Who's Marking the Way?
I feel like there’s a bit of “country-mouse in the big city” going on here. Can’t you just see the disciples wandering around the Temple courts wide-eyed and slack-jawed? These fishermen from Galilee have once again found themselves in Jerusalem, David’s City, the Holy City, the center of religious and national life, surrounded by crowds teeming with energy, the sounds of the busy marketplace, the bleating and squawking of animals. And they’re in the Temple: a massive structure, beautifully, extravagantly designed. It’s truly a temple fit for a proper god.
It was, by all accounts quite something to behold. The basics of Temple had been built years before, but Herod the Great had made it what it was by the time Jesus and his disciples stood in its shadow. Herod liked building things that had his name attached to them. It was one way for him to justify his existence as Rome’s puppet king (what he really was). Building things was a way to impose some confidence in his rule and reign. And of all the things he built, the Temple in Jerusalem was Herod’s masterpiece. He had architects from Greece, Rome and Egypt brought in to make huge additions and create ornate facades. No expense was spared. Parts of the complex soared stories into the air; it stretched almost wider than you can see. It’s no wonder that the disciples commented on the size of the stones—many weighed over 100 tons; the largest one found is over 600 tons. The scale of this place was mind-boggling.
In hindsight, it seems like Herod might have been compensating for something. But he undoubtedly captured an awful lot of imaginations. And I suspect that it would be hard to overstate the support he’d have for putting all this time, attention, and money into the Temple, the physical sign of Israel’s hope and promise; the place where heaven and earth met. In fact, this building project would have put in some peoples’ minds at least a hint of Messiahship. This is the king who was completing what King David had set out to do so long ago: to make a house worthy of God’s intimate presence; a place where God’s people would stream to worship. And when they arrived they would see what a serious God YHWH is. The Temple was designed to inspire confidence in God’s people and in Herod, who wanted to be known as God’s king. The extravagance of it all was meant to show the people that Herod cared more about the things that made Israel Israel, than anyone else. It was the focus of national pride and the assurance that God was with God’s chosen people. It’s hard to blame the disciples for getting caught up in the wonder of it all.
And then Jesus bursts their bubble, as only Jesus seems to be able to. It’s all dust. One big pile of ostentatious rubble. This thing that looks immovable and majestic will be levelled. Not one stone left upon another. This beacon of hope, this monument to national pride and security will be toppled, just like that. No wonder the disciples are struck silent by Jesus’ words. They don’t seem to be able to say anything for the rest of the trip.
They don’t find their voice again until they’re a fair way away, on the Mt. of Olives, not in the shadow of the Temple, but opposite and overlooking it. And I think we can still hear a bit of disbelief in their question, “When will all this happen?” I don’t hear them excited and confident about the promised destruction. The Mt. of Olives is 80 meters higher than the Temple Mount; they can survey the whole thing. And even from there, it must seem impossible that Herod’s Temple is in any danger. Captured by the majesty and glory of the Temple, their imaginations can’t grasp at anything else, any other possibility.
I think it’s good, every once in a while, to remind ourselves that Scripture is more about creating the conditions for formation, than imparting objective information. Eugene Peterson says that as often as not, when we read Scripture, we find out more about ourselves than about ancient history. It’s true that lurking behind this text is the fact that the Temple really was destroyed by the Romans, right around the time Mark wrote his gospel. And that’s interesting and important. It’s one way to make sense of what Jesus says—as a prediction of, and a Scriptural reflection on an historical event, documented and verifiable. But the gospels aren’t just written as straightforward history; they’re written to draw us into the way that God is, to shape us in the will and way of Jesus. They’re written to capture our imaginations for another kingdom altogether, to grab our attention from the distractions of the way things are, and to orient us to how they will be when God gets the world God wants.
And so, what Mark shows us here is more than objective facts. It’s a reminder that followers of Jesus in every generation are at risk of being coopted for something less than what Jesus calls us to. Maybe the easiest interpretation of what Jesus says about the Temple is a sort of anti-institutional religion gloss. But I think that’s too simplistic. Just a few verses ago, Jesus was cleansing the Temple, chasing profiteers and flipping tables, because what was supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations had been turned into a robbers’ den; what was supposed to be a prophetic reminder of who and how God is had been turned into a religious marketplace. The prophetic had been traded for the profitable.
The Temple in and of itself wasn’t the problem. What seems clear, and what I think the disciples’ wide-eyed-wonder at its marvellous architecture confirms, is that Herod’s Temple had actually become a distraction from God, rather than drawing people to God. It didn’t, in the end, point to the One who made heaven and earth, the burning bush who calls and sends; the God who saves the enslaved and shapes a people to be a light to the nations.
Instead, the Temple, with its extravagance and imposing size, had become a monument to the god we’d like to choose, rather than the God who chooses us; it invited people not to confidence in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who calls and sends us to do new things in hope; but to confidence in what the keepers of the way things are would have us believe God is about—power and prestige, vanity and self-satisfaction, supremacy and status. When that happens, our religion becomes cramped and controlling; our commitments are seduced in the name of security; our confidence is transferred from the God who saves, to things that cannot save; from the One who is our rock and fortress, to things that are, even now, wasting away.
Mark reminds us that we’re not immune to the sorts of influences that disorient the disciples’ imagination. Just like those first disciples, we have plenty of capacity to be distracted from the God Who Is, by things that aren’t. We can be wowed by monuments to security and power; we can be overcome by luxury and extravagance; we can be lured by the possibility of self-satisfaction and influence. We can find ourselves quite happily in the shadow of things that promise control and certainty, that tell the world that we’ve got this in hand; we can find ourselves comfortably clinging to things that signal to onlookers that our way is eternally worthy of confidence. In a roundabout way Mark is asking us a question that demands some introspection, some prayerful reflection. What are the things we put our confidence in? What are the things—even the apparently good things—that distract our attention, capture our imaginations, from God?
