Here we are talking about end times again. We’ve been through the “Left Behind” series hooplah. Now people are excited about the fact that the Mayan calendar stops on December 21, 2012--so much so that there is a new movie about it and NASA has deemed it necessary to debunk the idea that some asteroid or shadow planet is going to strike the earth and cause all kinds of havoc. It fascinates me what people will focus on when they are depressed by corruption, a bad economy, and moral decay. Where is that little girl with the curly hair who sings and dances?
In the third century there was a great theologian, Origen, who wedded Greek philosophy with Christian theology. Origen was a Greek who was first a Christian. He got into trouble over his ideas about the second coming and was labeled a heretic. Some modern-day theologians think this was a mistake. What motivated the church to see Origen’s ideas about the Second Advent as heresy?
So, what is Jesus talking about in today’s Gospel? Well, I think he is being intentionally vague to make a point. The 13th chapter of Mark is a collection of things Jesus said about the “end times” and some of it is material added to meet the needs of the community to which it was written. Mark was written soon after Peter’s death, a few years before the destruction of the temple which Jesus predicted right at the beginning of this story.
The disciple said, “Teacher, look at that stonework! Those buildings!” It would have been impressive for sure. Tacitus, the Roman historian, described the temple itself in glowing terms. He described the enormous size of the stones used, the marble columns that stood 37 ½ feet high, each carved from a single piece of marble, and the thick gold-plate overlays that dazzled the onlooker when they reflected the sun’s rays. Yet, anything manmade can be destroyed, especially when the destruction is intentional.
There was pride in this disciple’s voice. “See how awesome we Jews are-we have built this wonderful temple and it will last forever.” And, Jesus burst his bubble, “There is not a stone in the whole works that is not going to end up in a heap of rubble.”
The Jews believed in their dreams of the end-times. They viewed the world as a corrupt place that could only be improved by total and utter destruction. Out of this destruction would rise a new world incorruptible. Jesus was speaking as Jews had spoken for generations.
How do we reconcile these statements in Mark 13 with Jesus’ message of grace and hope, with Jesus’ message that the Kingdom of God was already here? If it was true, why would the world still need to be destroyed?
Jesus’ statement about the destruction of the temple worried some of the apostles, so four of them--Peter, James, John and Andrew, spoke to him in private. They were sitting on the Mount of Olives within full view of the temple mount. “Tell us, when is this going to happen? What sign will we get…” And, Jesus told them, “Watch out for doomsday deceivers. Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities claiming, ‘I’m the one.’ They will deceive a lot of people. When you hear of wars and rumored wars, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history, and no sign of the end. Nation will fight nation…over and over. … But these things are nothing compared to what’s coming.” [All Gospel quotes are from The Message by Eugene H. Peterson]
Of the four apostles in this story, John is probably the only one who was alive in the year 70 CE. All of them were accustomed to using the temple as a place of gathering and worship. Living every day life without the temple would be radically different. As you know, the destruction of the temple did not bring the second coming nor did it bring the end times. It did change the way a Jew practiced his or her religion. Jesus was vague about the end times because it wasn’t his focus
--he didn’t want the apostles to focus there, either.
In Bible study on Wednesday, I made the comment that perhaps we shouldn’t be so focused on the second coming--we need to remind ourselves what is really important is that Jesus came. What is really important is he taught us how to live and how to treat one another.
If you look at the Hebrew scriptures, you see time and again that the Jews strayed from God’s ways and became corrupted by the evil in the world. In the stories, the people pay for their corruption by being exiled. Jerusalem was destroyed and the people waited often generations before they were allowed to return home. In the Jewish dreams of the end times, the corrupted world is destroyed and a new world, a new Jerusalem comes into being. In this new world all will be well and there will be no more evil or sin. All the world will recognize the Jewish God as the only god. The Jewish people will be recognized as the chosen people of God. It sounds much like our own concept of the second coming except we see God as more universal.
So, what were Origen’s ideas about the second coming? Why were they deemed heresy? Origen saw the second coming as something that happened in the spiritual plane rather than the physical. Origen believed that the second coming happened over and over again when Christ entered the hearts and souls of the pious. The second coming was both individual and universal. Individuals are fulfilled in their souls when Christ comes to them.
Origen believed that hell is experienced when we are separated from God--when we fall into sin. As we experience the despair of sin-that separation from God, our souls are purged of evil. Origen believed that all people would become spiritual when physical existence came to an end. Origen did believe the world as we know it would end and out of that end all people would know Jesus.
One reason Origen was denounced by the church was that so many of the clergy of his time liked the idea of a literal second coming when all those “other people” would have to pay the price for their sins. In other words, they didn’t want to share heaven with everybody--they wanted it all to themselves. If the church endorsed Origen’s ideas, who would be in and who would be out?
I like this line from Hebrews 10 according to The Message paraphrase. It speaks to the old temple practices and how Jesus died once for all and then it states, “The Holy Spirit confirms this: This new plan I’m making with Israel isn’t going to be written on paper, isn’t going to be chiseled in stone; This time ‘I’m writing out the plan in them, carving it on the lining of their hearts.’ He concludes, I’ll forever wipe the slate clean of their sins. …
Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps his word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worship together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.”
Well, whether the big day is close at hand or not, we can continue in this community described by the writer of Hebrews. A community confident in the sacrifice of Christ, a community confident that Christ has come to each of us, that Christ will always come when we gather when we are at work and when we are alone. What is important is that we encourage one another to exhibit love to the world so Christ can come again and again into the hearts of all people.