As they were going out of the Temple, one of Jesus’ disciples said to him, ‘Teacher! Look at these huge stones, and these huge buildings!’ ‘You see these enormous buildings?’ said Jesus. ‘There will not be one single stone left on top of another. They will all be torn down.’ Peter, James, John and Andrew approached him privately as he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple. ‘Tell us,’ they asked. ‘When will these things happen? What will be the sign that these things are about to be completed?’ ‘Take care that nobody deceives you,’ Jesus began to say to them. ‘Plenty of people will come in my name, saying “I’m the one!”, and they will lead plenty astray. But whenever you hear about wars, and rumours about wars, don’t be disturbed. These things have to happen, but it doesn’t mean the end is here. One nation will rise up against another; one kingdom will rise up against another. There will be earthquakes from place to place, and famines too. These are the first pains of childbirth. ‘But watch out for yourselves. They will hand you over to courts, they will beat you in synagogues; you will stand before rulers and kings because of me, as a witness against them. And the message of the kingdom must first be announced to all the nations. And when they put you on trial and hand you over, don’t work out before hand what you are going to say, but say whatever is given you at that moment. It won’t be you speaking, you see, but the holy spirit. ‘One brother will hand over another to death. Fathers will hand over children. Children will rebel against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by everyone because of my name. But the one who is patient through to the end – that one will be saved. ‘However,’ Jesus continued, ‘when you see “the desolating abomination” set up where it ought not to be’ (let the reader understand) ‘then those who are in Judaea should run away to the mountains. If you’re on the housetop, don’t go down, and don’t go in to get anything from the house. If you’re out in the countryside, don’t turn back again to pick up your cloak. ‘It will be a terrible time for pregnant and nursing mothers. Pray that it won’t happen in winter. Yes, those days will bring trouble like nothing that’s ever happened from the beginning of creation, which God created, until now, or ever will again. In fact, if the Lord had not shortened the days, no one would be rescued. But for the sake of his chosen ones, those whom he appointed, he shortened the days. ‘So at that time, if someone says to you, “Look – here is the Messiah!” or, “Look – there he is!”, don’t believe them; because false messiahs and false prophets will arise, and will perform signs and portents to lead astray even God’s chosen ones, if that were possible. But you must be on your guard. I’ve told you everything ahead of time.’
I have inherited from my father a splendid old set of nineteenth-century books. (Yes, I had quite a lot of books already, but there is always room for a few more.) This particular set is a collection of writing, and drawing, from the old humorous magazine called Punch, which ran for well over a century from its inception in 1841 before folding, sadly, in 1992. (It was revived in 1996, but collapsed again in 2002.) The books reflect the early part of that time.
Many of the articles are period pieces, still witty and worth reading both in themselves and as a document, now, of social history. Many of the cartoons, too, have retained their quirky humour. Indeed, it was Punch that helped to popularize the modern meaning of the word ‘cartoon’ as a humorous drawing or illustration. Before then, the word had simply referred to a preliminary sketch that an artist or architect might make before producing the finished product.
But some of the cartoons are completely opaque to me now. They depend entirely for their point on a shared set of symbols: on particular animals representing particular politicians, and so on (much as, today, donkeys and elephants represent America’s two main political parties). And the trouble with that, of course, is that if you don’t know the key – if you don’t know which figures represent what, or indeed who the key politicians of the day were, and what were the major issues that they confronted – then you simply won’t get the point. You might even suppose, seeing a picture with a zebra, a tortoise and an ostrich deep in conversation, that the artist was producing a fantasy about life in a zoo.
With an old cartoon we don’t understand, we smile, shake our heads, and turn to something more accessible. But when the same thing happens in the Bible, we often fail to realize what sort of document we are reading, and suppose that the writer intends every word to be taken in a kind of flat, literal fashion.
That has been the fate, in particular, of this chapter, Mark 13, and others like it. Many have looked ahead to verses 24 –27, and have noted the prediction of the sun and the moon being darkened and the stars falling from heaven, together with ‘the son of man coming on clouds with great power and glory’. Ah, they think, this must be the end of the world! This is the collapse of the cosmos! Creation is going to implode, Jesus will return, and the world will cease to be!
And Mark would look on, like a nineteenth-century cartoonist shaking his head at an incomprehending twenty-first-century reader, and say, ‘No: that’s not how the language works. You don’t know the Bible, or the power of God.’ The sun, the moon and the stars are regularly used in the Bible as code for ‘the powers of the world’ – meaning, in our day, the political powers; and the passage quoted in verses 24 and 25 in fact comes from Isaiah’s description of the fall of Babylon (Isaiah 13.10). The ‘coming of the son of man’, as in verse 26, we shall deal with next week.
In fact, verses 1–23, the passage on which we focus here, make it quite clear that what Jesus is warning about is the fall of Jerusalem, and the terrifying events that will lead up to it. That’s where the passage starts, with Jesus prophesying quite explicitly the destruction of the Temple, and the disciples then asking him about it: when will it happen, and how will they know (verse 4)? We should assume, granted this beginning, that the rest of the passage will constitute an answer, or a set of answers, to this question.
The answer comes in three main stages. First (verses 5 – 8), there will be a time of turmoil: plenty of worrying things happening (wars, earthquakes and so on), but these will not be the key signs. Second (verses 9 –13), this will be a time when Jesus’ followers are isolated, persecuted, misunderstood and quite possibly killed. At times of great political tension, people who refuse to join in with the currently fashionable mood will be hated by everyone else. So this is a call for patience.
But, third, there will be a particular sign (verses 14 –23). Look at the prophet Daniel. In Daniel 9.37 he speaks of an ‘abomination that desolates’, something horrible and scandalous that, by its very presence, causes the place to be like a wilderness. This is picked up in Daniel 11.31 and 12.11. What could this be?
Two centuries before the time of Jesus, and still vivid in folk memory, the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes had turned the Jerusalem Temple into a pagan shrine. Well, something like that would happen again. Perhaps it would be an emperor putting up a huge statue of himself and demanding (as in Daniel 2) that people worship it. That almost happened in ad 40, when the mad Roman emperor Gaius Caligula tried to force such a thing upon Jerusalem. (The plan was halted when he was assassinated in January 41.)
But something like it would happen again; of that there could be no doubt. Anyone living in Jerusalem when the Romans finally closed in in ad 68 – 69, before the Temple’s destruction in 70, would be able to see the signs: Roman standards being planted in the sacred precincts themselves. That would be the moment, declared Jesus, when you should get out and run (verses 14 –20). That makes no sense if Mark thought Jesus was talking about the end of the world. It makes every sense if you’re faced with an imminent enemy siege. And when that happens (verses 21–23), don’t be fooled: there will be plenty of would-be ‘messiahs’ showing up, but they must stay loyal to Jesus.
Give us courage and faith, good Lord, to hold on to you and your word when all around us seems to be shaking and turbulent.