Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Mark 13: 1-8, 35-37)

Well, you’ve got to hand it to Jesus: he sure knows how to cause a big brouhaha, doesn’t he? Nothing like taking a fairly benign observation and turning it totally on its head, right? All this disciple of his said was, “Look, Jesus, the stonework on the temple is amazing!” I mean, I don’t know about you, but I can think of a host of other responses Jesus could’ve gone with that would’ve been less inflammatory. Such as:

I know, right? It is amazing!

Yessir, you gotta hand it to those architects back in the day, they sure knew what they were doing.

Fun fact: you know Bob down at the market? His great great great great great great grandfather was one of the stonemasons who built this thing. It’s true.

Actually, young man, to be specific, it’s limestone. Either sedimentary or dolomite. I’m thinking it’s sedimentary based on the grain and hue.

Any of those responses – even the slightly mansplaining Jesus response at the end – even that would’ve been better than what Jesus actually said. That’s because anything would’ve been better than what Jesus actually said:

You’re impressed with that? Better take it in while you can. It won’t be around much longer. Not a stone will be left standing.

And just to clarify, this is not some old rickety warehouse in a dilapidated part of town where crumbling buildings are the norm. This is the temple of Jerusalem, the epicenter of the entirety of the Jewish faith. And unlike church buildings here in Charlotte, there was not a temple on every corner. There was a grand total of one – one temple for the whole nation of Israel. I mean, there were a few shrines here and there, outposts in remote parts of the land. But they paled in comparison – in both appearance and significance – to the temple in Jerusalem. This is the temple that every Jew in the land made a pilgrimage to during Passover. This temple – this literal physical embodiment of the Hebrew faith – is what Jesus nonchalantly says will be utterly destroyed.

The disciples are understandably alarmed by this. Jesus has been alarming them quite a bit as of late. Remember a few weeks back – Peter declaring Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus responding by telling him and the others that he would suffer and die? In that instance Peter pulls Jesus aside for a come-to-Jesus meeting. Here it’s James, John, and Andrew who join Peter. I find it hard to believe these four all came to Jesus by chance. I sense a side conversation taking place between the four: confirmation that they’d all heard what Jesus said and were equally alarmed by it. So now they go to him as a group with one simple question on their minds, one question they want a clear answer to:

When will the temple be destroyed?

And I get it. I get their desire to secure a date for the unimaginable. Lord knows there’s an entire publication industry out there built on the end times and when it will take place; authors and self-proclaimed experts taking every possible detail and data point from books like Revelation to try and predict, or at the very least give some insight into, when it will happen. It’s only human, I guess. If we can know when a bad thing will take place, we can prepare ourselves for it. At least that’s what we like to tell ourselves. So no, I don’t fault these four in the least for going to Jesus in hopes of finding out when.

Which means they were probably mighty confused with his response:

Watch out for the deceivers. There will be lots of them, claiming that they’re “the one.” They’ll mislead a whole bunch of folks. Even so, when you hear of wars and even rumored wars, do not panic. It’ll get pretty messy and the whole world will be impacted. But despite all that, you keep your head on straight.

I mean, if I were one of the disciples, I don’t think I would’ve been very satisfied with this answer. Not that it wasn’t good instruction, not that it wasn’t food for thought. It’s just not the answer I am looking for. I want to know when. I want a date to put on my calendar. Instead Jesus doles out more dire warnings, more “be awares” and throws in a “do not panic” for good measure. That’s not the answer I’m looking for.

Anyone out there ever have Jesus give you an answer you weren’t looking for? Anyone ever have Jesus tell you not what you wanted to hear but maybe what you needed to hear? Is it possible, I wonder, that Jesus is in fact answering the question they have asked, just not in the way they were expecting?

One of the things that’s always good to remember when reading the gospels is that there’s an audience within the audience and a story within the story. An audience within the audience and a story within the story. This is nothing all that unusual, really. Take the musical Hamilton, for instance – the story itself is set hundreds of years ago and focuses on an audience of women and men involved in the birthing of our nation, women and men long gone. But there is another audience and another story at play – the audience of 21st century folks who experienced this musical in theaters and on television screens and found the story of immigrants, war, and big ideas about inclusivity and equality quite relevant to their own. An audience within the audience and a story within the story.

The same thing is happening here. In our passage today, in the passages we’ve been looking at for the past few weeks, Mark is telling a story about Jesus speaking to his disciples and a larger gathering in the early part of the first century. But Mark is writing this story to another audience; a particular community of Christians some forty years later.

