Birth Pangs (Mark 13.1-8) [Sermon 11-15-2015]

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November 13, 2015 by jmar198013

The manuscript of my sermon for this coming Sunday, 11-15-2015.

The lessons for this week are:

Daniel 12.1-3

Psalm 113

Hebrews 10.11-25

Mark 13.1-8 (preaching passage)



I don’t know for sure what made Jesus’ disciple blurt out: Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!, as they left the temple.

It’s like the guy had totally checked out for the last two chapters.

In Mark 11.15-19, Jesus had stormed the temple and disrupted the day’s business. Chasing out the sellers of sacrificial animals, overturning their money tables. Physically blocking people from entering. Shouting: Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks. The older versions say, den of thieves. The temple authorities were fleecing the sheep.

In the next chapter, Mark 12.38-44—we looked at this last week—Jesus tore into the Jerusalem legal experts, who were in cahoots with the temple authorities. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, he accused; and to show off they say long prayers.

And then, as if to prove his accusation, he pointed to a poor widow, tossing her last two coins into the temple treasury. He sighed a lament: she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.

The temple, for Jesus, was a hideout for crooks, who cheat widows out of their homes, then take everything they have, even what they need to live on.

I’m not sure exactly why the disciple decided to say, Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings! But I suspect that this disciple was just dazzled. He saw the magnificence, the splendor, the spectacle of the temple. He saw power and authority. He saw the very presence of God. And he was awestruck. Overcome. Dazzled.

What that disciple couldn’t see was the price those buildings and stones commanded. He didn’t see the toll it took on actual people. He didn’t see the lies and the abuse of power and exploitation of the poor behind those buildings and stones.

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The polished limestone platform; the white marble walls and blue marble floors; the radiant golden overlays—they whitewashed a multitude of sins.

And the disciples may have been dazzled by it. But Jesus was not.

Jesus saw through the big, the bold, the shiny. The gimmicks and the grand speeches. The temple—God’s palace—had been taken over by crooks who stole from widows.

It is was no longer hospitable to God. God couldn’t live there anymore.

Jesus knew what had to happen to the buildings and the stones—the marble and the gold and the polished limestone. Do you see these great buildings? Jesus asked. Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.

God wasn’t just going to look the other way. The disciples couldn’t see through the splendor of the temple. But God could.

What about us? Are there structures, institutions, systems—in our lives, our world, our churches—that have dazzled us? Have we been so enthralled by bigger and brighter and bolder and better, that we have been blinded to the human toll—the price we have to pay, or others have to pay on our behalf—to keep them going?

Are there places in our lives, our world, even our churches, where God just can’t live anymore?

And what will we do when they come crashing down—when not one stone is left upon another?

The end of the world

Mark tells us that Jesus went and sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple. As is so often the case with Mark, the detail about where people are at a particular moment isn’t trivial. It’s not stage direction. It means something.

Jesus is over-and-against the temple. He is opposed to the temple. He’s sitting on the Mount of Olives, his face set like flint against the temple. Brooding. Seething.

I suspect the disciples could see that he was in a mood. Probably none of them wanted to mess with him. But they needed answers.

Mark tells us that Peter, James, John, and Andrew were the ones to approach Jesus and break the awkward silence. To ask what was on everyone’s mind.

Peter, James, and John—the usual suspects. Plus one: Andrew. When the usually laid-back, go-with-the-flow Andrew comes with them, that’s Mark’s cue to us that this is serious. The disciples are freaked out.

And why shouldn’t they be? For a first-century Jew the end of the temple was the end of the world.

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The temple was the living, active, visible, tangible sign of God’s presence with his people.

It’s where you came to dedicate your children. Where you came to be purified. Where your sins were atoned. Where you went three times a year to celebrate the three festivals—Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles—that told the story of your people. The stories that told you who you were.

Your people’s identity—and your identity as a person—was totally bound up in that temple.

The temple was the center of their universe. Remove it, and their world collapses.

Their world had come to an end once before, you know. In 587 BC, the Babylonians had sacked Jerusalem, annihilated the temple, and exiled everybody who was anybody to Babylon.

We can’t possibly survive a second end of the world! I’m sure that’s what the disciples were thinking.

So as Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives, staring daggers at 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?”

What they were asking for was a heads-up before their world came to an end. Because when the temple came crashing down, everything stable and familiar and good and right and holy was coming down with it.

What about you? What about me? What about us? What about our temples, our shrines? Is there anything—other than God—that, if it changes or is done away with, poses a threat to our identity? To our very existence?

What does the end of your world look like?

Is it the death of a spouse? Is it the loss of a job? The end of a relationship? A challenge to some doctrine or practice or tradition of the church, that you hold dear? The decline of the nuclear family? The wrong man—or woman—moving into the White House? Plain red coffee cups at Starbucks?

And again, I ask: what will we do when whatever it is comes crashing down—when not one stone is left upon another?

Excursus: The “Little Apocalypse”

So Peter, James, John—even Andrew!—grill Jesus for answers. When is our world ending? What do we need to be watching for?

As is so often the case, Jesus refuses to give his disciples a direct answer. Instead, he gives these warnings: 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.

Bible scholars often call Mark 13 “the Little Apocalypse.” Question: When someone talks about the apocalypse, what images come to your mind?

Usually, we use the phrase apocalyptic to describe the aftermath of something earth-shattering. Nuclear fallout. The Rapture. Think Mad Max or Wall-E or I am Legend or Left Behind. The point is, when we think of “the apocalypse,” we are conditioned to imagine scorched earth and bodies piled up in the streets. Cities in rubble. Poisoned water, three-eyed fish. People killing each other over rat meat. Maybe some zombies for good measure. Chaos and destruction.

