by Daniel Harrell
We’re back in Mark this fourth Sunday of Lent, working our way to Easter, but with a passage that points more toward the Second Coming than the Resurrection. Not that it matters. Let’s admit it: both of these “orthodox” tenets of Christianity are pretty outlandish. Neither gets brought up much in serious conversation. Not much in serious sermons either. I remember a fellow being new to church and asking, “Am I really supposed to believe that one day Jesus will show up from heaven riding on clouds with trumpets blaring like the Bible says?” I replied how stranger things have been believed. “No they have not,” he cried. “That’s as weird as it gets!”
The weirdness of Christian belief (which we prefer to call the “mysteries of faith”) probably explains why so many church folk prefer to emphasize Christianity’s more reasonable aspects: living an ethical life, making beautiful music and art, doing justice and serving the poor, building healthy marriages and raising good kids. The trouble is that you don’t really need Jesus to do any of those things. As theologian Philip Clayton puts it: once our beliefs become merely metaphorical or poetic—or worse, when one finds oneself using language one no longer believes but vaguely feels that one ought to believe–-one begins to wonder about the reason for the church’s existence.
It’s Jesus’ fault. He taught so many wonderful things; why did he go and mess it up by telling us how he’ll fly back to earth some day with angels no less? Mark and Matthew both record him saying how he’ll gather the elect from the four winds. In Corinthians, Paul has everybody rising from the dead. In Thessalonians, we all meet Jesus in the air. And then of course there’s Revelation. Martin Luther tried his best to get that book taken out of the Bible. It can be a little embarrassing—even though everybody does seem to be into apocalyptic storytelling these days. Bestselling author Tom Perrotta poked fun at the popular Left Behind series in his most recent novel entitled The Leftovers. I assigned it to my seminary class to get a sense of how secular culture views Christian weirdness. Perrotta depicts millions of people of all ages, genders, and faiths or lack thereof suddenly disappearing all over the world, but the question of what caused their disappearance is never answered. Jesus never shows up. There’s a satirical take on an un-raptured minister who’s so angry about being a leftover that he starts up a hateful newsletter dedicated to digging up dirt on the suddenly departed in order to protect his own piety. Though why bother? A Last Day that seems strange with Jesus is downright ridiculous without him.
One of my students put it this way: “However one may scornfully reject the story of eschatological zealots and religious nuts, the question remains: what replaces faith to meaningfully account for the disappearance of loved ones and an absence of purpose? The author unwittingly seems to be providing the answer. It’s just a random, sad, meaningless world that the author pictures before our eyes.”
Of course having a self-righteous minister get left behind wouldn’t be outside the realm of Biblical possibility. You may remember that Mark 13 follows on the heels of Jesus condemning a bunch of righteous ministers who managed to hoodwink a destitute widow into giving her last two cents to the church. Jesus lets loose a scathing indictment against these Pharisees, fuming about how “they shamelessly devour widows’ houses, cheating them out of their property, and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public.” Alluding to the poor widow and her mite, Jesus not only condemns the ill-advised values that motivated her action and the people who conditioned her to do it, he condemns the entire Temple-based religious system, labeling it bankrupt and doomed to destruction. Here the disciples marvel at the magnificence of the Temple—which people’s offerings had gone to construct and maintain. But Jesus replies, “Yes, look at these great buildings. They will all be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!”
Jesus’ terrifying talk of wars and earthquakes and famine was hardly the end of the world compared to the loss of Jerusalem’s Temple. For Jews of Jesus’ day, nothing could have been more terrifying that that. The Temple was the religious, political and cultural nexus of Judaism; the very locus of the good Lord’s presence on earth. As such, it was thought to be impervious. This was God’s house. How could the Temple be destroyed when the Lord was still in it?
This logic momentously amplifies what might otherwise have been considered a throwaway line in verse 1. Mark writes that Jesus “came out of the Temple.” The Lord had left the building. Within forty years, Rome would ransack Jerusalem and reduce the Temple to rubble. According to the ancient historian Josephus, a Roman siege prior to the rampage caused frantic citywide starvation—people ate their babies to survive. Factional fighting among God’s own people resulted in more casualties than the Romans inflicted once they invaded. The scene was utterly bloody and chaotic. It’s why Jesus told his followers to run for the hills.
Their signal to run was the “abomination that causes desolation,” a phrase from Daniel’s prophecy which Josephus took to be the desecration of the Temple by Jewish zealots. After a stunning upset over a Roman legion in Jerusalem—akin to Lehigh taking down Duke on Friday—these zealots presumed their victory as divine prerogative to treat the Temple as booty. They allowed criminal perpetrators of every stripe to roam free in its courts. They made a mockery of the high priest, acting as if they were the Almighty themselves. The eventual Roman backlash resulted in many Jews fleeing to the Temple presuming God would save them there—that he would never let his house be sacked by pagans. But the Temple wasn’t God’s house anymore. Jesus made that clear when he cleaned out the moneychangers—a story we’ll circle back to on Palm Sunday.
For now understand that Jesus’ cleansing the Temple wasn’t about the money. Buying and selling in the Temple was a kosher business. Since the animal sacrifices offered there had to be perfect animals; and since living any distance from Jerusalem made it tough to get your perfect animal to the Temple without dinging it up, the religious authorities arranged it so you could buy a blemish-free bull or bird at the door. Turning over the money changers’ tables turned over the whole the sacrificial system. But why? Why undo the very means of grace proscribed by the Torah? Because, Jesus said: “You have made my house a den of robbers.” If you read “den of robbers” as “hideout for evil,” then what you understand is how God’s people treated the Temple as a safe-house for their sin. They used the sacrificial system as merely a cover, treating grace as permission to do as they pleased. Asking forgiveness has always been easier than actual obedience.
