In 70 a.d. a war was raging in Israel. In a conflict known as the Great Revolt of Judea the Jews began to push back against the powerful, oppressing arm of Roman rule. Their passionate swords would not be enough however as the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple by Roman forces led by Titus would be the result. While all of this is interesting from a historical perspective, it also sets an unexpected context of hope in chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel. Early church fathers attribute the Gospel of Mark to a Christian named Mark who based the content of his work on the eyewitness account of the Apostle Peter. While that is fairly common knowledge the time of the writing of this manuscript is also important. Mark is the earliest Gospel in the Canon. It is, in fact, dated as being written in 70 a.d., the very year that Jerusalem fell.
Why does this matter to us? Why does the timing of a 2000 year old war mean anything in our modern age? Because, I suggest, when Mark listened to Peter tell the story of Jesus’ warnings about the “end of the age” it changed the way he saw, and we see, the hardships of life.
In Mark 13 the disciples had been commenting on the beauty of Herod’s Temple, which was likely the largest building for hundreds of miles and arguably the most magnificent structure in the world at that time. Jesus’ response to their fawning over this architectural masterpiece was, “not one stone will be left on another.” These were troubling words for the men who had been raised in a culture that believed the very presence of Almighty God connected with mankind in that building. In fact, as theologian NT Wright has pointed out, the Jews believed that the Temple was the place where heaven and earth overlapped. After making this bold and disorienting statement the four disciples who were closest to Jesus came to Him on the Mount of Olives and asked the Teacher what would happen at the end, and when would it be. We also live in a culture that is both curious about the end of the world (as seen in the steady stream of movies that crop up every couple of years about some disaster that could destroy us all), and bent on figuring out how to outsmart death (as seen in the billions of dollars that are invested in medical research and pharmaceutical development each year). We look for the pathways in life that offer us the least amount of suffering and pain. We worry that our children might not be so fortunate in a world that is frighteningly unpredictable. And into these questions came Jesus’ response. In fact, Mark 13 is Mark’s longest recorded monologue by Jesus in the entire Gospel. The one thing that Mark penned as an uninterrupted, uncut section was Jesus’ words about the end of life as everyone knew it.
The difficulty in looking at Mark 13 in the way that it seems Jesus intended comes from the very chaotic nature of what Jesus himself said. He spoke of war and the promise of more war, of death and beatings and epic suffering, and He went on to make the bizarre apocalyptic statements about the Sun and Moon no longer shining and the stars falling from the sky. While some of these can be explained away by imagery and metaphor, we should not forget that the four disciples listening to these words on the mountain that day did not have the benefit of commentaries, study guides, or even a quiet time to process and analyze Jesus’ words. They heard what they heard and they were forced to deal with the weight of the first impression in that moment. It would have been a dizzying and terrifying thing to hear. The turbulence that Jesus speaks of is almost too much to consider dealing with. And it would have been, if not for two illustrations that Jesus interjects into the teaching. In verse 8 and in verse 28 Jesus begins to pull back the curtain on what these troubles actually were all about. He offers the imagery of birth and bloom. When life seems to be darkest, when the world is in it’s worst condition, we must see things through the lenses of birth and bloom.
Jesus says that when life starts to go south the Christian response is not fear or sorrow. We see the hardships of life as the visible promise of the crop that we know we will harvest. We who know the King of all things exchange the dread of destruction for the beauty of a delivery room.
“These are but the beginnings of the birth pains.”
What may be most important here is what Jesus does not say. We have, in our Western culture, envisioned the coming again of Jesus as an escape hatch of sorts. To hear many Christians talk they are far more excited about leaving “this old world” than they are about where they might be going. But the return of the King is not about the end of something, it is about the beginning of something. We do not rejoice because finally we can be done with all of our troubles (though that is an encouragement), we rejoice because the promise of the Father is of a life more beautiful, more compelling, more fulfilling, and more desirable than even our best moments in this age. Christian hope is not about the absence of something, it is about the presence of something! Jesus says that birth pains are beginning. What does that mean other than the fact that a baby is coming? Jesus says that the leaves are on the trees. What does that mean other than the fact that fruit is about to be produced?
The Kingdom of God is not about the absence of chaos, it is about the presence of peace. It is not about the absence of destruction, it is about the presence of beauty. It is not about the absence of suffering, it is about the presence of wholeness.
I fear that we have set our sights too low. We are satisfied with healing, when God is interested in new creation. We are satisfied with an emotional tingle in a worship service, when God is interested in an abiding relationship that never ends. We are looking for the end of war, poverty, and unrest while God is not satisfied with anything short of a Resurrected people living in a perfect world where children not only have enough to eat every meal, but sit at the tables of kings where only the best of all things is served. May we not let our fears of difficulty short-circuit the hope that the promises of God have planted in our souls. In the darkest moments, in the most trying times, take heart…a baby is being born.
In 70 a.d. as Mark sat down to pen his account of Jesus’ life, it is no coincidence that chapter 13 was the longest teaching of Jesus that he recorded. With the very war that Jesus had prophesied 40 years earlier raging in Israel, perhaps Mark thought back to the times when he had sat with Peter and listened to the old fisherman retell the stories of Jesus. And as he listened to the words of the Master retold, even though the world was looking dimmer and more troubled, perhaps he found hope. And instead of writing the obituary of the earth he exchanged doomsday for bloomsday.