“Jesus said ‘Do you see these great buildings?’ Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.'” (Mark 3:2) It is such an offensive thing to say! Oh, I know that nothing in permanent in this life and that the greatest of our human institutions and heroic achievements will eventually pass and go the way of all flesh, but I really didn’t want to be confronted with that just now!. And though they take our life Goods, honour, children, wife Yet is their profit small These things will vanish all The city of God remaineth Yes, thank you Jesus (and thank you Martin Luther for putting it into song). I know that this is true. The city of God remaineth but everything else in this world is going to be thrown down. Nothing else will last the distance- neither persons nor buildings nor even our most cherished relationships. I know that. It’s just that the older I get in this life the less I feel I need to be reminded of it. When I was a younger man, fuelled with all that adolescent energy that sends so many young people off to fight wars that never should be fought, there was nothing I liked more than a good end-time prophecy of how the world was coming to and end and how everything was going to be thrown down! If there’s going to be a battle, bring it on! If a conflagration is going to start, hand me a box of matches! Let’s get it started! But that was some time ago and now I’m trying to build a future for my children and, in truth, I suspect that we could probably work out a pretty accurate equation about the amount of satisfaction a person feels in listening to prophecies of doom being in inverse proportion to their age. When you are young, constant change and upheaval are all a part of the adventure. As you get older, you start wishing things would slow down a bit. Indeed, you look for something you can hold on to that is just standing still! ‘Do you see these great buildings?’ ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’ Now, of course I’m not suggesting that Jesus only said this only for the purpose of being offensive, and yet it is worth asking why He says it at all. For if Jesus’ purpose wasn’t just to offend, it wasn’t simply to inform either. For so far as information goes, this prophecy of Jesus isn’t entirely accurate. It didn’t actually come true – not in detail at any rate! ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’ It didn’t happen, not exactly, not in 70 AD anyway, and I presume that’s the event Jesus was referring to – the crushing of the Jewish rebellion and the sacking of Jerusalem during the rule of the Roman Emperor Vespasian. Jesus was entirely right of course about the big picture – Jerusalem did fall and the streets ran with blood and the temple was destroyed, but there were still some stones left, one on another, and in fact they are still there today. If you go to the wailing wall in Jerusalem today you’ll see some ancient stones there, piled one on another. They are a sobering shadow of the once great temple that stood on that spot but that wall of stones is still there. Now some do say that Jesus wasn’t referring to the fall of Jerusalem then but to the end of the world when those remaining stones will also be thrown down but that is difficult to maintain, given that a few verses later in this dialogue, as recorded in Mark chapter 13 Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mark 13:30), and indeed the fall of Jerusalem did take place before the generation Jesus was speaking to had passed away, whereas the end of the world did not. Jesus evidently did not speak these words about the temple purely for the sake of showing that He could make accurate predications about the future, like some all-powerful fortune-teller. Indeed, if His main concern had been to foretell the future, we might have expected Him to respond more helpfully to some of the questions of His disciples when they probed Him about the event. We’re told that after Jesus made His pronouncement about the temple that the apostolic band retired to a quiet spot on the Mount of Olives, where the disciples were very keen to quiz their master for more information: “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4) And how does Jesus respond to them? Does He fill them in on the details of everything that’s going to take place? No! He doesn’t tell them anything initially, apart from warning them that they shouldn’t get too caught up in worrying about the end times and so falling prey to those who would make religious mileage out of their doomsday prophecies. “See that no one leads you astray”, says Jesus. “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 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 13:5-8) You see, sadly, there were any number of wanna-be prophets moving about at the time of Jesus, full of end-of-the-world proclamations and messages of doom and judgement and Holy War, and Jesus is very particular with His people that they shouldn’t get involved with any of them! That was nearly 2000 years ago, but nothing much has changed! In our own lifetime we’ve seen Osama Bin Laden declare a Jihad against the infidels of the West and an America President respond by declaring his own Holy War against the ‘Axis of Evil’. And like their forefathers of old, these and the other modern-day peddlers of religious violence draw on words of prophecy to fuel their machinery of death. Indeed, I know that it’s a particular bug-bear of mine, but I do think that it is one of the most disgraceful indictments on the church today, that there