They say it was a magnificent building, the temple in Jerusalem. Herod the Great began the ambitious project in 20 BCE, and it was still under construction some fifty years later when Jesus and the disciples came to Jerusalem. Known as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, Herod’s temple project wasn’t completed until 63 CE. It occupied a platform of more than 900 by 1,500 feet—twice as large as the Roman Forum with its many temples and four times as large as the Acropolis in Athens with the famous Parthenon. The massive retaining walls that supported the temple, including the now well-known Western wall, were composed of enormous blocks of white stone, 12 feet tall, 18 feet wide, some of them 40 feet long. The front of the temple itself was a square of 150 by 150 feet of sculpted rock, much of it decorated with silver and gold. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, described the gold as “[effecting] so fierce a blaze of fire that those who tried to look at it were forced to turn away. Jerusalem and the temple seemed in the distance like a mountain covered in snow, for any part not covered in gold was dazzling white.” The temple complex could be seen from miles away by pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem to worship there, and in bright sunlight, the luminous city nearly blinded them. This was the center of the world, the dwelling place of God’s name; this was, carved in stone, the promise of God’s presence with God’s people Israel. Here they could, even when they failed to lead holy lives, approach their holy God in worship. Rituals of atonement and purification along with festivals of liberation and thanksgiving sustained a community striving to live faithfully with their God.
Jesus was standing in the courtyard with the disciples. He had just drawn their attention to a widow giving her last two coins to the temple treasury, but she didn’t keep their attention very long. Dazzled by the architectural marvels surrounding them, one of the disciples, his eyes wide with awe, his hands perhaps touching one of the colossal blocks, said, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” He saw great beauty, he saw overwhelming grandeur; he saw the biggest, boldest, and most unshakeable symbol of divine presence he had ever layed eyes on.
Jesus saw something else. “Do you see these great buildings?” he replied. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Jesus saw destruction and collapse, a pile of rubble.
“Tell us, when will this be?” the disciples asked him.
The Gospel of Mark was written in a time of war. The weight of Roman occupation had become too much to bear for the Jewish population. In the years 62-66, increasing violence by various groups was disrupting life in Jerusalem. A band of assassins, called sicarii, dagger men, attacked and murdered people, even a high priest, in broad daylight and kidnapped Jewish officials. Gangs of roaming outlaws burned and looted villages. Street prophets delivered oracles of doom, and the daily news seemed to confirm their words. Jerusalem was a tinderbox in those tumultuous years, with revolutionary sentiments mounting and finally catapulting Judea into open rebellion against Rome. Josephus, the Jewish historian writing for a Roman audience, reported, “Deceivers and impostors, under the pretense of divine inspiration, fostering revolutionary changes, they persuaded the masses to act like madmen and led them out into the desert in the belief that God would give them signs of deliverance.” Insurgents took control of the city, but events in the years 67-69 unfolded under the headline, “The Empire Strikes Back.” Roman troops under Titus laid siege to Jerusalem, and in August of the year 70, the city fell and the temple was destroyed – seven years after its completion.
The Gospel of Mark was written in a time of wars and rumors of wars, and for some believers in the Markan community these catastrophic events meant that the world had reached a cosmic crisis point and that the return of Jesus in power and glory was imminent. The writer of Mark made sure that all who would hear or read the apostolic testimony would hear Jesus’ words to the disciples loud and clear: “Beware that no one leads you astray.” There will be wars and rumors of wars, nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes and famines and unspeakable acts of violence, but you – don’t be alarmed. Beware that no one leads you astray. When truth is shaken, when imposters preach alluring lies in my name – don’t be alarmed: be alert. Stay true to the path I called you to follow. Beware of following your fear. Beware of giving in to despair. Beware of abandoning your call to love God and neighbor.
Wars and rumors of wars, terror and oppression are the reality of a world far from the world God desires, and for God’s creation to be whole and complete they must come to an end. “This must take place, but the end is still to come,” says Jesus, and, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Birth pangs, he says. These things that make us tremble and cry and doubt and lie awake at night – they are not a meaningless pile of suffering, the tragic rubble of history, destined to be forgotten; they are labor pains, he says, telling us that the suffering of creation is to be redeemed by the joy of birth. The world is in labor, Jesus says, and God is the midwife.
