The Temple glowed brilliantly in the spring sunshine that day. A vast complex of buildings and courts, covering the equivalent of 35 acres (the size of our modern Pentagon complex), it sat on the Temple Mount, the highest point in the city of Jerusalem; looking down on the citizens below, as those citizens looked up to see the very epicenter of their religious and civil life. This edifice, constructed under the leadership of King Herod, in a bid to win the favor of the people he ruled, was the crowning jewel of the city and of Herod’s achievements. The quarried limestone blocks that made up the walls measured as much as 30 feet long and up to 6 feet high, weighing as much as 40 tons each. Gold leaf embellished the doors and outside walls, so much that it is said that anyone who gazed upon them risked blinding themselves.
Our gospel lesson for this morning finds us in Jerusalem, in the shadow of this remarkable structure, where Jesus and his disciples have arrived for the Passover, for what they would soon discover would be the final time. As was their custom, they went to worship in the magnificent temple, where Jesus had engaged in teaching and discussion with the religious leaders there. Before departing, Jesus has asked the disciples to notice a widow surrendering her last two coins to the treasury of this opulent building. As they departed from the courts, one of the disciples, dazzled by the architectural majesty surrounding them, asks Jesus to notice something in return: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” as he paused to look back at this resplendent structure; with its large and substantial stone construction.
This disciple in the story is understandably impressed with their surroundings, and so, tries to share his sense of awe with Jesus. But Jesus isn’t dazzled. Instead, he responds to the disciple’s remark with a question: “Do you see these great buildings?” This seems odd. Why would Jesus ask the disciple if he can see what the disciple has just invited Jesus to see? Aren’t the two of them seeing the same thing? Well, actually no. They’re not. They’re not seeing – or perceiving- the same thing at all.
What the disciple sees is an architectural marvel; the biggest, boldest, and most unshakeable symbol of God’s presence he (or most anyone else) was capable of imagining. For him, those massive stones hold religious memory. They reinforce a colonized people’s identity. They offer the faithful a potent symbol of spiritual glory, pride, and worthiness. In short, what takes the disciple’s breath away as he gazes at the temple is the religious certainty and permanence those glittering stones display to the world.
That’s what the disciple sees. But what does Jesus see? He sees something very different. He sees ruins. Rubble. Destruction. Fragility, not permanence. Loss, not glory. Change, not stasis. “Not one stone will be left here upon another,” Jesus tells the stunned disciple. “All will be thrown down.” Jesus sees a structure doomed to eventual destruction.
This passage from Mark’s Gospel is often described by scholars as “the little apocalypse”. If you’re like me, your cultural references for “apocalypse” probably include the “Walking Dead” television series, the “Left Behind” fiction series, and the Book of Revelation. When I hear the word, I think of the four horsemen, vacant-eyed zombies lurching through decimated neighborhoods, and the wholesale nuclear destruction of the planet.
But in fact, “apocalypse” means something quite different. Activist Adrienne Maree Browns, in a 2016 lecture, described the word as an uncovering. That is, an apocalypse is an unveiling. A disclosure of something secret and hidden. To experience an apocalypse is to experience fresh sight. Honest disclosure. Accurate revelation. It is to apprehend reality as we’ve never apprehended it before. One author, using Brown’s words, said she could distill this week’s Gospel reading into just a few words, borrowing from Adrienne Brown’s: Things are getting uncovered. Let’s hold each other tight and pull back the veil.
In this conversation, Jesus “pulls back the veil” when he declares that the temple would see destruction. Was he prophesying? Or did he know that structures made by hand will ultimately fail? Then, as they continue the discussion, Jesus offers them what is, in a sense, an apocalyptic vision. He invites them to look beyond the grandeur of the temple, and recognize the grandeur of the God which they worship; a God that will not suffer domestication. That is, that God is greater than these walls, erected by human effort, that seek to contain Him. He is trying to impress upon them that the temple is not the epicenter of God’s work of salvation; that God is not bound by mortar or stone, no matter how massive those stones are. That God is bigger than any building and institution. I would go so far as to say that God is bigger than anything we humans create in God’s name. God does not care about superlatives; we are the ones who tend to be easily let to admire the biggest, newest and shiniest – whether it be a structure or an idea. God is bigger than anything we can create with the human hand or mind.
So, while the disciples – and us – may find disappointment that God does not fit the proverbial box – or building- in which we would like to put him; that God does not have the same priorities that we have, we know that we have a God who is the one stone that will not be toppled, the one rock that will not crumble. And, if we let ourselves see it, we will see the marvelous things, the “out-of-the-box” things that God is doing even now, as we await yet again, the coming of the Son.
Now, let us move on to the second part of the Gospel story; here, Jesus teaches his disciples what to do and how to live when the walls ultimately do come tumbling down. Contrary to what our hysteria-hungry, “if it bleeds, it leads” culture so often encourages, Jesus insists on calm strength and generous love in the face of the apocalyptic, the revealing of things we may not want to see.
It’s as if he is saying to his followers: “Don’t be alarmed,” when truth is shaken, and nations make war, and imposters preach alluring gospels of fear, resentment, and hatred. Don’t give in to terror. Don’t despair. Don’t capitalize on chaos. God is not where people often say he is; he is not inciting fear. God doesn’t incite suspicion. God doesn’t thrive on human dread.
Therefore, I think Jesus is calling his disciples in an uncertain age, to avoid hasty, knee-jerk judgments. He calls us to be perceptive, but not pious. Imaginative, but not immature. To make peace, choose hope, cultivate patience and incarnate love as the world reels and changes. For me, perhaps this is the great challenge of the Gospel. Not simply to bear the future, but to bear it well. To bear it with the radical, self-sacrificial love Jesus models on the cross.
In closing, I have to confess this has been a tremendously challenging scripture to make sense of, and I’m still not sure I have. It is definitely not one of my favorite topics; I’d rather be preaching about the love of Jesus or telling a profound story. Today, instead of putting on my “teacher hat”, I find myself wearing a learner’s cap as this is a learning exercise for me, and ultimately, for all of us. And in reflection on all of this, I have a feeling that there is some sense of apocalypse in the world around us. And if so, I believe that in the face of this feeling, we are called to make a response, with a resilient, healing love. When we seem confronted with brokenness on all sides that threaten ruin in relationships and institutions, we need to “hold each other tight” and allow the veil to part, the walls to fall. What’s happening, Jesus promises in the final words of this passage, is not death, but birth. Not the end, but the beginning. Something new is struggling to be born. And with birth come labor pains. And yes, birth pangs hurt. They hurt tremendously. So does change. But we can hold fast to the good news that whatever God births will never lead to hopelessness. What God brings about may not live up to our wishes and desires, yet we can trust that God is doing a new thing and a good thing. And when we are called to bear witness in the ruins, we can rest assured: these birth pangs will end in joy.
As we go from here, as we go to live in these in-between times, the times between the first and second comings of Jesus Christ, the time we will consider again in the forthcoming days of Advent, let us live each day following the example of Christ, being his hands and feet and heart in our world, trusting in the loving care of our Father, who will make all things new in His perfect time. Thanks be to God. Amen.