Mark 13:1-8, 24-37
Like allergies, spring break, the NCAA tournament, and mud, another rite of spring is upon us: Daylight Savings Time. It began in World War I as an energy-saving measure and has become widespread in more recent years, with just a few US states opting out. Less electric lighting is required in the evenings, and Daylight Savings Time saves about 0.03% on the average electric bill. Which doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up and is enough to power 122,000 homes for a year.
There are often calls to end daylight savings time. For some it just seems like a confusing and unnecessary hassle. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce always fights these efforts, with the reasoning that if it is still light outside, people are more likely to stop and shop on the way home from work. They are probably right. Golf courses make an estimated $400 million in annual revenue thanks to the extended hours, and sales of barbecue grills and outdoor recreational equipment benefit from the time change.
On the other hand, one study showed a spike in heart attacks in the days after the time change, and one researcher reported a 5 to 7% increase in traffic fatalities in the 3 days following the switch. CNBC reported that the stock market historically does worse in the day after the time change, which it speculates may come in part from traders not getting enough sleep.
Well, you may be a little more tired than usual this morning, but I applaud you for getting up and making it here on time, or at least in time for the sermon. As it turns out, Jesus has a word for us in today’s scripture: “Stay awake.” Stay awake.
I have to confess that Mark chapter 13, sometimes called Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” is not my favorite passage in the Bible. I have studiously avoided dealing with such apocalyptic passages that can be confusing and lead to all kinds of wild speculation. I have been a local church pastor for close to 25 years and I preach over 40 sermons a year, so I have preached more than 1000 sermons, and as far as I can tell, I have never preached on this passage before. So – I guess it’s time. We have been following the story line through Mark’s gospel, and now we come to this strange and troubling text.
Jesus has been in the temple complex, made up of several buildings and outdoor areas. He has been teaching and responding to questions and detractors. He has just made an observation about the widow who gave her two coins, which we looked at last week, and as Jesus and his disciples left the temple, some of his disciples looked up and commented on what a magnificent building it was. “Look at those massive stones,” they say. “Look at these awesome buildings.”
They were not just making idle chatter. The disciples were rural folks, from Galilee, not big-city types from Jerusalem. The temple was an impressive structure that dominated the Jerusalem skyline. It was not as large or extravagant as the first temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, but the temple that was rebuilt in 515 BC after the return of the Jews from Babylon was nevertheless an impressive structure. It took 23 years to build it. Herod had made improvements and renovations to the temple just a few years before, in 20 BC.
Like everything in the ancient world, construction was done with manual labor. There was no power equipment; they did not have diesel powered cranes all over the place like we have had in Campustown the last couple of years. It was and still is amazing to see such structures built in antiquity and to contemplate how in the world they moved such massive stones and built such impressive structures.
Micah Kiehl reports that when later Greeks saw the stonework from abandoned Bronze Age settlements, they called the style “cyclopean” because, to their eye, the only way such large stones could have been moved and arranged would be if a Cyclops had done it. Many of the stones used in construction of the temple were about 2.5 x 3.5 x 15 feet and weighed about 28 tons, but some weighed well over 100 tons; scholars estimate that the largest weighed around 600 tons. Now think about moving and setting a 600 ton stone in the ancient world. The temple in Jerusalem was a monumental structure. The disciples, being out-of-towners, didn’t just see this kind of thing every day. They comment on what a magnificent structure it was. What massive stones! What ginormous buildings!
But Jesus is not thinking about stonework or architecture right now. He is in the midst of the last week of his life. His arrest and death are near. He says, “Yeah, these are big buildings. And guess what: it is all coming down. Not one stone will be left upon another.”
From there, it only gets worse. False prophets will lead people astray. There will be arrests and persecutions. There will be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famine, suffering, the sun will go dark and the heavens will be shaken. And then the Son of Man will come in great glory.”
We looked at this passage of scripture in Sunday School last week, and since then, I have had that song going in my head: “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” Images of wild-eyed prophets on street corners with signs saying “The End is Near” come to mind. Preachers warning about the end of the world. Folks who have overdosed on Bible prophecy announcing the day and time that the world will end, and how the elect (which always includes them) will be saved while there will literally be hell to pay for everybody else.
But it’s not just that kind of religious mindset that sees an end of the world coming. This is a time of anxiety for an awful lot of us. Global warming, rising sea levels, increases in extreme weather. Terrorism in the Middle East that spills over to our part of the world. The plague of gun violence and mass shootings. A political system that seems gridlocked. Increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots. Strange new diseases. And as our text puts it, “wars and rumors of war.”
A lot of people are anxious. A lot of people are worried. In times of trouble and stress and persecution and great fear, apocalyptic literature and language is often employed.
One commentator said, “Contrary to what you have been led to believe, when Jesus goes apocalyptic, and talks of the end, he’s not predicting the future; he is speaking of the precariousness of the present. This temple, this world is not as stable, not as eternal as it appears.”
