As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, 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?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. (NRSV)
From the perspective of peace, times of unrest can be difficult to fathom.
Though Israel remains an occupied territory there are still signs of freedom. Even Roman soldiers marching the streets of Jerusalem are a far cry from all out war. The disciple’s day of marvel is an eternity from the war-ravaged images Jesus is about to sketch.
After touring the temple precinct the disciples turn around one more time to soak up the atmosphere. It is such a human response to grandeur and beauty. In creative and inventive hands even stacked stones become a wonder.
But Jesus does not match their awe. There is no denying the architectural greatness, but he is looking beyond this relative calm. He sees a time of terror. These stones will not remain this pristine and perfect.
The private question of the inner circle seeks needed clarification. Jesus words cast a shadow over their visit. I wonder if hidden in their question lies a genuine confusion shared by readers through the ages: How do we understand this prophecy? Is Jesus using literal or figurative language? Is he using more than one linguistic technique?
These questions are not unimportant. Any answer will shape the response of both the disciples and readers of Mark’s gospel. The disciples have certainly learned that Jesus is not given to idle talk. These words matter. But what to do with them?
So they lean on this particular door asking for a time-frame and any indicators they need be aware of. Like the stones before them they assume there is a possibility that this prediction is grounded in time and history. Their request for a ‘sign’ may also assume God’s hidden activity.
Jesus’ answer certainly indicates a time of unrest, war, violence. Our conversation is set within sight of the temple so commentators rightly look to the historical destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. It must have been a terrible time – the utter devastatation of a proud people and their central cultural symbols. Jesus’ language relates easily to this troubled time.
But there are indicators that Jesus also speaks of a time beyond. The end of the temple is also a ‘beginning’. Understandably many have read this prophecy unable to avoid the parallels with their own historical period. Our passage has a history of shedding light over times of unrest. War was never going to be unique to Israel.
Such darkness challenges faith. Jesus warns of opportunists dealing in the currency of hope. Students of Jesus are urged to be ‘alert’ to them. War leaves people vulnerable before the elusive promise of peace. Uprisings tempt people to lesser Messiahs.
But there is a true Messiah telling a story of peace more grounded and permanent than the temple itself. God speaks into our world of unrest calling us to trust even when the smoke of war screens heaven from earth.
In such times we do well to remember our pain is never ours alone. In fact it is not even primarily ours. Before anything else it is the pain of the world’s creator and redeemer. And in these hands dark times are a ‘beginning’. When we cannot see clearly – God is at work.
The God of all is ‘beginning’ and ‘birthing’ something new.