A healing pain

As [Jesus] 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.”

Rick Steves – host of the PBS’ Rick Steves’ Europe – was in Vienna, Austria in an episode of his show. Rick gave a commentary on the many magnificent imperial buildings of what was once the capital city of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, the cornerstones were revealing. Many of the buildings dated from the late Eighteenth Century. The royal House of Hapsburg, and the people of the empire, had no way of knowing then that the outbreak of war in 1914 was to be the death knell for the empire; and that by 1918 the empire would fall. Looks could be deceptive.

In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus taught that looks could be deceptive. The imperious (and untrustworthy) scribes were admired: the poor widow was ignored. Yet the widow’s trust in God was sure, and her giving generous, for “she out of her poverty has put in [to the treasury] everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12:44).

In Mark 11:12-14 Jesus curses the fig tree: it has leaves but bears no fruit. The scribes have “leaves” but do not bear spiritual fruit; and neither does the temple in Jerusalem. The inner spirit of Judaism is not in question: the institutionalism of the temple, is. We know that the former is the case, because Jesus reflects in Mark 13:3-8 an apocalyptic account fully in keeping with the expectations of First Century Judaism. We know the latter to be the case, because Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple.

The Temple was a symbol of power and prestige, and the center of the divine presence; the contact point between God and God’s people; the focus of true worship. Now, Jesus is revealed to be the focus of true worship, and the true contact point as God incarnate (in the flesh). The great stones of the Temple look as if they will last forever – especially in the rural eyes of awestruck Galilean pilgrims – but looks can be deceptive. In 70AD the Temple was completely destroyed by the Romans in the decisive act of the First Jewish-Roman War.

This week’s Gospel reading moves on to the Mount of Olives – the place where Ezekiel saw God’s glory ascend from Jerusalem (Ezekiel 9), and where Zachariah prophesied that God’s warfare and final victory would be won (Zachariah 14). From the Mount of Olives Jesus warns the disciples (and us) that tribulation will come, but to remain calm and faithful – for God’s rescue is sure!

My mom is a woman full of wise sayings, one of which is, “It’s all right – it’s a healing pain.” It comes down to the difference between a pain that is intractable – severing no purpose whatsoever – and a pain that has an end-point in an anticipated healing. Mark 13:8 describes the turmoil and pain of a fallen world as being far from purposeless. If God’s promises are sure; if God’s justice and mercy are dependable; and if the Messiah proclaims that this is all just a beginning, pointing towards a victory; then the tumult of a broken world can truly be described as birthing pangs that lead towards new life.
Pastor Ken+