As Jesus left the Temple, one of his disciples said, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings.” No wonder this disciple burst out in admiration of the Temple. It was one of the architectural wonders of the Roman Empire. In sheer size the overall area of the Temple dwarfed public buildinsg even in Rome itself. Devout Jews like this disciple were proud of it and felt that the power structure it represented was impregnable and eternal.
The Temple’s western wall (now called the wailing wall) is all that is left of this huge Temple. I was there at the Wall and even yet it is impressive, the stones are maaive.
How shocked the disciples must have been with Jesus’ next words, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone wil be left here upon another, all will be thrown down.” Sometime later they are looking at the temple again, but this time Jesus is sitting opposite the temple, he has physically separated himself from that great structure.
Peter, James, John, and Andrew ask, “Tell us when will this be and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
Then Jesus offers this reassurance, “When you hear of wars and rumors of war do not be alarmed, the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes, there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
Who isn’t awed by magnificent buildings? The Eiffel Tower in France, Big Ben in London, The Capital Building in Washington, DC, our beautiful National Cathedral also in Washington, and our own Space Needle in Seattle featured earlier this week on the CBS morning news show.
I can believe most of these magnificent structures will go on after I die. But I don’t want to believe in an age in which all I find awesome and familiar in this world will be gone, everything gone?
Wars and rumor of wars have abounded in my lifetime. We’ve lived through these rumors of wars. Now it’s Syria, a war, a flood of refugees and destruction, images of treasured buildings lying in rubble. Echoes of the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70CE when all those building the disciples admired became rubble.
It has been conventional Christian wisdom to understand Jesus’ words about terrible times, as pointing to the end of the world and the end of history. Both of which would in some way reopen as a strange new kind of world.
What if Jesus meant us to understand that empires and temples and traditions all rise and fall, all come and go? That the familiar and treasured do end, but without shattering the nature of creation or the reign of God? What if Jesus meant us to understand that God is beyond all that? And the fullness of time is both within these times and beyond their ticking time ends?
Suppose Jesus meant us to understand that magnificent achievements of empires cannot begin to represent what is really eternal? What if Jesus is pointing to the power of beginning again so the real of God, whose creation is fixed and lasting, but endlessly evolving?
America is a creation of immigrants who arrived here when the life they had known was shattered. They arrived survivors of an old world now in rubble who would build a new world using their scars to illuminate possibilities that do not lead to death.
From every part of this world they have come bringing remembered food, songs, prayers, customs, and worries. Change the details a bit and the survivors of unimaginable horrors arrive to become new people in a new world.
Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes, there will be famines. We’ve seen all this come to pass. And we’ve seen how through it the world has been reborn.
It takes incredible courage. Even more than courage, it takes faith to begin life again. Ask the wounded vets whose shattered bodies endure unceasing pain. Ask middle aged Americans who lost good jobs seven years ago in the recession and struggle to find a decent job that pays a living wage. Ask people struggling with addiction. How about those who lost homes in the West Coast fires?
The language of end times gets a particular workout in election times. Candidates predict the rise and fall of nations, proclaiming themselves the ones who can produce the rise and prevent the falls.
We are challenged as Jesus said, to discern good shepherds and dismiss the rest. Environmental disasters, the current end time story that grips us all, threatens to alter something far more essential than a landmark building it threatens the very world around us. And even environmental disasters need us to have the courage not to give into cynicism or despair.
When nations gather to address climate change, in Jesus’ words, “This is but the beginning of birthpangs, urge us to invest our awe in hope, not in the old stone structures of the past.” In these old structures, beloved as they are, we heard rumors of war. From them wars came about. They cannot help us though, in them we have written the history of vast mistakes. But there are new possibilities for the future, wonderful life, which is never made of stone but is born of the power of life itself to dream dreams and see visions of God’s world. Jesus’ eye never wavered from this vision, not the end of time but the fullness of time. “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” AMEN
Attributed: Nancy Rockwell