The Temple never would be rebuilt. But it did get relocated. The stick and stone structure gave way to a flesh and blood embodiment of God’s presence: Jesus himself. Embodying the Temple, Jesus too was destroyed due to the sins of the people. But unlike the Temple, Jesus was raised and vindicated as the only Son of God and Savior, triumphant over sin and rebellion, over injustice and evil; victoriously seated at the Father’s side with his enemies serving as his footstool. Citing Daniel again, Jesus foretells his victory parade as a “coming in clouds with great power and glory.” In Daniel, the Son of Man is granted “authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” Jesus employs Daniel’s language to frame his own resurrection and ascension, which is how he’s able to say in verse 30: “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” The disciples indeed witnessed Jesus risen and ascended—just as some of them saw the Temple decimated too.
If this was the end of the story, we could assign Mark 13 to history as already fulfilled. The problem is that as the disciples stood and gawked at Jesus ascending to heaven in the book of Acts, two angels appeared and promised that “this same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go.” “Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” is how the Nicene Creed puts it. And Christians still recite it—even if they can’t believe it. Who can? Who would want to? Jesus says, “Beware that no one leads you astray.” “Be alert, I have told you everything.” “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” Jesus warns of persecutions and troubles his disciples will endure for being disciples. “You will be handed over to authorities and flogged. Because of me you will be hauled before governors and kings.” Not even their own homes would be safe: “Brother will betray brother and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will eventually hate you because of me.”
Everything that Jesus said would happen to the disciples of that generation did happen. And a lot of it happened to disciples of later generations. And it happens still to Christians in many parts of the world. Certainly there have been plenty of wars and rumors of war and earthquakes and famines like Jesus said. And given the current state of technology and travel, you can make a good case for “the good news being proclaimed to all nations.” It’s 80 degrees in Minnesota in March! You’d think that if Jesus was coming back, now would be as good a time as any. The apostle Paul was eager for it. So were the earliest Christians. Of course then so was radio evangelist Harold Camping who had a lot of people looking up last May and then again in October with his end times predictions. Jesus did say that God only knows the exact time and date. In the meantime, the best we can do is endure, like the grandmother of a Southern friend of mine did, with a little sign she hung over her bed that read, “Perhaps Today.” The point seems to be that every moment matters. Jesus says live your life like the servants of “a man gone on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” “The one who endures to the end will be saved.”
In 1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who conscientiously resisted the Nazi regime at the cost of his own life, wrote a little book entitled The Cost of Discipleship. In it, he attacked what he called “cheap grace,” which he labeled as that prevailing practice among Lutherans designed to keep people comfortable with their sins—not unlike the prevailing practice Jesus attacked in regard to the Temple. “Costly grace,” Bonhoeffer insisted, carried with it the obligation of obedience. He wrote, “It is only through actual obedience that a person can become liberated to believe.” Although Luther taught that faith is prior to obedience, Bonhoeffer insisted that the two are effectually simultaneous, “for faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it.” In the end, what you believe is not what you say you believe, what you believe is what you do.
The last time I preached from Mark 13, the World Trade Center in New York had just been reduced to rubble. That felt like the end of the world. The London Times ran a story about a young British man employed by a firm with offices among the upper stories of the World Trade Center. The young man was taking vacation back in the UK visiting his family because his father was terminally ill. As the time approached for the young man to return to the United States and to work, his sister pleaded with him to extend his stay as it was likely to be the last time he would see his father alive. So the young man called his boss early that fateful September morning to request a few extra days, easily understandable given the circumstances. However, his boss refused the request, adamantly demanding that he return to his job as scheduled. And as the boss insensitively laid out his reasons, the young man heard a scream and the explosion in the background. And then the phone went dead. There were no survivors from that NY office. The friend who showed me this article remarked how it’s hard to imagine someone’s last acts on earth being the denial of another a few last days with his terminally ill father.
“Beware,” Jesus said, “for you do not know when the time will come.” Every moment matters. So much of what Jesus laid out for his disciples here had been spoken already in Mark. Jesus had already mentioned his glorious return back in chapter 8 as he admonished his followers not to be ashamed of the gospel. He gave them a glimpse of his glory in chapter 9 with his transfiguration. The darkening sun and moon were stock Old Testament apocalyptic language. The abomination that causes desolation and the Son of Man coming in clouds came from Daniel, as did the elect written in the book and the description of unparalleled distress. Like the disciples, Daniel the prophet had asked of the Lord “what will the outcome of all of this be?” And the Lord replied, “Go your way Daniel, because the words are closed up and sealed until the end of time. Many will be purified, cleansed and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand.”
Therefore, Jesus says: “Let the reader understand!” The Bible does not yield up much by way of encyclopedic detail about the last day. Faith is called faith for a reason. Christ’s command to the church is for obedience, not calculation. You need not know the when or the where—only the who and what. It is God in Christ who will finish what he began at creation and redeemed at Easter. It is Jesus who pulls everything toward its glorious Omega.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “It is only when one loves life and the world so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world. It is only when one submits to obedience that one can speak of grace, and only when one sees the anger and the wrath of God hanging like grim realities over the heads of one’s enemies that one can know something of what it means to love and forgive them.” A British prisoner described Bonhoeffer in his last days as one who “always seemed to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and a deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive.” The same prisoner wrote that when he was taken away to his execution, Bonhoeffer said, “This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.”