Scripture: Mark 13:1-8
‘Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”’ ~ Mark 13:2
When I was a teenager I had the wonderful and privileged opportunity to travel to several European cities for conferences, sports tournaments and the like. Throughout my three years living in Moscow, Russia, I travelled to Zagreb, Prague, Warsaw, Dublin, The Hague and more if you include the trips we took as a family. During these trips, we often had an opportunity to explore the cities we were in, and one of the stops I always made was to the local Cathedral.
There is something majestic and otherworldly about Cathedrals – the height of beauty and the weight of holiness from centuries of prayers, or praise and all manner of history being lived out in these buildings. When standing in the aisle of a European Cathedral it is easy to lose oneself in the awe and wonder, to get wrapped up in the beauty of the stained glass, the exquisite stone masonry and carpentry and the historical artifacts which often fill the nooks and crannies of the spacious buildings.
Remembering these moments, I can relate very much to the unnamed disciple in our passage from the Gospel of Mark this morning. Last week we heard that Jesus was in the temple, sitting across from the treasury and so as he left, this disciple pointed in awe to the great buildings which would have dominated the Jerusalem skyline, highlighted the great stonework and the imposing presence and solidness of the building a testament to its enduring presence in the life of Israel.
Jesus’ response to the awe and wonder of the disciple, was a dose of a cold hard truth: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” The Gospel of Mark was likely written during or shortly after the Jewish rebellion against Rome which destroyed the temple in 70 AD – so Jesus’ words recalled by the Gospel writer were prescient.
And we shouldn’t be shocked by them. last week after all we explored the way that Jesus condemned the Jewish Temple Treasury system as corrupt, and over and over again throughout the Gospel, Jesus had railed against the scribes and Pharisees who had twisted the laws of the covenant beyond their life-giving purposes.
Prophesying the destruction of the temple was the natural next step of Jesus’ Kingdom proclamation because the temple was representative of the old order, it was representative of the ways of the world, how the world had twisted and shaped the life of God’s people so it no longer reflected the loving-kindness of God and God’s covenant with Israel.
Jesus’ critique of the temple culture and religious practice was that it had grown too comfortable with the ways of the world – interested in maintaining power and prominence rather than shaping the hearts of Israel and the community at large into the image of God and God’s chosen people as it was intended to.
Oppression and wealth accumulation, pride and status had corrupted the worldly religious practice of Israel. It had lost its way and Jesus was offering a different way, the Kingdom way where the least and the lost, those on the margins of society were brought into the centre, brought in and made integral parts of the community, where the yoke wasn’t one of oppression but of service and care for all.
Just as Old Testament prophecy often had multiple layers of meaning – Isaiah was prophesying about events in his lifetime but at the same time looking forward to Jesus and another layer of prophetic fulfillment – so too are Jesus’ prophecies about the destruction of the temple and the turmoil to come multi-layered as well.
Jesus was warning his contemporaries of the coming trials and tribulations but he was also warning future generations of the struggle between the old world marked by sin and death, and the new world marked by the Kingdom of God, marked by grace, mercy and abundant life. As a church, we are not immune from these struggles or Jesus’ prophetic words.
You see the church is not the kingdom of God – the church is the place where we expect the Holy Spirit to live and move, for us to see glimpses of the kingdom and to herald’s, its arrival in word and deed as we strive to follow the way of Jesus. But the church is also susceptible to the same temptations, the same corruptions that the Jewish temple system was susceptible to.
The Church, as a human institution, has been just as involved in the oppression and twisting of God’s law of grace and mercy. Think of the vast wealth in land and other assets that the church stored up and hoarded over centuries, including the purchase of serfs and slaves in various parts of the world. Or the way that the church has wholly participated in racist and oppressive practices that perpetuated myths of racial or gender superiority well into modern times. Or the ways that we have embraced religious practices that make us comfortable and resistant to change and risk when it comes to sharing the Gospel in both word and deed with our local communities.
For all of this and more, Jesus’ words predicting the end of the temple and the religious institution, ring true – the church as we know it will come to an end, perhaps the stones of our buildings won’t be tossed down but this worldly church has an expiration date. And perhaps we have already witnessed the beginning of that reality.
No one can deny that the church, as an institution, has seen better days and has been in a state of existential crisis for several decades if not centuries. Our families and friends who used to attend church with regularity are no longer seen in our pews or even in the pews of another local church; financial support that was at one time robust is dwindling as fewer people see the value of religious institutions; church buildings are sold and turned into condos as churches, just like ours did, experience amalgamation or death.
On the surface, these are realities that might cause us to despair, to lose, hope and to just close up shop or allow our churches to die quietly in the twilight, but the truth is that the turmoil and yes even the decline can be seen as signs that the Kingdom is breaking through, that Jesus and his Kingdom are nearer today than they were yesterday.
The destruction of the temple, or the earthly church in our case, is a really good thing in the grand scheme of history. It represents that the old order of human sin and being led astray by God will be utterly and 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 from the scribes and Pharisees that led to Jesus’ crucifixion was his “threat” to destroy the temple… oh how “right” they were – because the temple and the church after it are not eternal, they are not the Kingdom of God. Even as we strive to see and offer glimpses of the kingdom, to herald its arrival on earth as it is in heaven, the church is still an earthly tool: we are Jesus’ physical presence on earth – but in the age to come that will not be necessary as God and Jesus will dwell with us eternally, with God as the very temple itself.
Our calling as the church is not to sustain the life of the church, but to proclaim and sustain the life of the Kingdom of God. Sometimes the church will thrive and flourish as we do, and sometimes we will face hardship, sometimes we will face persecution and the obstacles that Jesus spoke about. As long as we keep our eyes focused on the Kingdom, and shape our lives and actions on achieving that goal, all will not be for naught. We will experience the Kingdom life here and now, even in midst of turmoil.
We are called to proclaim the kingdom, to live the kingdom and to share the kingdom in all that we do. God gives us the courage and the conviction to do so.