TEXT: Mark 13:1-11
And Jesus said: “Do you see these huge buildings? They will certainly be torn down! Not one stone will be left in place.” (Mark 13:2)
I wonder who else overheard this reply of Jesus to his awe-struck disciple.
“Look, Teacher! What large stones and what large buildings!”
“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Jesus is speaking about the Temple. The Jerusalem Temple—Israel’s pride. He says it will be desecrated and destroyed.
As we read the gospel accounts, we realize that—although the multitudes at first clamoured to see Jesus, to hear him speak—he lost his following rather quickly, especially near the end of his short career. Most of the people who fought for places near the front of the crowd when Jesus was teaching did so because they thought that he was the Messiah.
Well, they weren’t wrong! But he wasn’t the sort of Messiah they were expecting. They looked for a king of David’s line who would be the kind of military leader David was. They looked for a Messiah who would solve all their problems—who would drive the Romans out of their country, who would improve their economy, who would bring back the “good times.” They expected someone who would “Make Israel Great Again.”
But what they got in Jesus was quite different. When he spoke of the “Kingdom of God” he referred to a kingdom of the heart—one which could be apprehended only by those who could see holiness in the world as it was. Only by those who could see the Christ in the face of a beggar. Only by those who could sense the holiness within each person—even within those whom the good religious people rejected and shunned.
Jesus spoke of a holy kingdom which was deeper than his astonishing deeds, more powerful than his miraculous healings; a kingdom of the heart which was revealed in acts of kindness—and not by jam-packed sanctuaries filled with Sabbath worshippers.
No. This kingdom was about sacrifice, not success.
And here in the 13th chapter of Mark, as Jesus describes in vivid terms the coming destruction which will surely overtake Israel, he even dares to say that the Temple—the Temple of God in holy Jerusalem—is going to be destroyed.
He must have lost some followers that day. Most likely even his closest disciples were shocked. The Temple? Destroyed? Not one stone left upon another? Surely God would never allow such a thing to happen! And if Jesus was truly the Messiah, how could he allow it to happen?
Just as an aside: his words did come true. In 70 A.D., in the course of crushing a rebellion, the Romans did overrun the Temple and destroy it. In fact, they burned the entire city, and the historian Josephus (who may have been an eye-witness) says: “There was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited.”
These people loved the Temple. We can imagine how perplexed they must have been. Consider how we might feel if some upstart preacher told us that our magnificent church building was about to be destroyed—and hinted that God would not lift a finger to prevent it.
“We built it as an act of devotion to God!” (Didn’t we?)
“We built it to be a centre for God’s work!” (Didn’t we?)
Yes, I think Jesus must have lost some followers that day. To those who looked for a Messiah who would “fix” everything, who would “save” them from the circumstances they were in, who would restore the “old-time religion” and the “good old days,” Jesus must have been a tremendous disappointment.
I wonder: is he still? Is Jesus still a disappointment to those who equate blessedness with worldly success? Or to those who confuse religious success with the gospel of grace?
And they aren’t the same thing, you know. Success—even the success of a packed church on a Sunday morning—is not the same thing as discipleship.
To those who cry out to Jesus, professing their own righteousness and asking him for personal and financial security, Jesus replies: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
To those who call upon his name, asking for comfort and ease, and simple answers to all the questions of living, Jesus replies: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)
To those who come to him wanting him to “fix” their troublesome teenagers, to apply some “tough love” and kick these delinquent kids in the butt, Jesus tells a story about a father who loved his wayward son enough—and trusted God enough—to let the boy learn from his own mistakes.
To those who think a church isn’t successful unless it has a huge music program with a 90-voice choir, a pipe organ and an orchestra to entertain more than 800 worshippers who are present at each of two or even three services on a weekend, Jesus says: “Where two or three of you are gathered together in my name, I am there with you.” (Matthew 18:20)
And to those preoccupied with personal salvation and correct doctrine, who seek to nail down just exactly who is going to heaven and who is not, and who come to Jesus demanding a clear answer, he says: “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (Luke 17:37)
I guess the next questions then are these: “Where is the corpse?” and “Who are the vultures?”
I don’t pretend to know those answers, but I do know this: when vultures are feeding, they do it in a huge crowd—and with great enthusiasm!
Bigger isn’t always better.
Well, what is the message here that’s aimed at us? At we modern folk who gather to worship in Jesus’ name, and say we want to follow him? What does it matter to us if the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed? Is it anything more than a history lesson?
And why was the Temple destroyed? Why did God allow it?
Jesus doesn’t tell us for sure. And maybe that points out how little he cared for buildings, for shrines, for monuments—even if they have been erected in his Father’s name.