But that’s not what the Greek word we transliterate into English as apocalypse means. Apocalypse means unmasking. Tearing off the veil. Unwrapping the presents. What we postmoderns annoyingly refer to as the reveal.

Every time Sherlock Holmes or Father Brown have chased down every red herring, found their way out of every dead end, and solved the mystery—that’s an apocalypse.

In The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy finally meets the little old man behind the curtain—that’s an apocalypse.

Whenever Scooby Doo and the gang yanks off the crook’s monster mask to reveal their true identity; and the crook grumbles: And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids—that’s an apocalypse.

An apocalypse happens whenever the old exterior is torn away to reveal the truth. That’s all it means: to reveal what is hidden. The actual title of the Book of Revelation is The Apocalypse of John.

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All the scary stuff you think of when you hear the word apocalypse: the wars, the despots, the totalitarian regimes, the famines, the earthquakes, the “it won’t be water / but fire next time”—that’s just the pulling back of the curtain. The mask being peeled off. The veil being torn away. A season of confusion and chaos between the old thing and the new thing. A time when the foundations are shaken, and whatever isn’t real or true or good or holy or permanent is burned away to make room for what is.

An apocalypse is not just about destruction; it’s about renewal. Rebirth. Re-creation. Rebuilding.

What’s so terrifying about an apocalypse is that so many of us are so invested in the old ways that we can only see the new as a threat. When the old thing—whether it’s the temple, some doctrine, some way of doing church, some political idea, some relationship—comes crashing down, if we are fully invested in it—if we have made that the thing that defines us—then we go down with it, too.

Brothers and sisters, I ask: When the foundations are shaken—when not one stone is left upon another—what will be left of us? Will we be around to welcome the new thing being revealed, or will we be swept away with the old?

The beginning of the birth pangs

Jesus had his own metaphor for the process. He warned of war and conflict. Of false starts and dead-end promises. Of a world plunged into chaos. He spoke about the shaking of foundations. Of people who were hungry. And he said: This—all this conflict and chaos and confusion and hunger—This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

The opportunists, the con men. The wars and rumors of wars. The nations rising against nations. Even the earthquakes—which I suspect may be a metaphor for major shakeups in our world, in our lives—we’re shaken, we’re rocked, we’re broken up. And the famines—which may refer to hunger caused by people hoarding. We see that in our world, don’t we? Or the famine may be people hungry for justice, for peace, for community, for compassion. Hungry for what is real and true and good and right and holy and permanent. These aren’t signs of the end of the world. They’re the birth pangs that have to happen for a new world to be born.

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I’m a dude, so I’ve never given birth. And I never will. Same went for Jesus. But Jesus did know that birth is an incredibly painful process. There are times you’re tempted to give up hope, to just give up it hurts so bad. But you have to go on because this child has to be born. And it can last a long time.

This isn’t the only place in the New Testament where we see the metaphor of a woman in labor. In Rom. 8.22, Paul says: We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And he goes on to say that it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait. But Paul also says: We were saved in hope, and if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.

And so church—I ask us: Why do we sometimes listen to people who claim to come in Jesus’ name, but only peddle fear, mistrust, and discord? Why are we often taken in, nudged off task, by the Chicken Littles out there for whom the sky is always falling? What if the sky needs to fall to reveal a bluer, deeper, clearer sky? Jesus told us:

Beware that no one leads you astray. Yes, brothers and sisters—our foundations are being shaken. Conflicts are a-brewing. People are hungry. But Jesus said not to be led astray—not to be led into fear or despair or cynicism—by any of that. Because they’re all just the beginning of the birth pangs.


Jesus and Paul conspire to make the church into a hopeful, patient midwife. One of our tasks as the church is to encourage this new life, this new creation, this new world—our hope. God invites us to participate in the birthing process of a new creation!

Going back to Jesus and his disciples in Mark 13, they could only see the destruction of their temple as the end of their world. As an unspeakable and senseless tragedy. For Jesus, it was a necessary contraction, a forceful pushing toward the birth of the new world. The temple as it was could not stand in the world to come, because it was corrupt. It stole from the poor. It cheated widows. It excluded people God longed to bring into his family. It hid God behind a veil, and God wants to be among the people.

It had to come down. It has no place in the hopeful new life God is forming.

This new world we hope for, that we patiently await, that we endure the birth pangs of our time to see born—we caught glimpses of it in some of our readings this morning. It is a world where, as Psalm 113 put it: God lifts up the poor from the dirt and raises up the needy from the garbage pile to seat them with leaders—with the leaders of his own people! Where people who have been abused and forgotten and deprived justice—deprived of their own dreams!—are welcomed and honored. A world where God nests the once barren woman at home—now a joyful mother with children! A place where people who were empty and alone are given a home and a family. A world where, as Daniel 12 foretold, many of those who sleep in the dusty land will wake up. A place where people we had written off are restored and gathered in. Finally. And forever.

A world where only what is good and right and just and holy and beautiful and permanent endures.

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And so church, I ask you, I ask me, I ask us: What is there among us—in our lives, in our church, in our world—that will not endure in this new world that is being born? What are we doing about it? What can you and I and we do to help midwife this new creation?

Because those are the things Jesus doesn’t want us being led astray from as the foundations are shaken. Those are the things that will nurse creation in her labor. Those are the things that will endure, that will stand, in this new world that is being born.


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