The City of God Remaineth! (A sermon on Mark 13:1-8)

‘Do you see these great buildings?’ said Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’

It is such an offensive thing to say!

Oh, I know that nothing in permanent in this world 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 the hymn). I know that this is all true, and for those who take exception to the outdated sexist language of the hymn – ‘goods, honour, children, wife’ – you can feel free to substitute ‘goods, honour, husband, wife’ when we sing it, and so remind us that we can lose the husband too!

We lose them all – that’s the point! The city of God remaineth but everything else in this world gets thrown down. Nothing else will last the distance – neither persons nor buildings nor even our most cherished relationships, and I know that. It’s just that the older I get the less I feel I need to be reminded!

When I was a younger man, fuelled with all that adolescent energy that sends so many young persons off to fight wars that should have never be fought, there was nothing I liked more than a good end-time prophecy of how the world was coming to an 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 how the amount of satisfaction most of us feel in listening to prophecies of doom, and I suspect that we’d find that for most of us the degree of satisfaction is very precisely in inverse proportion to our 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 and sometimes you’re just looking for something that isn’t moving that you can hold on to!

‘Do you see these great buildings?’… ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’

Of course I’m not suggesting that Jesus was saying this in order to be offensive, and I also don’t want to give the impression that Jesus said these words simply to draw attention to the fragility of human life, for the stones Jesus referred to were some very specific stones, and the buildings He referred to were the buildings of the temple in Jerusalem, and this prophecy of doom, in as much as it does go on to take in the whole of creation, starts with a very specific depiction of the devastation that is going to take place within Israel and within Jerusalem itself – a depiction that looks especially chilling when seen in the light of events that have been taking place within the Holy Land this week.

Of course it’s not Jerusalem that’s been the main focus of violence this week but Gaza again, and with the terrible prospect of an escalation of violence and another possible ground assault on Gaza, one wonders whether there will soon be one stone left upon another in some of those currently bustling streets.

Even so, the prophecy Jesus gave focused on Jerusalem, and we have to acknowledge that this prophecy was pretty much fulfilled in AD 70 when the Roman Emperor Vespasian crushed the Jewish rebellion and sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple!

Jesus, it seems, foresaw exactly what was going to happen and indeed He prayed “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42). Jerusalem did fall and the streets ran with blood and the temple was destroyed though, it is worth pointing out, there were still some stones left, one upon another. In fact some of those stones are still there today!

If you go to the wailing wall in Jerusalem today you can still see some of those ancient stones, piled one upon another. They are a sobering shadow of the once great temple that stood on that spot but that wall of stones is still there.

That may sound like a very trivial point to make but I’m keen to demonstrate that if the purpose of Jesus in making this prophecy was not to offend, it wasn’t simply to inform either, for the information He gave is not entirely correct.

Now some Biblical commentators do leap in to ‘defend’ Jesus at this point, suggesting that Jesus was not referring to the fall of Jerusalem then but to the end of the world, when those remaining stones will also be thrown down, but this would make the rest of the prophecy difficult to understand, as only a few verses later Mark tells us that Jesus said “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mark 13:30). If Jesus was referring to the fall of Jerusalem that makes sense, as indeed the fall of Jerusalem did take place before that generation had passed away, whereas the end of the world did not.

My point is simply that Jesus did not speak these words about the temple purely for the sake of showing that He could make accurate predictions about the future, like some all-powerful fortune-teller. That might seem like a rather trivial point, but understanding the actual purpose of the prophecies of Jesus is surely anything but trivial, for I think we all know that over the centuries people have used (and misused) the prophecies of Jesus for the most sinister of purposes!

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about! From time immemorial politicians and generals have quoted the prophecies of Jesus, just as they have quoted lines from the Qur’an, just as they have quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures to lend legitimacy to their war-mongering and military manoeuvrings.

Indeed, it has to be mentioned that the current Israeli assault on Gaza has been codenamed “Pillar of Cloud”, which is indeed a deliberate allusion to the ‘pillar of cloud’ mentioned in the Exodus (Exodus 13:21) through which God led the people of Israel through the desert in the days of old.

That sort of politicking makes me shudder a little, and I was encouraged to hear one courageous Jewish commentator lash out, ‘don’t you invoke the name of my God to justify your blood for votes attack on the people of Gaza!’

In truth, political leaders throughout history have always invoked the name of their God to justify their wars, and there has never been any shortage of patriotic prophets and soothsayers who demonstrate their genius in analysing their ancient Scriptures to bring out strikingly contemporary applications of texts that might otherwise have been long forgotten!

