Just the Beginning

       I still find it nearly impossible to believe.  If I hadn’t lived it, I wouldn’t think it real, but we went from March 8th, 2020 until April 18th, 2021 with our church building closed.  That’s fifty-seven consecutive Sundays!  That’s a dozen funerals.  A handful of weddings.  Several baptisms.  Two Easters.  One Christmas.  All gone.  As we returned to in-person worship, slowly, strategically, carefully, one theme that I heard above all others was just how good it was to be back in this space.  The people, no doubt, played a big role in that, but so did this sacred building.  Its beauty.  Its grandeur.  Its memories.  Sure, we learned over more than a year that we can be the Church without the use of our building, but we sure as heck prefer having it available.  Having this experience still lingering in our rearview mirror makes this morning’s gospel lesson feel like a “way too soon” kind of moment.

The Second Temple had only recently been doubled in size and totally refurbished under the direction of Herod the Great.  Stones in the foundation were as big as 40 feet long, 12 feet high, and 18 feet wide.  37.5-foot-tall Corinthian pillars, each cut from a single piece of marble adorned the massive front porch, and the exterior walls were lined with gold.  By any human measure, this sacred building was a site to behold.  When the unnamed disciple, upon seeing the sheer immensity of the Temple, responds with awe, I don’t necessarily want Jesus to predict its utter collapse.  Buzz-kill Jesus isn’t my favorite experience of Jesus if I’m being honest.  I would prefer Jesus join in the wonder.  Maybe he puts his arm around his friend’s shoulder and says, “I know, isn’t it amazing what human beings can do when they join God in building up the Kingdom of Heaven!?!”  But, that’s not what happens here, and context helps us understand the reasons.

       In Mark’s Gospel, chapter eleven marks the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life.  After healing Blind Bartimaeus, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a colt as the crowd laid palm branches on the ground and shouted, “Hosanna in the highest.”  The next few days were marked by growing tensions between Jesus and the religious powers-that-be, which culminated in the lesson we would have heard last week if it weren’t for All Saints’ Sunday.  There, at the tail end of Mark 12, Jesus warned his disciples “Beware of the scribes.”  Then, as they watched the comings and goings of the Temple and its treasury, Jesus pointed out a widow who put her last two coins into the offering.  This woman, Jesus said, gave all that she had to keep this system afloat, when there were many, many others who give without sacrifice and take without a second thought.

       Jesus was clearly over the Temple system and those who benefited from it.  His care is for the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, and all those who truly rely on God for their daily bread.  His frustration lay squarely upon those who use that trust to line their own pockets.  His anger is palpable as he and his disciples leave the Temple for the last time.  “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings,” one of his disciples remarked.  “You see them?” Jesus spit back at him, “Not one of stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”  In fifty or so years, this prophecy would come true.  Rome utterly destroyed Jerusalem in response to a Jewish revolt in 72 CE, but I don’t think Jesus only had a literal destruction of the building on his mind in that moment.  I think Jesus was predicting a larger shift in which those in power would be upended, and those on whose backs the Temple and its system had been built, would inherit the Kingdom of God.

       What follows is what is often called “Mark’s Little Apocalypse.”  Literally translated, an apocalypse is an uncovering or revelation.  We catch a glimpse of Jesus’ revelation of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God this morning when Peter, James, John, and Andrew try to pin him down on when exactly this destruction is going to take place.  Rather than focusing on their question, Jesus responds by turning their attention away from the building and toward the signs that will precede the unveiling of God’s reign on earth as it is heaven.  “Beware,” Jesus says, echoing what he’d just told them inside the Temple, “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come and say, ‘I am he.’”  “I am he” is very intentional language on Jesus’ part.  In Greek, he says “Ego eimi,” the Greek equivalent of the name that God gave to Moses back in Exodus.  In Hebrew, it is a name so sacred that faithful Jews won’t say it out loud, and when Jesus uses it, he does so very intentionally.  He is warning his disciples that some will come and claim to be God or God’s Messiah or the Second Coming of Christ.  They will use language that sounds legit.  They will quote scripture.  They will, like the Temple system already at work, prey on the religious devotion and trust of the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  They will use so-called signs like wars, earthquakes, famines, or pandemics to try to convince the world that they are the only ones who can save.  They will line their pockets with the copper coins of those they claim to care about but seek only the enrichment of themselves and their cronies.  Beware, beware, beware.

       Between the destruction of the Temple and the promise that a series of lying, cheating, no-good, would-be Messiahs are coming, things feel pretty dire at this point in our Gospel lesson.  I found myself asking Mother Becca’s go-to preaching question quite often this week, “Where is the good news?”  Where, amid all these words of warning, is the tear in the curtain that will allow the full unveiling of the Kingdom of God to take place?  The answer came to me by way of a three-year-old commentary in the archives at WorkingPreacher.org, written by the Reverend Doctor Samuel Cruz.  His commentary boldly claims that “in the midst of this apparent chaos and destruction, Jesus brings a word of hope: ‘This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.’”[1]  I wrote a note in the margins that said, “Just the beginning? How is that a word of hope?”  Then, I realized something.  Jesus doesn’t say the coming chaos and destruction are the beginning of the death throes.  No, he says they are the beginning of the birth pangs.

       I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this, but birth is painful, chaotic, and messy.  In the end, however, is new life.  New life brings with it love like one has never known before and joy beyond all measure.  New life brings with it the promise of hope.  For the people of first century Israel, the hope of new life – out from under the oppressive thumb of Rome and the repressive expectations of the Temple system – sounded like good news indeed.  After twenty months of pandemic birth pangs, I know that I’m ready for some new life.  I’m ready to cast my lot with Jesus who maybe isn’t the buzzkill I initially thought he was.  I’m ready for new ways to use our building for expanding the Kingdom of Heaven.  I’m ready for new ways to use our financial resources for reaching out into our community.  I’m ready for new ways to engage our baptismal covenant, to love our neighbors, and to change the world.  Unveilings, birth pangs, resurrection – none of this comes easy, but hope, joy, and love are absolutely worth the effort.  Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-mark-131-8-4


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