But alongside that question we also see the good-news promise that Jesus will pull us from the shadow of those things, so that we can see them more clearly, so we can remember who it is that we’re really dealing with—not the keepers of the way things are with their gaudy attempts at power, but the God who is even now making all things new. On the Mt. of Olives, we can see the Temple for what it is: a building made by hands; the fading plans of a king whose end is as dusty as the rest of us. It’s extravagant and beautiful, to be sure, but ultimately not something that will satisfy—not the source of hope we were promised.
There’s a bit of play-acting going on in the story, to help spark a holy imagination. Jesus, sitting on the Mt. of Olives, opposite the Temple, is channelling the prophet Zechariah, who had a vision of God standing on that mountain, ready to bring justice and redemption to the world, to flood the world with holiness. Mark wants us to see that our hope is not in the way of the Herods of the world, not subject to the markets or the strength of princes; our hope is not in governments or retirement plans; our souls will not be set free by either safety or luxury or any of the things the advertisers promise. Our hope is in the name of the Lord, in the God who made heaven and earth; our hope is in Christ who makes God’s way known in the world and who will not be contained by all the big stones we can find. Sitting on the Mt. of Olives, high about the Temple mount, Jesus reclaims our attention and reminds us that our hope is not in the extravagant plans of the kingdoms of this world; our hope is the cross-shaped way of the kingdom of heaven.
I think it’s significant that the four who come to Jesus with the question are the first four Jesus called—the fishermen who dropped their nets so eagerly, the day that Jesus came strolling down the beach, saying “Come, follow me.” It’s as if in this moment, which is sort of a pivot between Jesus’ ministry and his impending death, that those who’ve answered his call to follow need a reminder that his way goes in a different direction than the ways of the world. He is the One who doesn’t chase after glory and security, but lets go of those things, in favor of something more and calls us to do the same. His destination isn’t the excitement and extravagance of the Temple courts, but a little hill outside the city walls—where those who won’t walk according to the way things are, where those who threaten the status quo and those who want to keep it that way, are sent.
Added to the original call to follow him is this call to pay attention, to maintain focus, to cling to this peculiar way against the siren song of the powers that be. Don’t let God’s dream for us get traded in for the façade of power and hope. Beware of those who would call us from the way of Jesus. There are plenty of voices in the world echoing Herod’s attempt to be a saviour and messiah. There are lots of voices that promise safety and security, if we’d just let them make the decisions for us, if we’d just buy into this plan or that. Listen to the language used during political campaigns. Pay attention to the words in car and real estate ads. Notice the promises of financial institutions. Over and over we’re wooed into a different way than the one that Jesus has called us to—we can be easily distracted from the way of justice, and kindness, and humility; the way of self-giving, not self-protection; the way of lavish love and unflinching mercy; the way of life that’s really life, not just making a living. Don’t let anyone lead you astray.
Don’t let the chaos of the world capture your imagination. Wars and rumors of wars—battles fought in the name of the world’s kingdoms—have always had the capacity to make us prisoners of anxiety and fear, to close us off from neighbors, to have us easily naming as enemies people whom God made to be good, to be loved. Don’t let the military-industrial complex have its way with your heart. Don’t buy into the fear-mongering. When the powers that be grab at more and more, when they tip the scales ever in their own favor, work for justice anyways. When the strong and powerful posture and rage, love kindness anyways. When rulers bluster and blow, walk humbly anyways, always in the presence of the One who actually deserves our attention, our allegiance, our affection.
Don’t let your hearts be troubled, but trust in the One who is faithful, from beginning to end. When we’re wearied by the shaking earth and shifting sands and panicked that there won’t be enough of what we need, let Jesus take us and give us rest and set us on a sure foundation; come to the One who will wipe away every tear and satisfy every belly—whose goal is not a scorched earth, but a healed one.
Can it be that in our time and place, when things don’t seem to be all that distant from the calamity that Jesus points towards (we know about leaders whose way bears no resemblance to Jesus; we know something about wars and rumours of wars; we know about a broken and groaning creation) what Mark wants for us is to be a people ready to let Jesus lead us across the valley, a little higher, and to clear our vision. Let Jesus remind us of who and whose we really are. Let him remind us (in prayer and scripture, by his presence in the Spirit) that ours is not the God who is confined to the places that the power mongers have set aside, but the whole world is God’s Temple—God made it and blessed it and called it good, and God is living and active, here and now. I believe that the world needs us to be a people who will let Jesus draw us out of the shadow of the way things are, and shape us in by the way that they will be.
Mark sets the question before us: where’s our allegiance? What are we giving our hearts and our imaginations to? In our homes, at work, in schooling and teaching, in private and public, who holds sway—the false voices, the fear mongers, the Herods of the world, or the One who called the world into being, who walks with us through the darkest of valleys through to the wide space of grace, whose love is higher and deeper, longer and higher than anything we can accomplish for ourselves?
Who are we listening to? Who’s marking our way?
The world, near and far, needs us to be people who will let Jesus reorient our vision and shape our commitments—not just once but daily. The world needs the Church to be a people whose imagination is not captive to the way things are, whose life is not resigned to familiar patterns, but who can see a new world, and new heaven and a new earth—a world teeming with justice and love and righteousness; with mercy and grace and hope; life and generosity, healing and joy: the world that God is birthing, even now, from the rubble of the old.
The world God loves needs us to witness to that with all that we are. Jesus will lead us.
God give us grace and guts. Amen.