Scholars believe that Mark was written sometime around 70 AD. Guess what happened in 70 AD? The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. It was a cataclysmic event for Israel. The temple was the center of worship and national life, and it was a powerful symbol of the nation, going back centuries, back to the temple that preceded it and all the way to King Solomon. Now, there was not one stone left upon another.
Without the temple, it was hard to imagine that they could even exist as a people. Take 9/11 and multiply it a hundredfold, and you start to get a sense of what the loss of the temple meant to the national consciousness.
It really was The End of the World as They Knew It. And this is exactly what Jesus is saying. This temple, this magnificent structure that holds so much meaning, that represents so much – it is just a building. It is just a building made of stones, even if they are big stones, and it is all coming down.
But Jesus is saying more than that. He is working on more than one level here. Jesus has three different times spoken of the destruction of the temple that is his own body, and of rising again after three days. After he is arrested, accusers will conflate the two temples, saying “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’”
While Jesus may have been speaking of the temple in Jerusalem, he is also speaking of himself. Much of the language and imagery of this chapter comes to pass in Jesus’ passion and death. Jesus says “Stay awake” – which he will repeat to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. The sun will turn dark – which we read as happening during the crucifixion. The temple will be destroyed – which happened in 70 AD, but which in a sense takes place when Jesus is crucified, as the curtain of the temple is town in two. And the glory of God will be seen – as voiced by the Roman centurion, who said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
This was as much about the present as it was the future.
Jesus is near the end. And when you are near the end, there is a lot of fear. There is a lot of anxiety. It can be very painful.
In one way or another, we all know about this. We have all experienced this. We have all experienced those times when it seems to be “The End of the World as We Know It.”
You lose a job. Immediately there are concerns over paying your bills, but it is more than that. Your job may have been a big part of your identity, and you are not sure what you are going to do.
As a child, your parents tell you that you are moving to a new town, and you will have to leave behind your school and your friends and everything you know. It’s terrible.
You have done well at Iowa State and you are ready to graduate. But as great as this is, there is also loss. You will be leaving behind your friends and the world you have known and moving on to a new place and a new stage of life. It's the end of an era.
You receive a difficult diagnosis. It hits you like a ton of bricks. In an instant you know that life will literally never be the same.
A relationship is fractured beyond repair; you realize that you have burned a bridge and cannot go back.
You go through a breakup or a divorce, and your future will take a different course from what you had planned and hoped for.
A parent, or spouse, or friend dies. A child dies. The world will never be the same.
We have all experienced, in different ways and to different degrees, “The End of the World as We Know It.” We read this chapter in Mark, and it seems very dark. It is depressing. There is a reason that a lot of preachers are not eager to preach on it. And yet, here it is. And yet, there is hope to be found here.
William Willimon told about a student mission trip to Honduras. A group of was working in an impoverished village, running a makeshift health clinic. Each night they built a fire and sat around the fire singing with villagers. One night a student had the bright idea that they all go around and share their favorite Bible verse. Of course, some didn’t have much of a favorite verse – some mentioned John 3:16 or “The Lord is my shepherd.” Some quoted other verses. And then a Honduran woman said through an interpreter that her favorite verse was from Mark 13. “Not one stone will be left, there will be earthquakes and famine and fire.” She said, “That passage has always been such a comfort to me.”
Willimon was stunned. How could this possibly be a comfort? It sounds more like Jesus having a really bad day. How could a warning of coming apocalypse be comforting?
But then a nurse sitting told Willimon, “I was talking with that woman. She has given birth five times and three of her children have died due to malnutrition.”
We hear that God is going to dismantle all of this, upend the status quo, and it sounds frightening. We have nice homes and decent jobs and retirement accounts. We are relatively confortable; the way things are is not too bad for most of us. But for this woman, the status quo has been hell. And the notion that God was going to end all of this and turn this world upside down was welcome. It was hopeful. It sounded like gospel.
That is where she found hope in Mark’s Apocalypse. But how about us?
Jesus says that when all of this happens, it will be but the beginning of the birth pangs. The beginning of something brand new.
That is the way it often works. We may suffer loss that is awful, that is devastating, but it can lead to something new. The end of something can serve as the beginning of something else.
Sometimes, it is only after suffering painful loss that we are open to new possibilities. Sometimes, on the other side of loss comes new life. As we will celebrate in a couple of weeks, on the other side of death comes resurrection.
Jesus warns his friends that changes are coming, changes that will shake the earth, changes that will bring destruction and so they should be ready. But it is not only the end. It is also the beginning.
Some things need to end so that God’s promise and hope can be fulfilled. One age ends so that a new age, the age of Christ’s Kingdom, can begin.
We need to keep awake, says Jesus. Keep awake, pay attention, because things will change. The times, they are a –changing. God will bring one age to an end so that a new age may begin. Stay awake, for there will most definitely be a Time Change. Amen.