But I wonder if we can draw some inferences from his behavior toward the Temple—or, more correctly, toward the people who frequented it.
In the 11th chapter of Mark (vv. 15-17), we read about how Jesus cleared the Temple of the sellers and the moneychangers. The sellers and the moneychangers, really, were professional fund-raisers for the Temple. Their business was to provide animals for sacrifice, and also the special Temple currency required to purchase them. Jesus objected to them because they had no regard for the poor, and charged exorbitant prices in order to make a bigger profit after the Temple got its cut. The trouble was, they had forgotten whose Temple it was. They’d forgotten that it was God’s Temple—not theirs!
Jesus also had nothing but scorn for the good, respectable religious people who treated with disdain the poor and the afflicted and the sinful. He told stories about a religious man who stood tall in the Temple and boasted of his own righteousness while looking down his nose at the crumpled figure of a penitent sinner kneeling before the altar; about a priest and a Levite who passed by a man who had fallen into the hands of robbers; and about a wealthy man whose large offering was as nothing in God’s eyes when compared to the penny given by a poor widow.
In other words, what Jesus objected to—what he passed harsh judgment upon—was the heartlessness and complacency of those who treated the Temple as if it were a social club for the prosperous. These people, he said, had made the Temple a place where God no longer felt welcome. They had transformed his Father’s house into a den of thieves. They had forgotten what the Temple was for.
I remember once hearing a story about a life-saving society that had been organized in a coastal village to rescue fishermen and others who got into trouble on the unpredictable and often dangerous ocean. In the beginning, the Life-Saving Society was a rag-tag group of poor, rough (perhaps even uncouth), but very brave men. All they had was a single longboat with a set of oars, but they would put all their hearts into the rowing if someone—anyone—was in peril on the sea. They saved many lives, and their heroism became legendary.
As time passed, and the original life-savers became too old for the work, their children took over—and many of them exhibited the same zeal their fathers had. And then a new generation took up the cause, and a new one, and a new one.
But an odd thing happened with the passage of time. As one generation of “life-savers” succeeded another, they gradually began to forget what life-saving meant. Instead of climbing into the longboats and rowing out to rescue at sea, they began to prefer to meet in the clubhouse once a week to discuss the significance of life-saving.
And once they began doing that, they discovered that many, many more people were interested in joining the Life-Saving Society. In fact, so many more people became part of their group that they soon found they had to build a bigger clubhouse.
And because the bigger clubhouse was newer and more attractive than the old boathouse their ancestors had used, they began to attract a much more upscale crowd. “Well-heeled,” you might say.
And that meant that they got so much more revenue from Society dues that very quickly they found they were able to purchase lovely, well-upholstered furniture to make the clubhouse more comfortable; and magnificent artwork to make it more attractive—marvellous paintings and beautiful stained-glass windows, the work of creative masters—which depicted their forefathers bravely venturing out to sea.
And soon they were even prosperous enough to be able to hire motivational speakers—professionals who could talk up a storm about life-saving and reflect upon the metaphor of rescue, and how the stories of those original, brave life-savers could be applied to their own lives (in order to make their own lives better).
It’s hard to say just at what point it was that they gave up actually going out to sea. Maybe it was when they grew fearful of getting their two-hundred-dollar shoes wet. Maybe it was when one of their number actually tried to save someone, and ended up drowning.
Or maybe it was when they got the new sound system and turned it up so loud that they could no longer hear the cries of those who were being tossed upon the waves of the turbulent ocean outside the clubhouse.
But they did give up life-saving. In fact, they forgot about it altogether.
God forbid that such a thing should ever happen to us!
Whenever believers turn themselves inward, they run the risk of turning their backs upon the gospel. Whenever we become preoccupied with a physical plant, with decorum, with our own comfort, we risk losing our enthusiasm for spreading the Good News into the world. Yet that is what Jesus calls us to do.
There are those who tell me that I don’t challenge people often enough—or forcefully enough—in my sermons. I am amazed that anyone can ever find anything challenging in a sermon. To me, it is not words, but actions, which challenge. Talk really is the cheapest thing.
And so, what I offer to the church today is a call to action. And the action I’m proposing takes place out there—out on that stormy ocean which is the world outside our comfortable clubhouse. Out there, people are being tossed about, and capsized, and drowned. There are still heroes out there, trying to do something about it. And they need your help—yours and mine.
So, here’s a challenge for all of us: will we be content to sit in the Temple, or will we go out … there … where Jesus is?
May God grant us courage and wisdom as we make the hard choices of faith.