Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Do you see these walls, these windows, that great red granite cross? Jesus said, “not one stone will be left here upon another” (Mark 13:2b).
On this penultimate Sunday of the church year, our gospel lens on God’s grace widens out to take a cosmic perspective. It reminds me of an exhibit at the Adler Planetarium. We move in an imaginary rocket from earth to planets, to nearby stars, and finally to other galaxies. The last three Sundays of the church year are sometimes called kingdomtide. Our focus shifts from a single point in history to the whole story of God and creation. Here alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, are held together. Here is the sweep of human history, the rise, and fall of nations, the wreck and ruin of civilizations, and the shadowy echoes of human endeavor long since forgotten by everyone but God.
From here, just beneath the gates of heaven, the world looks small. From here, the question naturally arises, “What’s it all for?” Why this desperate striving to store up treasures for ourselves that do not last?
Some of you may remember I once rode a rented a horse named Chocolate along the edges of the Egyptian desert near Cairo to Sakkara, ancient Egypt’s first pyramid. Sakkara is part of the great necropolis of Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom. It continues to be studied by swarms of Egyptologists. Even more memorable to me was the ruin of a small unmarked out-of-the-way place I happened upon on my way back from the pyramid. It looked like it was once a place of worship. Apparently, it was of no interest even to the Egyptologists—or at least—not when I was there in the fall of 1984.
I steered my horse through the front door, down the center aisle, across the spot where I imagined the altar would be, and out a hole in the back wall. What sacrilege I must have committed that day to those who built that place. I wonder, will there be a day, do you think, someone ages and ages from now will wander through whatever remains of Immanuel?
What comes of all our striving? What echo of our lives will persist in those days, when the very stones with which our church is assembled have turned to sand?
This passage from Mark’s Gospel is often described by scholars as a mini-apocalypse. It may leave us feeling rather bleak and sad. The author’s intention is quite different. Ancient people loved reading apocalyptic literature as much as people today love science fiction or romantic comedies because it inspired hope. The word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘unveiling.’ A Christian apocalypse draws back the veil to reveal the sure and loving hand of God at work in the world. We are meant to see what is truly eternal and what is passing. We glimpse the truth that will set us free. But of course, sometimes truth, no matter how liberating, can be quite painful and disorienting.
In Jesus’ day, the temple in Jerusalem was one of the most impressive sights in the world. Torn down twice since King Solomon built it, the second rebuilding was undertaken by Herod before Jesus’ birth. It was not finished until after his crucifixion.
That is to say, when Jesus and the four disciples sat opposite the temple across the Kidron valley upon the Mount of Olives, looking down upon the temple, they were looking at a brand-new building. It was clad with so much gold, looking at it directly could literally be blinding.
What they see is an architectural marvel. It’s the biggest, boldest, and most unshakeable symbol of God’s presence they can imagine. Those massive stones hold religious memory. They bolstered a colonized people’s identity. They offered the faithful a potent symbol of spiritual glory, pride, and worthiness. In short, what takes their breath away as they gaze at the temple is the religious certainty and permanence those glittering stones display to the world.
That’s what the disciples see. But what does Jesus see? He sees ruins. Rubble. Destruction. Fragility, not permanence. Loss, not glory. Change, not eternity. “Not one stone will be left here upon another,” Jesus tells the stunned disciple. “All will be thrown down.”
In her collection of sermons, God in Pain, Episcopal pastor and author Barbara Brown Taylor argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life. “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”
Part of our pain today is that so much ugliness we thought was a thing of the past has revealed itself to be very much with us. Pulling back the veil we see sexual violence, gender discrimination, racism, hatred, and mass extinction. Author and social activist Adrienne Maree Brown offered words of hope in speaking about racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”
God’s word does not wither. God’s will shall not be in vain. Every life is precious. When truth is shaken, and nations make war, and imposters preach alluring gospels of fear, resentment, and hatred—don’t give in to terror. Don’t despair. Avoid hasty, knee-jerk judgments. Be perceptive, not pious. Imaginative, not immature. Make peace, choose hope, cultivate patience, and incarnate love as the world reels and changes. Let the Spirit of God that passes all understanding lead and guide you. All that is not pure will be burned away. Let’s dare to see what Jesus sees. What is great and what is small in the kingdom of God are not the same as what is counted as great and small in the world.
Pastor Debie Thomas writes, “In this troubling context, it’s easy to despair. Or to grow numb. Or to let exhaustion win. But it’s precisely now, now when the world around us feels the most apocalyptic, that we have to respond with resilient, healing love. It’s precisely now when systemic evil and age-old brokenness threaten to bring us to ruin that we have to “hold each other tight” and allow the veil to part, the walls to fall. What’s happening, Jesus promises at the end of this week’s Gospel reading, is not death, but birth. Something is struggling to be born. Yes, the birth pangs hurt. They hurt so appallingly much. But God is our midwife, and what God births will never lead to desolation. Yes, we are called to bear witness in the ruins, but rest assured: these birth pangs will end in joy.” (Debie Thomas, Not One Stone, Journey with Jesus, 11-11-18)