“Endings and Beginnings”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (NRSV)
Mark and Luke both preface Jesus’ teaching about the destruction of the temple with the story of the widow’s two-cent offering to the temple. That juxtaposition creates a disconnect. In one breath Jesus commends a widow for her financial sacrifice, and in the next he says that the temple’s days are numbered. So, wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for Jesus to have told the woman, Ma’am, keep your money; you need it more than the temple does?
Shortly after Jesus reveals the news about the fall of the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew come to Jesus in private and ask when all of this will happen. And Jesus opens up about would-be messiahs, about wars, about tensions and military posturing between nations, and about earthquakes and famines.
Such predictions don’t seem all that insightful, do they? When has the world ever been turmoil-free? And doomsayers thrive on predictions of utter and final destruction. This seems especially true for Christian doomsayers—and shouldn’t Christian doomsayer be an oxymoron for Resurrection people? If I were to preach doomsday theology, I would be projecting onto God my own faithless fears and judgments. For some twisted reason, though, doomsday preaching is extremely profitable.
But I digress; besides Jesus has a surprise in store. After all of his dire warnings, he turns to his disciples and says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
While that phrase sits in a grim shadow, it sits there as a kind of glowing coal, and Jesus represents the ruach, the pneuma. His words and actions become the very Breath of God on that smoldering, two-cent ember of hope.
What gives a poor widow and God’s despised Messiah the faith to give their all to an institution and a Creation that appear on the verge of collapse? To embrace and embody the trust that God can craft beginnings out of endings takes a fresh awakening to God’s redeeming presence which is already at work in the world. Through its own fear, greed, and love of violence, humankind brings countless endings on itself, and it takes a Resurrection mindset to grasp that the God of nevertheless-grace can transform those endings into raw materials for new hope and unimagined peace.
It can be a fearsome task to face these endings. And while fear usually feels like a sure thing, it’s only the sterile delivery room of religious certainty, of “reasonable” despair, and of every self-serving idolatry. As the opposite of fear, faith is the stable of trust, that compost-rich barn in which God is birthing the New Creation.
Jesus demonstrates unyielding trust in God. And it seems to me that he trusts God to be a verb, not some static, bearded, white-robed noun. I think we get the truest sense of God when we behold God as the very energy behind, before, and within all things. I get that from First John who writes, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1John 4:16) God is the very activity of abiding love, the activity of creation and re-creation at work in the universe. God is the flow of the river, the rush of the wind, the hot gurgling of the volcano, the heave of the laugh, the fall of the tear, and the joyous interplay and fertile cooperation among religions.
In his essay, “Another Turn of the Crank,” Wendell Berry writes, “I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe,” says Berry, “that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation…with God.”
As Love, God allows even the most revered institutions to crumble like sand castles at high tide. And they fall because their familiar and comfortable ways, as constructive as they may have been, now do more to conceal than to reveal God’s new and emerging work.
And there’s the rub: Revelation. Bringing to light. The story of Jesus’ foretelling the destruction of the temple appears in a section of Mark which scholars call The Little Apocalypse. And while apocalyptic literature may have been hijacked by doomsayers and other fear-mongers, it was never intended to announce God’s retribution or some furious Armageddon. Apocalyptic literature is all about revealing the wholeness of God which comes, necessarily and usually primarily, through justice. Mishpat, the principle Hebrew word for justice, refers to bringing fairness, equity, and wholeness to those who have been ignored and exploited by those who hold privilege and power. Because every human being bears the image of God, mishpat means recognizing the full humanity of those who have been marginalized and abused. It also means caring for the entire Creation the way we care for our church buildings because the earth itself is the first incarnation of the Creator and the original holy text. (Romans 1:20)
Recently, I watched some old interviews with (the now former) Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Along with Nelson Mandela and others, Tutu helped to bring mishpat to South Africa. And the first step of bringing God’s holy justice was bringing an end to the openly and violently racist system of Apartheid. The process of ending something as horrific as institutional racism requires apocalyptic speech and action, speech and action that reveals prejudice, resentment, and hate as destructive because it is antithetical to God—who is love. And when the Apartheid stones had fallen, things got even more deeply apocalyptic for both black and white South Africans.
Instead of taking advantage of the situation, Tutu led all of South Africa in a process of restoration. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, black victims and white perpetrators of Apartheid injustice were given the chance to tell their stories—to reveal the afflictions suffered and the suffering inflicted. While the process was painful, and, perhaps, not altogether perfect, it gave that nation its best chance to discover new beginnings after old arrangements had come to an end.
One of the most remarkable things Tutu said to black South Africans, especially to those who craved vengeance, was that when people dehumanize others, they inevitably, and perhaps just as thoroughly, dehumanize themselves. Be kind to the whites, said Tutu. They need you to rediscover their humanity.1
Showing compassion to those who so recently had showed none would be a hard pill to swallow, yet such is the justice of God’s eternal Christ, the justice that seeks restoration not revenge, the justice that announces the birth pangs of something new even amid the lamentations of loss. Through such stubborn mishpat Resurrection happens, and fresh revelations of God’s holy realm begin to appear.
May we have the gracious vision and wisdom to discern in all that seems to be ending, signs of God’s ongoing re-creation.
And may we have the faith, hope, and love to participate in that re-creation by committing ourselves, as Christ’s body, to working for the kind of apocalyptic justice Jesus makes possible through his life, death, resurrection, and ongoing return in and for the world that God so loves.
1A quick search on YouTube will connect you to many wonderful interviews with and speeches by Desmond Tutu. The particular quotation footnoted here can be heard in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iV2LURTu3eQ