“How long is this labor?” we want to know, “and when can we expect to behold new life in a redeemed world? How long until we will cry no more, except for joy?”
We don’t know. But we have a word that speaks of birth in the midst of suffering. We have a word that directs us to hope. We have the promise that with the resurrection of Jesus the whole world has indeed become new – in forgiveness, in the disruption of the endless cycle of violence, in the embrace of love that heals and renews. We have the promise that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead marks the beginning of redemption that doesn’t fade into the past but abides.
The English historian Eric Hobsbawm, born in 1917, grew up in Vienna and, after the death of his parents, with an aunt in Berlin. Berlin was not a good place to live for a Jewish teenager in those years. He was fifteen years old when one day in January 1933, as he was walking his little sister home from school, he saw the headline at a newsstand, “Adolph Hitler Appointed Chancellor of Germany.” Reflecting on those years when democracy in Germany was in its death throes, Hobsbawm later wrote, “We were on the Titanic, and everyone knew it was hitting the iceberg. … It is difficult for those who have not experienced the ‘Age of Catastrophe’ of the twentieth century in central Europe to see what it meant to live in a world that was simply not expected to last, in something that could not really even be described as a world, but merely as a provisional waystation between a dead past and a future not yet born.”
I was born fifteen years after the end of WWII; I grew up in what was then known as the West – a world rebuilt after unimaginable devastation with the mantra, “Never again.” I grew up amid the tensions of the cold war and with the European project of cooperation and integration as a visionary alternative to the temptations of nationalism. I had to learn to believe in institutions despite their shortcomings, and to trust the long, hard work of consensus building despite the frustrations. And now I find myself worrying about the future. I’m witnessing the crumbling of institutions, the rise of nationalism and ancient hatreds, the spread of autocratic tendencies in many countries, the closing of borders, and the decline in international cooperation.
Some of my worries I chalk up to old age. There’s a rhythm to life, where the world the parents grew up in and remember fades away and a new and different world, perhaps very different world, emerges.
But I don’t chalk up all my worries to old age. Many children, teenagers, and young adults I have the joy of knowing, share at least some of the concerns that sometimes keep me up at night. We worry about hateful words, about the constant threat of attacks by gunmen, about the persistence of racism, about the slow response to the threats of climate change, about the reality of hunger in the wealthiest society ever to have emerged on this earth.
Adrienne Maree Brown wrote the following in response to racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” I love that line, “We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” Pull back the veil to see what’s really there, to face the truth, to experience fresh sight.
In Northern California, more than 1,000 persons are unaccounted for, 71 were confirmed dead as of yesterday. Thousands of acres of land are burning, entire neighborhoods have been reduced to ashes. At the same time, people are mourning in Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Thousand Oaks after shootings at a grocery store, a synagogue, and a club; people are starving in the shadow of a relentless war, or are recovering from great losses after hurricanes, or go on long, dangerous journeys in search of refuge, because the horrors they leave behind are worse than the dangers that lie ahead. In this moment we must hold each other tight, care for each other, and continue to pull back the veil — because things aren’t getting worse, they are getting uncovered and we get to see what’s really there, what’s really going on, and respond with love: creative, courageous, and unsentimental love.
I am hopeful that together we can cultivate strong, caring, and open communities that are life-giving to all. I am hopeful because Jesus promised that the pain we feel and the suffering we witness are birth pangs. Something is struggling to be born. A new world. A new humanity. Made in the image of Christ. This is what I cling to.
 See Josephus, Jewish War, 2.254-56; Antiquities 20.185-88; 208-10
 Josephus, Jewish War, 2.258
 Tony Judt, Reappraisals: Reflections on the forgotten twentieth century (New York: Penguin, 2008), 117.
 https://twitter.com/adriennemaree/status/751799298791211008?lang=en; my italics