Mark 13:1-8, Narrative Lectionary,
March 29, 2020
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" Then Jesus began to say to 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 rumors 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."
Imagery of what seems strong and reliable falling apart
Jesus begins to detail the horror of an impending destruction: The rhythms of creation as we know it go awry—earthquakes and famines and locust infestations and viral pandemics. The institutions and structures we have established are shaking and crashing—the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, Wall Street, banks, airlines, solid establishments. The cultural markers that help define us are uncertain—education systems, global trade and travel, entertainment, personal gatherings with friends, and even physically worshipping together. This is total destruction at its sharpest. It is unrelenting and unforgiving, and no one can escape its devastating blows as an old age is swept away for a new one.
We may be asking ourselves today, what do we know to be sure? Buildings aren’t supposed to crumble to the ground. Insects are not supposed to destroy entire crops. Science and medicine are supposed to control and understand and prevent pandemics… and have enough supplies to do so. Governments are supposed to be there to provide support and care for their citizens. Yet across these various disasters we experience shock, fear of what’s next, grief, and a profound sense of loss. Not only might we lose loved ones and jobs and financial stability (among other things), not only have we lost what we thought was certain about the future, but in some sense we lose our innocence when things crash. We now know that something we once believed to be sure are no longer trustworthy —that a towering structure would stand forever, or that healthcare could prevent widespread calamity. It’s possible to lose a foundational belief upon which we have built their lives. No longer are we able to step outside our house without wondering if we will infect or be infected, if airplanes will fall from the sky, if locusts will destroy our food supply. We trust that a lot of things will just be there for us. Living in Kenya, we learned that we couldn’t trust that flipping a light switch would mean we’d have light, nor turning a faucet that we would have water. Or if we drove 3 hours into town that we could check email via dial up—the phones were very unreliable. What do we trust?
How do we survive the crashing down of a building, or the spread of a pandemic, or the destruction of crops or the loss of trust in how the world works? [answer in a bit]
Before and during Jesus’ time, apocalyptic writings were prevalent—revealing signs that would usher in the arrival of the messiah, or the one who would deliver and save them. Usually these writings were reading the signs of national/international calamities—like earthquakes, wars, and famines, or predicting false messiahs. And False messianic leaders were common—whether or not they adopt the title, these are those with platforms who proclaim they bring the saving end, they bring deliverance, they bring salvation
Jesus says there is ongoing danger of being led astray by false leaders who appear in a situation of crisis. False leaders, those who claim for themselves the dignity of God’s own significance and glory. Their intention is to lead others to believe that the time of vigilance is past, and that they were the ones who accomplished deliverance.
False messiahs/deliverers won short-lived support with promises to provide symbols of redemption that would validate their claims. They represented a misplacement of hope that could only yield deception and disaster. But they never lasted long.
Appearances and reality are not always the same thing
The disciple’s eyes see one thing (the temple is magnificent v1) but it does not mean they are actually seeing (not one stone will be left on another v2)
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
Jesus tells us to discern the truth (v3-8): What is the truth? Do not be alarmed.
Then Jesus began to say to 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 rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come… This is but the beginning of the birth pangs."
This is the beginning of birth pangs. What we have experienced throughout history, what we are experiencing right now, are merely the beginnings of birth pangs.
For many Kenyans, death is so much a part of life—infant mortality, bad infrastructure, famine, locusts, road accidents, access to health care, access to clean water, inter-tribal warfare, the list goes on. In that context it’s easier to see death daily, to face the reality of death with eyes wide open to it. The contradiction with deliverance (salvation) is stark. It seems much harder in this context, when we’ve done a tidy job of hiding suffering, sanitizing and putting away dying and death.
We’ve done a tidy job of hiding suffering, sanitizing and putting away dying and death
But we’re hearing the whispering of birth pangs these days—how long, O Lord?
How long will we be cooped up inside? How long will we have to work from home? How long will we fear this pestilence, this virus? how long will we quarantine and isolate and live in an upside-down and confusing world? How long will I be out of a job? How long do we fear catching or giving the virus? How long do we fear dying? How long, O Lord, how long, how long? These are all birth pangs.
But for those of us who’ve had the experience of giving birth, we know what comes after that… new life. A life that is fresh and unknown. The birthing pains are just that—bloody and painful… and temporary. And for those who have experienced those birth pangs, we know that once they are over, life as we had previously known it is gone; things are never the same. For us, we are given a new identity… we become parents—which includes sleepless nights, perpetual diaper changes and feedings... drivers’ licenses, graduation. We discover that this new life includes a lot of hard adjustments. But also, we discover that, as great as life was before those birth pangs, life is richer, more abundant after those birth pangs—because new life has joined us and nothing is ever the same.
The apocalyptic destruction that we may be sitting in right now is merely one in the whole scheme of history. But with the world currently at a standstill and fighting a great evil, what emerges will look different than what was, in ways we don’t yet comprehend.
Maybe like a butterfly—we think the caterpillar is all there is… but then hardening chrysalis occurs, and a softening, mushy discombobulating, what looks like death and destruction—which is where we are right now. Then one day, a butterfly emerges—something completely new and different from what its life was before.
How do we survive the spread of a pandemic, the loss of trust in how the world works?—I asked at the beginning
Our world and life as we know it will probably not look the same when all this passes—and it will pass.
And death comes—comes to us all.
But emerging out of this season—whether we live or we physically die—our world and our selves will experience the new life that comes after the birth pangs. New abundant life. So let’s continue to walk towards Jerusalem with Jesus who said “do not be alarmed”—don’t be afraid. As the psalmist reminds, Yet even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil (not that it isn’t there, but I don’t fear it—why?) you are with me (Psalm 23).