Between this week and last, we’ve gotten the benefits of a very pensive Jesus. Last week, Jesus sat and watched the Treasury system. This week he takes a seat on the Mount of Olives; from there he can see the entire site of the Temple, and he shares some of his reflections on what this view stirs up in him. The above photo is the modern view from the Mount of Olives: you can still see the Temple Mount, but now with the prominent Dome of the Rock (a Muslim holy site) standing where the Jewish Temple used to be.
On the way to wear he now sits, Jesus made his opinion about the temple known: the system is morally bankrupt (last week’s message), and it is not long for this world. Like Old Testament prophecy, we can understand that Jesus’ words about the upheaval to come applies to the immediate moment Jesus speaks, but also to things and events across time and place.
The Gospel of Mark was likely written just prior to (or just after) the events of the Jewish rebellion and the Great War with Rome that led to the literal destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Jesus’ words, then, are part of the community making sense of its reality. In fact, in verses 9-13 Jesus foretells persecution, verses 14-23 depict upcoming significant hardship, and verses 24-26 offer words of hope and help from heaven. The chapter concludes with a summary of what lessons to take from all of these challenges and that we don’t know when they will come or when they will end—just that we are to stay watchful as God’s servants awaiting their master’s return. The layers of prophecy are all encompassing of existence on earth: personal, communal, cult (religious system and practice), political, and geopolitical.
And why? Not just at the time that Jesus spoke his prophecy, but since the beginning of humanity’s presence on earth, the Accuser, Satan, has been at work to lead God’s people astray. Sometimes, he doesn’t even need that much help from us: our hearts, pride, and ignorance do the work all on their own. The world, ourselves included, have fought and rebelled against the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom, and this resistance will continue until the very end—until God puts a complete stop to it by ushering in a new heaven and earth.
Jesus’ words of warning speak to our present. Here we are, still dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, and what he describes in verses 5 to 8 sound like a description of our reality.
People are being led astray from getting the vaccine or other public health practices like wearing masks by conspiracy theories, and frankly, bad theology. Maybe you’ve heard of the argument that wearing a mask is a sin because it covers up the image of God? Or that Jesus’ blood is the only protection needed against the disease? Then there’s the false premise that getting a pre-emptive treatment that protects you from the disease is a sign that you are a slave to fear (but only in this particular case… not say, if you need insulin to keep you from dying from diabetes)? When these sorts of arguments are made and connected to the name of Jesus Christ, they are examples of what Jesus warns about in verse 6. And honestly, even if it was the coronavirus, it would be something else for deception to play with…
The 60s and 70s were a difficult time for Christians throughout the Roman world; along with persecution, they were directly impacted by the power struggles that followed Nero’s death and the Jewish insurrection. Wars and rumours of war weigh heavy on one’s psyche and overall well-being. These difficulties did not end with the destruction of the temple, but could describe much of the early church’s existence. As Jesus says, these struggles and hardships are just the beginning of the end—the end that we are continuing to anticipate today.
Wars and rumours of wars… We’ve left Afghanistan after twenty years of combat, but there’s still the threat of a nuclearized Iran and North Korea or an arms race with China and Russia. When Jesus tells us to not be alarmed, is he recognizing that this is “par for the human course” until he comes again? I think so—because war is part of our fallen human nature, it is who we are when we are not wholly won over to Christ and completely transformed by the Holy Spirit to the purposes of the Father.
And earthquakes and famines? We continue to see the devastation caused by natural disasters and we’re being consistently warned of the impending crises brought on by climate change—not to mention the way that Covid has directly impacted supply chains around the world. In other words, all of the things Jesus says were coming are still coming. His prophecy was immediate as well as overarching because he is speaking about the human and world condition until all things are made right at his Second Coming.
And therein lies the hope. The destruction of the temple is actually a really good thing. It represents that the old order of human sin and being led astray from God, will be utterly and completely destroyed. Not one stone of abuse or power geared towards abusive gain will stand. The Kingdom of God will be fully established, we can hope without fear. We can be alert without being alarmed or overly consumed with worry because these human tragedies are part of the way things are now, but not the way things will be.
Remember that a key charge that led to Jesus’ crucifixion was his “threat” to destroy the temple… oh how “right” they were!
When Jesus leaves the temple in verse 1, he does not return to it in the Gospel of Mark. Many scholars see a parallel with Ezekiel 10 and 11, where the glory of God leaves the temple, pausing at the east gate, resting on the mountain to the east of the city (the Mount of Olives). It’s yet another nail in the condemnation of the temple system, which will be completely rent by the tearing of the curtain at Jesus’ death on the cross.
Jesus emphatically describes the coming destruction of the temple by using the aorist subjunctive alongside repeated use of a Greek double negative (translated only once in the English as “Not” at the beginning of verse 2). Jesus really means it: the Kingdom of God will not let any corruption stand; evil will be swallowed up and destroyed completely.
One time, I was sightseeing with a friend in Washington D.C.; I had been there a number of times before, but it was my friend’s first time. As I watched my friend be amazed by one monument after another, my memories of my own first visit came rushing back, and as we moved around the city, like the unnamed disciple’s reaction to the temple, my friend and I were caught up in the narrative shaped by the architecture and design of the monuments, parks, and memorials of the US capitol. After a number of years of living as an ex-pat, all of a sudden, being there, I felt “proud to be an American!” For the moment, my critiques about national policy and practice were forgotten…
Until we got to the National Archives Museum, which often has exhibits about the struggle by certain groups of Americans, especially women and ethnic minorities, to have the rights guaranteed to them in the Constitution… there, I was reminded of my nation’s sins, and the stark reality that things continue to not be the way they ought to be in the Kingdom of God.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 14, 2021
Mark 13:1-8 Commentary