Apocalypse Now

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 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.

Mark 13:1-8

In Jerusalem, beneath the south-western wall of the old city, lie a pile of stones which date from the the first century AD. These stones are the remains of the temple which stood during Jesus’ lifetime but which was destroyed by the Romans at the time of the Jewish uprising in AD 70. The largest of the stones measures around 5 foot square and must weigh a ton. No wonder one of the disciples said to Jesus, “what large stones and what large buildings!”

What large hopes they must have had too. Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, who, they were sure, would soon claim his rightful place as great high priest in the Temple, bringing to earth God’s reign of justice and peace. Within their lifetime he would return – at least, that’s what they thought. But it didn’t happen quite like that. Jesus didn’t return, and as for the Temple, within forty years it was nothing more than a heap of stones.

The 13th chapter of the Gospel of Mark is sometimes referred to as the “Little Apocalypse.” In it Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, and the coming of the end, where there will be wars and rumours of wars, when nation will rise up against nation, kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes and famines.

An “apocalypse” is what the Jews thought they were living through in AD 70. The Americans may have thought they were experiencing their own mini-apocalypse on 11th September, 2001. And on Friday evening in Paris, we too must have wondered if the terrorists attacks were signs of an impending apocalypse in our own lives and society.

When we hear the word “apocalypse”, we think of the last book of the Bible, the Revelation or Apocalypse of John. The word “apocalypse” actually means “revelation.” The revelation we hear in today’s gospel is a prophecy of both an end and a new beginning. There are lots of these endings and beginnings as we journey through life. The poet T. S. Eliot described our existence as one where,

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

Years ago I used to perform in amateur dramatics. There was a house where I used to rehearse and occasionally put on plays in an intimate setting. I spent a lot of time there, rehearsing, writing and performing. It became a treasured part of my own history. Many years later I returned to find the house gone, and in its place a by-pass. The poet’s words had come true.

Endings and beginnings. Jesus predicted the end of the Temple, and then promised a new beginning when he would return. Can we imagine what the end and the beginning will be like? The Book of Daniel describes it like this: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall wake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

The Apocalypse is a Day of Judgement. You don’t hear much about Judgement these days, at least not from a Church of England pulpit, in case it frightens the horses. But we are not afraid, because God is with us. He doesn’t want us to worry about Judgement, but he does want us to be prepared for it. To do that we need to consider our ending. I want to be prepared for the ending when it comes because as a Christian I know that the ending is a new beginning. Every “stone” we set in our lives, no matter how perfectly, will, at some time, “be thrown down.” The little apocalypses we experience en route to the end are in some ways helping us to get used to the idea that the life we build for ourselves can crumble away or disappear without warning.

What do we do in the face of an impending apocalypse? We could stand idly by and allow ourselves to be swept away. But we can do better than that. Christians are not fatalistic people, but people of hope. Our hope is in God, who is merciful and just, who gave us his only son that we might be saved. So what we need is the vision that allows us to see the end and prepare for our new beginning. In between the two there is a space for us to fill – our life is what fills this space.

Now you can think of your life as an accident of birth or you can think that it has a meaning. I think every life matters to God and furthermore every life reaches its fullest potential when the will of God and the will of man is in harmony. Our calling is to set our lives in harmony with the will of God. We do that by following Jesus.

Now there is something you can do while you are waiting for Jesus to return. Before I tell you, you might be wondering why he hasn’t come already? Heaven knows we have had enough of wars, terrorism, earthquakes and famines. We are ready for him, aren’t we? Aren’t we? Think of this: while you are waiting, Jesus wants you to do something. He wants you to build a Temple, a new Temple, in his name, and to build it with the stones of love, forgiveness and humility. He wants you, with God’s help, to construct a house where you are both its inhabitants and its walls.

This is a house, a Temple, a Church, for everyday living. It isn’t a Sunday house only: it’s a Monday house, a Tuesday house, a Wednesday House, a Thursday House, a Friday House, a Saturday House. It is God’s house. It’s a house where, every day, we live with God and God with us. The other magnificent structures we so admire – of them nothing shall remain. It won’t matter, because if we are wise we will already have our house of God built and prepared for Jesus’ return.

So, with this end in view, it becomes clearer and clearer what our life’s work should be. It is the work of promoting peace, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation. It is the work of building the kingdom on earth every day, so that when Jesus comes, he will not find us asleep, but hard at work, diligent in prayer, faithful in worship, loving and forgiving to our neighbours.

This is our positive response to life’s disasters, to life’s calamities, to the little apocalypses that can sometimes frighten and overwhelm us. The answer is to become a Godly people, looking forward to the Lord’s coming. The psalmist speaks for God when he says: “All my delight is upon the godly that are in the land, upon those who are noble among the people.” Trust in God, who has chosen you and will save you. Don’t spend your whole life building things that will pass away. Instead, build your life on God, in whose dwelling you will find shelter and peace and the beginning of new life.

Father David Beresford

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