25th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 28B)
“… Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2)
Jesus was speaking to his disciples about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, but most Biblical commentators also hear him speaking about the end of the world—or, at least, about the last days. And that subject, it seems, fascinates most of us. At least, in popular entertainment, “end-of-the-world” stories always draw a huge audience.
For example, there was the movie entitled “2012.” Remember it? It was one of the highest-grossing films of 2009, earning over $166 million in North America alone—and almost as much again in world-wide release. If you saw the movie, you know the plot: it is December 21st, 2012, the day the Mayan calendar says the world will end—and cataclysmic events are unfolding.
The basis for that plot had to do with the fact that a new cycle of the Mayan Calendar happens every 1,872,000 days. The old cycle finished on the winter solstice of 2012 … which was December 21st of that year. Hearing that, some people concluded that the end of the world was going to happen on that day.
Cable television networks have long been cashing in on apocalyptic conjecture. Over the past several years, the Discovery Channel—along with Science, National Geographic, and some other cable channels—have aired seemingly endless “special reports” about one looming disaster after another. There has been no shortage of “doomsday documentaries” about how the world will end because of a comet or a meteor hitting the earth … or because of some global pandemic … or because the caldera—the super-volcano—under Yellowstone National Park will finally explode, plunging the entire planet into something like a nuclear winter.
And then, there are the environmental doomsday scenarios. These do seem more plausible. Unless we change our collective behaviour in some drastic ways, we may very well destroy the planet by drilling for petroleum, building pipelines, driving cars, and dumping waste plastic into the oceans. But that’s a gradual process—and apparently not exciting enough for a disaster movie (maybe that’s the problem).
The point I want to make is: if you look at the history of any time period, you will find predictions about the end of the world. In the 19th century, a preacher by the name of William Miller predicted that the end would come on March 21, 1844—and lots of people believed him. But when that date passed without incident, he revised the date to April 18 of the same year … and then to October 22. That’s like what Harold Camping did in 2011; his dates were May 21, and then October 21 … but we’re still here! Throughout Christian history, there have been literally hundreds of very specific end-time predictions—going all the way back to the first century. None of those predictions came true, but there were always people who were eager to believe in them.
There is something ingrained within us that is fascinated by the idea of the end of the world. We want to speculate on how it will happen—even if we hope we’re not around when it does.
There have been times, though, when people thought they just might be watching Armageddon unfold. World War One was called “the war to end all wars.” In the dirt, gas, and rot of the trenches, almost 10 million soldiers died. The casualties of that war—military and civilian combined—are thought to be around 19 million. Yet, we know that this was not “the war to end all wars.” The Second World War came along only two decades later. And I’ve actually lost count of how many conflicts have flared up since then.
Even so, for most Canadians, war has been something that happens somewhere else. Except for the veterans among us, we have no direct experience of war. The last actual war on Canadian soil dates back to the War of 1812—over 200 years ago! Since then, it has been rather peaceful around here.
You know, when we have these extended periods of relative calm, we think nothing will ever happen to change it. We think that nothing can disturb the way we live our lives.
This must have been what the disciples were thinking when they walked out of the Temple with Jesus. Impressed by the architecture, some unnamed disciple says: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”
It was true. The Jerusalem Temple was a magnificent thing to behold. The stones the disciple referred to each weighed about 40 tons. And, if necessary, the Temple could hold about 75,000 people within its walls. Not only was this place massive, but it was also holy. It was where the presence of God resided—behind the curtain, in the Holy of Holies. It’s no wonder that the disciples were awestruck.
Yet, Jesus says to them: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Now, this is pretty unbelievable. Forty-ton stones will be thrown down? A place large enough to hold a small city would be so completely destroyed that not one stone would be left on another? This must have seemed impossible. Yet, only 40 years later—in 70 A.D.—the Romans took the Temple apart and utterly destroyed it, just like Jesus said. At the hands of Roman soldiers, the seemingly impossible happened.
We’ve witnessed that in our own time, haven’t we? On September 11, 2001, we watched two buildings that people thought would stand forever come crashing down. And for a whole generation, that event has become the sort of defining moment that the Kennedy assassination was for my generation. Everybody remembers where they were—and what they were doing—when the twin towers fell.
