On August 23, 2011, Louisa County, Virginia, was rocked by a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. We expect such seismic activity along the Pacific coast but rarely think about it happening elsewhere. Earthquakes in Virginia are rare; however, due to the geological nature of the Eastern Seaboard, the quake’s shocks were felt as far away as Florida and Ontario, Canada. It was particularly sad, not just for Episcopalians, but for many Christians, to see the damage this quake did to the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, better known as the National Cathedral. Who could have envisioned the pinnacles of the towers crashing into the pavement below or great towers completely twisted? The earthquake only lasted 10 to 15 seconds, but in that time a tremendous amount of damage was done. Who could have imagined it?
“Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” Jesus was referring, of course, to the greatest building project of his day and time – Herod’s temple in Jerusalem. This massive renovation began around 20 BCE and expanded the temple mount complex far beyond what King Solomon had envisioned. While the temple itself was completed in less than two years, the outer structures and courtyards took about 80 years to complete – only to be utterly destroyed in 70 A.D. by Roman legions under the command of Titus, the son of the Roman Emperor Vespasian. It would have been hard, if not impossible, for the disciples to imagine the complete destruction of such a massive building – the most holy place of the Jewish faith.
We, too, can scarcely imagine a time when the important places and structures we know and love will be “thrown down;” however, we have witnessed a glimpse of such destruction in our own day with the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11. Catastrophic destruction leads to collective trauma and lingering anxiety. But even if the structures are not literally “thrown down,” it is still difficult to ponder that even the place where we worship today will one day be in ruin. It is the folly of humanity to seek permanence in the things of this world, and yet it seems to be our nature. Perhaps it is our deep angst in knowing our own mortality that leads us to build structures of many kinds: buildings, ships, corporate businesses, political empires, families. God has placed a deep-seated need to create something that will transcend the finitude of our earthly lives.
Jesus’ teaching today reminds us of the impermanence of all the structures of this world: “All will be thrown down.” Jesus cuts straight to our desire for immortality with these disquieting words – words that echo the great prophetic tradition of the Jewish people. No doubt this raised the anxiety of the disciples who press him for answers of “when will this be?” They press him for signs of the end. In Jesus’ day, and even to this day, there are plenty of people who look for signs, as if knowing when the end will come will somehow change its coming. Our faith and science tell us there will be a time when all things will come to an end; does knowing exactly when it will happen really give us any mastery over it?
Jesus does not give specifics as to when the end will come, nor does he tell them exactly what will happen. He tells them there will be upheavals of many kinds, but he clearly says these are the beginnings of the birth pangs – not the signs of the end of all things. The things that Jesus describes – war and rumors of war, famine, earthquakes – were all occurring in his day and still occur today. We might wonder when the birth pangs will be done.
Certainly, as Mark wrote this gospel in the shadow of the temple’s destruction and amidst severe persecution of the Christian community, this disquieting apocalyptic narrative seems to fit the unrest of his time; but what about us, living in the relative comfort of the United States in the 21st century? While we have relative comfort compared to Mark’s community, we do live in a highly anxious society where the messages we hear all around us center on being afraid: Be afraid of terrorism; be afraid of the economy collapsing; be afraid of losing our jobs; be afraid of losing our health; be afraid of losing our economic security; be afraid for our children’s future; be afraid of rejection. The list is endless. We are afraid that our neatly constructed lives will “all be thrown down” so we live in captivity to that fear, and when we live in captivity to fear, we never really live!
In the larger context of Mark’s gospel, these words from Jesus come just before he enters Jerusalem to be crucified. These words about the destruction of the temple and upheavals to come are a prefiguring of his own death – the very destruction of his own body. “All will be thrown down” is a promise that all things of this world will fall apart, disintegrate and die. However, within the broader context of this chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus reminds us that our job isn’t to know exactly what will happen, how it will happen, or when it will happen; rather our job is to be faithful, patient and keep awake, because God is working out the plan of salvation and has not abandoned us. It will be all right because God is in charge.
This isn’t to say things will be easy and that hardships and suffering won’t befall us. It isn’t an empty optimism promising things will get better for our lives; they may or may not. It is a promise that God is in charge regardless.
Christ promises us that things will be all right because God has the last word. When death on the cross appeared to be the end, God had the last word at an empty tomb. Throughout our lives, we will experience death and resurrection many times over as the neatly arranged structures of our lives are thrown down. These apocalyptic words of Jesus remind us to hang on and to place our trust in something more than ourselves, our possessions, our relationships, our health, our capacities or our intellect. It is to place our ultimate trust in the One from whom all of these things come. It is to accept our finitude and mortality in a radical trust of God’s unchangeable grace and goodness so that we might be freed from the captivity of anxious fear and finally live fully and freely as God’s beloved children.