If you participated in Ash Wednesday a few weeks ago, you may have felt the shocking way Lent sneaks up on us. It refuses to ease us into its contours and instead hits us in the face with as much blunt force reality as it can: You are ash. You will die.
For those uncomfortable with these sorts of truths, the text below does not let up. It is a scary and confusing one, speaking of death, torment, wars, and destruction–even among those most innocent in society. The confusion of this text led some Christian traditions (especially the 19th-century American Church) to separate these words from their original context and history and see them as terrifying images of the end of the world. Perhaps you grew up in such a tradition and read these words with that filter.
To the extent there is good news in this, it is that these words are not in fact talking about the end of the world. The bad news? Well, the truth of what it is saying is even scarier.
Jesus is not talking about an end-of-the-world Armageddon here. Instead, he is predicting the destruction of the Jewish Temple (which happened at the hands of the Romans 35 years later) and telling his people what to do when it happens. Just look at the verses immediately preceding the scary ones. Jesus says the Temple will be destroyed, his disciples ask when that’s going to happen and what will it be like, and then Jesus says all this stuff. When you start reading it that way, it’s pretty straightforward. But why does this matter?
It is hard to overstate how much weight the Jewish people put on the Temple’s existence. Throughout other times of crisis in their history, the Jews felt like as long as the Temple was still standing, their nation and identity still stood. They would cling to it as a sign that God was still with them. Some prophets even spoke against this trust they put in the temple, and the Jews fought them for these claims. In fact, in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ words about Temple destruction are the main charge against Jesus in his trial, and why they seek to kill him.
In the reading below, rather than talking about the world’s end, Jesus is declaring the destruction of the old order of structures, systems, and ways of living that do not have him and his rule at their center. In Daniel 7.13-14, the prophet sees a vision of a mysterious being he calls a “Son of Man” who comes in on the clouds to bring judgment on the world, gather up God’s people, and establish God’s reign in the world. The Jewish people in Exile felt this was a poetic description of their future redeeming king who would destroy God’s enemies and bring them home.
Here, Jesus says the prophecy was speaking of himself.
Jesus is saying that the judgment to come is not waiting for the end of all things, but it would come imminently against the Temple itself, and then repeated throughout history and in all of our lives, in various forms of permutations. Every old way of thinking, living, and relating to one another and God must go through this process of deconstruction and gathering if it is to be close to God’s heart.
He is saying that life with God will include judgments levied against all our systems and structures and definitions, and they will be painful and scary. The pain will be enough that we may seek relief elsewhere, but Jesus tells us we must not heed the siren songs—we must wait, flee to safety, and endure through judgment. Because through it–not in spite of it–Jesus gathers us to himself, however raw, weak, and wounded we are when we get there.
But we’re not there yet. So until then, we hurt, and we wait, and we endure, trusting it is all a product of God’s tender-yet-forceful love of us, and his desire to bring us home.
Reading: from Mark 13.1-27
As he came out of the temple, Jesus asked, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 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?”
Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Do not be alarmed; this must take place. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. The good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When you see the desolating sacrilege, then those in Judea must flee to the mountains. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation until now, no, and never will be. And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’—do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray. But be alert; in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
Art: Brian Utesch, Piercing the Darkness