Scripture: Mark 13:1-8
So much can be and has been said about this passage. It can be seen as something fearful as well as something filled with hope. What I want to focus on is something that many of us may never have thought about.
I want us to imagine driving into Kansas City or if you are unable to imagine this trip imagine traveling to the greatest city you have ever been to. One of the most breath taking entry into Kansas City is coming in from the East on I-70, on this drive you can see all the high rise buildings silhouetted in the setting sun framed in by an overpass. On this drive as a country boy from rural Kansas, I am faced with the knowledge that I am not just in a city but a major city. I look on these building rising up into the sky and I am transported to a state of wonder and pride. Take that image and intensify and you may just get a glimpse of the image that was presented to the disciples and Jesus in this scripture.
Jerusalem was a grand city. It was not the largest of the ancient cities of the world. To be honest it the comparison of Kansas City to New York in size would probably not even come close to the size difference of Jerusalem and the largest of the known cities in the Roman Empire. This does not mean that it was not grand; there was something about Jerusalem that drew people to it. It was the center of the Jewish faith. We tend to think that the Jewish culture was isolated in this small province of a vast empire, but the children of Israel had settlements in almost every major city in the Empire. We know that there was a great settlement in Egypt because that is where Jesus’ family fled to early in His life, less of us realize that there was and still is an ancient Hebrew settlement in Ethiopia which still exists even today. This Ethiopian settlement stretches back to the day of the undivided kingdom and is alluded to in the Old Testament when Solomon meets with an African queen. There were also glass craftsmen that traveled from Israel that settled in places like Italy and on north into the center of Europe. So a large population of Jewish people from around the world would travel to meet in this once place the center of their hope and faith. Meeting at what was know to be the greatest temple made by the hands of man.
I cannot even begin to imagine the greatness of this temple but we know that it was made from perfect stones, stones that were cut out of the bedrock of the earth. Each massive stone was without crack or blemish and if one was cracked it was left in the quarry, where some still rest today. These stones were stacked and it is said gilded with pure gold. The beauty of this temple was the pride of Israel and was honored by the gentile as well. It speaks of a power from a divinity greater than any other faith. It was a source of jealousy from the leader of other traditions, even to the Emperor of Rome, it was hard for others to accept that the God of this minority group of people had greater honor than the majority of the population.
There is a sense of pride among the people of Israel. Though their race was small it had a heart. It showed in their craftsmanship. The greatest gifts one can give and receive often have an origin that can be linked to Israel either by name or by craft. Israelite immigrants first produced the finest glassware from Italy. The term jewelry, which many of us are currently wearing, is linguistically linked to one word Jew. Like it or not the people of Israel have shaped many aspects of our lives. Many of these crafts gained great wealth for those that produced it, in the process this wealth filter into the coffers of the temple.
The disciples stop Jesus and marvel about the greatness of their people. “Look at the buildings.” They were proud of their heritage, they were a people that overcome obstacles and come out on the other side better off then they were before. They could just look at the structures of their culture and no one could deny this pride. But where was their pride focused? That is the central theme I am speaking of. Jesus responded in apocalyptic language when the disciples were puffed up with pride. He say that all this greatness will be turn over, where every one of these massive stones would be toppled. I imagine the disciples would have been in distress, and rightfully so. Every aspect of their culture was based on the buildings of this city, more importantly the temple complex. Their focus was on the wealth and beauty of their nations’ craft. But Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.
Religion often evolves to become an organization that amasses wealth. Every religion in the world eventually gains more financial tools. When they gain abundance they spend this money on buildings, décor, and icons that promote and encourage their traditions of faith. This in it self is not wrong, throughout scripture God dictates to his people to entrust the leaders with their wealth so that they can build the tools of worship. But that is not all that God commands the wealth to be used for, it is also commanded that the people are to care for the widows, orphans, resident aliens, and travelers to their nation. Later, the prophetic writings show God being filled with anger because the people focus on sacrifice more than mercy or justice.
Sacrifice was the central theme of worship in the temple. There is a long progression of sacrifices listed in the books of Moses; each represents different aspects of worship. They represent repentance, forgiveness, prayers, giving, and praise. These acts of sacrifice are presented first in the tent of meeting and later in the temple. As the progression of sacrifice proceeded through history the place of worship became more ornate. The nomadic Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob met out in the open air. Moses encouraged the sewing of a tent, and David set in motion the first temple to be built by his son Solomon. Notice the progression: air, tent, and temple each were acceptable places of worship. But eventually God tired of the sacrifice because mercy was neglected.
