Be Watchful

Primary Scripture Mark 13:1-8, 24-37

The first time I visited Washington DC, I was a senior in High School. I remember standing near the Washington Monument and looking down toward the Lincoln Memorial. When you are standing there, looking across that reflecting pool without much structure to help with scale, it’s hard to gauge just how far away these buildings are.

Paul and I re-learned that lesson a couple of years ago when we walked about 10 miles around the big loop – including the Jefferson memorial and all those glorious cherry trees. The route we took that time actually meant we couldn’t see Lincoln until we came out from behind the MLK and Korean War memorials and through construction going on and then some trees.  

Then there it was.   Taking up the entire view.

Maybe because we usually see it in miniature on pennies, I was again surprised by the height of the steps. And the size of the marble slabs that make up the floors and walls. Not to mention the size of the slabs needed to carve out a 19 x 19 foot statue to put in the middle of a room with columns that are 50 foot tall.  

Just huge.

The ancient world had similar buildings and memorials. Practically every major city would have had prominent examples of monumental stone architecture, almost all of it with civic, religious, and economic connotations. In fact, the temple in Jerusalem was mentioned in non-sacred texts for its beauty. There were giant temples throughout the Greek city states honoring their gods – like Poseidon or Apollo.

The Greeks themselves were known to remark on stonework they found as they moved into areas abandoned by bronze age cultures. They actually called the style “cyclopean.” As in, you’d need a Cyclops to move and arrange stones of that size.  

Makes sense to me. Probably made sense to Jesus’ friends, as well

I read, during my research this week, that many temples were dismantled by the Romans during their occupation of Greece. The building materials were transported to other parts of the empire and used in other building projects.

Now, I don’t know if Jesus and his followers were aware of the Romans’ practice of pulling these structures apart, but it’s certainly possible that by the time Mark’s gospel was written and distributed, the temple would be under threat of such action or had already been destroyed. But when today’s passage begins, those days are decades away. The walls are tall and sleek. The stones are in place and the workmanship is worthy of admiration.

And maybe, just maybe, after a long day filled with debates, and trying to keep up with Jesus’ teaching, and a little concern over what might become of him, or all of them…
Maybe someone was ready for a little small talk about something that felt solid and sure and a little bit permanent.

And, as he was wont to do, Jesus brought that line of thinking to a screeching halt.

Yes, fellows, take a good look at those buildings.  Not one stone will be left on another.

Then on he walks.

At this point, I can’t help but imagine the disciples watching him walk away.

Stunned, once again, into a moment of silence and stillness.
Blinking. Frowning. Looking from one face to another.
And finally walking very quickly to catch up with the Rabbi who both inspired and terrified them.

Peter, James, John and Andrew catch him later, so they can chat privately. They are sitting opposite the Temple, on the Mount of Olives, perhaps trying to imagine it dismantled and dilapidated.  Definitely concerned by what they heard.

They don’t doubt his words, but they want to know when. They want to know how they will know that whatever event might lead to this unthinkable end to the Temple might come. Tell us what sign we can expect, they ask.

Jesus answers…
Beware that no one leads you astray
Watch out that you are not misled
Be aware,
Be on guard
Be watchful.
There will be people who claim to be the messiah, and they will lead others astray.  

Jesus uses language from the prophets Isaiah, Haggai and Zechariah to describe times that will mark the beginning of labor pains… The birthing of this new age.

The passages that he echoes from Isaiah are warnings of God’s judgment on God’s people who do not understand what it means to be faithful. They call to mind the northern and southern kingdoms as the children of Israel followed king after horrible king farther and farther from the potential and promise of King David.

Jesus calls to mind the warnings in Haggai’s word that our long-suffering, patient God would shake the sky and the earth and the sea, as well as the nations, to remind the people who rules over all.

These are words that point to God’s power, God’s will, God’s activity in the world.

Jesus – who overturned tables in the Temple Courts –  is one with the God who will dismantle the temple  just as intentionally as the Romans dismantled the temples of the greeks and of other peoples they occupied throughout their spreading empire.

Jesus seems to have made clear in his discussions with the chief priests, scribes and other leaders that the temple was no longer serving its purpose as the house of God, a place of prayer and worship. Its destruction – by means of Rome or earthquake or raging Cyclops  – should be understood as an act of God, flowing out of God’s judgment.

So yes, take a good look at that building, guys. Those stones are NOT what God’s kingdom is built upon.
What seems grand, imposing and powerful in this world
What seems permanent in this world…
will, under God’s hand,  become rubble.

And remember, for Mark, the temple was a symbol of those who worked within, those who were charged with caring for God’s beloved children, those who had chosen instead to devour widow’s houses, those who prayed long prayers and sought out the best seats at festivals and feasts.

So I wonder, might Mark be speaking less about dismantling of the temple building and more about the dismantling the leadership structures of the people within the temple?

Could the conflicts between the factions already within the Jewish community and rise of the zealots be the wars and rumors of war of which Jesus is warning?

To be honest, I’m not sure that an earthquake could shake them to the core any more than the arrival of the one true Messiah.

Watch for the signs, Jesus says, be awake and aware
Something is on the horizon for a world in need of resurrection,
In need of a renewed covenant
In need of reconciliation that extends to all creation
In desperate need of grace.

Remember how Mark’s gospel account started?

We saw John the Baptist, preparing the people for the coming of the Messiah. Then came the display of God’s power as the skies were split and the Spirit descended at the moment of Jesus’ baptism. Not long after that John was arrested, and Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.  

He said  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The Kingdom of God has come near.

And now, as we move deeper into the week of Jesus’ passion, Mark is preparing us for an even greater display of God’s power, an even clearer affirmation of Jesus as the Christ, the messiah, the son of God.

We most often read Mark’s apocalyptic language, thinking it points to some distant age, the next time Jesus comes. If that is the case, why would he include this discourse at this point in the narrative?

Some commentators challenge us to consider an alternate – or potentially dual meaning: Mark may also be pointing to the events that unfold during Holy Week as world-altering events, some say they indeed mark the end of an age.   

The signs are there, if we’re watchful…
The sun will be darkened at the time of his crucifixion.
The temple curtain will be torn, altering the temple and creating a new center point for the worshipping community.
The centurion – the representative of Rome  – will say, truly this man is the son of God.

Stay awake, Jesus says…   

It is like a man who takes a trip and leaves someone to house-sit, trusting that they will stay alert and ready for the homeowner to return.

Stay awake
The moment of his return might be evening…. At a gathering around the table for a meal

Be watchful
It might be at midnight… in a garden where other friends struggle to stay awake and pray

Be alert
It might be at cockcrow… that moment of realization you denied the truth of who you are, who you belong to

Stay on your guard
It could be at dawn… when the light of the rising sun can’t begin to compare to the Light of the World risen from the tomb

Be watchful next week, listen beyond the Hosannas.
And be watchful as we wait now, as our sisters and brothers waited before us.
We don’t know the hour of Christ’s eventual return, but we do know the work that we are called to in the waiting…

To be awake
Watching for those who are hungry and thirsty, in need of bread and the Bread of Life, in need of water and the Living Water
Listening for the cries of the oppressed and captive, in need of freedom in Christ and liberation from structures that demean and dehumanize

To be alert
Listening and trusting God to speak into our brokenness and neediness, waiting as long as it takes to hear grace and guidance
Watching for signs of resurrection in the church, giving space for the Spirit to breathe new life and fresh passion into our midst

To be on our guard
Watching over one another
Listening to one another
In love.

Stay awake, watch, listen.


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