TEXT: Mark 13:1-8
“Do you see these great buildings?” [asked Jesus.] “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2)
Today, the residents of Paradise, California, might think Jesus was speaking directly to them. As we all know by now, most of that community of some 27,000 people has been devastated by a raging—and still-burning—wildfire. With over 60 confirmed dead and over 600 still missing, this wildfire—ironically called the “Camp Fire”—is the deadliest blaze in California history (and much worse than anything we’ve seen recently in Canada).
Along with thousands of homes and other structures in Paradise, more than half of the city’s houses of worship have been destroyed. One of these was the Craig Memorial Congregational Church. At over a century old, it was one of the city’s most historic churches, having been built in 1909 to replace an earlier building that had been destroyed by fire.
Imagine losing your church in this way, after it had been in place for 109 years!
Or imagine the English city of Coventry on the night of November 14, 1940 …
When it was destroyed by a Luftwaffe bombing raid, Saint Michael’s Cathedral—Coventry Cathedral—had been on the same site since the 14th century.
The decision to rebuild the cathedral was made the morning after its destruction. The Provost of the Cathedral—Richard Howard—said that the process of rebuilding was not considered as an act of defiance, but rather a sign of faith, trust, and hope; hope for the future, and hope for reconciliation. Howard had the words “Father, Forgive” inscribed on the wall behind the altar of the ruined building.
The Provost’s vision led the people of Coventry away from bitterness and hatred and grew into the cathedral’s International Centre for Reconciliation (or ICR).
Instead of seeking revenge for the devastation caused, the Centre’s founders vowed to promote reconciliation in areas of conflict. This began in the former Communist bloc, but has since broadened to focus on the conflict between the three major monotheistic faiths.
In 2008, the ICR ceased to exist as an individual entity, and its work was taken on more closely by Coventry Cathedral under the auspices of the Coventry Cathedral Reconciliation Ministry.
Today, Cathedral visitors are greeted with these words: “To walk from the ruins of the old Cathedral into the splendour of the new is to walk from Good Friday to Easter, from the ravages of human self-destruction to the glorious hope of resurrection … Thanks to God’s mercy, reconciliation is possible.”
As chapter 13 of Mark’s gospel opens, the disciples are in awe of the large stones forming the wall of Jerusalem’s Temple. And that wall must surely have been impressive. Most of the stones which comprised it were 37-and-one-half feet long, 18 feet wide and 12 feet thick. The temple was truly an awe-inspiring sight—a powerful symbol of stability, Godliness, strength, and power.
However, Jesus’ response to his disciples was: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Scholars do not know precisely when the Gospel of Mark was written. It may have been before, during or after the destruction of the temple by Roman forces in 70 A.D. As the temple crumbled, so did much of the Jewish way of life. The temple, after all, was the centre of that life—not only for worship and sacrifice, but also for commerce, and for education, and as a place of social gathering.
With no temple building, the whole structure of the Jewish faith changed forever. For a time, the Jewish people were in chaos and utter despair as so much of their life was taken away from them. But God worked in their lives, preparing them for a new reality.
Now, whether Mark recorded Jesus’ prediction in the years leading up to the destruction of the temple … or afterward …
Well, that’s kind of beside the point. In this passage, we hear Jesus preparing his disciples—and in turn, preparing us—for inevitable times of chaos, collapse and turmoil. “Many will come in my name,” Jesus said. “They will say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” And so, Jesus focuses on the issue of deception.
I think it’s beyond debate that, in times of crisis, people are more readily deceived. Our fears and uncertainties can cause us to grab for anything that resembles stability and authority. When anxiety consumes us, we want to hold on tight to some kind of certainty—and we’re tempted to follow anybody who promises easy solutions or a quick fix.
However, Jesus tells his disciples (including us) that—even when horrific, tragic events occur—we are not to be alarmed, and we should not allow ourselves to be misled.
As of this writing, the liturgical year—the church year—is drawing to a close. Next Sunday is “Reign of Christ Sunday” and the Sunday after that is the First of Advent, when a new church year begins. The Bible passages served up by the Revised Common Lectionary at this time are mostly apocalyptic—they describe terrible destruction and disaster and upheaval.
Jesus says there will be wars and natural disasters, earthquakes and famines—heralding not only the end of the way things were, but also the beginning of something new. Herein lies the Good News. Jesus says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Out of the ashes—out of the pain, and the loss, and the terror—God creates something brand new, something better than has ever been. This is the transformation for which Jesus seeks to prepare his disciples in every age.
Kathleen Norris is an American poet and essayist—and also a Benedictine oblate. In 1998, she wrote a book called Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Therein, Norris makes this observation:
We know that marriages, families, communities, nations often come together and discover their true strength when some apocalypse—some new revelation of the fault lines in our lives—has occurred. For some reason, we human beings seem to learn best how to love when we are a bit broken, when our plans fall apart, when our myths of our self-sufficiency and goodness and safety are shattered.*
In other words, apocalypse brings us to our senses, confronting us with a sobering—and often painful—glimpse of what is possible in the new life we build from the ashes of the old one. And the apocalyptic vision is a means to give us the hope that—despite considerable evidence to the contrary—in the end it is good that will prevail.
Many of us understand the feeling of life coming apart at the seams—when everything we know to be true and stable, secure and strong comes crashing down all around us. Perhaps our health deteriorates, and we can no longer do what we once did. Or perhaps we receive news that someone we love has been diagnosed with a terminal disease.
Some of us experience the pain of loss of a significant relationship, either through death or breakdown. Some of us lose our jobs, our homes, our life savings, our reputations. As we grow older, we may lose our hearing, our sight, our sanity, our independence. Or perhaps we outlive our family and our friends—and so we lose everyone we ever loved.
Life can bring gut-wrenching, frightful and very sad times. At such moments, Jesus reminds us that God never fails us. Even in the midst of suffering—even in the throes of great upheaval—rebirth and hope are the ways of God. That which lasts and endures will be God’s good purposes, accomplished according to God’s good time. In our individual seasons of cataclysm—and when communities or nations are thrust into crisis—we need to hold on to the promises of God.
Even when we can see nothing positive about our present situation—even when everything feels hopeless, and we are left in a slump of despair—God will work in the situation to bring good out of it. Perhaps we will be able to see it at the time … sometimes, only in hindsight.
Regardless, our job is to pray to God for direction, for hope and for faith, and to be open to God working out something new in our lives. Jesus assures us that God will give us the resources—both from within ourselves, and with the help of others—to surmount any obstacle and weather any storm. The living Christ—the one who dwells within each of us—will reveal to us creative new ways of being. Of this we may be assured. Thanks be to God.
* Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), p. 321.