In our Gospel reading today, Jesus speaks of ‘the noise of battles close by and news of battles far away… Countries will fight each other; kingdoms will attack one another’. We can hardly listen to today’s those words and not think of the violence which broke out this week in Israel and Palestine. Especially since Mark’s Gospel is telling us about a conversation which happened in the same region as today’s violence is taking place.
This conversation takes place as Jesus nears the end of his ministry. He had spent his career involved with debates with the religious leaders of his day. And the closer he travelled to Jerusalem, the capital city, the more intense and controversial the debates became. By chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel, he has reached the Temple of Jerusalem- at the spiritual heart of his Jewish faith, a place of worship and pilgrimage which had been a holy place for generations. In this chapter 13, Jesus takes a break from public speaking and preaching. For now he takes a final chance to speak privately with his disciples, his closest followers, before he is arrested, and put on trail, and executed. Here is what he wants to say to his disciples before it’s too late.
The conversation begins a comment from his disciples. Like Jesus, they are mostly from small towns and villages. So they are impressed by Jerusalem, and especially it’s famous Temple. The Temple had been rebuilt in recent decades- indeed, it was not quite finished yet. The very hill the Temple stood on had been reconstructed, so that the new Temple stood a huge platform, held in place with enormous masonry retaining walls. Some of the stones were said to be 40 feet long, by 12 feet by 18 feet; and on top of this was the Temple itself. So it’s not surprising to hear the disciples say, ‘Look, Teacher! What wonderful stones and buildings!’ But it is surprising to hear Jesus’ answer: ‘You see these great buildings? Not a single stone here will be left in its place; every one of them will be thrown down.’
In fact, the Temple which Jesus and his disciples visited was destroyed, along with the rest of the city, only about 40 years later. There was a revolt against the Roman rulers, and after a siege which brought appalling suffering to the population, the Romans recaptured the city, slaughtering thousands of inhabitants. Perhaps because they realised the symbolic importance of the place, the Romans systematically demolished the Temple, and the city, literally throwing down each stone of the Temple. What remains today are some walls and gates around the Temple Mount- incredible pieces of engineering which give us a sense of the scale and magnificence of the Temple complex. But of the Temple itself, there is little sign.
The Temple of Jerusalem was a sight to take your breath away. It would have seemed to the people then the pinnacle of human cultural achievement. It was all so solid, it must have seemed it would last forever. But today, virtually nothing remains.
And when his disciples hear Jesus speaking about the end of Jerusalem, they make what for them is a natural leap, and decide that he is speaking, not just about the end of Jerusalem, but about the end of the world. People thought that way back then. The Jewish people were waiting and hoping for what they called ‘The Day of the Lord’. God’s Messiah would appear, God’s enemies would be defeated and sinners punished and heaven would come to earth. And Jerusalem, as now, as the Holy City, was at the centre of these hopes and fears. So it’s not surprising that when Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem, his disciples think he talking about the end of the world.
So they ask him, ‘Tell us when this will be… and tell us what will happen to show that the time has come for all these things to take place’. They want a timetable, and instructions. But Jesus tells them it’s not so simple. ‘Such things must happen, but they do not mean that the end has come’, he says. Even the fall of the Temple of Jerusalem- the destruction of the house of God- even that will not mean that the end has come. Instead, he says, ‘Don’t be troubled when you hear the noise of battles close by and news of battles far away’.
But if we, today were in Gaza, or Tel Aviv, in Damascus or Aleppo or Kandahar, I think it would be hard not to be troubled. It’s easy to ignore battles far off- much harder, though, when the shells and rockets and bombs are falling all around you. Who among us would not be ‘troubled’ if they found themselves in the heart a battle?
So Jesus, however, is not being heartless here. War is terrible, and we should all be troubled by it, and do our best to avoid it. But when Jesus says to his disciples that they should not be troubled, he’s speaking, I think, of something else that might trouble them- or trouble us. When it comes to thinking about the end of the world, it seems there are two classes of Christians- those who never think about it, and those who seem to think of nothing else. God’s kingdom of justice and peace will one day come. But Jesus is quite clear, here and in other places, that we are not to be concerned about all the details. Even if it seems the end is nigh, still God is in control: it’ll all happen in God’s own time. So Jesus’ word to the disciples is not to trouble themselves over useless speculations about whether this battle or that revolution means that the end is coming soon. So he says, ‘Don’t be troubled when you hear the noise of battles’. It’s up to God when The Day of the Lord will arrive.
And only afterwards, when he had been put to death and raised to life, did the disciples and the first Christians begin to understand what Jesus might mean. When, as we did today, we baptise someone, we kind of re-enact, and even participate it, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In baptism, the water represents not just life, but also death- for you can drown in water. Just as Jesus went through death, so each of us who have been baptised have come through the waters. We’ve been drowned in the water, dead. But on the third day, the disciples came to realise that Jesus had not stayed dead. If it’s true, then the resurrection of Jesus the most amazing event in history- more amazing than any war, any revolution, any earthquake. For this man Jesus, who was nailed to a cross until he died, and whose dead body was placed in a rock tomb with a huge stone in front of it- came back to life.
One of the things that the people of Jesus’ day believed would happen on ‘The Day of the Lord’ was that the dead would rise from their graves and come back to life. This is what the disciples, and many others, expected to happen at the end of the world. So after Easter, it was completely unexpected when the first Christians started saying: there is one man- Jesus, whom you saw put to death on a cross- who has risen from the dead already. It is as if the Day of the Lord, the end of the world, has already arrived- but only for this one person, for Jesus. (So Paul called Jesus’ resurrection ‘the firstfruits of the harvest of the dead’).
Much later, after the destruction of the Temple, someone wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. It’s a letter to Christians who’d been brought up Jewish. The writer tries to explain how Jesus has replaced all that used to go on in the Temple. For the loss of Temple was a terrible event for Jewish people. We even have a story about Jesus being taken by his parents on a pilgrimage to the Temple when he was just a twelve-year old. To lose it would have been truly a bereavement for Jewish people.
The gist of the Letter to the Hebrews is that the various rituals which went on in the Temple are no longer needed. At the heart of the old Temple was a great curtain, behind which was the Most Holy Place, the inner sanctum, into which only the High Priest could enter, for it was the dwelling place of God. But now, says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, ‘We have… my friends, complete freedom to go into the Most Holy Place by means of the death of Jesus. He opened for us a new way, a living way, through the curtain’. What has happened is that the relationship between God and humanity is completely changed. The High Priest was thought to be the only one good enough to approach God. But those who have faith in Jesus, it’s like walking into the Most Holy Place. Jesus ‘new way’ gives us direct access to God!
So when Jesus says, ‘do not be troubled’, we know that when we do feel troubled, we can, as the old hymn puts it, ‘take it to the Lord in prayer’. Our worries about the future, our concerns for ourselves and our children and families, our anguish about an uncertain world, in which war and violence and evil seem to reign: we can talk to God about it, and believe that God will bear our troubles. As Hebrews puts it, ‘Let us hold on firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust God to keep his promise’. Yes, we can be concerned about the humanitarian disaster which comes out of conflicts. But we need not trouble ourselves about whether any war means the end of the world is on its way. We can leave the big questions in the lap of God, because we can trust God to keep his promises.
It’s been 2,000 years since Jesus’ disciples admired the construction of the Temple. Since then, Christianity has gone round the world. For even in the midst of the worst of experiences, people of faith have heard Christ say, ‘don’t be troubled’. For it is God, who loves us, who is in charge. And in their hope and trust in God, at their best, they’ve shown love and done good and encouraged each other. We’re to do likewise!
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo