“This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
By now many if not most of you will have met my family or at least seen them running around the place. The two girls, ages 4 and 2, that sometimes like to crawl under the tables during our potlucks. Yeah, I’m with them. And perhaps you know either because I’ve told you myself or because of your own powers of deduction—taking note of my wife’s expanding mid-section—that we are expecting our third child. Yes, it is amazing to witness what the female body is capable of. Many of you know this well yourselves! It’s quite a process, isn’t it? In the forty weeks or so leading up to birth there are a number of things you are told to expect. People often feel sick, for example, especially in the morning. One might experience strange cravings like an insatiable desire for nachos and cheese, and I’m not just talking about the expectant father.
There are some dangers in those early days but it is more or less under control. Then come some more dramatic and apparent changes as that new life inside the womb begins to make his or her presence felt. Finally, as the day approaches, there’s all sorts of things to watch for: blood pressure, positioning of the child, and of course potential risks for the baby. The birth itself is something else altogether. In the mean time, however, the expectant parents are to take care, be patient, and not be alarmed by some of the odd things that are going to happen. (Wright)
The passage we heard from Mark’s gospel just now is, admittedly, a strange one. In fact, that whole chapter is rather startling. It’s what scholars call Mark’s “Little Apocalypse”, and with Jesus’ talk of “the end” coupled with descriptions of various battles and tribulations and the coming of the Son of Man “in clouds with great power and glory” and angels and winds is it any wonder that these sorts of passages can oftentimes lead to confusion? That is, if we don’t avoid them all together! And yet, here we are, confronted with one such passage this morning: predictions of the temple being destroyed, of false Messiahs, wars, and the end.
Simply put, what Mark does here, and what all of the gospel writers do in their own way, is give us a sense of the sort of convulsions the world experiences when God’s future begins to break into the present.
When the old is confronted with the new. When death is confronted by life, by the life. One of the great figures, or images, in the Bible for God’s future is the impending birth of a baby. The Biblical authors draw on this common, human experience of hope and anxiety and joy and danger, and hold it up as a figure of what God is doing in the world in Jesus Christ and his Church—birthing a new world in the midst of the old one. By “new” we don’t mean that the created world will be done away with all-together in favour of something else. After all, Christ’s proclamation at the end of the Book of Revelation is, “See, I am making all things new,” not, “See, I am making all new things.” God’s new creation is continuous with the old. It is His good creation rescued, redeemed, reconciled.
This is a jarring and startling event, however. It confronts, unsettles, turns over, clears out the powers of sin and death and all of the various ways in which they desecrate, pervert, and disfigure God’s good world. Our gospel reading today began with Jesus and his disciples exiting the temple. Well, a chapter-and-a-half earlier when Jesus and his disciples entered the temple, do you know what Jesus did? He started turning over tables and throwing people out! John tells us he even used a whip! I’ll bet that didn’t earn him a seat on the parish welcome team. While the arrival of God’s new world in Jesus Christ is good news for God’s good world it is terrible news, it is the death knell, for all that sets itself up against our Lord.
Then, while exiting the temple he gives voice to those actions: “Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Of course, in 70AD the temple really was destroyed. But is it possible that Jesus isn’t really talking about the temple here? Is it possible that he is talking about his own body and his soon coming passion? In a similar instance in John’s gospel, after Jesus cleanses the temple, the Jews questioned why he was doing this and he responded, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” His hearers were confused. How could Jesus rebuild such a magnificent temple in three days? “But,” John tells us, “he was speaking of the temple of his body,” (2:13-22).
A close reading reveals that Mark actually tells us the same thing though not as explicitly. A few verses after this morning’s reading, for example, Mark tells us that the religious leaders were looking for a way to secretly arrest Jesus and kill him (14:1-2). A little bit later still, during Mark’s account of the crucifixion we’re told that as Jesus was hanging on the cross people in the crowd mocked him saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (15:29-30).
Follow me here for a moment as I try and connect some of these dots for us. We’ve seen how the temple itself has become a sort of lightening rod for God’s judgement upon a sinful and disordered world—a world which has rejected the way of God and which hinders people coming into relationship with this life-giving God. We’ve seen also the way in which Jesus himself draws comparisons between the temple and his own body. Here’s the point: All of this comes together on the cross of Christ. On the cross we see Jesus Christ the Son of God, rejected, brutalized, strung-up, harassed, and killed in our place, in the place of the whole world. As the Apostle Paul writes elsewhere: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” (2 Cor. 5:21). For our sake. The judgement of God lands squarely on the crucified Christ who willingly accepts it, for our sake, so that in him we might receive new life. And not just new life for us, but new life for the whole wide world.
And here we come face to face with something else that can unsettle us, judgement. If you shuddered a little at the hearing of that word you’re not alone. But know that judgement is a good thing, it is a facet of God’s love for us. For God will not look favourably upon the sin that so ensnares us and which disfigures His good creation. Judgement is God’s “no” to sin and death and as such it is also His “yes” to us His creatures.
And again, we see this judgement, this “no” to sin and this “yes” to us, most clearly on the cross where Jesus hangs—God’s temple, torn down by a sinful world, only to tear down sin and death by raising himself up from the grave.
And us with him. This new world which God is bringing forth, indeed which He has brought forth in His Son Jesus Christ, He wants to bring about in you and I even now. Even while we await its fulfillment. Even while the old dying world goes out kicking and screaming—and if you’ve paid attention to the news coming out of Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris these last few days you know full-well the sort of evil and chaos we still live with, an evil and chaos that cuts through our own hearts as well. “Do not be alarmed!” says Jesus. “Do not be afraid!” Keep alert! Be steadfast! Be of faith! Endure! Persevere! Hope! Especially in the face of resistance, for even now, we are invited to share in the life of His Son Jesus Christ, that God’s new creation might be born in us. Even now. May it be so, to the glory of God and for the sake of the world. Amen.