The center of their faith left service to humanity and slipped into pride of the buildings and religious system. As a result God allowed the reset button to be pushed, and the cycle began again. This story has been told countless times, not only in the pages of scripture but in the dusty digs of archeology throughout the world, not just with in the nation of Israel but in probably every culture that has existed.
Slowly religion builds greater facades that house their worship and gradually the efforts of that religion move from a focus on mercy to focusing mainly on sacrifice, and then the sacrifice or worship moves to keeping up the image. Idolatry becomes the norm. This is where we find Jesus, the focus of the people of God left mercy and justice, and instead was focused on preserving the image and religious machine. The religious machine was very successful, so successful that the Romans decided to tap into the funds to transfer them to fund their own projects.
When will this happen, is the question raised by the disciple. They are worried that the world as they know it is about to come to an end. Jesus says that it is not for them to know. Many things will happen that will make them think the end is near, but Jesus is actually encouraging them not to focus on those things but to keep the focus on the ministry that He was doing and was passing on to them. The end of an age did come in the year 70; Rome came to town and toppled the temple. The greed of a nation toppled the greed of the religion. Everything was about to change. Without a temple both the Christian and the Jew had to refocus their lives. They no longer had an earthly palace where God dwelled so for their faith to continue they had to rethink what they knew about God. After this event, many were reminded of the words that Jesus spoke and they began to realize that maybe the kingdom of God was not based on the things they once thought. Their efforts yet again were focused on mercy and justice for the poor, the widow, and the orphans because the poor were there and the temple was not.
The cycle continues. The church for the first 300 years met where it could in the houses of its members, in burial grounds, and under the open air. When these meeting places were found they were persecuted. They ministered to the orphans, prayed for the sick, and met for encouragement to continue on. Then eventually the greed of the nation consumed itself. It was the church that provided a message of hope that inspired the nation to unite again together. And the church began to build buildings and amass wealth. It became easier for the followers of Jesus to meet and serve because they now had a central place to operate. They formed creeds to dictate and regulate their belief system and slowly the followers whose sacrifice focused on mercy began to neglect justice and began to build a façade to house God.
The cycle continues. Through this imperial church groups began to emerge that would pursue one aspect or another of mercy over worship. Monks began to serve people and provide hospitality for the travelers. These too began to cycle through to support the continuation of the organization at the expense of ministry. Then came the Reformation. We are products of that fracture. Our spiritual ancestors saw the wealth being amassed in the steeple houses and they began to form a new tradition that would cycle in a new form in the expression of mercy. But even in our own tradition we have become fractured into religious groups focusing on our own sacrifices.
But what if we were to look back at our origins? The core theme of Quakers no mater what traditions they practice have some similar teachings: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality. These themes are based on mercy. Simplicity is ordering one’s life to be free from entanglements so that you are freed to serve. Peace focuses on promoting ways of overcoming differences while honoring the humanity of others. Integrity is based on honesty and trustworthiness, so that those around you can be free from fear. Community puts the needs of others before our own selfish desires. Equality is honoring the uniqueness and worthiness of all people. Our tradition was started to put mercy before sacrifice, and sacrificing so we could be merciful.
Jesus announced the end of one age and the beginning of something new. History has shown that this happened within the generation of those first followers of Jesus, but they cycle of life continues. Today we are constantly bombarded by images that cause us to fear the end of days, as we hear of earthquakes causing massive tsunamis in Japan, hurricanes hitting our cities, and the company that produces the greatest comfort foods goes bankrupt. Prophets all around us are claiming that the end of days is just around the corner, some even say that it will come before the end of the year, others have said that it was a few months ago. We look at these things and say Lord come! But what if all of this is telling us to refocus our attention? What if all of this is calling us to become a people less focused on elaborate buildings and worship styles, and more on service to others? What if we were again to focus on the SPICE of life instead of temples? What if we were to focus on the beginning of the next great age of humanity with God and worry less about the past success of a bygone era?
As we enter a time of open worship and corporate prayer, meditate on the images of that great city the disciples marveled at, meditate on the utter destruction that Jesus prophesied and that happened, consider what emerged out of that, and let us together cry out to God that yes come renew us again!