Saturday, August 22, 2009

Many will come in my name

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite 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?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘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 rumours 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. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

- Mark 13:1-13

After the discourse in yesterday's passage on the importance of humility and the depth and knowledge of the heart that is the true measure of faith, Jesus walks out of the temple with his disciples. The temple was a marvelous building. It had been rebuilt by Herod the Great and measured a sixth of the city of Jerusalem, dominating the city. According to my study bible, the temple was an architectural marvel that included porticoes, courtyards and colonnades. Some of the stones measured 10x40x20 feet each. It is no wonder that a disciple would remark on the majesty and beauty of these buildings.

Jesus' prediction, that "not one stone will be left upon another" was to come true in A.D. 70, when the Roman general Titus retook the city. He leveled everything on the Temple Mount. Because of rumors that this beautiful temple included gold between its stones, not one stone was left unturned. Only a retaining wall remained, now called the Wailing Wall, after Emperor Trajan (c. A.D. 135) allowed Jews to return once a year to mourn the destruction of the temple. This mourning continues today.

Jesus' discussions of the end of the age are tied together with a discussion on the destruction of the temple and the prediction of what is to come in Jerusalem. The immediate effect is dramatic: who can imagine that such a great and wonderful building is to be so utterly destroyed? In an important sense, it is a note asserted into the beautiful and majestic surroundings that we are not to be taken in by appearances. Humility is all: we are to focus on the affairs of faith in the heart and not outward appearances. False rumors, false messiahs, great destruction, violence and upheavals - all of these things are to come. They are called "birth pangs" and compared to childbirth. We are in for a time where great security and certainty is unreliable except through faith. Accompanying all of this as part of the birth pangs of this age and of the kingdom will be persecution for believers. Even family ties will suffer upheaval and violence: 'Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.'

We are taught about the great upheavals of history, ages and time - and they are tied in with the events in the individual lives of believers and what they will go through, how they will be hated and persecuted for their faith. Of all of the apostles, only John did not suffer a martyr's death. 'But the one who endures to the end will be saved.' Nothing is reliable; these birth pangs will be a time where faith cannot be put into appearances and rumors but must be maintained through an inner integrity, a watchfulness and discernment. 'He who endures to the end will be saved.' If those times of rumors, of wars and conflict, of false messiahs, confusing and conflicting varieties of teachings regarding the end of the age that Jesus describes sound familiar to us now, perhaps we should consider his words of endurance and faith, and remember that it is ours to be watchful, to ask for discernment and to follow his teachings in good faith. I think it is also important to remember his teachings about the unreliability of appearances: the last thing we are to expect for our faith is a perfect life in this world, according to these words. Instead he asks of us to be wise, to understand that difficulties may come.

Underneath it all, I feel there is this great pull of humility. We've been warned not to rely on appearances, not to "Lord it over" others, not to puff ourselves up - that it is the heart that is the measure of who we are. On every scale, here in this passage about the end of the age and the birth pangs of the kingdom, we are reminded again to focus on what is real and true, and that is within us in our center. Prayer and worship will ever remain the place where we need to "get real" - to find what is in our hearts and to understand that this is the measure of who we are and what we do, that a full and abundant life rich in gifts of the spirit comes from that center, that faith. We ask for wisdom and discernment. We study and think and learn. We seek the Holy Spirit, especially in times of crisis.

2,000 years later I feel these words are still utterly important. Time seems to go so fast; such great changes come in our lifetimes! Such tremendously powerful and astonishing marvels of technology make the world ever smaller, faster, and increasingly subject to the potential for upheaval, transition, rumors, on a tremendous scale - for good or for ill. In all of that, the words about vigilance, faith, humility and what is real must not be forgotten. Perhaps in some ironic and important way, they apply to us now even more clearly than they did to the disciples at the moment they were given.

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