The following was my sermon for Sunday, 15 November 2015 (Lectionary 33 / Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B), preached at Christ Our Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Chatham, New York. The readings for the day according to the Revised Common Lectionary are:
- Daniel 12:1–3
- Psalm 16
- Hebrews 10:11–14 [15–18] 19–25
- Mark 13:1–8 (Green)
1 And as [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
3 And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he! ’ and they will lead many astray. 7 And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains. (Mark 13:1-8 ESV)
I suspect many Christians — and even many of us — are convinced that we, of all the human beings who have ever abided on the face of God’s good Earth, are living through the most violent and least certain time ever.
The events of the last week, of the last few years, of the last two decades, and probably of our lifetimes, provide all the evidence we think we need. People who wish us ill are everywhere, taking hostages and setting off bombs and gunning people down. People who mean us ill have organized political parties, fomented revolution, taken over nation-states, massed armies, invaded, conquered, and occupied. We see what they’ve done in the last 20 years, setting off bombs, sinking warships, attacking cities, killing with no regard for their own lives and little for anyone else’s.
This leaves us uncertain and scared. We want safety, and we want peace, the peace we believe God and the modern world have promised us. We’re willing to do just about anything to secure that peace, even if it means exporting all our fear and all our violence on someone else, far away.
I don’t think it helps that in a media age, in an age of twitter and Facebook, in an age where if anything happens anywhere, an event like the attack in Paris this week, can feel immediate, can feel close. It’s a false immediacy, heightened by the very human need — and sometimes the the social demand — to publicly express sympathy, solidarity, and support with victims and survivors. To express outrage, and condemnation, and demand resolve, that something be done.
This is not new. The telegraph and the newspaper created this kind of immediacy almost 200 years ago. Suddenly, war far away could become a part of ordinary life, a thing you read about, think about, and talk about every day in ways not possible when communication was slow, when the war far away might end before we’d even heard it had started.
So while I suspect Christians have always trembled a bit when they’ve read this Gospel passage, this hearing of wars and rumors of wars, of nation rising against nation (it would be better to say people against people), and kingdom rising against kingdom, has, I think, taken on an added urgency in an age of mass communication. Sometime in the 19th century, I know that some Christians began taking all of this very, very seriously. This is our age, they said, as armies massed in Europe on the eve of the First World War, or as soldiers rampaged across the world in the second, or especially after the founding of the state of Israel, when every looming battle in the Middle East suddenly became a possible sign of the fulfillment of biblical prophesy and the second coming of Jesus.
This is our age. Jesus is speaking to us. He may be talking privately to his disciples, but it’s clear he’s speaking to us and about us.
Just look around you.
It’s easy to be this kind of conceited, to think that we live in the most important moment in human history, the end times. This isn’t just a religious problem — Karl Marx built his entire understanding of the world on the notion that the conditions were right for the final revolution that would right human relations and effectively end history. Believers in social justice tend to begin by saying, “if not now, when?” And it isn’t just a modern problem either. In the year 1000, Christians across Europe were both hopeful and terrified the end of the first millennium of the Christian era would also herald the second coming and the end of the world. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther believed he lived in the end times, seeing both the conflict with the twin antichrists of Pope and Turk — Muslim Ottoman armies advancing into the heart of Europe — as signs the coming of Jesus was nigh.
Every time we’ve seen the end, forecast the end, predicted the end, we’ve been wrong. Every time.
In fact, let me tell you this. Today’s gospel reading is not for us. It’s not about us. We are, at best, overhearing something intended for another people entirely, something that came true, that was fulfilled, long, long ago.
Jesus begins today’s gospel reading by speaking of the destruction of the temple, and when Peter and James and John and Andrew ask him privately “what will be the sign when these things are about to be accomplished” I think we have to assume the “these things” are the throwing down of the great stones of the temple.
And Jesus has answer.
But first, a little history lesson. For the first 30 years or so following the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the Roman empire was a relatively peaceful and stable place. Augustus Caesar, in avenging the death of his great-uncle and adopted father Julius, imposed a peace on the Roman world that would last for a century. The empire Paul traveled in, preached in, and wrote his letters in, was that peaceful and orderly empire. Yes, more often than not, it was ruled by sadists, perverts, and certifiable lunatics like Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, and Nero. But unless you were a wealthy senator in Rome who caught the emperor’s eye, it was a relatively safe and stable place to live.
All that would change in the last few years of the 60s. (It’s always the 60s, right?) Paul and Peter were put to death. The capricious, decadent, and incompetent Emperor Nero suddenly faced military revolts in France and Spain. The senate finally worked up the courage to declare the emperor a criminal, and he would die by his own hand somewhere in the Italian countryside just barely a step ahead of rebellious soldiers.
