There is something beautifully reassuring in the drama of Jesus’ words given to us in Mark 13:1-11, particularly in today’s world which is filled with uncertainty, division and fear, trying hard to discern what will happen in the future.
Jesus says: ‘Do not be alarmed,’ (13:7) to his disciples, Peter, James, John and Andrew who ask him privately about what the future holds.
I remember my first trip to Rome, looking around with awe and joy at the majesty and antiquity of the buildings, but as I wandered through all the ruins, I was very aware of the impermanence of human-made structures and empires. We are seeing the decline of current empires and the rise of new empires in our own times. I, myself, am a child of a dying empire. Jesus’ response to his disciples’ questions about the future as they left the Jerusalem temple and walked to the Mount of Olives to sit and draw breath, is one of reassurance.
The Mount of Olives is a place where the bodies of Jewish people have been buried for more than 3,000 years. Looking across at the temple site from the cemetery where victims of the persecution and destruction of 70 CE were almost certainly buried, Jesus reminds all God’s people, those who have died as well as those who are alive, will be included in God’s coming reign. The excited exclamations of the disciples around Jesus of the size and splendour of the buildings was a great moment for Jesus to remind them nothing is permanent, only God; and it was important not to be frightened or influenced by the might of the Roman forces and empire.
The world we experience in times of hardship and uncertainty is not an expression of the way God intended the world to be. The powers of the present age are transient, often harsh, unjust and are not permanent.
This story offers us a rich and important lesson. The witness and message of the church should not be fear-based but built on love. Love is countercultural, transcendent, impatient, hope-filled, and justice seeking. It is not focused on separating insiders and outsiders, but on breaking down the walls dividing us from one another and God.
In sharing this story and teaching, Mark’s Jesus is clear there are times when present suffering calls for action, just as I was talking about yesterday in relation to our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and next week, for those struggling with family and domestic violence, and homelessness. However, Jesus says:
This is but the beginning of the birth pangs (Mark 13:8)
Jesus reminds us any voices which seek to become important and influential by blaming the suffering of others on God’s judgement because of their behaviour, are inherently and truly suspect in their beliefs. Earthly disasters are not an indication God’s judgement is coming upon the ungodly or that individuals are to blame for their misfortune. Let me be clear, God is love, not darkness.
Then and now, there are those who claim calamities as God’s judgement on others, such as Hurricane Katrina, HIV Aids, Covid-19 and so on. Jesus here denies God is the agent of the coming destruction, including the destruction of the Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem by the Roman army.
Jesus died, because the authorities and those who were heavily invested in the status quo did not like his message and wanted to silence him. Understanding what he was shortly to face with his trial and death, Jesus knew his message would continue to provoke those who wanted to resist the message of love and hope.
As his followers spread the message of love faithfully in a hostile world, Jesus knew how easy it is to become fearful of catastrophe. Its easier to spread a message of fear than of love and hope. Such a terrible distortion of God’s message makes us and the early disciples incapable of being witnesses to God’s coming kingdom. It is not God but humanity who has been the cause of its own threat of extinction, whether by nuclear holocaust, war, environmental degradation or one of the other myriad of ways we are capable of bringing God’s good creation to the brink of disaster.
Jesus is aware of our own tendencies to look to others who promise certainty and judgement, with the use of fear, violence and war or the promises of false idols, quick fixes and scapegoats. To respond to this inevitable reaction to powerful forces, Jesus offers three important spiritual disciples for living in transitional times.
Firstly, as disciples and believers, we must be discerning in the face of threats, which will always be present, whether they are overt to the extent governments and politics threaten lives, or more subtle, such as the church allowing the false security of a cultural, consumer driven theology to creep into the community with false idols of materialism, greed, envy and judgement on the ‘failure’ of others.
Secondly, as disciples and believers we need to be patient. Birthing a new heaven and earth takes time. There are many evils to dispel and many hopes to realise. These are the birth pangs of a new age. God’s transformation and the witness of believers compete with many forces, biases, appetites and selfish desires.
Working out God’s promises occurs during the life of the world as well as in and for the world. Being patient requires us to understand and recognise the truth which Jesus tells us repeatedly, while the powers of the world seem irresistible and overwhelming, they are not.
As we trust God is transforming the world and we as believers are called to join with God in God’s saving world, we can be joyful we are engaged in life-saving, purposeful, truly divine work.
Thirdly, in this, as disciples and believers, we are reminded by Jesus there is always hope. There are times when we are vulnerable, devastated by grief and suffering, and frightened by what is happening to us and our loved ones. Growth, change, and the coming of a new life are always a painful process. Giving birth is not easy or pain-free. But in suffering there is always hope and the promise of a new day, new life and the abiding of our lives, our suffering and our hopes in God, as God abides in us.
To resist or ignore the birth pangs altogether is to resist participation in the kingdom. It is to give up the hope in God’s promises and give into a belief it is not real. It is to despair and die. To think we have pinpointed the coming of God’s reign is also to have missed it. Jesus wants his disciples to participate in God’s reign as it is being realised in time and space without seeking to imagine it can be governed or confined by time and space. God is far bigger and mysterious than anything we can imagine. To think we can measure and determine the extent of God’s kingdom is madness and hubris.
Hope sustains us through the birth pangs of change and the necessary struggle leading to growth. As we watch and wait, patiently, hopefully, we are transformed into something beyond our imagining. Jesus desires for us always to be open to God’s kingdom breaking into our own historical reality, challenging our understanding of what will endure and what will not. Let us join together to see God’s Spirit at word bringing the good news to all people, even in the face of suffering, devastation and despair, even from the cemetery.
As Mark tells the story of Jesus sitting in the cemetery with his disciples, giving encouragement, I am filled with joy as I am reminded by Jesus, for disciples and a church always in transition: discernment, patience and hope are with us always, in the middle of the passing world in which we stand in witness and solidarity with God’s people and God’s creation.
The Lord be with you.
Reference: Feasting on the Gospels Commentary