Perhaps it helps us religious people to feel a little superior to our irreligious peers – the fact that we have a sense of where history is heading while others remain in the dark, and we like nothing better than being able to demonstrate our wisdom through the application of a particular Biblical prophecy to a contemporary political event.

Beware! That was the warning Jesus gave His disciples. Beware jumping on the apocalyptic bandwagon and throwing in your lot with the end-time prophets!

Read through the rest of Mark chapter 13 and you’ll see Jesus’ disciples fishing for exactly this sort of prophetic interpretation of contemporary events – “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 Jesus’ response: beware!

“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)

Evidently 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 was very particular with His people that they should not get involved with any of them! That was nearly 2000 years ago but absolutely nothing has changed!

In our own lifetime we have seen Islamic prophets declaring a Jihad against the infidels of the West and an American President and a choir of Christian clerical deputies declaring their own Holy War against the ‘Axis of Evil’ in response! And I believe that the message of Jesus in all of this is the same today as it was then: ‘Beware, and don’t get on board with any of them!’

Our world is full of loud and seemingly authoritative interpreters of the Bible who will tell you that we are in the last days and that each of the key players on today’s political stage can be identified with one of the beasts or one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. Beware!

I’ve been told many times that the United Nations is the anti-Christ or that the Pope is the anti-Christ or that the Catholic Church as a whole is the anti-Christ and that therefore I should stay away from United Nations delegates and Catholics (and particularly Catholic United Nations delegates). Beware!

I’ve been told that the attacks on Gaza must take place and that all of Israel’s enemies need to be wiped out before Jesus the Messiah can make his return, and that therefore we should all be behind the State of Israel regardless of whether its actions are honest and upright or murderous and deceitful. Beware!

Beware because such applications of the ancient Scriptural texts to 21st century events are probably erroneous, but beware too because even if a lot of what these characters said was correct, it actually shouldn’t make any difference, because Biblical prophecy is never normative, by which I mean that Biblical prophecy, in and of itself, never tells anyone what to do.

Forgive me if I’m getting a bit technical, but 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 was not 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.

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 predictions about the future. Sometimes it doesn’t matter when a prophet’s predictions are not accurate.

Biblical prophecy is never normative. It’s the commandments that are normative. It’s the commandments that tell us what to do. 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. Even if you believed that Jesus predicted that Israel was going to destroy all of its neighbours in the 21st century that would not be a Biblical basis for helping the process along, any more than Jonah’s hearers might have been expected to assist in the burning of Nineveh. On the contrary, what you should do is what the commandments tell you to do, which is to love God and neighbour.

“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 was not interested in stirring up end-time expectations, even though a vast religious industry that has been built upon His end-time teachings!

But if He wasn’t trying to stir up end-time expectations and he wasn’t trying to either offend or inform, and if He wasn’t trying to get His people to take up any particular political cause in the light of the coming destruction He spoke of, we must ask again, why did He bother prophesying?

Presumably, He meant is as a bit of shock therapy, as with all prophesy, designed to help us wake up to ourselves.

Do you see these great buildings?’ said Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’

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 though they take our life
Goods, honour, [husband], wife
Yet is their profit small
These things will vanish all

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 on November 18, 2012.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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2 Responses to The City of God Remaineth! (A sermon on Mark 13:1-8)

  1. Arlene Adamo says:

    What was this temple Jesus was speaking of? It was Herod’s house of vanity. It was an stone idol built for the purpose of control and exploitation of the Jews. Jesus was trying as best he could to explain this. (Not to say that there wasn’t a little prophecy thrown in. Nothing Jesus said or did was ever simple.) Just like the shadows of Plato’s cave, Herod’s building was just a shadow of reality.

    Jesus was not a shadow. He was the real Temple…an Eternal Temple that can never be thrown down. That, I believe, was his main point.

  2. Father Dave says:

    Well said, sister.

    The Biblical perspective on the Temple is complex. One the one hand it is the ‘house of God’ and the focus of prayer and worship. On the other hand, it was the beginning of the end for Israel.

    The first temple was built on the slave-labour of the people of the north, and so was a direct cause of the civil war and splitting of the country. The second temple, by the time of Jesus, was very much a corrupt system, such that you see Jesus ‘cleansing’ the temple twice!

    At the same time, you see no criticism by Jesus of the old woman who puts every cent she has into the Temple treasury in order to support that corrupt system (Mark 12:41-44) and Jesus’ regular appearances there reflect that He as well as His disciples still considered it their central place of worship!

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