When people go through tragedy or disaster or war, their innocence is lost—and reality becomes much scarier. On 9-11, we all witnessed the impossible happening—and in that moment, our world became unstable, and chaotic, and terrifying.
According to some scholars, Mark’s gospel was written shortly after the Jewish-Roman War. If that is correct, then the destruction of the Temple would have been as fresh in people’s minds as the destruction of the World Trade Center is in our minds.
In the nation of Israel at that time, there were many who wanted to get rid of the Romans. There was a huge push for nationalistic loyalty, and certain Jews—the Bible calls them “zealots”—were recruiting fighters to go against the Romans. They claimed that this was the moment when the Messiah was coming—and they expected him to lead the Jewish forces in a glorious war of liberation.
Well, we know how that played out, because it was around this time that the Jewish revolt was crushed, and the Temple was destroyed. If Mark was indeed writing just after all this took place, then his presentation of Jesus’ message is most significant—because it is the opposite of a call to arms.
Mark wrote in his gospel that this was not the moment of the end of the world. The Messiah was not “on his way”—he had already come. In fact, God himself had already been here—in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In every lifetime, there is an event or a war or a moment that makes people think the world is coming to an end. During these times the calls go out, just as they did during the Jewish-Roman war. There is a call to arms and a buildup of nationalistic pride and passion. “This is it,” they tell us. “This is the moment we have been waiting for! It all ends here.”
And for some—for those directly involved—their individual worlds might, in fact, end. But for most, life goes on.
True, there will come a day when everything shall change. It will be “the end of the world as we know it.” God promises that it is coming—but we don’t know when.
We want to find out, though. Our human nature really wants to fix a date on the calendar. It’s always been that way.
Peter, James, John and Andrew are intrigued by Jesus’ statement, and so they go to him and ask him: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
He tells them: “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (Mark 13:5-8).
Jesus is telling them that there will be many times in our lives when things look like they are coming to an end—but those are just deceptions.
Once, years ago, I attended a lecture about the Book of Revelation. I remember that the lecturer unfolded this huge map explaining how Revelation predicts the end of the world. I heard about bar codes being linked to the Antichrist. I heard that there was a road being built from China to the Middle East, and that—somehow—this meant that Armageddon was about to begin. The list went on and on.
Then, more recently, I learned about something called the “Rapture Index.” This is a website* that places a numeric value on how close we are to the “rapture”—that is, to all living Christians being suddenly removed from the earth. That’s supposed to happen right before things get really bad, according to some. Just like on Star Trek, the Lord will beam us all out of here before the Tribulation hits.
Anyway, on November 8th—this past Monday—the “rapture index” was 186 (unchanged from the previous week). That means that there is an imminent threat that the rapture will happen at any moment.
You know, many of us dive into works of fiction like the Left Behind series; or we take seriously those television evangelists who say that they have figured out when this event will take place. But if you tune all that stuff out, what does Jesus say?
To the disciples who were asking the exact same question we all ask, Jesus says: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Wars and rumours of wars. Nation rising against nation. Earthquakes. Famines. Just the beginning of the birth pangs.
I wonder: how many of you know the first signs that a woman is going into labour? Guys … do you know?
I do. I remember this quite vividly. She might start to clean up around the house, getting ready for the new arrival. Contractions might start—but many times these are just Braxton-Hicks contractions, or practice contractions. Then there are about a thousand other supposed indications that childbirth is near.
I can’t tell you how annoying it is to listen to everyone and their grandmother giving their opinions on when your wife will have her baby:
- “Oh sweetie, he has dropped! It definitely will be this week.”
- “I can see that your nose is getting bigger! That means any day now.”
But you know, a baby comes when a baby comes. We can try to guess, but—unless we have a C-section planned—we do not know the day or the hour.
In our gospel lesson, Jesus is telling us the same thing. He says we should not be focused on that. We should focus on what we can do for God today, and not worry about tomorrow.
Sure, it would be great to know when the new heavens and new earth will come into being. But, really, we should focus on who is coming, and stop obsessing about when.
Jesus Christ will come again. But—instead of trying to figure out when that will be—we should focus on what he is calling us to do now. That way—when it is the end of the world as we know it—we will have laid a good foundation for the Kingdom of God. And we will hear our Lord say to us: “Well done, you good and faithful servants—well done!”