Sermon text: Mark 13: 1-8
I was in Jerusalem during the trip of a lifetime, and I was standing in front of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. I remember standing in front of that ancient wall with my right hand out, touching the enormous white limestone blocks that towered above. People were mumbling prayers all around me, and sticking folding pieces of paper into the crevices with prayers written on them. I closed my eyes to pray and I was blank. Dumbstruck. My mind was so clouded from all of the thought racing through my head that I could not think of any words to pray. I stood there, my palm pressing against the cold stone, feeling like I was going to be pulled into the cracks of these giant stones. Eventually I prayed the Lord’s Prayer, but I’m not even sure I got all the words right.
That’s how I experienced the power of these hewn pieces of rock.
The Western Wall, sometimes called the Wailing Wall, is the holiest site in Judaism. The stones were part of the huge retaining wall that supported the temple. Some of the great white blocks are 40 feet long. It’s easy to be mesmerized by the wall that remains and to think on the glorious temple that used to stand in Jerusalem.
Today we hear about the disciples coming out of the Temple, and one of them says to Jesus, “Look, teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”
It’s hard not to imagine why the disciple was awed. The Jerusalem temple had been newly reconstructed by Herod the Great at great expense. The project was started about 20 years before Jesus’ birth and wasn’t fully complete until the year 63. It’s said that during the height of the construction 10,000 laborers worked on the project.
The temple platform, which remains unchanged to this day, was about 900 feet by 1500 feet. The front of the temple itself was a huge square, 150 feet each way—which is slightly wider than the Lincoln Memorial, and much of it was decorated with gold and silver. The ancient historian Josephus reports that Herod used so much gold to cover the outside walls of the temple that in the bright sunlight it nearly blinded anyone who looked at it.
The combination of the temple mount, the platform of huge stones, and the large stones of the temple itself raised the temple complex to a height that could be seen from miles away by pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem to worship there.
So the rural disciple from backwater Galilee would have been impressed not only by the temple’s splendor, but also by what it represented: the very dwelling place of God at the center of the known world. The symbol of God’s presence with Israel.
Imagine the look on his face when Jesus says, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Yes, it’s all very shocking for the disciple in the moment to imagine how anything could destroy something so enormous, so grand, and so holy. A building project that is still in the works. But then imagine the Jewish Christians who first heard Mark’s gospel, shortly after Rome laid siege to Jerusalem, and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of residents, and destroyed the temple in the year 70. These early Christians witnessed Jesus’ words come true as the temple burnt to the ground.
For these men and women Jesus’ words about the temple hit close to home. And so do the warnings Jesus gives. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These words aren’t just warnings, they’re a reality.
Here’s what I find sobering. Jesus’ words are a reality 1900 years ago when Mark originally wrote this Gospel, and they are a reality now in November of 2021. In fact, I can’t imagine a time in all of history when they haven’t been true.
I’ve asked this question several times this week, and I’m not being cynical, but when haven’t there been rumors of war? When haven’t there been natural disasters and famine? Men and women of every time and every generation have prayed the words of Psalm 16: “Protect me O God, for in you I take refuge.”
On Veteran’s Day this week I read an article on the number of years the United States of America has been at war during this existence. Since our country’s birth in 1776, in the 245 years that we have been a nation, the US has only known 15 years of peacetime when we haven’t been fighting other people. That’s ninety-four percent of the time.
Not all of these war years were on the scale of World War II or the Civil War. There were wars of independence, wars of expansion and territorial gain, wars of colonialism, wars against communism, and wars against terrorism. I realize that some people may count these years differently, but the truth is, our country has fought for the majority of its existence, and we’re but one nation in the world. Add the remaining 194 nations of the world and what does that look like?
The same is true for the earthquakes and famines. According to the National Earthquake Information Center there are approximately 20,000 earthquakes a year, or about 55 a day. And in the year 2021, when we have one technological advancement after another, an estimated 30 million people across the globe are experiencing famine.
And yet, in the face of such a stark reality, Jesus says “Do not be alarmed.” And when I hear those words, my ears perk up. Yes, Jesus knows that this world is crazy, and still he says to his disciples “Do not be alarmed.” Jesus says these words because he knows that something better is yet to come—something that will destroy evil and redeem those who suffer and save those who are perishing. Jesus tells us that these horrible events are just the beginning of the birth pangs, which means something new and lifegiving and joyous will be celebrated on the other side, for Jesus will deliver the kingdom of God for this broken world.
In the Gospel of Mark there is one other place when someone says, “Do not be alarmed.” Do you know where that is? Mark 16: 6. When the young man, dressed in a white robe, sits in the empty tomb and tells the women that Jesus has been raised from the dead.
As Christians, we are not alarmed, we do not despair, we do not lose hope, no matter how dire the situation, because we know our Savior has defeated sin, and evil, and death. We believe that we and all creation will share in Christ’s death and resurrection. Nothing, not war, nor natural disasters, nor famine, nor terrorism, nor covid has the power to break God’s promises and triumph over Jesus. Because in the end God wins. In the end Jesus wins. For the heartache that we experience is but only birth pangs. God has promised that the best is yet to come, that God’s kingdom will prevail and we will be a part of it. AMEN