Sermon preached by Nick Quanrud, ordinand at Westcott House.
Today’s gospel reading plunges us into a crucial moment in Mark’s account. In the next chapter the plot to kill Jesus begins in earnest, and when we look at what He’s said in the Temple it’s no wonder. In the previous chapter Jesus has committed a litany of offences: he’s exposed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, mystifying them by demanding they render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. He’s been utterly disparaging of the Sadducees knowledge of the scriptures; only to then hold up a poor widow’s offering of a single penny as being greater than the very richest of the temple.
As if he hadn’t caused enough offence, Jesus then goes on to foretell the temple’s destruction entirely. “Do you see these great buildings?”, he says to his disciples, “not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
The magnitude of these words cannot be overstated. For the Jews, the Temple was the very dwelling place of God, the centre of Jewish life and faith. Foretelling its destruction was about as offensive as one could be. It should be of no surprise to us, then, that these very words are thrown back at Jesus at his crucifixion. To Jewish ears they are simply blasphemous.
The setting matters too. Jesus is speaking to them from the Mount of Olives, the place from which, in Old Testament prophecy, God brings his reign over the earth. Jesus is announcing that in Him the Kingdom of God has come.
For the earliest readers of Mark’s gospel this was indeed very close to the bone: amid the increasing tension of the Jewish-Roman war, the pressure for the fledgling church to join in the cause of rebel groups against their Roman occupiers was great, and refusal to join would often mean persecution. Jesus’ words would have a yet more eerie quality to those reading after the Temple’s destruction by the Romans’ in 70AD. Had Jesus foretold this event just 40 or so years before?
Jesus’ intention in foretelling the Temple’s destruction is not to cause offence for the sake of it, far from it. Rather, he’s making his own identity clear to his disciples: this carpenter’s son from Nazareth is not merely a radical moral teacher, but is the Lord of history: he is not just another character in Israel’s story, but he is the Messiah, the word made flesh, the only one who can forgive sins and restore humanity to unity with God. Unless the disciples grasp this they won’t have grasped anything at all?
And what, then, for the readers of Mark’s gospel in Cambridge in 2018? The harrowing images we see of the suffering in California, Yemen or any number of news stories remind us that war and famine are just as real now as in the time of Jesus and his disciples. The increasingly toxic and polarising political discourse in this country and around the world appears to echo our Lord’s words: ‘nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.’
Jesus teaches his disciples that these things are but the beginning of the birth pains. Things will continue to worsen, and the restoration for which we hope is that which comes with Christ’s glorious return. That doesn’t make them any less real, or less important, but rather situates them as events prior to the coming of Christ in glory.
In the following passage Jesus foretells the persecution which the Church will come to face: he’s not promising an easy ride. While we enjoy our freedom to worship, rightly protected by law, we must also remember that the Church is built on the blood of martyrs: and that each of the apostles died for confessing Jesus is Lord. And this, painfully, is not just a historical fact: many of our Brothers and Sisters in Christ continue to face persecution today.
And it’s at the end of the liturgical year where the church remembers this, as our focus turns toward the end of time. The feast days of All Saints and All Souls commemorate those who have gone before, those through whom we see something of the life of God. These moments emphasise that the love of God in Christ Jesus is stronger than death. This season culminates in the feast of Christ the King, where we celebrate Christ as the Lord of all creation and for all ages, where we look for his coming in glory. The message of today’s readings, however, is that things will get worse before they get better. It makes for uncomfortable reading, for uncomfortable preaching.
And the truth is that the present age is one already wrought with discomfort and uncertainty. But, however bad things get, Christian spirituality can never be a means of escaping the difficult things in our lives, or in the life of the world. Quite the opposite: we are called to be firmly rooted in the world, to see it as Christ sees it, and to love our neighbours without condition. Christian discipleship is about endurance, not escapism. Just as Jesus tells his disciples to endure, so we must endure. This is because Jesus Christ is Lord of all creation, the one for whom we exist, and in our lives we are to bring glory to His name, drawing others into the faith of the church through baptism. And we can do these things because Christ is present with us in His Church, through the Spirit and in the sacraments. ‘Since we have a great high priest over the house of God’, the letter to the Hebrews says, we can live with true hearts in full assurance of faith.
The letter to the Hebrews calls for the community of faith to persevere in the face of hardship, to hold fast to the teachings of Christ, and to trust in his faithfulness. We cannot rely on our own goodness, because that goodness will never be enough to deliver us from sin. Rather, because God has first loved us, we can, empowered by the Spirit, learn to love one another, to meet together as we are this morning, and to encourage one another in faith.
And it is precisely by doing these things: meeting together; provoking one another other in love, and sharing the Eucharist; that we learn to live lives constituted by Christ’s Lordship, lives of virtue. These are the markers of a community called to live in faithful anticipation of the incoming kingdom of God. To live in such a way is to imagine the world in light of eternity; the eternity which belongs to God, which has come in Jesus, and of which we have a foretaste in the Eucharist.
“Many will come in my name”, Jesus says, “and they will lead people astray.” As the world tempts us to build walls to shut out refugees, we confess Jesus is Lord through our love and hospitality for those that others would reject. As the world tempts us to apathy, to cover our eyes and ears, our faith leads us to care for others, to dare to hope and to live lives of charity.
For while the centres of power waver and crumble, we remember that salvation comes by way of a stable in Bethlehem, a carpenter’s son in Nazareth, and a blood-stained cross in Jerusalem. We look for wisdom not only from those authority, but from the margins: the migrant fleeing the horrors of war, the homeless man in the shop doorway
Each week at the Eucharist we say together: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We find ourselves in the now and not yet, where Christ has come, and has ascended, but where, with boldness, we proclaim his triumphant return.
And so, in this, as in every Eucharist, we look for Christ’s coming in word and sacrament, and we look too for his coming in glory. In it we feast on the only thing which can sustain us and transfigure us: Christ himself, the very substance of our hope.