In the midst of all of this, the Jews decided to revolt, and throw off Roman rule. A general by the name of Vespasian was dispatched to deal with the Jewish revolt, and here’s how the Roman author Suetonius — writing several decades afterwards — described that war in a book now known to us as The Twelve Caesars:
An ancient superstition was current in the East, that out of Judea would come the rulers of the world. This prediction, as it later proved, referred to two Roman Emperors, Vespasian and his son Titus; but the rebellious Jews, who read it as referring to themselves, murdered their Procurator, routed the Governor-General of Syria when he came down to restore order, and captured an Eagle. To crush this uprising the Romans needed a strong army under an energetic commander, who could be trusted not to abuse his plenary powers. The choice fell on Vespasian. He had given signal proof of energy and nothing, it seemed, need be feared from a man of such modest antecedents. Two legions, with eight cavalry divisions and ten supernumerary battalions, were therefore dispatched to join the forces already in Judea; and Vespasian took his elder son, Titus, to serve on his staff. No sooner had they reached Judea than he impressed the neighbouring provinces by his prompt tightening up of discipline and his audacious conduct in battle after battle. During the assault on one enemy city he was wounded on the knee by a stone and caught several arrows on his shield.
Hear what Suetonius is saying, and compare it with what Jesus is telling his disciples. Someone clearly arose in Judea and said, “I am he! The Anointed One! Your salvation is at hand! I will lead you to your redemption!” But all he and his people did was lead the Jews to war, death, and destruction. And Suetonius was convinced that the anointed one was Vespasian himself! People did rise against people, and initially, the Jews were successful. They defeated a legion and captured its eagle — the very symbol of Roman military power. It looked good at first, like this rag-tag band of well-organized Jewish rebels were going to prevail against the mightiest military force in the world.
But it was not to be. And as the Romans surrounded and lay siege to Jerusalem, Vespasian took some soldiers, and left for Rome to seize power for himself. And he left his son Titus in command, which Suetonius describes this way:
In the final assault on Jerusalem, Titus managed to kill twelve of the garrison with successive arrows; and the city was captured on his daughter’s birthday.
It was a bloody and horrific war, the kind waged by a people desperate for their liberation and redemption against an empire brutally skilled and incredibly proficient in conquest and occupation. An empire that did so without qualm or conscience. According to another ancient writer, Josephus, more than a million people died in the war — that’s about two percent of the Roman Empire’s total then-estimated population of 55 million. Today, that’s the equivalent of 6.6 million Americans or 1.3 million Frenchmen. Or 500,000 Iraqis in 2003. Or 450,000 Syrians in 2012.
After the accidental burning of the temple, Titus reportedly gave orders to level the entire city — including the temple. And not one stone was left upon another. All that remained of Jerusalem was a wasteland. A dead and abandoned city.
THAT’S the war Jesus is talking about here. The war that will leave the City of David a wreckage and the people of God scattered to the hills hither and yon. This war came and went almost 2,000 years ago. It is done.
Jesus is speaking to his followers — the time is coming when this city will be destroyed, and just as it was when Jeremiah addressed Israel while Babylon lay siege to Jerusalem, the coming war is God’s judgement on faithless Israel. The wise, the faithful, those paying attention, those staying awake, will run. As hard and as fast and as far as they can. Because there is no saving this city. No saving this temple.
He is not speaking to us. We are just overhearing a conversation. One not meant for our ears.
And yet, it was saved. It was memorized, preserved, and written down. And so, these words Jesus speaks privately to his four closest disciples are not completely without value to us. They mean something.
“Do not be alarmed.” That, and only that, is what we need to remember. There will be wars, and rumors of wars, and peoples rising against people. There will be violence and death and destruction. And very little of it will make any sense to us. Whatever the specifics, it doesn’t matter. “Do not be alarmed.”
Remember, our redeemer — who suffered and died at the hands of the same empire that would also destroy Jerusalem — rose from the dead. He conquered death. He showed us that it has no power over us. He promised his resurrection three times. Nowhere did he promise the temple would rise again.
So when we face the alarming — and what could have been more alarming to the early church than seeing the men who destroyed Jerusalem comfortably rule the Roman world for more than two decades? — we need to remember whose we are. We need to remember what promises and assurances we have — eternal life, a call to feed and tend sheep, to baptize and teach that God has not abandoned his people to sin and death no matter what our senses seem to tell us. We need to remember that our redemption is not dependent on the political order of the world. It will not be achieved in rebellious liberation or the brutal imposition of order. Most of all, we need to remember that we have nothing to fear from the violence of the world because it accomplishes nothing permanent, nothing meaningful.
Do not be alarmed, Jesus says. No matter what happens. No matter what comes. No matter who seems to be winning.