropped and Jesus speaks plainly about the temple’s destruction. It’s jarring to the disciples that Jesus would predict that the building with the reputation of being the most beautiful, and certainly the largest and most imposing structure for hundreds of miles in any direction would be destroyed. The disciples, in their usual way, are astonished!
Peter, James, John and Andrew were the first disciples to be called by Jesus. Now they are present for his final speech, asking when there will be a sign that all the things Jesus had been teaching them were going to be fulfilled. As if to say, “We left everything to follow you, so now what? Give us a sign!” One might think that the disciples would not have asked for a “sign,” since they had been with Jesus all the times that he was asked by the Pharisees for a “sign.” Each time he is asked, Jesus rejects the requests of the Pharisees, noting that the request itself is a sign of unbelief. Here, Jesus retorts the request for a “sign” in an equally derogatory way.
Instead of giving a sign, Jesus notes that signs can deceive and lead astray: “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.” The signs will indicate exactly the opposite of what the disciples are asking– these things indicate that the end is not yet. “The disciples – and believers since – want to know the future, but Jesus directs them unflinchingly to the present…” Ironically, Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” admonishes readings against constructing “end-time” timetables and deciphering signs of the end of things. Instead, readers are pointed toward their own discipleship, where a premium is placed not on predicting the future for the faithful of Christ, but on faithfulness for the present in Christ.
Jesus instructs the disciples to beware (or more literally “keep watch”) in the present. This admonition suggests that Mark’s original audience may have already been experiencing turbulent times. It’s likely that Mark’s Gospel audience would have been keenly aware of real calamity and at the very least “rumors of wars.” Historically, there were rumors of wars circulating and the turbulent atmosphere of the time did end in war some years later when the Zealot revolt plunged Palestine into a catastrophic defeat by Rome. There were famines during the reign of Claudius, earthquakes struck Phrygia in A.D. 61, and the last years of Nero’s reign were particularly tumultuous. Threats would come from international affairs, wars, and natural calamities with such destruction befalling believers and non-believers alike. The litany of woes could summarize every age.
The point of this list is not to lure the disciples or any believer into speculations of the end, but to anchor them in watchfulness and faithfulness in the present. All these things are the “beginning of the birthpangs.” What is so remarkable, is that “these things,” the calamities and woes don’t interrupt the Kingdom; instead, they provide opportunity for witness, courage and grace. Understanding the idea of birthpangs helps us to understand more clearly how such a list of difficult things could offer any grace or opportunity.
Jesus’ disciples would have known more about birthpangs than many modern men. The cycle of life and death was a much more daily part of existence and a great deal of what we might consider private family life would have taken place quite publically. Children would have learned from direct observation what today they might learn from television. Everyone in the community would have understood and quite possibly have known and heard when a child was arriving into the world.
“The picture of birthpangs had [also] been used for centuries by Jews as they reflected on the way in which, as they believed, their God was intending to bring to birth his new world, his new creation, the age to come in which justice and peace, mercy and truth would at last flourish. From the great prophets onwards they spoke of the world going through the labour-pains that would herald the birth of the new day.” In this sense, the birthpangs serve as a transitional movement from old to new.
We see this type of transitional “newness” in Hannah’s story. Hannah longed for a child; she was the subject of mockery by many people, even the prophet Eli, in her barrenness. It seemed that no one understood her deep sadness and longing: Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” God heard Hannah’s cry and responded to her vow, dedicating a son to God’s service by “opening her womb.”
We can imagine Hannah’s abundant joy in finally being pregnant, and finally going through labor and delivering her son Samuel, who would be the prophet who anointed Saul and David. Of course, Hannah still had to go through labor and deliver this child. Even in Hannah’s situation, when a child is so longed for, there is still the hard and painful work of labor. And so between the longing of the past for this child to come and the miracle of the future when the child has come, there is (and must be) the transitional moment of the “birthpangs.”
“Once the child was born, of course, the pain was put behind her, and all was joy, a dream realized. And, as she promised, Hannah raised her son to serve God as a Nazarite. God had answered her prayers. Those prayers, in conjunction with her own hard work, brought her the son she had sought.”
It is the pulling together of past longing and future joy that is so critical to an understanding of the present in Mark’s Gospel. Throughout Mark’s entire narrative, there was Jesus, teaching among a people who longed for the Messiah to come. Jesus’ message, of course, was so much larger than the Jewish expectation of the time. It wasn’t going to be about a great and opulent temple. That was a past longing. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus walks away from the temple and brings the message of God’s Kingdom. Jesus’ brings a message of “newness,” but Jesus doesn’t proclaim a message of a brand new temple. He proclaims a message of new life and then of new living within the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom for both the present and the future.
Jesus also points to a time he will not be with his disciples in person to lead and encourage them. “They will face what he has faced and what he will shortly face – trials, beatings, the threat of death – and all because of their allegiance to him,” and their part in the bringing about of this new time. Jesus’ message of the coming of this new time and this new Kingdom was in stark contrast to the building of the temple, of which he says, “Not one stone will be left here upon another.”
All of this, Jesus tells the disciples is but the beginning… But it is: the beginning. It is not the apocalyptic end of the world, but the beginning of a new one encompassed in Christ himself. It is the beginning of the Kingdom of God fulfilled in Christ’s coming, fulfilled in Christ’s death, fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection and entrusted into the hands of all believers in every time and place until Christ comes again because the end is not yet.
Jesus is calling his disciples to live in a world that is going to be thrown into convulsions, and his followers must, like him, live at the place where the purposes of God and the pain of the world crosses paths… It is here, that the disciples, and indeed, all believers are given both great responsibility and great opportunity. We, who are called to work for the Kingdom, must live in this transitional moment where there are birthpangs, but where there is also new life.
It is our joy, knowledge and experience of this new life that brings daily grace and opportunity. Confident that we are trusting in the God who raised Christ Jesus from the dead and who will restore the world to glory, we are called to dedicate ourselves for the “labor” of the Kingdom now. If we live by allowing the past actions of God and the future promises of God to infuse every moment, we will, I believe see the activity of God here and now. Because it is in the “everyday” glimpses of the Kingdom that we are encouraged and sustained to continue through the birthpangs toward the joy of new birth, new life.
This morning, we will, like Hannah, have the opportunity to dedicate our own gifts to God. I encourage us to think of whatever it is that we will offer – gifts of time, talents and treasures – as being an integral part of the work of God’s Kingdom here and now. Our gifts, we pray, will be used in “labor” that brings new life. If we believe, if we truly believe that we have a part in bringing about the newness of life that is found in Jesus Christ, we will be able to claim Jesus’ message to his disciples – that this is but the beginning… and the beginning is beautiful, difficult, tearful, joyful… full of grace and opportunity. The beginning is the work of the Kingdom, and we are stewards of that great labor shared together. Amen.