Pentecost 25: 18 November Mark 13:1-8
When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, according to Mark, he went into the temple and looked around (11:11). Now in 13:1 Mark tells us that the disciples looked around. Of course the temple was imposing and impressive. Herod’s rebuilt temple was a magnificent work. Jesus declares that it will be levelled. Remaining today are parts of the platform base, now seen in the Western or Wailing wall.
Mark’s hearers would have known of the debacle of 70CE after the revolt of 66-70CE or, if it was still impending, have recognised what this prediction was referring to. When Jesus stands before the high priest, false testimony will allege that Jesus had claimed he would himself destroy the temple: ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and in three days build another not made with hands’ (14:58). What was false in the report was only that Jesus himself would do it. Everything else was true - as Mark read it. The temple made with hands will give way to a temple not made with hands: the community of faith built on the cornerstone of the Son, the Stone (12:10-11).
Jesus was not the first to predict the temple’s destruction. Jeremiah had done it. The temple was always going to be vulnerable should unrest come to Judea. The middle decades of the first century CE were decades of unrest. The story of the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes IV in 167BCE was kept alive in the memory of the Jews by writings such as Daniel and 1 and 2 Maccabees. The desecration by Pompey, the Roman, in 63BCE, left its memory in the Psalms of Solomon and in a number of the writings recovered from the caves near Qumran.
Josephus tells us that the mid-first century CE saw many different figures promising hope, instigating movements for liberation, culminating in the great revolt. These must have been turbulent times for Christian communities who were, many of them, strongly Jewish. The openness of some of them to Gentiles would raise the ire of their more conservative compatriots and help fuel debates within the emerging movement between those who favoured the likes of James and those who stood more closely with Paul. What stand should the Christian communities take towards the promised redemption of Israel? Unfortunately our information is sparse. Eusebius, some centuries later, reports that Christian Jews retreated from Jerusalem to Pella in the Transjordan at the start of the revolt. Were there some who joined the revolt or who saw God’s hand in the movements to resist the Romans? Would they have shared the pious hopes of the communities reflected in the Dead Sea scrolls and in the liberation songs which Luke uses in his infancy narratives? Did failure expunge them from the records, preventing Roman suspicion?
The closest we come to grappling with such issues is when we read Mark 13. In 13:5 Mark has Jesus declare that there would be people who could lead the disciples astray. This can only mean offering false hopes, perhaps calling for military engagement, perhaps promising victory. In 13:6 is the prediction that many will claim to speak with Christ’s voice, maybe even claiming to be the returned messiah. Popular expectation of the messiah fed the misinformation which killed Jesus: a king of the Jews, a revolutionary bandit leader. Mark 13:21 speaks directly of claimants to be the messiah, 13:22, of false messiahs and false prophets leading people astray, supported by signs and wonders which were probably to be read as indicating a new Exodus or a new reclaiming of the land.
This all sounds very odd and off-beat until we recognise that these Christians erred not in the goal but only the means. Jesus also announced good news for the poor, for destitute Israel. His was part of the broader movement, looking for liberation. All three who hung on the crosses on Golgotha probably had the same dream. Luke was not mistaken in employing songs of liberation to accompany the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. Jesus lived by the vision of a new reign of God. Political concerns were not irrelevant. We can miss the point if we moralise about these Christians as deviant. On the contrary, they were probably very attuned to the message of Jesus. The issue was how, and where do we hear the voice of the messiah? Our danger today lies more in deserting to the Romans and avoiding the struggle.
Mark 13:7-8 employs the language found in similar situations of danger: nations rising up against nations, kingdom against kingdom (Isaiah 19:2); earthquakes, famines. They were almost standard literary descriptions of disasters to precede the end time. Mark 13 has many echoes of Daniel and its predictions of the end (2:28-29; 12:1-2,11; 7:13-14). At the same time we are dealing here with much more than literary convention. Behind such phrases are memories of real human experience. International warfare may be far away. Mark may have had in mind the civil wars which preceded Vespasian’s ascent to power in Rome. But the brutality of war would be close to home for many, the rape and pillaging, the burning and torture, the killing and mutilation. People knew terror. It is defiant to use the image of birth pangs for what was going on: it was clinging to hope.
Mark takes us into a world of terror. He will go on to speak of trial and betrayal (9-13), of desecration and fleeing refugees (14-20), and again of false hopes and predictions (21-23). The whole climaxes in cosmic disasters (24-25) from which the only hope is divine intervention in human form: the coming of the Son of Man (26-27). It is a supernatural solution, a vision of hope that transcends the categories of human achievement. Terror beyond description is being matched by hope beyond description.
It is hard to enter this world - then and now. We lose our way if we make the passage predict the future. Writings of this kind characteristically enter the terror only to leap into fantasies of hope. We may discard them as unfulfilled and irrelevant or revise them like Matthew and Luke with some updating and seek to maintain their vision. Two millennia later updating is even more difficult! Defiant hope remains. Naming the terror remains. Facing the ambiguities in desperate situations about who speaks for Christ remains.
The text cannot be made to give simple answers for today. It can however serve to invite us to enter the world of terror which so many know in our world. The shape of hope will differ from situation to situation and we may sometimes have to be satisfied with leaps of fantasy which defy oppression with poetry. Sometimes the voice of Christ will sound clearly and we will know what we have to do. The important thing is to be there, to share the vision, to keep the light of love burning, to face the trial without despair. Can we ever really understand what it is like? Our fear of not understanding can lead us to beat a retreat to the houses and baths the Romans prepare for all who honour the emperor’s image. And nothing new is born.
Epistle: Pentecost 25: 18 November Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25