remain many who publicly align themselves with the cause of Christ who nonetheless turn to the Scriptures to justify the oppression and violence of Palestinian people in the Middle East. Now I don’t want to get too carried away with this now, and I’m not going to quote any of the savage language of the Christian Zionists, who hold such a powerful position in the American Christian scene and who remain influential in certain Protestant circles in our own country, but I must tell you that it grieves me greatly when I hear (as indeed I have heard first hand) people justify what happened in Gaza earlier this year, for instance – the murder of so many men, women and children, and the destruction of an entire civilian infrastructure – who justify these things by turning to Scripture and even by quoting some of the prophetic sayings of Jesus! Such people, I would suggest, do not understand Jesus. They do not understand the love of Christ, and, for that matter, they do not understand the role of Biblical prophecy, which is what we are looking at today. Let me make a technical point at this stage. I’ll state it as plainly as I can, but I need you to bear with me please: prophecy in the Bible is never normative. By that I mean that prophecy, in and of itself, never tells anyone what to do. Let me illustrate: When the Biblical prophet Jonah prophesied that Nineveh was about to be destroyed, the purpose of his prophecy was not to encourage his hearers to join in the destruction of Nineveh. Jonah prophesied that Nineveh was to be destroyed but that didn’t make the destruction of Nineveh a good thing, and in his case it didn’t even mean it was going to happen. The prophecy wasn’t normative. The message of destruction in and of itself did not tell anybody what they were supposed to do. The message of doom functioned as a sort of shock therapy – to help people wake up to themselves and repent, and in the case of the Ninevites we are told that they it did function in that way and they did repent, and so the prophecy did not come true, though that did not mean that the prophecy didn’t fulfil its purpose. You see, if we are going to understand particular Biblical prophesies we need to understand how Biblical prophecy works as a whole. Prophecy in the Bible is not the same as fortune-telling. It’s not simply about making accurate predictions about the future, and indeed sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter when a prophet’s predictions are not accurate. Now certain people will tell you that if we question the historical accuracy of a Biblical prophecy that we are doubting the Scriptures and calling into question the truth of the Bible as a whole, and then some of these same people will take certain statements of the prophets of old and combine them with some of the more prophetic statements of Jesus to show that the modern-day state of Israel has to triumph over all its Arab neighbours in the Middle East before Jesus can return. And they then use this to justify the subjugation of any and all of Israel’s political opponents. Now I’m not going to argue the politics of the Middle East from this pulpit any further, and indeed, the issues there are complex and deserving of a more serious treatment than I could give them in this context anyway, but I do want to say again that Biblical prophecy is never normative, and so regardless of how anyone might see the prophecies of the Bible as applying to the Middle East of today, those prophecies in themselves do not tell us what to do. In other words, even if you believed that Jesus predicted that Israel was going to destroy all of its neighbours in the 21st century, that wouldn’t mean anyone was supposed to help the process along, any more than Jonah’s hearers were supposed to join in on the burning of Nineveh. You see, we misunderstand Biblical prophecy, and religious power-mongers too readily use it for their own purposes – to stir up hatred and start holy wars, which presumably is why Jesus was so direct with His disciples, telling them not to get carried away by people who peddle end-time prophecies to further their own Messianic aspirations. “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet” (Mark 13:6-7) Jesus clearly wasn’t interested in stirring up end-time expectations, which still leaves us with the question though as to why Jesus made this statement about the temple in the fist place? If He wasn’t just trying to offend His disciples and yet He wasn’t interested in filling them in on the details of what was going to happen, and yet He wasn’t wanting His people to take up any particular political cause in the light of the coming destruction, why did He bother prophesying? Well, presumably, He meant is as a bit of shock therapy, as with all prophesy, designed to help us wake up to ourselves. For nothing in this life is permanent, and that the greatest of our human institutions and the greatest of our human achievements will eventually go the way of all flesh. None of the things that oppress us nor any of the things that we love the most will be here forever – neither persons nor buildings nor even our most cherished relationships. And maybe it is offensive to be reminded of that, but maybe we need to wake up to ourselves too, and stop clinging to our wealth and to our achievements as if our life depended on them, and make the most of the time we have. For all these things will pass away. All will be thrown down. And yet the city of God remaineth. Amen
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.