And what was going on in their story? Theirs was a story of conflict, a story of an unsuccessful Jewish revolt against Rome that led to the devastation of Jerusalem by Roman forces and – get this – the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The temple that Jesus “predicted” would be destroyed and burned to the ground – that very temple was in fact destroyed in 70 AD.

And so if you were part of Mark’s audience reading his Jesus story as the world was literally crashing down around you, you would not have been all that upset by a provocative statement about the temple being destroyed, about liars and deceivers capitalizing on the chaos, about wars and rumors of wars, about nation rising against nation. None of that would’ve shocked you because you were literally watching all of those things unfold right before your very eyes.

And you have little use for the disciples’ question of when – because for you, the “when” is now. No, the question that you desperately want to ask Jesus is notably the question Jesus actually answers: what comes next? What do we do now? And you hear Jesus tell you loud and clear: do not panic. Keep your head on straight. If you’re a Christian living in the late first century, reading Mark’s gospel and this conversation between Jesus and his disciples, it’s obvious that Jesus’ words some forty years earlier were speaking to you. And may I suggest, beloved, to us as well.

I had been back from sabbatical for a week or so and was checking in with some of our leaders. I was doing more than simply catching up on all the things I had missed. I was also seeking their input on what kind of leadership the church needed from me in this moment. I had been out of pocket for three months, of course; and during that time the church kept plugging along, growing together and welcoming all, trying to make heads and tails of life in a pandemic, like every other church; with all of the challenges and, dare I say, opportunities that presents. And now, back in the saddle, I had a unique opportunity to hit a reset button of sorts and tailor my leadership around what the congregation most needed from me in this season.

I wanted some input from folks on what that might look like. Because if I’m honest with you, this is an anxious time to be a pastor. We’re back, but not fully. Our people are coming, but some are not, for reasons we know and don’t know. We long to “return to normal” but more and more we’re facing the reality that, in all likelihood, things will never be just as we remember them – some things, but not everything. I’ve had multiple conversations with colleagues in ministry, other senior pastors here in Charlotte and elsewhere, church sizes like ours and smaller than ours and much larger than ours. And to a person, every one of them said their congregations are experiencing the exact same things that we are. Still, I’m not going to lie to you – it’s a little nerve racking to lead a church in all of this.

That’s why I’m ever-grateful for something that one of our leaders said to me. She said:

Steve, we all know we’re in a pandemic. We all know this stinks. But let’s not waste a bunch of time talking about how bad this pandemic is or how frustrating it is. Let’s not worry about things we have no control over. Instead, let’s talk about what we’re doing well, how we’re being church right now, how we can be the best version of ourselves in this moment.

In other words, to quote a well-known expert on the matter: do not panic. Keep your head on straight.

Reverend Amy Butler, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, once had this to say:

When reading this passage from Mark, it’s easy to get caught up in the details of this cataclysmic event Jesus and the disciples seem to be discussing; that the world is already (and, dare we say, has always been) full of wars and rumors of wars, natural disasters and famines. But as followers of Jesus Christ and people of God living in the world, we have seen enough to know that another reality defines our lives and can also define our world. We have enough evidence of the goodness of God all around us to insist that the brokenness we see is not the final story.

I cannot agree with Amy more. We have seen evidence of God’s goodness; we’ve lived it, we’ve embodied it. I see it time and time again. I see the goodness of God in your faces; even with masks on and only your eyes showing, I can see it. I see it when you come into this space every Sunday morning; I see it in those of you who are turning into worship online. The goodness of God is what compels you to say “yes” when asked to serve; it’s what compels you to give and support the ministry of this church. The evidence of God’s goodness is in the air we breathe. And it doesn’t make the struggles go away. All it does – all we need it to do – is make clear to us what we’re doing well, how we’re being church right now, and how we can be the best version of ourselves in this moment.

Beloved, I am grateful that we are part of a story that is so much bigger than our own; a story that supersedes other narratives that seek to define us – the stuff of endless news cycle sound bytes and fractured systemic structures. I give thanks that through God’s story we can know of God’s goodness; and knowing this is what leads us through the struggles that inevitably will come, that are already here. I give thanks to God that this rich, deep story helps us know:

That our present struggles will not last forever;

That the God who was with us before is still very much the God who is with us now and the God who will be with us going forward;

That we all have a part to play in this story;

And that love will always, always win out over fear.

Friends, there is indeed hope in knowing. Knowing that we are part of a story that has been written long before we got here and will still be written long after we’re gone. It is enough to know that. Truthfully, it’s more than enough.

In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] Mark 13: 5-8, a paraphrase combining The Message with my own interpretation.

[2] Rev. Amy Butler, A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, Vol. 2