Sermon by Peter Henderson based on the gospel reading: Mark 13:1-13
I can vaguely remember, as a small child, getting quite upset about something that was not going my way, and my mother saying to me: “It’s not the end of the world, you know.” And it turns out that she was right! But, for a brief period of time, when my hopes and expectations came crashing down around me, it did feel like that.
When Jesus told his disciples that the large stones making up the Temple would be thrown down, he provoked deep memories of the Israelite nation when this had happened before; and then it did seem like the end of the world. Around the turn of the 6th century BC Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonians and, after about 8 years, the city fell, the Temple was destroyed, and the middle classes were deported to Babylon. Some 50/60 years later there was a return from exile and work on building the second Temple began, the temple not quite finished at the time of Jesus.
When literacy is not high among a people, stories like this are told time and again, colourfully, and firmly rooted in the memory.
In more recent times, some readers of the gospel have looked at Mark chapter 13 and decided that Jesus was warning his disciples about the end of the world literally, involving some unspecified global catastrophe after which the risen Jesus would reappear in what is called the Second Coming.
They can be forgiven for reading too much into the chapter. Jesus talked about the end still being to come, then later on about the sun going dark, stars falling from the sky and, in verse 26, ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.
But this is to misunderstand apocalyptic language. The prophets of that era – Isaiah and Daniel particularly – had used these very images to warn of the consequences of seeking security in anyone other than God. And, when disaster came, it must have felt like the end of the world; but it wasn’t… not quite.
I’m guessing Jesus deliberately chose these phrases from the prophets of old to warn about the inevitable consequences of provoking the Romans. And he was right: 40 years after his death the Romans brutally suppressed an uprising in Jerusalem and the Temple was destroyed again. Historians of that day gave a harrowing account of what it was like for the Jews. For them it must have felt like the end of the world; clearly for the wider world it wasn’t.
Footnote: I wrote this on Thursday [15th Nov 2018], the day the Prime Minister presented the EU withdrawal agreement to the House of Commons. I couldn’t help wondering if Theresa May would use similar language to describe her day.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy “has the words ‘DON’T PANIC’ in large, friendly letters on the cover.” Of course, this is advice is not original, and I’m not referring to Corporal Jones (in Dad’s Army), but to Jesus.
While Jesus explains the challenges that his disciples will face in the times leading up to the destruction of the Temple, he reassures them that “the one who endures to the end will be saved” and urges them to hold their nerve in the face of traumatic circumstances. Don’t panic.
There is nothing in the gospel reading to suggest that this advice applies only to that situation.
So, to all disciples who feel that the end of the world is on the horizon, he says, don’t panic, hold your nerve.
To all God’s people who are oppressed or discriminated against because of their faith, like the Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, or victimised by the circumstances imposed by a cruel, unthinking world, Jesus says “I am with you. I have walked that way.”
How can Jesus say this? How is this more than platitudes?
Within the rather grim gospel reading is a clue to some good news. It is about the future of the Temple. One of the implications of Jesus’ teaching is that the concept of Temple is being redefined.
The Temple was not just a place of worship – the place where God’s presence was deemed to dwell – but also a place of sacrifice where forgiveness for sins was to be gained, and also the home of the wisdom of God, the lodging place of this tablets of stone Moses had brought down from the mountain.
Jesus has demonstrated in his ministry that he is all that the Temple has been: he became the focus of the presence of God, he administered the forgiveness of God, he became the one people went to seeking the wisdom of God.
In Mark chapter 11 we read about the cleansing of the temple, where Jesus disrupts the routine religious practice of fleecing people who come to offer sacrifices seeking the forgiveness of God. This system is corrupt, he is saying, it has to end.
In chapter 12 Jesus tells the parable of the tenants in the vineyard. Remember this is where the tenants refuse to give any of the produce to the owner, abusing his agents and eventually killing his son. The owner, Jesus says, will give the vineyard to others. Anyone who had read Isaiah would know that the vineyard was a metaphor for the people of Israel whom God had grown from the family of Abraham to be a blessing to all nations. But the tenants had not come up with the goods. Jesus told this parable in the Temple to the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders who worked there, the ones responsible for coming up with the goods in real life. The implication was not lost on his hearers, for it says they wanted to arrest him.
In fact, all the charges laid against Jesus at his trial relate to him superseding the Temple in the life of God’s people.
So, when we come to our reading today in chapter 13, it has become clear that the Jerusalem temple is surplus to God’s requirements because the purpose of the Temple are now fulfilled in the person of Jesus. In due course, after Pentecost, the ministry of Jesus would continue wherever the Spirit of Jesus finds a home in a body of disciples, in the body of Christ – the Church.
So – I answer my own questions at last – Jesus could speak calmly to the disciples about the turmoil to come, and urge them to hold their nerve, because he could offer the assurance that God would with them because they would be the God’s new home, the place where the presence of God dwells through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Some time later the apostle Paul writes to the church of Corinth in Greece, far from Jerusalem or indeed Israel saying, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)
If Paul understands this is true for the argumentative bunch in Corinth, then it must be true for the pleasant disciples in Taunton.
Jesus assures us that, under fierce questioning, there is no need to panic because we will be given the words to say: the Holy Spirit who dwells within us will come to our aid when those difficult moments come. (v.11)
Notice that Jesus does not promise that our circumstances will improve, only that we will not be alone. God is with us. As Paul wrote in that well-known passage in his letter to the Church in Rome, nothing can separate us from the love of God, absolutely nothing: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:35,37)
We can hold our nerve in the face of earth-shattering circumstances because the presence and purposes of God are invested in us. Each of us may find it difficult to cope at a particular time, but we have each other – together we are the body of Christ – to reassure us that “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (v.13)
But there is not just reassurance but an challenge to mission here – Jesus says the good news must be proclaimed to all nations (v.9). The purposes of God for God’s people were, and still are, that we should be a blessing to all nations. So, even in the midst of difficult circumstances, our status as the new temple of God’s Spirit means that we are the place to come for good news and the wisdom of God.
People know that it is easy to believe in God when life is going smoothly. But, rather like the apostle Paul in the ship in the storm, calmly praying rather than panicking [in Acts 27], it is our trust in God in such conditions that highlights that we have a gift that makes others take notice and question.
May God give us grace to keep our nerve, trust in God and embrace God’s purposes.